St Albert teachers defend inclusion project stopped by Dominican-appointed board

Andrew Camilleri and Lisa Farrugia, the educators behind a project that fostered dialogue between students from different social and religious backgrounds at St Albert College, are baffled why the subject was unceremoniously stopped by the Dominican Order

Lisa Farrugia and Andrew Camilleri are the educators behind MEET. “We were not 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 teacher in the school. “We simply expect trust and respect for our professional integrity, two things which were not shown in the board’s actions.”
Lisa Farrugia and Andrew Camilleri are the educators behind MEET. “We were not 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 teacher in the school. “We simply expect trust and respect for our professional integrity, two things which were not shown in the board’s actions.”

Educators at Saint Albert the Great College were shocked when they learnt in June that a project to foster inclusion among students was being stopped.

The decision to halt the project was taken by a relatively new school board set up by rector Fr Aaron Zahra.

The project dubbed MEET, celebrated encounters between students from different ethnic, class, and religious backgrounds represented at the school.

But a complaint to the Curia by someone unknown to the teachers appears to have been enough for the board 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 over the decision to stop the project.

“We were not 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 teacher in the school.

“We simply expect trust and respect for our professional integrity, two things which were not shown in the board’s actions,” they say.

The decision to pull the plug on MEET was part of a chain of events that eventually led to the sacking of Mario Mallia from school headmaster, a decision which saddened and angered educators like Andrew and Lisa.

The pair wholeheartedly believe in and practice the college’s vision of inclusion, which was championed by Mallia.

“What hurt us most was that the decision to stop the programme was communicated to us by a letter, the contents of which were not even discussed with us,” they tell me.

They also contend that the reasons given for stopping the project, namely that the rector was not informed of its existence prior to its introduction, and that its objectives were being met in other subjects, “do not hold water”.

Not only had the programme been planned in minuted meetings long before the appointment of the new board, but it was also in line with the national curriculum whose main targets include cross-curricular objectives. The national curriculum encourages competencies such as social skills and critical thinking that do not pertain to the content of one or more subjects, but that can be taught in different ways.

Inspired by Pope Francis

MEET also reflects the catholic school’s ethos, Andrew and Lisa tell me. “The starting point of the school’s ethos is that we ‘accept everyone’ and its aim is to ‘read and change the world’.”

But they add that the school ethos and MEET are inspired by Pope Francis, who in 2016 called for a “culture of encounter”.

“If I do not look, — seeing is not enough, no: look — if I do not stop, if I do not look, if I do not touch, if I do not speak, I cannot create an encounter and I cannot help to create a culture of encounter,” Pope Francis had said.

But what exactly is MEET?

It is all about students meeting and sharing experiences in a safe space where teachers facilitate a discussion on a variety of topics related to their identity.

“There is no indoctrination in this. Christians remain Christians, Muslims remain Muslims, Hindus remain Hindus… no attempt is made to change anyone’s beliefs. It is the sheer fact that people talk to each other and learn to understand each other that is being explored and celebrated,” Lisa explains.

‘Allah hu akbar’ in context

Moreover, the new subject, which is a work in progress, is not a substitute for religious education. Andrew, one of the brains behind the new subject, also teaches religion at school.

Andrew explains that what led him to think about the need for cultural encounters was an experience in his own religion class, which he keeps open to everyone who wants to attend, including non-Catholics.

He recalls an episode in which a Muslim student had prepared a presentation in which he shared food consumed during Ramadan as well as a prayer which included the phrase ‘Allah hu akbar’. Upon hearing the words, the Muslim student’s best friend realised that what his friend was talking about was not related to terrorism but something rather holy.

Lisa also recalls incidents like children touting Muslim immigrants with slices of ham, further underlining the need for mutual understanding.

MEET was never meant to be a substitute for religious instruction for students who are exempted from religion lessons because they hail from other religious denominations, they insist.

“We have created a space where children who are Catholics, atheists, Muslims or Hindu can talk about their identities and also learn about, and engage, with the identities of others,” says Andrew.

Lisa points out that students are also learning about the culture of their best friends. “Ultimately the greatest satisfaction in all this is the realisation by students that having people from different religions and backgrounds in class is in itself a positive experience.”

MEET is not serving as a substitute for ethics either, a subject taught in public schools to students who opt out of religion.

“While in ethics the idea is to focus on a secular approach to ethical choices, our aim is to recognise and understand diversity, amongst others,” the educators say.

I point out that some parents may actually be sending their children to a Catholic school to ensure a solid Catholic upbringing.

The two educators reply that children also attend school to learn how to relate with others in the wider society.

“Students are already encountering different cultures in their school. They also meet others in the street. And when they grow up, students will be working with people with different identities. Confronting these realities at school prepares students for life,” Lisa explains.

In defence of the crucifix

But both educators strongly deny that MEET is an attempt at imposing a secular world view in what is ultimately a Catholic school. One of the rumours, they strongly refute is that crucifixes have been removed from classes in the college.

“The cross has not only never been removed but 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 students to remove the hijab. In this sense our approach is very different from that of French secularism. Our aim is not to cancel identities but to nurture them,” Andrew says.

But what would happen if a student starts expressing fundamentalist views in this cultural exchange?

Andrew says that he would welcome the challenge. “A lot of good often comes from what pedagogists describe as a crisis. The fact that the fundamentalist engages with others is already a starting point. For fundamentalism of whatever kind thrives in echo chambers not encounters.”

But religion is not the only main focus of MEET. Lisa says she was looking forward to the intake of female students in the secondary school commencing this September because gender is also an important aspect of identity. So is the social class and ethnic background of both teachers and students, she adds.

From ‘basla’ to ‘Gahan’

One of the ice breakers for the lessons is a discussion about onions, which emphasises the multi-layered identity of each one of us.

“On one level we discuss prejudice conveyed by the Maltese term basla (onion) while at another level we discuss the different layers when one slices an onion,” they tell me.

The onion is a metaphor for a society in which individuals cannot be reduced to one single and fixed identity.

Another ice breaker is a discussion about Ġaħan, the fictional character found in the lore of different Mediterranean cultures, who on one level is presented as an embodiment of stupidity spurring a discussion on stereotypes, but who on another level represents the unity in diversity across different cultures. The subject reintroduces Gahan as someone who challenges common sense interpretations of the world.

From St Albert to the world

MEET also encourages a discussion informed by current events. One of the topics discussed this year was the war in Ukraine, the teachers tell me. “This was discussed from different angles including that of students whose identities have been shaped by other conflicts like that in Palestine.”

A benefit of cultural encounters is that of encouraging students to move away from echo chambers, where they only meet others of a similar identity.

One of Andrew’s greatest satisfactions is that students participating in MEET are learning to engage with others who are different from them. He fondly recalls how three Muslim students who initially exempted themselves from religion classes changed their mind after participating in MEET.

“The students told me that after participating in MEET they changed their view that Christians wanted to convert them or did not respect them. Now they even attend religion classes out of interest without fearing that we want to change them,” he says.

And despite the disappointment they feel at the rector’s decision to pull the plug on MEET and to sack Mario Mallia, the two educators remain optimistic the project will continue flourishing not just in Saint Albert but in other schools in Malta and beyond.

Despite being in its infancy, the programme has already received recognition at UN level.

The UN Under-Secretary-General and High Representative of the Alliance of Civilisations Miguel Ángel Moratinos contacted the Maltese educators with a view of using this model for schools in Morocco and Israel.