Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
May 16, 1997

Teaching and learning in Pretoria

by Anne Dolan
Late-comers to the reception had to high-step over or scrunch under a 30-foot web of multicolored yarn. The 40-plus people who welcomed home assistant professor of curriculum and instruction Karen Donaldson and 10 students from their two- month trip to South Africa last week were linked by a skein of yarn looped through their fingers.

"It's a web of multiculturalism, to show our connectedness," Donaldson explained. "This group of students strengthened those bonds in the last two months.

"They did an eloquent, eloquent job of representing all of us at Iowa State," she added.

Six of the students completed their student teaching requirements, with classroom experiences both in the city of Pretoria and in rural schools outside the city. Four graduate students conducted research applicable to their master's or Ph.D. programs. At a reception May 6, they shared some of their experiences and reflections.

Students in the College of Education have student taught abroad in the past, mostly in European countries. Donaldson, who was in Africa last summer doing research, decided it was time to broaden that opportunity. With colleagues at the University of Pretoria and support from her own college, she developed the program and lined up the students in seven months. In September, the University of Pretoria will send a group of students to Iowa for student teaching experiences, with a two-week stop in Chicago for an American urban experience.

One by one, with Donaldson weaving her own web of introduction and context, the students recounted experiences or lessons learned in a country just three years out of apartheid.

For senior and Iowan Jeff Payne, there was the shock of being a white man in, at times, a majority black population. "They looked at me like I was a man from Mars," he said. "When I reached toward a student to shake his hand, he pulled back, because he had never seen skin so light."

For senior Jennifer Miller, there was the anguish of observing how some teachers in South Africa treat their black students, calling them names ("stupid" or "ugly kid"), ridiculing them. A tracking system, more blatant than any the ISU students have seen in the United States, pronouncedly divides students by academic potential (and at the same time by race) into clever, average and stupid classes.

"You could see the way they reacted to how they were talked to and to how the tracking system affects them," Miller said.

For master's student Maurizio Visani, there was the challenge of finding educational technology -- something beyond chalkboard chalk -- to see how new innovations are used to teach antiracist, multicultural education. It was several weeks before he found what he was looking for, but he was able to set up e-mail relationships between students at the University of Pretoria and students in the ISU course, "Multicultural Nonsexist Education."

For all of the travelers, there was the novelty of observing a new culture and diversity more complex than anything they had experienced in the United States. They said they enjoyed tremendously the experience and the challenge to be enterprising teachers in the absence of textbooks or audiovisual tools.

Donaldson said the students know their responsibilities aren't over yet. "They have a need to give back to the university for this experience and they have agreed to be available for class discussions or panels," she said. Faculty or staff who would like to request one or more of the students' time may contact Casey Green, e-mail:

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