Botswana: Initiation & Rite of Passage
Introduction: Building school culture
Bringing together 30 students from more than 18 countries to embark on an educational journey is no easy task. Culture building is always challenging, and in the international school context, the challenge is exacerbated by the ethnic and religious diversity of students. So to effectively build school culture in our recently launched Changemaker Program, the Curriculum Development team meticulously planned an entry event in Botswana for our new students: a rite of passage. This first Rite of Passage (RoP) served as an initiation, designed to break down cultural barriers and highlight the common humanity shared among our students.
After a few days of team-building activities and overcoming jet lag in Gaborone, our initiates were transported to the Tuli Game Reserve in Eastern Botswana for their ten-day, tech-free Rite of Passage. For some, surrendering their smartphones and social networks was as frightening a thought as being left alone in the bush after dark, but the RoP design required a technology detox to properly foster group dynamics and dependency. It was a way for us to ensure our students were fully living in the moment.
And it worked. After the term ended, the majority of our students reflected positively on the experience of going tech free. As hard as it may have been in the beginning, many have decided to maintain a period of zero connectivity in their lives moving forward. Justin (USA) reflected, “Being tech-free enhanced the experience because it forced more constructive social interaction and making students to find ways to pass the time. This led to the creation of inter-student and inter-wilderness connections that would not have been attainable with the presence of tech.”
While Botswana offers many compelling reasons to turn off technology, just as many exist in every community around the world. That’s why it was so gratifying to learn that so many of our students plan to continue going tech-free even in the highly connected cities, like Kuala Lumpur, where they reside. The challenge here for you: how can you get your students to put down their smartphones and embrace what their hometown has to offer? I’d love to hear what examples you come up with.
Why design a Rite of Passage?
Rites of passage have been used throughout human history to symbolize and signify human transformations. Ronald Grimes explains that rites usually proceed through three distinct phases: separation, formative, and reincorporation. In our case, students first needed to separate themselves from their respective cultures as well as their notions of traditional schooling.
After the separation phase, students moved into a formative time and space, known to anthropologists as “betwixt,” meaning neither here nor there. Throughout this stage, they were instructed in the ways of our school culture by engaging in activities centered around TGS’s core values. Experiences were designed to evoke new understandings of holistic health, self-awareness, effective communication, environmental stewardship, and social responsibility. Zaki (Pakistan) commented, “values around the world are the same, the actions of how we live them are what separates us.” Most importantly, students emerged with an understanding of the collective power of the school community to overcome any obstacle.
“The pursuit of full humanity, however, cannot be carried out in isolation or individualism, but only in fellowship and solidarity.” - Paulo Freire
The culmination of this group challenge led them into the final phase, reincorporation, where initiates are welcomed as empowered students capable of directing their own learning. Brent Bell asserts that in most schools rites of passages are incongruent when it comes to the reincorporation phase; however, in our case, reincorporation gives them the collective privilege and responsibility to conduct projects of real-world significance in our Changemaker Program.
As most educators are well aware, even the carefullest of planning is easily derailed. In most instances, these mishaps, like transportation issues or unprepared kids, are minimal, easily rectified by throwing together a quick team-building activity and waiting it out.
Slightly rarer is an instance in which Human-Elephant-Conflict (HEC) occurs. “Elephants?” You say. “Not any in my classroom last time I checked.” And sure, HEC doesn’t usually show up on a SWOT analysis for project-based learning, but after nearly a full year of planning with our wonderful providers in the Tuli Reserve, an elephant encounter landed our main point of contact in an intensive care unit in Johannesburg, South Africa. And while you might not need to worry about pachyderm problems of your own, consider it a metaphor for the oversized obstacles waiting to throw a wrench in your own plans. Thankfully, Stuart is doing well and quickly on his way to recovery.
Obviously, this quick change in leadership had some unforeseen consequences in terms of logistics and security. With Botswana being the only country in Africa with an increasing population of elephants, large herds are a common sight. After the incident, and arguably before, the elephants in the Tuli Block were getting to be a bit “cheeky.” The presence of these incredible animals altered many of our plans for walking safaris and, unfortunately, altered our closing group challenge, Wild Night. The replacement physical challenge on our Wild Night was substantially less difficult than we had planned, and it ended up taking on a more symbolic meaning. As a traveling high school, sometimes them’s the breaks.
