Sunday, June 30, 2013

School Daze

With one week of vacay left to go, I am both savoring my last few days of freedom and gearing up for an exciting return to Msaranga.  This month off from school has not been entirely work-free as you can see from my previous entries; I've had meetings galore and tons of computer work to catch up on.  But I have always enjoyed my grassroots efforts the best, interacting with the kids in the class and the community at large.

So, while ruminating over my time at Msaranga Primary School since starting in February, I've been combing my camera for great photos that I've not yet posted.  Check out a few of the best below.

I know I've remarked on it before but I just can't get enough of  Mama T in all her cloaked glory.

Prosper is only three years old, but he comes to school with Vumi because his family are her next-door neighbors and she watches him during the day when they are working.  I taught Prosper's sister Sia for two years in nursery school (she's now in Standard Four), so Prosper says my name is not "Sarah," but rather "Sia's Teacher."

I'm not sure who this little girl is, but just like me, she "hearts" New York!

This is Mary Stephano.  I was playing around with the special effects on my camera and made the background black-and-white and kept her in color.  Isn't it pretty?

Another special effects pic of the kids praying before eating makande.  In the forefront, really giving the blessing his all, is Ian Brendan.  (With a name like that, you'd think I was working in a school in Northern Ireland or something....)

The duara: schoolyard games played in a circle with songs and dances.

Tanzanians are crazy for soccer.  If you're not a Man U super-fan, then you've got to be all about the Blues or crazy for the Gunners (big "whatever" from this American sports fan; think Yankees baseball or death) and even the kids love it.  Anyhoo, we're thinking both the duara and "football" can be used Toa Nafasi-style to teach kids principles of cooperation and communication, and to get them active and engaged in non-scholastic activities.

Just two kids under a tree....

Just four kids in the bushes....

Mama T has started an after-school tutoring program for the kids in her class who either need extra help or whose parents want them to attend in lieu of hanging around the house the rest of the day.  Predictably, it's a bit chaotic, but it's a step in the right direction.

Just wanted to give you a close-up on part of the frame above.  Notice anything....amiss?  Yes, that would be a homemade mini-machete that one of the kids brought to school and had sheathed in his waistband.  The public school system in the South Bronx ain't got nuthin' on us!!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Teach Your Children Well

Graham Nash had it right when he sang of the ways in which grown people can influence the youth and the effects those stimuli can have, both positive and negative.  It is clearly up to the watu wazima of Tanzania to teach their wadogo well....and Toa Nafasi is here to help.

This week's blog entry is dedicated to Angi whose summer fling in TZ is slowly winding down.  She has about two more weeks in-country and then it's back to Boston with her and I'll remain here for another six weeks, then off to New York for the most dreaded part of running my own show: fundraising.  (My most faithful readers are guaranteed to be on the receiving end of some whinging blog entries during the months of September, October, and November!!)

But though we'll be separated, Angi and I will still be doing the same work: figuring out how to introduce simple yet effective teaching interventions into the Tanzanian public school system so as to support the most vulnerable learners in the classroom.  In this way, they will be able to better grasp the concepts presented in the standard Tanzanian syllabi and sit the same national examinations as their stronger cohorts.  We also hope that for those students who present the most difficulties with academic work, we can find non-scholastic aptitudes within them to nurture and foster.  Even basic life skills and vocational proficiencies have value in this community and showing others that people with disability can pull their own weight and take care of themselves is hugely important.

Similarly to me, Angi has been keeping a blog based on her professional work.  You can find it here:  Though we have different tones and writing styles, I think a lot of the subject matter overlaps and you might find it interesting to compare our two viewpoints of the same event.

In this case, rather than writing my own synopses of the events of the last couple of weeks since we have been on school vacation, I am going to shamelessly bite off Angi's.  Here are her notes on (1) our meetings with Dr. Derrick Matthews, an American pediatrician working at Seliani Hospital in Arusha and Dr. Robin Peterson, a clinical psychologist, also working in Arusha, and (2) our sessions with Vumi where Angi introduced to us some new teaching methodologies we can use with the most troubled students we identified from the assessment; there are just under twenty who we will separate from the rest of the class for an hour or so each day and team-teach in cohorts of three.


(1) "This week we went to several meetings with pediatricians and a clinical psychologist.  One of the interesting things that was discussed at the meetings was the question, "Why do we need to know the cause or severity of the disability?"

