Educators at Saint Albert the Great College were shocked when they learned in June that a project aimed at fostering student inclusion was being halted.
The decision to stop the project was made by a relatively new school board set up by the rector, Father Aaron Zahra.
The project, called MEET, celebrated encounters between pupils of different ethnic, class and religious origins represented at the school.
But a complaint to the Curia by a person unknown to the teachers seems to have been enough for the council to stop this project in its tracks.
I meet Andrew Camilleri and Lisa Farrugia, the educators behind MEET. They are as baffled as I am by the decision to stop the project.
“We weren’t even told what the complaint was about,” they tell me. What they know is that it was made by someone who is not even a student or a teacher at the school.
“We simply expect trust and respect for our professional integrity, two things that have not been demonstrated in the board’s actions,” they say.
The decision to unplug MEET was part of a series of events that ultimately led to the dismissal of school principal Mario Mallia, a decision that saddened and angered educators like Andrew and Lisa.
The couple wholeheartedly believe in and practice the college‘s vision of inclusion, which has been championed by Mallia.
“What hurt us the most was that the decision to stop the program was communicated to us by a letter, the content of which was not even discussed with us,” they tell me.
They also argue that the reasons given for stopping the project, namely that the rector was not informed of its existence before it was set up, and that its objectives were achieved in other matters, “do not hold water “.
Not only was the program planned in minutes long before the appointment of the new board, but it was also in line with the national program whose main targets include cross-cutting goals. The national curriculum promotes skills such as social skills and critical thinking which do not relate to the content of one or more subjects, but which can be taught in different ways.
Inspired by Pope Francis
MEET also reflects the philosophy of the Catholic school, Andrew and Lisa tell me. “The starting point of the school’s philosophy is that we ‘accept everyone’ and its aim is to ‘read and change the world’.”
But they add that the school’s ethos and MEET are inspired by Pope Francis, who in 2016 called for a “culture of encounter”.
“If I don’t look — seeing is not enough, no: look — if I don’t stop, if I don’t look, if I don’t touch, if I don’t speak, I can’t create an encounter and I cannot help create a culture of encounter,” Pope Francis said.
But what exactly is MEET?
It is about meeting students and sharing experiences in a safe space where teachers facilitate a discussion on a variety of topics related to their identity.
“There’s no indoctrination in this. Christians stay Christians, Muslims stay Muslims, Hindus stay Hindus… no attempt is made to change anyone’s beliefs. That’s the simple people talking to each other and learning to understand each other that is explored and celebrated,” says Lisa.
‘Allah hu akbar’ in context
Moreover, the new material, which is a work in progress, does not replace religious education. Andrew, one of the masterminds behind the new subject, also teaches religion at school.
Andrew says what got him thinking about the need for cultural encounters was an experience in his own religion class, which he keeps open to anyone who wants to attend, including non-Catholics.
He recalls an episode in which a Muslim student prepared a presentation in which he shared food eaten during Ramadan along with a prayer that included the phrase “Allah hu akbar”. Hearing these words, the Muslim student’s best friend realized that what his friend was talking about was not related to terrorism but rather something holy.
Lisa also recalls incidents such as children extolling Muslim immigrants with slices of ham, further emphasizing the need for mutual understanding.
MEET was never meant to substitute for religious education for students who are exempt from religion classes because they belong to other religious denominations, they insist.
“We have created a space where Catholic, Atheist, Muslim or Hindu children can talk about their identity and also learn and interact with the identity of others,” explains Andrew.
Lisa points out that the students also learn about the culture of their best friends. “Ultimately, the greatest satisfaction in all of this is the students’ realization that having people of different faiths and backgrounds in the classroom is in itself a positive experience.”
MEET also does not serve as a substitute for ethics, a subject taught in public schools to students who disengage from religion.
“While in ethics the idea is to focus on a secular approach to ethical choices, our goal is to recognize and understand diversity, among other things,” the educators say.
I point out that some parents may actually send their children to a Catholic school to ensure a solid Catholic education.
The two educators respond that children also go to school to learn how to relate to others in society at large.
“Students already encounter different cultures in their school. They also meet others in the street. And when they grow up, students will work with people with different identities. Confronting these realities at school prepares students for life,” says Lisa.
In defense of the crucifix
But both educators strongly deny that MEET is an attempt to impose a secular worldview on what is ultimately a Catholic school. One of the rumors, which they strongly refute, is that crucifixes have been removed from college courses.
“Not only has the cross never been removed, but it is actively celebrated as a symbol of Christian identity. Inclusion does not mean dismantling one’s own cultural identity and we are proud of the school’s identity as a Catholic school. In the same way, we would never expect Muslim female students to remove the hijab. In this sense, our approach is very different from that of French secularism. Our goal is not to nullify identities but to nurture them,” explains Andrew.
But what if a student starts expressing fundamentalist views in this cultural exchange?
Andrew says he would be happy to take on the challenge. “A lot of good often comes from what educators describe as a crisis. The fact that the fundamentalist engages with others is already a starting point. Because fundamentalism, whatever it is, thrives in echo chambers and not in meetings.
But religion is not the only main focus of MEET. Lisa says she was looking forward to the admission of female students to secondary school from September, as gender is also an important aspect of identity. The same goes for the social class and ethnicity of teachers and students, she adds.
From ‘basla’ to ‘Gahan’
One of the icebreakers for the lessons is a discussion of onions, which emphasizes the multilevel identity of each of us.
“At some level we are discussing the biases that the term Maltese carries Basla (onion) whereas on another level we are discussing the different layers when slicing an onion,” they tell me.
The onion is a metaphor for a society in which individuals cannot be reduced to a single, fixed identity.
Another icebreaker is a discussion of Ġaħan, the fictional character found in the tradition of different Mediterranean cultures, who on one level is presented as an embodiment of stupidity prompting discussion of stereotypes, but who on another level represents unity in diversity across different cultures. The subject reintroduces Gahan as someone who challenges sensible interpretations of the world.
From St Albert to the world
MEET also encourages news-informed discussion. One of the topics this year was the war in Ukraine, the teachers tell me. “It was discussed from different angles, including that of students whose identities have been shaped by other conflicts like the one in Palestine.”
One of the benefits of cultural encounters is to encourage students to move away from echo chambers, where they only meet other people of a similar identity.
One of Andrew’s greatest satisfactions is that the students who participate in MEET learn to interact with others who are different from them. He fondly remembers how three Muslim students who initially skipped religion classes changed their minds after attending MEET.
“Students told me that after participating in MEET, they changed their minds about Christians wanting to convert them or not respecting them. Now they even take religious classes out of interest without being afraid that someone will want to change them,” he says.
And despite the disappointment they feel at the rector’s decision to end MEET and sack Mario Mallia, the two educators remain optimistic that the project will continue to thrive not only in Saint Albert but in other schools in Malta and beyond.
Although still in its infancy, the program has already been recognized at the United Nations level.
UN Under-Secretary-General and High Representative of the Alliance of Civilizations, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, contacted Maltese educators with a view to using this model for schools in Morocco and Israel.