Today a small group of us woke up before the sun rose so that we could hike the daunting Lion's Head trail! It was the most difficult and rewarding hike I have ever done, requiring us to rock climb and use staples, chains, and sketchy ladders to make our way up a very steep mountain as the morning sun was rising. For once, my mantra was "don't think, just do" as I tried not to let my body or brain freak out too much about the steep heights we were climbing - with no ropes or anything. I am not a huge hiker and have a pretty big fear of heights so I felt extremely accomplished when I made it to the summit and took in the incredible views of Cape Town. South Africa has been the most magical place to experience and this hike was no exception. Conquering my fears and hiking Lion's Head was the best way to wrap up a trip that has truly changed me as an educator and a human being.
Today, we had a free day so we decided to embark on a tour of the beautiful Cape Peninsula. We began by traveling to Hout Bay and taking a boat through the choppy waters over to Seal Island. It was incredible to see so many seals napping and playing on the huge rock that they call home. Then, we drove to Chapman's Peak and took in one of the best views I've seen in my entire life! A short drive later and we were at Boulder Beach where we were finally able to be up close and personal with the cutest African penguins. The penguins would sprint and jump into the water, making little boats with their bodies until they got past the wake and could swim around freely. It was such an incredible place! After that, we biked through the Cape Point Nature Reserve, which was both exhausting and slightly terrifying as we were continually warned about the danger of powerful baboons who live in the reserve. However, no baboons were spotted (much to my relief)! We did see ostrich and some antelope as we slowly but surely biked our way through the hills of the reserve. Then, we had lunch and hiked up to the lighthouse at Cape Point! It was tiring hiking up so many steep stairs but the incredible views at the top made it all worth it. We then followed a beautiful wooden board walk along the cliffs as we made our way back down to the van. It was one of the more hectic and jam-packed days of the trip but every single stop we made was so beautiful and well worth the trip!
The third and final day of the DISES conference began with an incredible keynote speaker: Alfredo Artilles. Artilles (2018) began by stepping back and looking at the foundation of inclusive education and how it is a story of promises and opportunities but also a tale of contradictions and paradoxes. This class and our entire project has been developed based upon a deep understanding of intersectionality and Artilles (2018) focused on this idea heavily, questioning how we can have inclusive education that is oblivious to issues of race and gender and poverty. Artilles (2018) explained that institutional agents are those who help people navigate systems, using their knowledge and power to advantage others. Artilles (2018) also encouraged that teachers can be some of the most powerful institutional agents! After a lengthy discussion about Systems Theory (yay!), intersectionality, and inclusive education in general, Artilles (2018) explained the reality of systemic change and the importance of understanding that change is a deliberative struggle that we are not going to see the end of.
The next presentation I went to discussed health, education, welfare, and safety for young children and while the speaker was great, the idea that resonated with me most was a quote that she shared by Nelson Mandela: "Poverty is not an accident. Like slavery and apartheid, it is man-made and can be removed by the actions of human beings". After being in South Africa for a good amount of time and hearing what I thought was a fair share of quotes by Nelson Mandela, these words hit me like a train and took a few minutes to truly sink in.
Finally, I attended a presentation by Da Fonte (2018) that was a teachers guide to Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) and how to help students with disabilities to communicate using these devices. Da Fonte (2018) shared a lot of practical knowledge and gave very helpful background information about these devices. Da Fonte (2018) also emphasized that no matter how great the needs, everyone has specific abilities that can be built upon and not replaced. I loved hearing how passionate she was about AAC and I will definitely be taking her practical tips back to the US.
Today was exciting as we presented at DISES ourselves! Our presentation focused upon the quantitative and qualitative results from our research throughout the Changemakers' Collaborative Project: PreService Teachers Framing, Convening, and Igniting Inclusive Practices Across Countries (Jez, Brown, Dorrance, Kennick, Giertsen, Hilbert, Martin, Stang, Marques, Eichler, & Hobart, 2018). After spending the morning finishing up our data analysis, we were all eager to present our research, share our experiences, and receive feedback. It was my first time presenting at a big conference, so I was excited and somewhat nervous; however, the presentation went so smoothly and I was proud of how united we were as a team!
