Building a Learning Community between the U.S. and South Africa on Educating Diverse Learners

Dr. Rebekka Jez is an Assistant Professor of Special Education at the University of San Diego’s School of Leadership and Education Sciences (SOLES) in the Department of Learning and Teaching where she researches and supports educators working with diverse students around the world using culturally responsive and inclusive practices.

While I was finishing and defending my dissertation, I applied for a Fulbright grant for South Africa. I had learned that, unlike the litigious special education system in the U.S., South Africa had dismantled heir special education programs in order to create a fully inclusive education system for all learners. I started to try to do research on their teacher training programs and inclusive approach for education, and it seemed their plan to create this system was not clear. In my application I outlined my interest in understanding how South African educators were being trained to shift their mindset and practices towards an inclusive model. 

I was granted a Distinguished Fulbright in Teaching and Research fellowship, whereby I partnered with the University of Johannesburg in Soweto, the largest township in South Africa. I began by learning more about faculty, teachers, and preservice teachers using a survey I crafted which asked about their training on inclusive practices, comfort level in teaching students with differing abilities, and the interventions and strategies they were currently using to support learners with exceptional needs. It was interesting to learn that the student teachers said they had received full training, while teachers and faculty members reported they needed more training. Many educators identified strategies such as differentiation of instruction and scaffolding but when I went to the sites to discuss how, they couldn’t give specific examples. Based on what I learned from the survey and semi-structured interviews, I put together individualized proposals for each school that included summaries of the survey data and my observations along with an offer for professional development workshops and on-going support. My services were offered in three provinces: Gauteng(Soweto), Western Cape (Khayelitsha), and KwaZulu-Natal (Empangeni) using two textbooks as a key teaching resource: Making Content Comprehensible for English Learners: The SIOP Model (Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2008) and How the Special Needs Brain Learns (Sousa, 2006).

A finding that emerged throughout this research and intervention was that in addition to students’ differing abilities and diverse socioeconomic backgrounds presenting unique challenges for educators, language also played a very big part. South Africa has 11 official languages and I quickly witnessed many complexities educators encountered within the education system when it came to communicating with learners, families, and at times each other. Using my experience as a K-12 special education teacher for over 14 years and over a decade of education research, I started creating professional development offerings on culturally responsive brain-based practices to support learners with diverse experiences with language, ability, socioeconomic, and culture. The educators loved the training, and while I was supposed to leave after my 6-month grant was over, I ended up being hired as a visiting professor by the University of Zululand. Since that time, I have maintained partnerships with University of Witwatersrand and the University of Johannesburg. Follow this link to learn more about this work. 

I continue to partner with the same universities through a collaborative Changemaking international exchange project with the University of San Diego (USD). I teach a course on “Healthy Environments and Inclusive Education in a Global Society.”  The course begins with six pre-international travel sessions prior where students learn about the similarities and differences between the education systems in South Africa and the United States through readings, videos, and email exchanges with educators in South Africa. The educators, called Changemakers, respond to readings and prompts about their educational experiences, interactions with learners, and culturally responsive inclusive practices. The USD students read Zaretta Hammond’s (2014) book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students prior to arriving in South Africa. Because it is easy for people to talk about challenges, the Changemakers are asked to explain the reasons for an opportunity gap in their context. Then we move the conversation to assets and strength-based solutions for supporting all learners. The course intentionally blends theoretical ideas with practice. For example, the Changemakers learn about Paolo Friere’s (1996) work using critical pedagogy to guide their learners in challenging oppressive colonial systems by developing consciousness of their critical reflection, agency, and action. The students from the US also learn ways to critically reflect on their implicit biases and in turn prevent “savior mentality” while abroad. This training is key for our international work because we, as Changemakers, are there to learn from each other in a mutually beneficial exchange of ideas, resources, and encouragement.

