Tuesday, December 30, 2014

'Tis the Season

Season's greetings, dear readers!!  I hope everyone has been having a wonderful winter thus far.  I am still in New York, delayed slightly by some admin tasks that require my attention before I can return to Moshi.  The weather has finally turned and it is fuh-reezing here!!  I cannot wait to get back to Kilimanjaro and feel some of that equatorial heat.  'Course once I've been there a couple weeks, I'll be lamenting frizzy curls and sweaty backs of legs, but the grass is always greener, si ndiyo??

Anyhoo, I've been busy with preparations for my return, which include everything from running around picking up school items from Vumi's wishlist to shutting down the NYC apartment and making sure the Moshi house will be in working order for my arrival to stuffing a suitcase full of skincare products, turkey jerky, and Luna bars to take with me.  It's always a big job making sure I have everything before I go since I won't be back until the Fall.  This year, however, I have a little extra assistance because my Momager (recently retired mother) is coming to TZ for a whole month to stay with me and help out with the Project!

It's all very exciting (not just because of all the extra swag I can stow in her travel bags) but because if this little experiment works out, it could be the first of many years to come that she joins me in Moshi with Toa Nafasi.  She has already been invaluable here in NYC and DC, planning the events, weighing in on decisions regarding the website and marketing materials, and using her big Momager mouth to publicize the Project to anyone who will listen.  Yeah, it's a little embarrassing at times but her enthusiasm keeps my energy up, and her incessant blabbing has produced some real results -- Ambassador Mulamula at the TZ Embassy, anyone....?!  It's good to have Carla on my side.

In addition to my mom coming, a good friend of the family and newly minted Toa Nafasi board member will also be spending some time nyumbani kwangu.  Barbara Finkelstein, who hosted the "friend-raiser" in Washington this year, is joining us for ten days to see the Project and a bit of the country.  Barbara is one of my mother's best friends and former colleague at the University of Maryland.  So it will be great to have two enthusiastic educators on-hand to see the Project, provide advice, and give support.  The Vuminator will be thrilled.

So, the three of us are gearing up to kick off what I hope will be a great 2015.  Last year was good, but hard, and I am hoping that this year will be slightly less stressful.  I just check the Toa Nafasi post office box this morning and found the booty pictured below inside, so I'm hoping all those envelopes are gonna help alleviate that anxiety!!

Thank you donors, thank you friends, best wishes for the new year, and love to all.

Fa la la la la, la la la la!!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

"Getting Through" vs Breaking Through

In December 2012, I posted a blog entry titled "Black Friday" about the shooting spree at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut by an emotionally troubled and intellectually impaired teenager.

Two years later, the debate about Adam Lanza's care and treatment vis a vis his Asperger syndrome and various other psychological disorders continues to rage on.

National Public Radio's All Things Considered aired a segment on the December 14th anniversary of the tragedy and then published portions of the transcript on their website, which I have reprinted below.  

The piece centers largely on the fact that had Lanza's family, in conjunction with school officials, paid equal attention to his emotional and behavioral issues as they did his academic ones, whatever prompted him to commit his crimes might have been recognized earlier and therefore prevented.

The idea that children with special needs require special education plans is not a new one, but perhaps widening the lens to incorporate other intellectual disturbances - social, emotional - would be a more holistic way to address mental health in children and young adults.  That this aspect of a child's development plan is not an "educational priority" is clearly ignoring a key piece of the puzzle.


It's been two years since a gunman killed his mother at home and then opened fire at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, killing 20 first-graders, six educators and himself.  People in Connecticut are still hashing out just how parents and educators should handle children like Adam Lanza.

A team of doctors, lawyers, educators, and social workers from Connecticut's Office of the Child Advocate issued a report a few weeks ago, and while it says that Lanza is the only one responsible for what he did when he was 20 years old, it also says that there were warning signs and missed opportunities throughout his life.

One big concern was a lack of training, knowledge, and expertise. Take Nancy Lanza -- Adam Lanza's mother.

