Friday, April 26, 2013

Mama T's Words of Wisdom

The Toa Nafasi Project's observation period is now completed and the final count of students we will be assessing next month comes to 156.  Of those, the majority will be weeded out with an initial blanket evaluation and the rest will get the whole nine yards, but I have already identified at least 10-15 kids with some sort of developmental delay, whether it's behavioral, intellectual, or emotional.  When Angi comes in a mere three weeks (!!), we will know much more.  Already, all the denizens of Msaranga are eagerly awaiting the arrival of mfanyakazi mwenzangu, Anjela (TZ spelling), who I have lauded as "the one who knows what to do."  Thank God for that!! 

In the meantime, I'm eating a bit of crow over here.  I know I was a tad critical of Mama T in my other blog entry, but over the course of this observation period, she has come to really grow on me.  Her appearance and mannerisms, at first brusque and even seemingly cruel, have revealed themselves to come from a place of love, tough love to be sure, but love nonetheless.  With her wowowo (hips) swishing, spectacles precariously tipped on her brow, and hints of a beard about her chin, she has the air of someone in total command and I absolutely loooove when she cloaks herself in this damask and whisks about the room, slamming her ruler on desks, scaring the bejeezus out of everyone and repeating "Haya, haya, haya...." to quiet the kids down.  She is the quintessential Tanzanian mama, capable both of extreme love and compassion as well as outright indignation and anger.

But the absolute best thing about Mama T is the stuff that comes out of her mouth.  Vumi and I have each individually had to leave the room from laughing so hard at some of her one-liners.  To be sure, it's not just the words, but the delivery.  The woman has the power to put you in your place and make sure you damn well stay there!  I love it!! 

1.) Nitakumaliza na hii rula!!  (I will finish you with this ruler!!  [said to naughty children])

2.) Unataka kuniua na presha??  (Do you want to kill me with blood pressure??  [said to naughty, naughty children])

3.) Unaenda shamba bila jembe??  (You go to the field without a hoe??  [said to a child who came to class without a pencil])

4.) Hasira, hasira....hasara....  (Anger, anger....loss....  [this is actually a Swahili proverb, but Mama T's delivery....HI-larious; said to extremely naughty children whose bad behavior has raised her blood pressure])

5.) Usinidanganye!!  Sidanganywi!!  (Don't trick me!!  I am not trickable!!  [said to the naughtiest of the naughty, naughty children with very bad, blood pressure-raising behavior])

And what I had misinterpreted as a sort of brutality or lack of tenderness is actually just the opposite.  Mama T expects more from these kids, and after 40+ years of teaching them, she has seen just about everything, so she doesn't hold back at this point.  Plus, her growl can turn to a grin in about 30 seconds flat, and the bark bears no real bite.  Even if a child gets a harsh word or feels the sting of the stick, if he or she hasn't recovered in five minutes, Mama T will soften the punishment with a cup of cold water or a pat on the back.

So, I think Toa Nafasi and Mama T are going to have a long and illustrious future together, and I can't wait to see what happens next!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Great Debate

I found this online today; it's part of a transcript of a debate that took place in the Haradal School in Arusha with the topic "Parents and Teachers Don't Support Education."  Pretty interesting what kids have to say about this hot-button issue.  Check it out....


Febronia Robert: Our government is the major stakeholder in educationI am saying this because parents do not hire teachers; it is the government.  If they fail to employ enough teachers, parents and students suffer the consequences.  It’s time the government saved our education system.
Mabule Meleck: Our parents play their role.  They pay school fees, evaluate our progress, and follow up on our development at school.  Meanwhile, teachers are not well-paid and teaching materials are not enough; how do we blame them when results are poor?

Halima Msoffe: This is not true because parents struggle to take us to the best schools and support us throughout school.  Even teachers despite working in very difficult environments still work hard at ensuring that we get the best grades.

Anunciata Makoko: Some parents are so busy with work that they hardly pay attention to their children.  Teachers have become unprofessional and they derive joy in activities like going on strike and doing other businesses during work hours.  It’s true that their welfare isn’t well taken of, but does this justify their actions?

Careen Amani: Most parents and teachers are too desperate for academic excellence to think about the child and whether he is good at specific subjects or is talented in one way or the other.  Yes, it a good thing to pass with flying colors, but it would be better if we succeeded at what we love doing.

Faraja Athanas: Teachers and parents are supposed to encourage learners.  Some parents don’t give their children enough time to read at home by heaping lots of chores on them.  I am not saying that children shouldn’t help at home but study time shouldn’t be compromised.


