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Taking local high schoolers to South Africa — virtually

Northwestern University partners with Evanston teacher to enhance local education

EVANSTON - A partnership between Northwestern University and Evanston Township High School (ETHS) is virtually transporting local students to South Africa.

Through regular live video conferencing and a microsite continually updated with photos, videos and blog posts, Erik Ponder, a South African politics and history expert working for Northwestern Libraries, collaborated with ETHS social science teacher Aaron Becker to teach local students about South Africa in an engaging and interactive format.

This is Ponder’s fifth interactive educational project on Africa, but the first time he’s had the type of resources provided by the library system, Northwestern Neighborhood and Community Relations and the Northwestern Weinberg College of Arts and Science’s Program of African Studies, which provided critical funding for the project’s implementation through a Title VI grant.  

“This particular project was inspired by my love for and interest in South African culture and politics,” said Ponder, who has a master’s degree in political science with a focus on South African politics from Northwestern.

Beginning in March, three of Becker’s 10th-grade world history classes that include 70 students participated in the two-month project, “Johannesburg, the African City.” The project’s primary purpose was to introduce students to South African history, literature and culture. Neighborhood and Community Relations purchased a copy of “Welcome to Our Hillbrow: A Novel of Postapartheid South Africa” for all 70 students.  

ETHS students visit Northwestern.
Ponder, who has been to South Africa on and off over the last 23 years, hosted live discussions with students over video chat from Johannesburg. He said his role was as an instructor in the field providing real-life examples that supplement students’ learning and stimulate their critical thinking.

The program kicked off in March when more than 40 of Becker’s students came to Northwestern’s University Library to view and discuss the South African film “Tsotsi,” tour the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies and more.

“The students’ interaction with me was amazing,” Ponder said. “They submitted great comments on the blog site, were very active and attentive during our video sessions and enjoyed themselves during the site visit to the library.”

“The students were unanimous in their positive response to the rich curriculum,” added Becker, a Golden Apple Award-winner. “Even the least academically successful students were markedly more engaged and appreciated the authentic experiences, especially the live video sessions.”

Shortly after the kickoff session in March, Ponder left for South Africa, a nation he first encountered as an international observer for South Africa’s historic 1994 democratic elections following the end of apartheid. He is currently conducting research on what he calls South Africa’s “stalled democracy and incomplete transition” from its apartheid past.

Ponder, who also opened a library exhibit marking 20 years of democracy in South Africa in 2014, will remain in Johannesburg through the end of August. He said good coordination between Northwestern Libraries, Neighborhood and Community Relations and the Program of African Studies made the program a success. He hopes it can be advanced in the future.

Count ETHS’ Becker as a willing future partner.

“If I could find passionate collaborators like Erik, I would design all my courses around these types of projects year-round,” Becker said.