The feedback we received was so encouraging and positive. As preservice teachers, it was amazing to have a room full of extremely experienced educators be so supportive and openly impressed with our project. The questions and comments we received during the Q&A portion were so thoughtful. As someone who seriously values immediate feedback, it was great to have a room full of educators providing us with authentic and constructive feedback and ideas. While the concept of presenting at a large special education conference in another country seemed daunting at first, the overall experience was so positive and I am so proud of our group's presentation!
After our presentation's discussion wrapped up, we attended a presentation by Magaya and Muwana (2018) about embracing inclusive practices in Zambia and Zimbabwe. Magaya and Muwana (2018) emphasized the importance of viewing behavior in culturally expected norms. They also highlighted the fact that in both Zambia and Zimbabwe, parental advocacy is almost non existent (Magaya & Muwana, 2018). This is because, culturally, parents in these countries are made to feel that they are at fault for having a child with a disability. Magaya and Muwana (2018) explored the need for support groups, referencing the parental demand for rights and respect for children with disabilities that has taken place over the years in the United States. This highlighted the power of familial support and advocate groups for people with disabilities. I was so glad that I was able to attend this presentation, as it emphasized the importance of cultural norms and advocacy in the context of inclusive education, something that I had not considered much prior to this conference!
Today we started bright and early again, attending the first day of the DISES 2018 conference. DISES stands for Division of International Special Education Services. The morning was started off beautifully with a performance by an amazing African Marimba band. Everyone was so enthralled by their music and we were even more amazed when it was announced that the band was comprised of young students from a local school for the “severely intellectually impaired” and that none of the students could read. It was definitely a very powerful way to start off the morning and the conference in general!
It was also a great morning because the keynote speaker was Dr. Pasha, who is the author of one of our textbooks for the course. Pasha (2018) discussed an Afrocentric approach to inclusive education and how human rights principles are linked to Ubuntu. Ubuntu, as Pasha (2018) explained, is an African way of thinking and approach to community that is made up of several aspects. The first aspect Pasha (2018) explained was humanness: treating others with sensitivity, dignity, and compassion. The next aspect is interdependence: in the words of Pasha (2018) “I am because we are and because we are I am”. Ubuntu’s emphasis on interdependence creates shared relationships with others as well as nature, and entitles all community members, especially children, to protection. Finally, Pasha (2018) touched upon the Ubuntu emphasis on communalism, that education is a collective effort for the community by the community.
I loved learning more about the principles of Ubuntu in general, but I also really resonated with Pasha’s (2018) stance that Afrocentric and Eurocentric approaches can exist alongside each other, complement, and elevate previously marginalized approaches. It was a great way to start off the conference by acknowledging and centering ourselves within African contexts.
The first presentation I attended was regarding cultural considerations in the IEP process. Barrio (2018) began by emphasizing the importance of preparing for the IEP process by getting to know the student and family, identifying the family’s wants and needs, and what success means and looks like to them. Barrio (2018) then introduced the Culturally Responsive and Relevant IEP Builder (CRRIB) that her team had been working on. This IEP builder is a great resource but I valued the discussion that took place after the presentation just as much, if not more! It was encouraging to hear educators bouncing around ideas for how to implement these culturally responsive and relevant approaches for the entire class, not just for students with IEPs.
Another noteworthy presentation from the day was regarding the use of UDL to differentiate instruction for students around the world. Ahn & Evmenova (2018) began by introducing the myth of an average learner, using an example from Todd Rose. In this example, thousands of pilots' height and other details were taken in order to create the most ideal cockpit for the "average" pilot. However, when this most ideal cockpit was created, it was not the correct dimensions for any of the pilots! This example highlighted the importance of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Ahn & Evmenova (2018) also highlighted UDL's origination in architecture which was an interesting point that I never knew! The important part of UDL, Ahn & Evmenova (2018) explained, was intentionality. Most non-UDL approaches to teaching could be compared to "building a plane while it's in the sky" and ultimately led to panic. Ahn & Evmenova(2018) highlighted that UDL is comprised of three principles that support all learners: multiple means of engagement, representation, and expression. This presentation was extremely informative and straightforward: giving many examples and online resources to utilize in the classroom. I learned so much about the origins of UDL and how to implement it successfully in the classroom!
After the most incredible early morning safari, we had a great breakfast and then packed up our things and said goodbye to the beautiful Ivory Tree Lodge. We all got on the bus and drove for a few hours to visit Lebone II, a school founded twenty years ago by the king of the Royal Bafokeng Nation. The tribe and the king is one of the richest in Africa, due to natural platinum deposits found in the valley. I was baffled by this school visit, as the grandeur of the campus was something that I have never experienced before. The king established this beautiful school with tribal money that he set aside for the community’s “talented” children.
