Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Dispatch: In Class With Future Teachers

Since the schools project is finished, many of you have asked me “What’s next?”

This year is the 70th anniversary of the deportation of the Jews from the village in Romania where my grandfather is from. It is also the town that Elie Wiesel is from. In May, the town is having a memorial weekend. People from across the world will be there, including a few Holocaust survivors. I want to make a short film that chronicles what happens over the weekend – talking to people about their memories and why they made the trip and telling the story of how a community celebrates and honors a difficult history. It will also be a personal story about my experience of the weekend and reflections about family and history and where that leaves me today.

I am trying to raise $10,000 for the filming and to edit a short clip that I can use to raise additional funds. If you know of any organizations or individuals who would be interested in supporting this project, please let me know. 

Ideally, this would be the first step in making a longer and broader documentary.


And now on to the latest Dispatch.

The first time I screen any of my films is always powerful. There are so many unknowns. How will people respond? Which moments or ideas will resound with them the most? And which might upset them or spark debate? How will different people experience the videos? And in the most recent screenings, will they impact their future? That was part of the conversation at the University of Fort Hare last week in East London in the Eastern Cape.

There is a book called, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race. I thought about that book when I saw students at Fort Hare sitting separately. In a classroom of 80 students, the white ones were sitting on one side of the room. In another class, there was a smattering of white students amidst the others – which on some unconscious level made me happy. I think about where this separation comes from and what experiences they have had that bring them into that space.

Why do people sit where they do? What does it say about their comfort levels with each other and the way they grew up? I wonder and watch how different racial groups respond to my videos –course on deeper reflection, these responses are far more based on past experience, not on race. There are many scenes in the videos of students eating food, cooked by women from the community. Some are eating with rulers, the backs of cell phones or hands.

Every time this scene came up, the room would fill with laughter. The black students were laughing and the white students were silent. I think the laughter comes from seeing something that is familiar – and the silence comes from surprise, this may be the first time they are seeing this, realizing what school is like for most of their classmates. It isn’t actually about white or black.

Over the week, I started to wonder why I always analyze these things.

Coincidentally, I just had a meeting with a professor who works on race and I got the chance to think about this. As an American I sometimes see race as a proxy for progress and transformation – I look at interaction between races here as a test of how far the South Africa has come since 1994.

I not only notice the separation, but also interaction. I have done a lot of work at the University of the Free State, a historically Afrikaans campus that has undergone major transformation in the last several years. When my cameraman and I go around filming, we are always looking for black and white students sitting together or talking to each other so we can film “transformation.”

Of course I never ask the students questions and I imagine they are not even analyzing their behavior. Do they need to be? Do they have the space to?

Regardless of class, race or seating arrangement, we always have dynamic discussions. I can only share highlights and moments.

Someone asked me, “How do we mold them?” This is not mold like a robot, but shape them into active and thoughtful citizens.

Some were calls to action:

“As future teachers we must think of our own discipline and model, we can’t be late or underprepared. We can’t expect students to do this if we don’t.”

“If we teach kids in grade 1, we need to remember that we are teaching them and trying to get them to grade twelve, not just through the grade we are teaching. We must always think about our power as teachers.”

“We need to push students telepathically and academically.”

This last comment reminds me of a teacher in Limpopo who told me about the importance of the hidden curriculum in addition to the formal curriculum in class.

And then, we got here. “I noticed that the girl in the video spoke very good English,” said one student.

I don’t know if my face registered my shock. I started to answer, but I wasn’t doing a very good job and realized most of the students in the room speak English as a second language. So I asked them.

The first student said that the education system is inherently biased. He said that second language students are at a disadvantage and they are not able to succeed.

One agreed, rightly saying that students in more rural areas are less exposed to English.

But another classmate argued back, “I would respectfully like to respond to my colleague,” he said. “In the location, kids are not dumb, everyone is smart and as a teacher we need to show them the vision. We must teach English. We can’t dwell on kids not speaking English or put out ideas of dumb or smart, we need to push them.”

Six screenings over two days left me exhausted, but one professor brought it all together.

“This is showing what we have been theorizing, teachers with power, as a national builder. These clips show the power and authority that you have as teachers. It all depends on how we use that power. We have the power to build, but sometimes we destroy it. Today we say how to use our power to build a nation. At the first lecture I said, “What are you bringing into the profession?” There were lots of sad stories. But this tells us the positive capital that you bring. We want to build a nation of stories. The message is that these schools CAN. You are one of the important tools to make them CAN.”

I am amazed and honored to play a small part in this.


It turns out I am unable to sell the book directly. For now, you can purchase it at

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