"Her instinctive course that she set was to get through the day," says Sarah Eagan, the state's child advocate and one of the report's authors.  "And you get through the day by managing the day."

"And, in some ways, that's a natural instinct," Eagan adds.  "She's the mother of a son who struggles to get through the day, who's afraid of everything, who doesn't want to leave the house....  And her default coping strategy became, 'I just have to get us through.'  And.... that kind of infused a lot of the choices that they made."

The report says that, when dealing with school administrators, Nancy Lanza was able to persuade them to "accommodate and appease" her son by avoiding things that made him feel uncomfortable.  By the time Lanza got to high school, whether he was learning in school or at home in isolation, administrators had one narrow academic goal: keep moving forward.

"I think the school had a goal of helping him graduate and get to college," Eagan says. "That was their goal.  It was a good goal."

But Eagan says it shouldn't have been the only goal.  While the district was satisfied as long as Lanza kept earning credits, it virtually ignored his social and emotional development.  In fact, the report says the district mislabeled Lanza in his crucial high school special education plan -- entirely ignoring the more apt eligibility categories of autism and emotional disturbance.  The district declined an interview.

Andrea Spencer, dean of the School of Education at Pace University and one of the co-authors of the child advocate's report, says the schools focused only on his academics and not on the depth of his disabilities.

"It appears to me from what we know that Adam was one of those students who slid beneath the radar in terms of his very serious social, emotional needs," she says.

That slide should be a real concern for anyone who deals with children, Spencer says.

"I guess the lesson that occurs to me is that we have to get and support a broader perspective on children's needs as part of schools, classrooms, teachers, administrators," she says. "Everyone needs to be more cognizant of the social/emotional aspects of children's development."

Jennifer Laviano, a Connecticut attorney who represents children with special education needs, says school districts often don't follow special education law intentionally.

"I have several clients with not terribly dissimilar profiles to Adam Lanza about whom not only am I worried, their parents are worried, their psychiatrists are worried, and I have gone to PPTs (Planning and Placement Teams) with school districts and said, 'This kid is another Newtown waiting to happen,' and they are telling me, 'No,' when I asked for an out-of-district placement for this child, which is recommended by the psychiatrist," she says.  "They're saying, 'No.'  And why?  Because it's expensive."

Spencer says money is a part of it but so are educational priorities.

"The degree of emphasis on test scores has the danger of preventing teachers from really looking closely at the breadth of a child's developmental status," Spencer says.  "For example, social and emotional skills.  And, in this case, it was clear that the focus was really on his academics, and despite the fact that it was very obvious - and people saw - that he was in emotional distress."

But what is obvious for Spencer may not have been obvious to everyone.  So she says another lesson is this: train educators at all levels to be able to recognize and report a mental health issue when they see one.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Go, Ghana, Go

I stumbled upon this recent article from SpyGhana.com, Ghana's leading general news and information destination online.  It describes that nation's impending inclusive education policy, planned for rollout in 2015.

Tanzania had one such similar national strategy first conceived in 2008 or so, but alas, it was more lip-service than put-in-practice.  Unfortunately, I have an uneasy feeling that the Ghanaian model will face a similar fate.

But, here's hoping....  And, who knows, if the Ghanaians are actually successful and establish that all-important PROOF OF CONCEPT, perhaps the Tanzanians will take note....?

Ghana will implement a new policy next year that offers clear-cut, comprehensive guidance to inclusive education implementation.

Under it, community sensitization programs to educate parents to bring out their children for enrollment, and the right to pick the choice of schools for their children are guaranteed.

Mr. Thomas Patrick Otaah, from the Special Education Division of the Ghana Education Service in Accra, said at a day's forum in Wa that every year children would be screened and all those found to have less disability challenges would be integrated into normal schools.

In addition, he said that special needs schools would change a bit, as children in those schools would be screened, assessed, and re-categorized, and those who could cope, would also be mainstreamed.

"With the implementation of the policy in 2015, no headmaster or teacher can turn away a child from his or her school because of disability."

"Head teachers will have to accept, admit, and welcome the children to school.  Every child has a right to education irrespective of individual physical, emotional, and intellectual difficulties or characteristics."