While the school visit was an interesting experience and I, admittedly, was amazed by the school’s facilities and resources, it was difficult to tour the luxurious school after just working with South African educators that taught at much less advantaged schools in Soweto and Johannesburg, experiencing class sizes of 40+ students and extremely limited resources. The library at Lebone II actually made me emotional: such a beautiful and carefully planned out space for the privileged young readers that were lucky enough to explore books there. However, it also made me think of the libraries at my past student teaching placements in the US, with their tattered books and depressingly cramped spaces, as well as other school libraries around the world. The extravagant and stunning architecture of the campus, as well as the wealth of resources at the school’s fingertips had me seriously reflecting upon the major resource gap that continues to persist and grow in both South Africa and the United States.
After a 6 am wake up call and a few hours of traveling by bus, we arrived in Pilanesburg at the stunning Ivory Tree Lodge. I was blown away by the beauty of the game reserve and I could never have imagined the incredible experiences that were to come.
The first night we went on a afternoon-sunset safari and explored the bush, being driven by our wonderful guide, Tumi. The experience of being on a safari jeep with my incredible group and seeing giraffes, zebras, warthogs, rhinos, and hippos up close was truly magical.
The next morning we woke up before the sun rose and embarked on another safari! I didn't think it could get any better after the previous day's sightings; however, somehow it did! As the sun rose, we spotted (no pun intended) a leopard! Our guide was so excited as it is extremely rare to see a leopard these days. Then, we saw two lions lounging by the water and walking into the bush. We were so excited to see these beautiful creatures but all were hoping we would see elephants as well! We took a breakfast break and walked along a narrow path to a small shack next to a river.
As we walked back to the jeep, a herd of at least twenty five elephants emerged from the bush and began walking towards the water. We stood in awe, ten feet away from the massive creatures, as they drank water and slowly made their way towards where we were standing. Steph was standing right next to me at the fence and we kept looking over at each other and squeezing each others' hands as if to say "is this seriously real??". After the elephants finished grazing and walked away, our group got back in the safari jeep with the most positive energy that I have ever experienced before. It was truly one of the most magical moments of my life and I am so grateful to have experienced it with such an incredible group of people!
Today we experienced the Ignite aspect of the Changemaker framework as we attended and presented at the Changemaker Symposium. This event was graciously hosted by Wits University in Johannesburg. As each of the six groups presented, I was continually in awe of how cohesive the groups were despite coming from such diverse backgrounds and only meeting in person the previous day. It was amazing to hear so many practical solutions from diverse perspectives. Common solutions included teacher collaboration, empathy and connection, and student centered learning. After listening to the keynote speakers and engaging in discussion with the presenters, everyone in attendance created their own personal Changemaker Pledge that detailed what they would be taking back to their communities in order to create positive change. The day was packed with so many incredible and passionate educators who were open in sharing knowledge and experiences.
For me, it was even more inspiring to hear the conversations after the event. Educators from South Africa and USD were so eager to continue their conversations and keep in touch via email. I was able to make new friends and found an incredible South African support system. I really look forward to having the help of these amazing educators as I continue my teaching journey!
Today was incredibly exciting as we finally got to meet up with our Changemaker group in person and have a powerful discussion. Our group found that although we come from different parts of the world and have incredibly varying experiences, our shared similarities created a strong sense of unity in our endeavor to create change in our communities.
After identifying common challenges, such as behavior management and lack of resources, we worked to build empathy for our students. We discussed the implications of students experiencing a lack of power and voice in the classroom. By actively providing students with the means to develop their own authentic voice, student empowerment increases.
We found incredible strength in the fact that we are all passionate about creating lasting change through a positive school culture. I was fortunate enough to have the amazing principal of Thaba Jabula Secondary School in my group, Kenneth. He was incredibly wise and passionate and I was inspired by his sentiment: “It does not end with us. It starts with us”.
As a group, we collaborated to create solutions that we could bring back to our respective schools and classrooms. We came up with so many ideas it was almost overwhelming! Solutions included:
I was so pleased with our group’s discussion and I wish we could have talked for even longer than the two hours we chatted away. It was so inspiring to be surrounded by like-minded educators who were passionate that when empathy and classroom community is strong, both student learning and well being is enhanced.