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Summary of 9/16/05 Discussion
with Jossi Fritz-Mauer
"Talking about Teaching in Africa"

One in a series of Stories of Teaching and Learning

Participants: Anne Dalke (English), Jody Cohen (Education), Heather Davis (Education), Jossi Fritz-Mauer (HC Psychology), Lindsey Giblin (Sociology), Kathy Huynh, Li-Huan Lai (East Asian Studies), Karin Lemka (Chemistry), Molly McTague (Education), Janique Parrott (English), Janet Rhi (Anthropology), Cheryl Selah (Chemistry), Corey Shdaimah (Social Work/Political Science), Jana Weber (Anthropology), Lim Yuan-Shi (Psychology).

Jossi described for us his experiences teaching for 2 1/2 months this summer at a Senior Secondary school in northern Namibia, Africa. He selected this program in WorldTeach in part because this area of the world is so obviously stricken with HIV/AIDS (conservatively speaking: over 1/4 of the population has full-blown AIDS) and he wanted "direct experience with the most important issue of our time." He found that AIDS, and the need to prevent it, was talked about openly; a student might say in parting, for instance, "Please say hi to your family, and don't forget to use a condom."

The area in which Jossi worked was very rural: there were no newspapers, internet or roads; because the population density was so low in the region, the school was a hostel, a "whole society in itself." Jossi taught two English, three math and three computer classes. He found the other teachers dispirited, and very little engaged by their work. ("Why do people teach, who hate students?") The atmosphere of the school was oppressive, and corporal punishment was frequently used. Namibia was an apartheid state until fifteen years ago, when it got independence; English is the national language. There is a national discourse about doing well in school in order to "help my country" (the parents of these children, for instance, did not go to school, and knew no English, a knowledge which will give their children advantages).

But the students were generally disrespected, and very timid. They attributed a lot of power to Jossi, as a white, male, American teacher, and were "scared to do much." On the one hand, it was an "easy job, with very low expectations": the standard pedagogy style was to write notes on the board for the students to copy down. On the other hand, there was "very little energy in the classroom"; it was hard to get the students to speak, to "break out of their shells." Jossi saw in his classes what happens in all schools, but exacerbated by the language difficulty: the children are naturally playful, and have a high energy that is "completely lost in their classes." "Because I always believe in listening to people younger than me," Jossi learned from his students to build on what interested them. He described two successful assignments. The first was to write and punctuate the dialogue in cartoons the children drew themselves, built on the their obvious desire to draw (he had noticed them filling the blackboards with pictures, whenever they were unsupervised in the classroom). The second exercise, leaving the classroom to stage a drama in a different setting, enabled them to "break a rule together," to "take the project seriously," and to show a different side of themselves in a different location. (Jossi observed that teachers should talk to one another about their impressions of their students, and seek them out in different settings--such as on their sports teams, where they might show an assurance they don't have in the classroom.)

Namibia has a "2030 Initiative" ("we will be developed"): there is a need to modernize, and Jossi also ran an after-school training program to "empower the students to do what they want to do." Knowing that he would be leaving, he decided to (gently) "foment a revolution," by teaching them what was helpful and giving them legitimate skills for computer use. But how empowering is it, to learn computers when their access to them is so limited? And what were the implications of Jossi's interaction with his students during free time? Is it empowerment if authority figure calls you by your name? There were "lots of issues" in moving from the role of teacher to that of friend, trying to change their view of teachers, while re-defining Jossi's own role as their teacher.

Jossi had a number of ideas about why he was so happy while working in Nambia: because the need was so great, because he had so much responsibility, because he was working all the time (leaving no time for futile question-asking!), and because "there was no distance: they were my friends." The conventional wisdom for how to sustain such demanding work is to limit it, and keep it separate from one's life, but that was not Jossi's experience. He really wanted to connect with his students, and did; "while it was happening, they were happy."

Leaving, Jossi explained, was really hard ("I don't think I could put myself through that again"). The students are used to people leaving, but "I couldn't justify it to myself." It feels selfish and unethical to be studying now in the bi-co, knowing that his students are there without a teacher in the classroom. What does it mean, to leave one's students with the consequences of one's brief intervention, with the consequences of their boredom, frustration and anger? Comparisons were made to experiences other participants had had, in other programs for uplift in this country.

The discussion is warmly invited to continue on the on-line forum for "Stories of Teaching and Learning." We will meet again in person in two weeks, on September 30, when Janique Parrott (BMC 2008) will share stories of her experience as a middle school English classroom assistant with the Urban Scholars Program in Boston, Massachusetts.

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