The policy also allows for pre-service and in-service training for teachers to manage children with special educational needs, and the University of Education, Winneba, will increase intake and provide this specialized training.

Mr. Otaah urged stakeholders, including community leaders, school authorities, parents and guardians, as well as district assemblies and educational authorities, to play their roles appropriately to ensure that the country adheres to this inclusive education policy.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

NYC to DC to GE

Hi everybody, hope all is well.  New York is aflurry (is that a word?!) with the first snowfall of the season and, as I prep to head back to the Muthaland in just a few short weeks, I am enjoying the dark, coziness of December on the East Coast.  Moshi is gonna be the exact opposite - hot, hot, HOT!

At any rate, I write to you the day after my third and final fundraising event of 2014.  The first two were replications of last year's "friend-raiser," held at the home of one of my new board members, Romana Li, an old family friend and a business-savvy, fundraising maven (see "Event-fully Yours" and "Event-fully Yours Redux" in the November and December 2013 blog archives respectively).

This year, we started the "friend-raising" season with an event in New York held in the community room of my parents' Upper West Side apartment building.  (I believe I mentioned that with my mother's recent retirement, I have a new Momager slash publicist slash social secretary slash travel agent??  Well, add "hostess with the mostest" to that list since she threw herself headfirst into the planning of this event with a fervor I've not seen since my Bat Mitzvah in 1989.)  Angi joined me in presenting the Project to the various attendees (former publishing colleagues of mine, NYU Law School and private practice tax peeps of my Dad's, NYPL and Schomburg literary types from my Mom's work, my sister's boyfriend, etc - a motley crew to be sure) as did "Big Mike," my fond moniker for Mr. Cartusciello who visited us in Tanzania with his family this past July (see "Kicking and Screaming" and "Jenga" in the August 2014 archives).

It was a great success from both the point of explaining the Project as well as raising a few shillings, and since me and Big Mike are Yankees' fans, I've taken to using baseball metaphors when describing our experience: a couple base hits for me and Angi, knocked in by Big Mike for a three-run homer!  Speaking of baseball - and knowing of a certain torch I carry - Big Mike also says that he has been trying to get in touch with the Turn2 Foundation, Derek Jeter's charitable organization, on Toa Nafasi's behalf, so we'll see if a (love) connection can be made!!  Meantime, check out the quite horrible photos taken by my Dad below; brilliant legal mind he may possess, artful eye, not so much....

The second event of the year was hosted by another new board member, Barbara Finkelstein, a former colleague of my Mom's at the University of Maryland and an expert educator.  It was largely the same, or a similar crowd, as last year, of family, friends, and family friends, but wonderful nonetheless, and a perfect coda to the "friend-raiser" events.

Angi came down from Boston again and gave her spiel after I did my thang, but Big Mike couldn't make it as he and Mrs. Cartusciello were celebrating their anniversary.  Still, we managed without him, and it was fun having Angi at the old Rosenbloom homestead for a night.  This time, the only photo taken was by my friend Anna Greenstone with whom I worked briefly at the School of St. Jude in Arusha (I was there only three months before rejoining Visions in Action in early 2009) and you can see me looking quite tall in my monster wedge shoes next to Anna's friend, Khadija, an mzanzibari who was a fun guest at the event - and certainly could vouch for the poor conditions in public primary schools in TZ and the need for programs like Toa Nafasi.

Last but certainly not least, yesterday, sans Big Mike AND Angi, I presented at a daytime event for the tax team at General Electric Capital.  The connection obviously came through my lawyer Pops, but even he knew very few of the people present.  So, it was a bit nerve-wracking to say the least!!  However, I was put at ease by the fact that I showed the Project as part of a "good deeds day" in which one of the GE head honchos had partnered with a local NGO supporting at-risk kids in the Stamford, CT area.

The whole thing took place in a cute little diner where the GE staff had taken over as servers and all funds raised went to Domus, this American NGO.  I was therefore able to latch on to that idea and raise a little bit of money for Toa Nafasi and some of the Domus youth even came and asked questions about what it's like to live in Kilimanjaro and how they could help their African counterparts (though Domus kids are considerably older than my primary school rugrats).

