Working Towards Agency-Building Practice

Girl in Langa, Cape Town

She’s five, maybe six years old, and her eyes are glued to my camera. After some hesitation, she comes up to me and says,
“Can I see?”
I kneel down on the wet concrete and show her the camera. I point to the viewfinder. She puts her small hand on mine and gingerly lowers the camera to her eye level. She looks through the viewfinder and smiles. She can see Sharon and the other children . Then, her eyes big and innocent and happy, she looks at me and says, “Do you have money?”

And then, back in the car, going back to the guesthouse in Cape Town where we’re staying for the duration of our project, I find myself overwhelmed by emotions. Today is my third day in Cape Town working with Teachers Without Borders Canada. Today is when it hits me: In the grand scheme of things, how much can we really do to help?

My thoughts take me back to some of the conversations that I’ve had with South African teachers this past week. The teachers who attended our Teachers Without Borders ICT Workshop here in Cape Town have been very enthusiastic about learning how to integrate technology into their lessons. They were the first to admit that the “chalk and talk” approach that is so common in their schools bores students. They told us that they want to differentiate instruction, to engage their students in learning. “I want my students to want to stay in my class,” one of them said to me at lunch.

The teachers who participated in our workshop were true lifelong learners. I was very impressed by their passion for learning. They embraced Moodle, they embraced blogging, and their questions and comments made it clear that they see technology integration as a complex, but rewarding task. They want to invest in themselves so that they can improve the learning experiences for their students. When Sharon showed them the four XOs that she was lucky enough to have donated to this project by various institutions and individuals in Canada, the whole room started buzzing . They all wanted to see them. They all wanted to test them. When we took out our Flip cameras , the reaction was equally enthusiastic. Then, at lunch, one of the teachers said to me, “I understand what you mean about engagement. When my students ask me, ‘Miss, what does this word mean?’ I tell them to take out their cell phones and find out for themselves. I want them not to always ask me.” (I was surprised to see how ubiquitous cell phones are here).

Of course, they all realize that integrating technology in a meaningful way, in a way that engages and challenges the learners takes time. They know that learning how to use Moodle, for example, is a long process. But what I found truly inspiring about the teachers we worked with is that they were undaunted by these challenges and, in fact, always took the time to consider how the technology could be best integrated into their existing curricula. They did not look at blogging, for example, as a panacea that would automatically engage their students and make them excellent writers. They thought first and foremost about how it could best be used in their classrooms. They thought of their context and how blogging could be used to enforce some of the excellent approaches that they’re already using as teachers of English, or social sciences, or math. When I mentioned how blogging with my students necessitated a shift in my teacherly voice, they all agreed. “This takes a lot of work, but we have to do this for our students,” one of them told me. Yes, it is a challenge. Undergoing that shift is difficult for all teachers. It dethrones us from the privileged, traditional position of the expert. How wonderful to see that teachers here do not cling to that role and want to empower their students.

Of course, it’s easy to see why. In our informal interactions at lunch and during breaks, the South African teachers told us repeatedly that their country is a “young democracy” and that it “needs time to grow.” One of the comments that I heard over and over again from the teachers was that “education is key.” This morning, when we first drove into the township of Langa, the oldest area of black resettlement in Cape Town (created in 1927), our tour guide echoed the statement I’d heard so many times from the teachers, “Education is key.” He meant that it’s key to individual success and opportunities, and key as a solution to the crippling poverty that surrounded us as soon as we entered the township.

The Langa Township, Cape Town

Such a simple, yet powerful realization. “Education is key.” This is why I’m here. This is why I signed up to be part of this Teachers Without Borders project in South Africa. It’s also an answer to the question that’s been troubling me ever since my brief encounter this morning with that five-year-old girl: In the grand scheme of things, how much can we really do to help? As many of the people I have met since I arrived here last week have emphasized, the answer is quite clear: Education is key.

So, we will continue to have conversations with the teachers here. We will continue to assist them as they develop technology integration approaches that are grounded in the existing South African contexts. We will continue to remind each other that, as Paulo Freire argued in many of his writings, teachers are political beings who can effect change only if they see themselves as political agents and not mere handout technicians.

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If you’re interested in learning more about our TWB projects this summer, please read Sharon Peters’ entry .

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17 Responses to Working Towards Agency-Building Practice

  1. Richard Kassissieh July 6, 2008 at 9:46 pm #

    Good for you, Konrad. Having lived in Botswana for two years, I can speak to the high quality of spirit and kindness of South African people. They deserve better. If your work indirectly leads some students to an inspiration to connect with the world via the web, then your trip will have been most worthwhile.

    Richard

  2. Laura Deisley July 7, 2008 at 3:40 pm #

    Thanks, Konrad for sharing this reflection. The photo alone of the five year old girl with the words “Education is key” would be quite a story in itself.

    The question is: “How do they (let alone the Western “we”) define what education is in the 21st century”? If they have such access issues as you indicated in your Tweets, then isn’t that the first need?

    Looking forward to more of your impressions.

  3. Jeff Agamenoni July 9, 2008 at 10:54 am #

    Konrad,

    Wow…You are a real adventurer…You are connecting South Africa with Montana…I see the world shrinking…education is key…and I think networking is key as well…educational networking…Networking is so powerful…You are connecting South African Teachers with everybody…NICE!!!