I wish I had been there!!  Each kid has a point, but I particularly like the words of Febronia and Careen.  A.) The government should get its act together and save this system, and B.) I can't say it any better than Careen: "It would be better if we succeeded at what we love doing."  Bull's eye.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Sun'll Come Out Tomorrow

So it's the rainy season here in Tanzania and it pours copious amounts nearly every single day, especially at night, the noise of the droplets hitting the tin roofs deafening.  These past couple of days have been the worst as the rain has been constant all day long which would be great if I worked at, say, the New York Public Library, all nice and cozy, but when you work in an African village....not so much.

In addition to the near-apocalyptic rain we're getting, it's also bitterly cold (well, Africa-cold, with lows of about 60-65 degrees Fahrenheit), and muddy as can be.  I am constantly chilled and swathed in wool here in Moshi, Kilimanjaro, just 200 miles south of the Equator.  Who woulda thunk it possible?

Msaranga, in particular, is a cold and muddy and my first day back at school after the Easter break got off to a roaring good start as my car got stuck in the sludge.  It took Headmaster Kennedy, Teacher Vumi, and about 30 primary schoolboys to finagle a way to get it out.  Needless to say, my blood pressure soared for a good couple of hours while it was precariously tipped in this ditch.

In addition to the perils of driving in this weather, there's always the issue of what to wear.  Everything will no doubt be covered in muck by the end of the day and the only shoes I can bear to put on are a beat-up pair of Converse.  The kids laugh but the best way for me to remove the mud before entering class is to do a little moonwalk, which they now love to mimic.  And, I think it can go without saying that these are NOT good hair days....

Last but most definitely not least - and I'm not even sure this has to do with the rain or if it's just power-rationing - is the fact that I've not had electricity at home for nearly 42 hours.  In fact, I am writing this blog entry by candlelight, feeling a little like Mozart composing the Requiem although obviously my masterpiece is not nearly as grand as his (though my state of mind might be just as incoherent; stress-related however, not's VERY frustrating!)

But I have to remind myself "to stick out my chin, and grin, and say, the sun'll come tomorrow....!"

I also have to remind myself that in February 2010, I was without WATER for two weeks, so to have no electricity for a couple days is hamna shida, and it's kama kawaida for a lot of Tanzanian families to have neither on a daily basis, so that puts a lot in perspective.

I'm just betting my bottom dollar that tomorrow there'll be sun....mungu akipenda....

Friday, April 5, 2013

"We Need Schools....Not Factories"

Check out this REALLY interesting article by Sugata Mitra, the 2013 TED Prize winner.  TED stands for "Technology, Entertainment, and Design" and is the brainchild of the private non-profit Sapling Foundation.  It is a set of conferences formed to espouse "ideas worth spreading."

Sugata Mitra is originally from Calcutta, and is a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University.  He is also amazeballs.  His "Hole in the Wall" experiments in children's learning are likewise amazeballs, and have resulted in fascinating new curricula and pedagogy that rely on children's innate curiosity and cooperation to self-teach.

I have taken the liberty of highlighting some of Mitra's most salient points.  IMO, a Hole in the Wall could really work well with Tanzanian kids....if only electricity and network were a sure thing!


The Sole Of A Student

From Plato to Aurobindo, from Vygotsky to Montessori, centuries of educational thinking have vigorously debated a central pedagogical question: How do we spark creativity, curiosity, and wonder in children?  But those who philosophized pre-Google were prevented from wondering just how the Internet might influence the contemporary answer to this age-old question.  Today, we can and must; a generation that has not known a world without vast global and online connectivity demands it of us.

But first, a bit of history: to keep the world's military-industrial machine running at the zenith of the British Empire, Victorians assembled an education system to mass-produce workers with identical skills.  Plucked from the classroom and plugged instantly into the system, citizens were churned through an educational factory engineered for maximum productivity.

Like most things designed by the Victorians, it was a robust system.  It worked.  Schools, in a sense, manufactured generations of workers for an industrial age.

But what got us here, won't get us there.  Schools today are the product of an expired age; standardized curricula, outdated pedagogy, and cookie cutter assessments are relics of an earlier time.  Schools still operate as if all knowledge is contained in books, and as if the salient points in books must be stored in each human brain -- to be used when needed.  The political and financial powers controlling schools decide what these salient points are.  Schools ensure their storage and retrieval.  Students are rewarded for memorization, not imagination or resourcefulness.

Today we're seeing institutions -- banking, the stock exchange, entertainment, newspapers, even health care -- capture and share knowledge through strings of zeros and ones inside the evolving Internet... "the cloud."  While some fields are already far advanced in understanding how the Internet age is transforming their structure and substance, we're just beginning to understand the breadth and depth of its implications on the future of education.

Unlocking the power of new technologies for self-guided education is one of the 21st century superhighways that need to be paved.  Profound changes to how children access vast information is yielding new forms of peer-to-peer and individual-guided learning.  The cloud is already omnipresent and indestructible, democratizing and ever changing; now we need to use it to spark the imaginations and build the mental muscles of children worldwide.

