There are certain moments that I think many teachers live for. The moment when we witness the light bulb moment in our students and all of a sudden what we've been teaching makes sense. It's always a bonus when this moment finally happens because this can keep a teacher's energy from lagging. I was lucky to witness this recently when some students and I attended the Franschhoek Literary Festival. I watched my studenst blossom outside the confines of a classroom. In the midst of the exam period, a moment of enlightenment is always appreciated (I don't think of exams as a moment of enlightenment, least of all for the teacher who has to mark all the scripts).
Last week Friday was the Franschhoek Literary Festival and I was invited as one of the speakers. I was part of a panel "Rising Eighteen" alongside Sam Page, Nik Rabinowitz, Fiona Snyckers and Osiame Molefe. I travelled to Franschoek with 11 Grade 10s who were handpicked by default because they weren't writing an exam on the day (we recently started the exam period which is always the worst time of the year for me).
I didn't have any expectations for the day except for the session that I was asked to be part of. Our school was given free tickets for three of the sessions on Friday. The first session was "Science is Cool" where a science journalist, Sarah Wild, and two scientists Ethel Phiri and Jeff Mururgan spoke about the work they do in the effort of making science appear "cool". I listened intently and made sure my kids had front row seats because after all my school is a Dinaledi, Maths and Science focused school. The talk was interspersed with questions from the audience and I was suprised when my kids' hands were shooting up to answer and ask questions of highly esteemed panelists who were talking about "String Theory" the Higgs Boson and the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).
It wasn't so much that the kids were putting their hands up but that they were willing to engage with issues they may have heard of and that they had an interest in. When the audience was asked about SKA I was also surprised that my students were part of the few people who knew about the project (thanks to Laura Richter who is a physicist and works for the SKA project). Rumour has it my kids went up to the panelists at the end of the session and asked one of the speakers to come and speak at our school.
The second session was "Rising Eighteen". Our panel was given the brief about talking to the audience about surviving high school. The session began when we each spoke about where our journey with writing began. I recounted the story about my Grade 1 school magazine which was a publication featuring the writing of all the students in the school. In Grade 1 I believed that I was a published writer because I saw my story in print for the first time.
And to my surprise one of the quiet students in my group asked a question that I could sense came from a place of anxiety. She asked a question related to the issue of Plan B: when people want to become writers/musicians or sports stars, they are always told to have a Plan B. Her question was addressed to Fiona and Osiame. I didn't answer Sarah* because I know she simply wants to be a girl-cricketer in spite of all the nay-sayers telling her to have a plan b, a degree and a proper job to fall back on.
The final session was "Technology Wizards" which was my favourite session of the day. Perhaps it's the easiness and bravado of an all-male panel that made the difference, but the discussion was invigorating. The focus of the session was about technology, innovation and technology. Once again my students surprised me to the point where their questions directed the conversation for most of the hour. One of the students stole a question just as I was about to ask it. It seems we were thinking about the same issues and as Mama would say, undibethe emlonyeni, she stole the words from my lips. Near the end of the session one of the panelists made a mention about coding (computer programming): that instead of wasting time, teenagers should equip themselves and get started on coding their own programs and contribute to the changes in technology rather than become consumers of it. As he made a mention of this, one of my students turned to me and smiled because we had spoken about coding in the context of a video that was looking at what schools don't teach their students. I was beaming with pride because for the first time, one of the discussions we had previously had in class was confirmed by a speaker my kids had never met but were convinced he was cool enough because he was on a panel rather than being a teacher in their classroom.
As the day in Franschhoek came to an end I asked each of my student to share their highlights from the day. Each had something thought-provoking to share about how something in a session had changed their mind. This was learning that took place outside the classroom where I didn't have to be a part of it directly but was lucky enough to witness some of my kids blossom in the world beyond the classroom.
These are the moments I live for that remind me that in spite of the challenges, my world is alright. Being a teacher is about beautiful surprises where my children are riveted and thoughtful human beings who are curious and wonder about the world around them.
*Not her real name