    I, too, am looking forward to reading more of your experience…

  4. Konrad Glogowski July 10, 2008 at 5:21 am #

    Richard,

    Yes, the South African people have been very welcoming and the teachers we are working with are exceptionally enthusiastic about learning how to integrate technology. They often stay after the workshop to practice or tinker with the ideas and tools that we introduce.

    Sharon (http://www.wearejustlearning.ca) and I are working on connecting the teachers here with educators around the world. It starts with empowering the teachers here to take part in some of the conversations taking place online.

    Jeff,

    Yes, one of our goals here is to show the South African educators how easy it is to connect with Web 2.0 tools and how beneficial and empowering it can be. Thanks for helping me demonstrate that with your comment!

    Laura,

    Thanks for following! I promise to blog more and post more pictures to give you a better idea of my experiences here. Thank you also for posting a comment on that new blogger blog that one of the teachers here started yesterday! You would be so inspired by the reaction of the whole group when they saw all those comments from all over the world – the network made visible for the first time to teachers in South Africa! What an experience not just for them, but also for us – to see how powerful those individual short connections can be in the underprivileged context of the school system here in the townships around Cape Town.

    I’m glad you zeroed in on the access issues. They are quite serious, but we’ve been staying positive and demonstrating ways of overcoming some of those obstacles.

    I promise to outline some of the challenges in my next post (might send you an email, too!).

    Richard, Jeff, Laura:

    Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment! My apologies for a late reply – the Internet access that we have here (cell phone modem) is costly and we are not online as often as back home in Canada.

  5. Cristina Costa July 10, 2008 at 6:05 am #

    Thanks for the inspiring true story. It’s moments like this that you have just reported about that makes me believe in the power of communication and peer-mentoring. All it takes is a bit of our time and a great dose of our passion to contaminate others.
    Great job. Keep blogging while there. I surely will follow you in this journey through this blog. 😉

  6. Eldon Germann July 10, 2008 at 8:40 am #

    Your words alone are inspiring, never mind the pictures. I love hearing the quotes from the African teachers that sound so similar to me and my staff in Saskatchewan.

    I think they are going about it the right way as well, too many believe in the quick trick to teach. I am glad to hear the teachers, wherever in the world they may be, are taking technology and applying it in meaningful ways, not looking for it as a crutch or quick fix.

  7. Shawn Kimball July 11, 2008 at 6:36 am #

    Konrad, you and Sharon have taken a major step to narrow the digital divide and present the many opportunities available on the internet to South African teachers and learners. Many of us are accustomed to working with those who already understand the internet, but we forget that there are still so many who are just starting to discover learning via technology and using tech tools to reach students. All people throughout the world deserve the opportunity to see what others are doing and become part of the conversation and collaboration. We are very diverse but we are sharing a finite planet.

    Thanks for taking time to share your work in your blog. Your empathy and compassion are evident which assures me that you are making great progress towards reaching your goals there in South Africa.

    Keep up the good work!

  8. Andrea V. July 11, 2008 at 3:06 pm #

    Hi Konrad,

    You do not know me but I attended a Second Life session you taught at BYU, where I am currently a doctoral student in Instructional Psychology and Technology. I really enjoyed that Second Life session and learned lots.

    I have to admit that your post here has moved me because it is exactly how I feel about education in general and especially education in Africa. I just got back from carrying out an evaluation on education in Mozambique, Africa. It is close to South Africa and the conditions in general are probably worse too. Please visit my blog http://www.andreainfreakinafrica.blogspot.com . I too saw how technology made a difference in education while I was there. Mostly I saw a huge need for technology. As you will see in my blog I had many technology and creativity experiences there. I would like to learn more about what you do and how you are implementing the use of the XO’s and Flip Cameras. I am very interested in this. I have been thinking of starting a program “Donalte Your Computer to Africa” or something like this. I would be interested to know what you think. Of course there is always the shipping issues with large computers. That is one reason the XO’s are so great!

    Education changes people’s souls in a way that nothing else can. I am so glad that you and other good people of the world are reaching out and being selfless in allowing others to use technology effectively to teach and learn.

  9. Suzanne M. July 17, 2008 at 1:23 pm #

    Konrad,
    I have been in the ed tech field for 4 years assisting teachers and students to integrate technology in their everyday learning. I have periodic pangs to go back to school and complete the requirements necessary to become a certified teacher so that I can contribute more directly to the lives of students. The story you have shared has absolutley convinced me that this is what I must do. Even though I am 47 and it will take me a few years to accomplish this, “education is the key” no matter where you are in the world. I need this “key”, so that I can help others open doors with it. Thank you for your inspiriation.

  10. LO November 27, 2008 at 1:55 pm #

    I have just started reading your blog. You really make think about what my life, as a teacher, would have been like if i still lived in South Africa. (I moved as a child to the US) It seems a lot of the issues I am currently learning about in my teacher ed program are the same types of thing the teachers you spoke of is SA want to do- integrating technology, differentiating instruction. We take for granted here how easy it is for us. Thank you for all the excellent reading! This is certainly a blog I will stick with.

  11. quranreading December 24, 2008 at 12:40 am #

    South African people deserve better.You are going in a wright way.Technology will improve the teacher performance.For any country growth education is key.

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