Like the cheeky elephants, our newly-formed command structure also affected our Botswana logistical processes. With 30 students cohabiting in three separate camps, a small fleet of vehicles to fuel up and drive, and a heap of goal-oriented teachers chomping at the bit, the Tuli Block staff might argue that the wildlife was the least of their concerns! Our staff had to work closely on-the-fly with camp staff and wildlife rangers to ensure everyone was on the same page. While this held some challenges, and more than a few schedule changes, I must commend Stuart’s fantastic staff for stepping up and getting us through the rite of passage.
Just like the traditional teacher waiting on a school bus to show up, the TGS staff had to display patience, flexibility, and adaptability to get the job done. Despite all challenges, minor and elephant-sized, the end goals were all met, and our students headed home with a better understanding of Botswana’s unique environments, project-based learning, and the benefits of shutting their devices off, even just for a little while.
This section will usually focus on the student creation process and products from personal and teacher-led projects. The Rite of Passage “product” was the school community that emerged. While this is visibly evident to our staff and students on the ground, the best way to portray this product is by sharing student reflections.
The sessions during the “betwixt” stage focused on the TGS Core Values, community building, and group development. Students were guided through workshops on Tuckman’s stages of group development (forming, storming, norming, performing), and aspects of Hershey and Blanchert’s (1993) situational leadership theory. Class of 2020 student Julia (Mexico) explained, “The rite of passage was a meaningful experience that marked the beginning of our time at TGS and a great way for us to realize that we are now a part of this incredible community. Every activity we did had a purpose and I think we all grew a lot during these ten days, especially in the area of teamwork, communication, trust, and openness. I think it’s amazing how close our group is after such a small amount of time. I also loved feeling in touch with nature, living in the wild, surrounded by all sorts of animals.”
Effective communication was another aspect of these sessions. We carefully exposed students to giving and receiving feedback and the power of group discussions. We began by having meta-level discussions on how to properly have and contribute to a discussion. We shared with students the concept of constructivism and Vygotsky’s approach to the socio-historical aspects of knowledge and learning.
Our Zambian student, Salome reflected, “the ten-day rite of passage was an incredible experience that gave students the opportunities to learn, reflect and communicate in a way that is becoming increasingly foreign as the use of technology and social media grows. Although at times overwhelming, hopping into the closest vehicle to find a lion or navigating using clues that birds nests and termite mounds leave were all key lessons adding to the mysteries of a journey that 30 students started as complete strangers.” She went on to write, “when you are unable to turn to Instagram or Snapchat as a form of entertainment, all of a sudden the people around you become far more interesting and your surroundings will never fail to shock you in beauty. Being tech-free certainly made me realize how much I miss when my eyes are glued to the screen, and whether that be an intriguing conversation or type of bird, it’s worth a whole of a lot more than that Facebook post.” Salome’s reflection identifies a significant paradigm shift. Grimes explains that a rite of passage is not a small change but “a momentous metamorphosis, a moment which one is never again the same.”
After receiving qualitative feedback from students and staff, we will be making some modifications to the Rite of Passage. A majority of the feedback revolved around the food provided. While the chocolate cravings were real, at the end of the day the students wanted more fruit and vegetables. Other conversations and reflections suggested a change to have more full-group downtime instead of having downtime in three small camps. While this provides a new set of logistical challenges, we are confident we can implement this change.
Lastly, we are confident that in the future with decreased security concerns we can up the physical challenge of our Wild Night. Despite any physical adaptations, we must ensure that the symbolic importance of the culminating experience is upheld.
I hope this post provides you some insight into the power of community building and the development of a unique school culture. It’s my hope that teachers and schools around the world can adopt concepts in this blog to enhance their school community. In Teaching to Transgress, Bell Hooks wrote: “as a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence.”
Thank you for reading, I recognize your presence and am genuinely interested in your ideas and comments on the curriculum or what more you would like to know about my travels, teaching, and curriculum designing.
This is cross-posted on THINK Global School's Building Changemakers Blog.
Bell, Brent. "The rites of passage and outdoor education: Critical concerns for effective programming." Journal of Experiential Education 26.1 (2003): 41-49.
Fosnot, Catherine Twomey. Constructivism: Theory, perspectives, and practice. Teachers College Press, 2013.
Grimes, Ronald L. Deeply into the bone: Re-inventing rites of passage. Vol. 1. Univ of California Press, 2000.
Hersey, Paul, and Kenneth H. Blanchard. Management of organizational behavior: Utilizing human resources. Prentice-Hall, Inc, 1993.
Hooks, Bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education As the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1994. Print.
Wilson, Carol, "Bruce Tuckman's Forming, Storming, Norming - State Support Team ...." http://www.sst7.org/media/BruceTuckman_Team_Development_Model.pdf. Accessed 10 Aug. 2017.