An eye-opening workshop
The United Nations Losses Exercise was designed by people living with HIV/Aids to help others personalise and understand the impact of finding out they are HIV positive. It lends itself to classroom use and is appropriate for learners between 14 and 18 years.
The “lesson” is ready-made and all the workshop leader needs to do is follow the instructions.
I spent two hours with 24 grade 11 boys and girls at Kensington Secondary school and found the programme I had put together ran like clockwork. It is possible to abridge the material - I fit it into a 45-minute lesson.
The workshop allows the educator to break the resistance to HIV/Aids information in schools.
Tshepiso, one of the learners, said: “I’ve learned that you can never know enough. I came with the mentality that I’ve heard enough about Aids, I don’t need to know any more. I came out thinking differently.”
An area that cannot be ignored if you want to get the best out of the Losses Exercise is the need for learners to have the linguistic tools to describe complex emotions and feelings.
English teachers will recognise this as a problem area. Many learners responding to a poem, for instance, seem unable to get beyond descriptions like “happy” or “sad”. So I built this skill into the programme. I was delighted by the results and saved a number of responses.
I started with the group seated in a circle. We lit a candle in the centre and one of the girls sang - her voice moved me to tears.
This method of communication, known as “The Way of Council”, creates a sense of ceremony and enables the members of the group to hone their listening skills. It also gives each member the opportunity to speak.
In the first round I asked each member to describe his or her feelings in terms of weather conditions and explain why he or she was in that particular emotional state.
I gave them examples: an internal thunderstorm with lightning spiking, soft, nurturing rain; a hurricane lashing the coast; the perfect day; heavy rain; and so on. I had not met these learners before but I was already entering into their lives when they described their ups and downs.
The next, less-personal round introduced the use of metaphors to describe feelings. I gave a few examples: I feel helpless, like a bird with a broken wing; I feel excited, like a soccer player who has just scored a goal; I feel aroused, like a guy kissing the girl he loves.
Each learner, in turn, could offer an example from a list.
Here is a sampling from that list: bored, disappointed, hopping mad, scared, relieved, uptight, irritated, lonely, determined, tearful, proud.
We reaped a wonderful harvest with these teenagers coming up with innovative and mature responses.
I feel depressed: like a mother who regrets having an abortion (Shadrack); like someone who is in debt (Merlon); like a mother who does not know how she is going to feed her kids (Khanyi); like someone who has just found out he/she is HIV positive (Bless).
I feel on top of the world, or in seventh heaven: as if I had just won the lottery (Rosa); as if you have given birth to twins (Dada); like a scientist who has discovered a cure for Aids (Shadrack); like a successful businesswoman who’s test-driving a Bentley (Mmabatho); like a girl over her first boyfriend (Khanyi).
The next stage of the workshop requires participants to move into groups of six and later to work in pairs.
Each participant is given 12 cards which the facilitator cut out and prepared beforehand.
Because of the way the workshop is structured it runs seamlessly. It is easy for the workshop leader to join one of the groups and listen in.
In the final stage each person was left with a different set of three cards, so their take on their “situation” kept the levels of interest high. The discussion was less gloomy than I expected.
Learners did not see HIV infection as the end of the world. One girl, in spite of feeling a bit embarrassed, pointed out that you can still have sex with your partner as long as you use condoms, and life can go on.
The final round took us back to our circle. I asked the participants what the workshop meant to them.
Sibongile said: “This workshop was a real eye-opener for me. We are forever fighting to get what we don’t have, but people living with HIV/Aids are fighting just to be normal.”
Thabile commented: “This workshop was educational and encouraÂging at the same time. I always thought I had problems, only to find out that I was kidding myself.”
Mmabatho had this to say: “We were very grateful that Joan Dommisse was present at Kensington Secondary School to help us know more about HIV/Aids and the challenges that affected and infected people go through on a daily basis.”
The last person to speak was Bless, who took the words out of my mouth when she said: “All that remains now is for us to spread the word.”
So often in a circle this kind of magic occurs - the final word is a solution or a way forward.
Joan Dommisse is a former English teacher and an educator in the area of HIV/Aids who conducts workshops with teenagers. She can be contacted on [email protected] or by phoning the Teacher on 011 250 7300.