This journey, for me, began back in 1999, when I conducted an experiment called the "hole in the wall."  By installing Internet-equipped computers in poor Indian villages and then watching how children interacted with them, unmediated, I first glimpsed the power of the cloud.  Groups of street children learned to use computers and the Internet by themselves, with little or no knowledge of English and never having seen a computer before.  Then they started instinctually teaching one another.  In the next five years, through many experiments, I learned just how powerful adults can be when they give small groups of children the tools and the agency to guide their own learning and then get out of the way.

It's not just poor kids that can benefit from access to the Internet and the space and time to wonder and wander.  Today, teachers around the world are using what I call "SOLEs," "self organized learning environments," where children group around Internet-equipped computers to discuss big questions.  The teacher merges into the background and observes as learning happens.

I once asked a group of 10-year-olds in the little town of Villa Mercedes in Argentina: Why do we have five fingers and toes on each limb? What's so special about five?  Their answer may surprise you.

The children arrived at their answer by investigating both theology and evolution, discovering the five bones holding the web on the first amphibians' fins, and studying geometry.  Their investigation resulted in this final answer: The strongest web that can be stretched the widest must have five supports.

Today, I launch my SOLE toolkit -- designed to empower teacher and parents to create their own spaces for sparking children's curiosity and agency.  My team and I are excited to see more educators trying this future-oriented pedagogical tool on for size and then sharing their learnings are insights so we can all benefit from the hive mind.

Meanwhile, with my newly bestowed TED Prize, my team and I will build The School in the Cloud, a learning lab in India where children can embark on intellectual adventures by engaging and connecting with information and mentoring online.  Technology, architecture, creative, and educational partners will help us design and build it.  Kids will help us explore a range of cloud-based, scalable approaches to self-directed learning.  A global network of educators and retired teachers will support and engage the children through the web.

We need a curriculum of big questions, examinations where children can talk, share and use the Internet, and new, peer assessment systems.  We need children from a range of economic and geographic backgrounds and an army of visionary educators.  We need a pedagogy free from fear and focused on the magic of children's innate quest for information and understanding.

In the networked age, we need schools, not structured like factories, but like clouds.  Join us up there.


Monday, April 1, 2013

"Infrastructure Yes, but Quality Education Is Vital"

Education continues to be a hot topic in government and the news as the first quarter of 2013 draws to a close.  A recent article in the Tanzania Daily News reports:

"Expansion of education infrastructure to ensure every Tanzanian child gets access to quality education is a commendable stride."

President Kikwete said this when addressing the academic staff of the Muslim University of Morogoro early this week.  According to him, entrance to secondary education from 524,325 seven years ago to 1.79 million in 2011 is an indication.  The number of students accessing university education has also increased from 40,719 in 2005 to 166,484 in 2012.

His statement that the government will continue to invest in expansion of education infrastructure is an indication of a political commitment to improve the quality of education.  We need to take note and give it deserving attention.  It is widely accepted that any serious nation which is concerned with the welfare of its citizens must invest in education on the understanding that it is the lifeline of its future.

Thus, when education standards tumble, it is a matter of serious concern.  We have seen this, that is why everyone is concerned by the massive failures that have been reported recently.  Yes, education in this country is undergoing serious challenges.  The last Form Four national examination results are a case in point.  The results shocked not only students and their parents but all Tanzanians including the Head of State.

For, over 60 percent failure requires heads to roll to find the root cause with lasting solutions.  A lot has been said and more is being said about the status of education of this country.  We are confident that the probe team picked by Premier Mizengo Pinda to investigate the mass failures in our schools will be taken seriously.  Solutions must be found.  Whatever the situation, everyone has a role to play as students, parents/guardians, teachers, and the government.

If we may ask ourselves, how much effort a child or student is willing to put in excelling in school, the results will be shocking.  It seems they have lost interest in school and too much time is spent on things such as sport, television, and social media.  At the same time, we understand that 50 percent of a child's education competence depends on the child him/herself.

How much time do parents have for their children, especially when it comes to school performance and learning?  Parents' involvement accounts for 30 percent while teachers' account for only 20 percent for a child to do well in school.  Hardships in life are consuming much of people's time.  The situation is worse for working parents whose responsibility to care for their children is left to the house-helper.

The situation in public schools' infrastructure is pathetic.  Students walk long distances to and from school sometimes on an empty stomach.  There are not enough text and reference books to cater for the needs of students.  Teachers' houses, salaries, and other remunerations are also wanting - the list is long.  But even with the challenges mentioned, we should not lose hope.  It calls for a collective effort to come together to find a lasting solution to the education problems.