While in South Africa for 10 days. Our first stop is the Apartheid Museum where the students from the US and the South African educators who have been connecting via email have a chance to meet in person and talk about how the U.S. civil rights movement and Jim Crow laws relate to the apartheid experience in South Africa. This is a powerful bonding experience. The following day, the USD students are in the classrooms to see what teachings and the classrooms are like in the townships, which is an eye-opening experience. After observations, we all meet to debrief what the USD students saw focusing on the strengths within the classroom. Next, the group designs a collaborative lesson that they Changemakers from the US and SA will teach learners the next day. During the last trip the group decided to modify part of the culturally responsive transition portfolio I created for my dissertation. They identified four areas they believed the learners would benefit from discussing: self-awareness, self-expression, future goals, and literacy skills (a focus of the school). The prompts on the document were written in English with Sepedi (local language) words to assist the learners and model translanguaging. Each of the USD students worked with teachers from grade 6, 7, and 8 on completing the documents. The teachers said the activity allowed them to get to know more about their learners–they were surprised how excited the learners were to share information about themselves. The U.S. educators took pictures and created one-page documents about each learner that we later sent to the school to share with the learners, families, and teachers. 

After our two days at the township school, we held a Changemaker Symposium at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Prior to coming to South Africa, the USD students created a GoFundMe page to fundraise money to pay for the South African teachers from the townships and rural areas to attend the Changemaker Symposium (cover their transportation, hotel, food, etc.). The South African educators from the Gauteng and Limpopo provinces joined with the USD students for a two-day event. On day one we focused on community building and planning in Changemaking groups (each group was made up of members from the different schools and communities). The groups identified a challenge and discussed solutions. Next, the groups presented their Changemaking ideas. There were also keynote speakers who presented on translanguaging and sustaining the Changemaking experience. It was a powerful experience and we covered topics on improving classroom management, family involvement, and literacy, along with plans for creating systemic change by influencing people with political power to fight oppressive systems. Based on the final Changemaker email exchange at the end of the program in South Africa, the members from both countries share how much they learned from each other about pedagogy, family involvement, culturally responsive practices, sociopolitical consciousness, and helpful resources. One of the most encouraging things about the projects is that they continue to share ideas with each other long after the completion of the class. 

After the symposium, we went on a safari in the bush and then off to Cape Town to work with university students and schools in the Gugulethu township. Our time in the Western Cape Province allowed students to get a better sense of the diversity of South Africa and have the opportunity to spend more time exploring the country. 

Each year, we weave in more educators to the Changemaking program within this course. The first year, we started with 65. The following year, we added 32 educators from both countries, and we plan to add even more during our third trip. Not everyone returns each year, but they do stay in touch and share resources. I get feedback from students that they have never learned so much in a University course because of their pre-trip sessions and their on-the-ground experiences. I’ve now expanded this Changemaking work to other countries including Jamaica, Tanzania, and Malawi. We have replicated a similar model in different contexts. I’ve also used the model of providing professional development support based on a modified version of the survey I created during my Fulbright for schools in South Africa and the United States (San Francisco Bay Area and San Diego). 

Thank you, Dr. Jez, for sharing your experiences. Below are some additional resources that might be of interest to readers to dive in further:

Meet Professor Jez

Student blogs from the Trips to South Africa –

Hammond, Z. (2014). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Corwin Press.

Jez, R. J. & Luneta, K. (2018). Effective teacher training on inclusive practices: Using needs and 

interests to  design professional development and follow-up support in South Africa. Asian 

Journal of Inclusive Education 6(1), 21-47. 

Jez, R. J. (2018). Inspiring literacy from a global perspective: How to use culturally responsive and 

inclusive instruction to increase literacy for all learners. In Makalela, L. (Ed.), Shifting Lenses: Multilanguaging, Decolonization and Education in the Global South (pp. 99-118). Cape Town, 

South Africa: The Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society (CASAS).

Jez, R. J. (2014). Empowering postsecondary transition planning for culturally and linguistically

diverse students with disabilities by giving a voice to the family. In Michael, D. & Lo, L. 

(Eds.), Promising practices to empower culturally and linguistically diverse families of children 

with disabilities. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing Inc. 

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