In the US, we want to know the cause of the disability and to test using CAT scans and MRIs to look at neurological damage.  I think wanting to know is important in many cultures, but then after we know that a child will have an intellectual disability, what do we gain from it?

Using medical and psychological tests coupled with adaptive behavior scales and ruling out other causes, we can somewhat determine that a child has an intellectual disability.  But then that information is used to label the child and develop the Individualized Education Plan.

In Tanzania, it is expensive and unrealistic to do CAT scans or MRIs, and we have already determined that the children we are talking about are significantly behind their peers in the classroom, and that the educational system they are experiencing is not working for them.  Does knowing or communicating a specific cause and term help these kids?

Knowing doesn’t provide them access to a special classroom when that classroom doesn’t exist in their school.  It doesn’t change their situation.

Instead, it seems that trying to find ways to support them with extra tutoring, giving them books to look at during the lesson, or making sure that they develop their adaptive and vocational skills as well as academic is a better solution."

(2) "This week I have been working with Sarah and Vumi, teaching them more about disability, behavior management, and intervention strategies for teaching children with disabilities in the classroom.

When school starts again in July, Vumi is going to work with various children who we believe need extra help in a resource room model using various techniques and materials/manipulatives we have discussed.

Today, we talked about functional behavior assessment and various intervention techniques such as chaining, task analysis, prompting, use of authentic activities, shaping and using models.  We are focusing on strategies to support reading, writing, and math instruction first.  

We also discussed the importance of adaptive skills and vocational skills, but most of the children we are working with have learning disabilities, so their adaptive skills are good, but they need support with academics.  

After some instruction yesterday, Vumi used a picture book as the basis to create a lesson and I was very impressed.  She did a great job.  We brainstormed some other days to add to her ideas and general concepts for improving the classroom for all children."

And so I'll sing along with CSNY and we'll "feed them on our dreams."  Polepole, The Toa Nafasi Project is getting there....

Monday, June 17, 2013

One Love

We are officially on holiday from school and Angi and I have been biding our time doing computer work at the Moshi version of Starbucks, camping out from morning til night, slurping Americanos like there's no more tomorrow.  Aside from going through the data we collected from assessment and planning our curriculum modifications, I have been busy scouting fundraising possibilities, working on business banking, and getting back into web development - I cannot even BELIEVE the Toa Nafasi site is STILL not up, African time at its worst!!  I hope to rectify that situation tout de suite!!

At any rate, I came across this article from The Gleaner out of Jamaica, West Indies, and being the "Jewmaican" that I am, it caught my eye.  Check out the post below regarding a special education center in St. Andrew's parish, just north of Kingston.


The McCam Child Development Center, which provides for children up to eight years old from gifted to slow learners, is now planning some fund-raising activities to ensure that its doors remain open.  According to a member of the team at the center, Juliene Campbell-Donaldson, the operational cost of the facility has been a burden over the years.

"We have spent countless hours trying to keep afloat," she noted, adding that its partnership with the government and other entities has helped.  Campbell-Donaldson is hoping these partnerships will continue to facilitate the work of the center which has been operating for almost 30 years.

The McCam Child Development Center opened its doors in 1986 in response to the demand for educational programming for children with a range of special needs at the early-childhood level.  The center has as its motto: 'It is no small thing to influence a child so fresh from the hands of God.'

The uniqueness of this institution for children is in the integration of the student population.  Children with special needs work alongside gifted children without special needs.  This allows for the acquisition of skills, as these children work and play together.  Another advantage of this system is the increased awareness and sensitivity it brings to each other, particularly those with disabilities.

The inclusive education program runs from nursery education to a preschool program, which takes care of the requirements of the student population, including those with special needs between the ages of six months and six years.

In September 1987, under the umbrella of the center, a unit for the Total Development of Special Needs Children was established.  It is a not-for-profit organization which focuses attention on those children with special needs in the program.  The unit is governed by a board of directors, and the center works in collaboration with other agencies and government institutions to develop and effectively implement early intervention services, and facilitates the operation of and understanding of the various needs of these children.

Children with disabilities now make up 40 percent of the population of the center's nursery and school program.  Educational and early childhood institutions and medical practitioners refer children to the center for assessment and therapeutic interventions.

The McCam Center serves the entire island, and has established itself as an essential arm for both the disability sector (in special education) and in early childhood education.  Through therapeutic intervention, the children are served by a team consisting of an occupational therapist, a school psychologist, a clinical psychologist, a behavioral specialist, and a special educator.

