Montclair High School Teacher Builds Bridges to South Africa

BY  |  Friday, Mar 02, 2012 7:30am

On this past rainy Wednesday night, The Atrium in the Montclair High School’s George Inness Annex held about 75 community members including parents, students, interested citizens, as well as staff and faculty from Montclair State University and Montclair High School.  There to hear Montclair High School’s English teacher, Dr. Liz Voltman, talk about her summer experience teaching in Khayelitsha, South Africa, attendees also had a chance to practice some Xhosa, complete with clicks and phrases of welcome.

Dr. Voltman shared many stories about the students and teachers she met, and most of the stories had some element of Ubuntu – a South African philosophy of humanity to others. Audience members were touched by Dr. Voltman’s story of a “Learner” (what students were called at the school) offering her a bite from his lunch, even though that was probably the only full meal he’d have that day.  She said that this generosity happened every day, in  many ways.

Last summer, this 9th grade World Literature teacher spent her summer vacation working with 6th and 7th graders in Khayelitsha, a township outside of Cape Town.  She taught the students English and poetry, as well as passages from Mark Mathabane’s Kaffir Boy. Surprisingly, she found that most students were unfamiliar with the famous autobiography and even with the books focus on the system of apartheid in their own country.  Kaffir Boy, which inspired Dr. Voltman to get involved with Cross Cultural Solutions and teaching in South Africa, has been a part of the Montclair High School’s 9th grade World Literature curriculum for ten years. Those classes will be participating in a pen-pal project, as well as benefiting from seeing music, art, photographs, and cultural items brought back by their teacher.

Dr. Voltman commented on the juxtaposition between student expectations in Khayelitsha and Montclair when she spoke of asking her summer learners to draw and write about things that are precious to them in relation to Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” The South African students mentioned things like store-bought clothing and their family members.  There was no mention of iPods or Wii devices or cell phones – mainly because the vast majority of the children had never even held those things.  It took some adjustment, Voltman admitted.

Then again, in the presentation’s videos of dancing during a class party, and in scenes of the children playing in the schoolyard, it became clear that kids are kids on the inside.  It doesn’t matter where they live or what they have.  And with that realization, you have the topic of the presentation: “Bridge to South Africa.”

Students and teachers, as well as Principal James Earle, read poems and letters and even sang verses from “Circle of Life.” Dr. Voltman provided each table with name tags from her South African students, items she had brought back from Khayelitsha, and photographs from her trip.  The evening truly was a multi-media presentation.

Dr. Voltman’s pen pal project with her students will hopefully include more than letters between continents.  Since the schools she visited have so few supplies – they have one copy of Kaffir Boy: hers – she is hoping to ship supplies like pens, pencils, crayons, markers, and paper to the schools.  Hoping the Montclair community will help, Dr. Voltman is accepting both letters from local children and monetary donations to help with shipping of supplies.  In January, Dr. Voltman found out she received a grant from Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence (MFEE) to help with maintaining this cross-cultural project.  Monetary donations, no matter how small, will help with defraying the cost of sending the letters as well as purchasing and shipping school supplies to South Africa.

If you are interested in helping with the project, pen pal letters from children can be dropped off in the Annex Office c/o Dr. Voltman.  Checks for donations to help defray shipping costs should be made out to “Montclair High School” with “Bridge to South Africa” in the Memo section. Both pen pal letters and checks can be dropped off in the Annex Office care of Dr. Voltman, or they can be sent to: Dr. Elizabeth Voltman, English Department, Montclair High School – George Inness Annex – 141 Park Street – Montclair, NJ  07042.

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And we can get this project completed in time for Montclair's sesquicentennial when we can stick a fork into historic preservation as a public policy.

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