Sixth graders at Hill have the opportunity this year to connect with pen pals in South Africa. Porcha Dodson (Hill ‘93) founded non-profit organization Project Knapsack, which matches students in the U.S. with African peers for aid and cultural exchange. Dodson and associate Jeannie VanMetre (also Hill ‘93) have visited Hill to introduce the pen pal program and answer students’ questions. So far each sixth grader has written an introductory letter, received a response, and written a reply to a student at Molalatladi Primary School in Soweto, the same neighborhood where Nobel Laureates Bishop Desmond Tutu and the late Nelson Mandela resided. Molalatladi students will receive not only letters from their American counterparts but also backpacks full of school supplies.
Hill School faculty are working across disciplines to support Project Knapsack and to enrich the letter-writing experience. Sixth grade homeroom teachers Lucy Turner and Susan McCaskey oversee this program, in which students have learned about the late South African musician and activist Miriam Makeba, researched and illustrated a South African butterfly, found their pen pals’ location on a series of increasingly detailed maps, and researched the history of apartheid and the life of Nelson Mandela in Hill’s library. Additionally, history teacher Mike Wipfler assigned the students to write a letter to former South African president F. W. de Klerk as if in the year 1991, taking issue with specific provisions of apartheid laws and advocating their repeal. Art teacher Linda Conti worked with the sixth grade on Artist’s Trading Cards, small artworks that are often exchanged internationally, and traditional South African Ndebele paintings.
Speakers from within the Hill community and beyond have also been an integral part of the program. Jim Dunlap, father of sixth grader Gracie Dunlap, recounted his experiences in South Africa over several decades, including serving as a United Nations observer during the first post-apartheid election of 1994. Earlier in the fall, Luvuyo Mandela, great-grandson of Nobel Peace prizewinner and former South African president Nelson Mandela, spoke to the students in grades 4-8 at the Hill School. He asked Hill students, “Who is the most important person in this room?” Mr. Mandela went on to emphasize that children are the most important as they are the creators of the future.