The center also conducts workshops and seminars for teachers and parents, and provides practical experience for students from various institutions.  It also serves as a resource center for the dissemination of information on children with special needs.

The McCam curriculum was the first published early childhood curriculum in Jamaica and the Caribbean.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

My Favorite Things

Aside from raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, I've discovered a few more of my favorite things as we've wrapped up this assessment phase of The Toa Nafasi Project.  My very favorite thing is just how much we've accomplished in the short time Angi has been in Moshi and a close second is just how much of that has actually been gratifying and enjoyable.

We have examined 152 kids and ascertained that 19 of them need some sort of help outside of simple tuition after school.  The potential problems we're seeing range the gamut from eyesight and hearing issues to turbulent home situations to intellectual impairment.  

In order to confirm our hypotheses about these kids, we have undertaken the process of hojaji, a questionnaire for each of the 19 children we have concerns about, to be filled out by the teachers.  That is now also pretty much doneMama T looooved the whole thing by the way; she was completely in her element, filling the forms out aloud and with authoritative aplomb, licking the tip of her pen and stroking her beard.

Our next step is to interview the parents of these 19 kids with the same hojaji as we gave the teachers so we can compare the answers.  We have basically finished this step as well with just a couple stragglers remaining for both sets of hojaji.

My third favorite thing has been how much we have been able to learn about these children from talking to the parents!  We found that one child has had hearing issues since birth, something we would never have known without talking to her baba.  We discovered that another child had yellow fever as an infant and may have some possible lingering maladies due to it.  And in addition to the wealth of information we've been able to glean about the children's backgrounds is the fact that the parents have been utterly open and honest with us - it's amazing how quickly they responded to our calls to come to school, their willingness to be interviewed about their kids (a pretty personal subject, I should think) and even to have their talks recorded.  Really, really gratifying work.  Supa-fave.

Now, we are on holiday (also a favorite, btw) from school until the second week of July, so Angi and I are taking meetings with possible partners for the next phase: referral.  Last week, it was Ruth Mlay at Comprehensive Community Based Rehabilitation Tanzania (CCBRT) and Sally Mohamedali and the team in the Special Education Needs Unit at The Jaffery Academy in Arusha.  This week, it's Dr. Derrick Matthews, an American pediatrician at Arusha Lutheran Medical Centre (ALMC) and Robin Peterson at Arusha Mental Health Trust.  We are hoping to be able to form some partnerships with other organizations in Kilimanjaro and Arusha in order to gain access to services for those children with medical/psychosocial problems outside of what Toa Nafasi can provide for.

In non-work-related-but-still-my-favorite-things news, we went to the house of my former student, Ema, a couple weeks ago to sit with his bibi and enjoy some of her delicious home cooking.  Ever the gracious host, Ema had prepared the menu a good month and a half in advance based on, what else?  My favorite things!  So, we had rice, beans, avocado, and spinach.  Bibi Ema, his younger sister Jesca (who I also taught), and several other rugrats showed up for the fiesta as well.

And in not-so-favorite-things news, here is one instance of when it is not-so-fun to be a mzungu in Africa as you have no clue as to what's going on, acts of "patriotism" seem mildly sinister, and fire is involved.  The "mwenge torch" came to Msaranga the last week of May and shut down school for the morning as well as casting an uneasy cloud over me and Angi until we figured out WTH was going on.  Apparently, it is an annual ritual that this blaze of fire gets carried around the country as a reminder of the original freedom torch lit up in the early years of Independence, a blaze that would, in Nyerere's words, "shine out beyond our borders, giving hope where there was once despair, love where there was hate, and dignity where, before, there was only humiliation."  Unfortunately, all it really did this year, far as I can tell, is scare the bejeezus out of us two wazungu gals at Msaranga Primary School.

Finally, a small passing interchange that took place at school has stuck with me for the last couple weeks.  It went a little something like this:

Sarah (somewhat pitiably): Everyone brings something to the table except me.  Angi is the special education and early childhood development expert.  Vumi is Tanzanian, a native Swahili speaker, and a teacher by profession.  I can only do a little of both.

Angi (picking up the pieces): But without you, neither of us would be here doing this work.

Mama T (oblivious but spirited): IT IS REAL!  GOD IS GOOD!!