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Beaumont Middle sixth-graders connect to apartheid through emotional walkabout tour


Rachel Seevers and Dharani Ramaiah created a two-sided dress to illustrate the contrast between powerful whites and struggling blacks under apartheid. (Photo from FCPS)

 
By Tammy Lane
Special to KyForward
 
Powerful depictions of racial segregation, poverty and divisiveness marked the South Africa apartheid displays set up by sixth-graders at Beaumont Middle School, where social studies teacher Shaun Demeter strives to provide a visceral connection to history. “Once you reach a student emotionally and affect them emotionally, you’ve hooked them,” he said.
 
Demeter recalled how the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and the U.S. civil rights movement captured his imagination as a high school student and still inspires his efforts. “This is a subject that pulled me in and made me want to be a teacher,” he said.
 
He introduced the apartheid walkabout museum last year, and the idea has grabbed hold of his students.
 
“It takes it to a higher level of learning, and they love showing off the work they’re doing,” he said. “We needed to take this unit further because the kids are really interested in apartheid, discrimination and segregation. This is something they can really relate to.”
 
Dozens of families and other guests strolled through the Stampede pod at Beaumont, where students had taped stark historical photographs to lockers and stood by to field questions about their 3D models. Among their themes were the origins of government-mandated segregation, living conditions in the townships, violent backlash, Nelson Mandela’s leadership and global response to apartheid.
 
“We’re always comparing and contrasting with what happened in the civil rights movement. How did people react and change their minds? How are people still struggling from what happened in the past?” Demeter said. “The kids get it because they feel it – they understand what it feels to be left out and to be discriminated against.”
 

Families look at historical photographs of apartheid. (Photo from FCPS)

The open-house visitors could feel it, too, as sixth-grader J.R. Morgan invited them to pull an identity from a metal box – a letter indicating black, colored (mixed race), white or Asian – and to pay particular attention to that group’s experience from the late 1940s until 1994 when apartheid ended. “As you go through the museum and check out all the art pieces, you can recap what you learned,” J.R. said.
 
In one corner of the classroom, Sydney Fonken and Cassidy Nelson displayed their model of slums housing, including the roof tarp to keep out rain and a stream polluted by debris and waste. “The whites would take 90 percent of the land, and the blacks would be crammed together. They were just living in filth,” Sydney said. “We realized how dirty they lived and how clean we live,” Cassidy added.
 
On a nearby table, a collection of labeled seashells (some broken) indicated a range of sentiments: hate, love, peace, hope, anger, freedom. Other students used tiny park benches and water fountains to illustrate the day-to-day discrepancies and the gulf between the races. Several projects, including a Minecraft video, focused on Mandela’s imprisonment and presidency.
 
This year’s event also featured a guest speaker: Ryan Kelly, an associate professor of geography at Bluegrass Community and Technical College, who recently visited South Africa. He spoke about current race relations and politics, the lag in the educational system and the lingering economic effects.
 

(Photo from FCPS)

Demeter hopes the unit on apartheid and the student-led museum make a lasting impression, as MLK did in his own youth. “It’s good for the kids because they have to explain what they’ve done and what it represents,” he noted.
 
Classmates Rachel Seevers and Dharani Ramaiah certainly hit the mark. Using the colors of the old South Africa flag, they crafted a two-part woman’s dress from felt, duct tape, ribbon and trim. “The white side has gold trim and coins and represents all the wealth, and the black side has chains that represent the physical chains they were imprisoned with and the symbolic chains of poverty,” Rachel said.
 
“You can understand apartheid better because you feel like you’re there,” Dharani said of the museum overall. “It’s making us be there and feel how it was – the struggle for the blacks and power for the whites.”
 
Tammy Lane is a communications specialist and website editor for Fayette County Public Schools.


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