Anyway, even though I had to carry the presentation on my own, I can pretty confidently say I nailed it (!!), and the laid-back setting and jovial, familiar nature of the tax lawyers actually set me very much at ease - who woulda thunk it??  I've got no images of this event at all, which basically just means I should add another title to my Momager's extensive duty list: paparazzo.

Anyway, that's pretty much what I've been up to the past couple of weeks.  Going forward, I am getting ready for my repatriation into Tanzania, both excitedly anticipating the sun on my face and little grubby hands at my sides as well as steeling myself for the hard work, new case studies, and various frustrations that I will inevitably encounter....

But, whatever will be will be, it's all Tanzania to me!

Friday, December 5, 2014

Project Darasani

Part of my work with The Toa Nafasi Project is to be aware of other NGOs involved with the education sector in Tanzania.  I have Google alerts set, my internal radar up, and my "Momager" (recently retired mother who has developed a strong interest in helping with (read: running) the Project) on the scent.  I found the following radio interview between Atlanta high school student Saloni Sharma and the local National Public Radio affiliate there online.  It describes Project Darasani, an initiative to send school supplies and books to Tanzania.


Saloni talks about Tanzanian primary education being free but "not really" once you factor in the cost of uniforms, books, lunch, and other materials.  She discusses how Project Darasani, which she founded herself, gathers up supplies for donation and distributes them in TZ every year.  The "kids helping kids" program has put 16 Tanzanian children through school and collected more than 15,000 supplies of various sorts.
Kinda cool, right?  Makes me think a.) how I can perhaps have a similar branch of Toa Nafasi in which American kids provide much-needed school supplies to their Tanzanian counterparts and thereby feel a sense of camaraderie with the kids they are helping, and b.) when am I going to get an NPR segment??  Better ask my Momager....!!

Monday, December 1, 2014

Give a Little Bit

Pole sana, dear readers, for my prolonged silence.  The first Toa Nafasi "friend-raiser" of 2014 (and the first ever in New York City) followed by a working weekend in Philadelphia devoted to organizational development and then the Thanksgiving holiday made for a snowball effect the last two weeks.

After all the hullabaloo, I had to take a couple days to rest since later this week, we will host the second of this year's events, this time in Washington, D.C.  And, in just four weeks' time, I will be on my way back to beautiful Kilimanjaro to start Year Three of the Project and, hopefully, expand into the two neighboring primary schools of Kiboriloni and Msandaka.

At any rate, there is much to report but I must catch up on some correspondence and get to some financial matters kwanza, so this week's post will be a nod to #GivingTuesday, a "holiday" which was inaugurated in 2012 and which follows Black Friday (the busiest shopping day of the year) and Cyber Monday (ditto for online shopping).

Rather than focusing on the consumerism of the holiday season - and getting the best deal - #GivingTuesday is a day dedicated to giving back.  All around the world, charities, families, businesses, community centers, and students come together for one common purpose: to celebrate generosity and to give.

This year, #GivingTuesday will be tomorrow, December 2nd.

In the spirit of the day, I encourage all my readers to make a contribution to the charity of their choice.

The size of the gift does not matter, but the act of giving does.

Should you decide to donate to The Toa Nafasi Project, you can do so online at www.toanafasi.org or by mail at P.O. Box 20086, New York, NY 10014.

I leave you know with the immortal words and twelve strings of Supertramp.  Happy #GivingTuesday, everyone.

Give a little bit,
Give a little bit of your love to me.
Give a little bit,
I'll give a little bit of my love to you

Going home,
Don't you need to feel at home?
Oh yeah, we gotta sing....

Friday, November 14, 2014

Not That There's Anything Wrong with That!

This past week, comedian Jerry Seinfeld created waves when he told NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams that he thought he figured somewhere on the autism spectrum.  (Check out some of the conversation reprinted in the New York Daily News below.)

Predictably, all hell broke loose afterward with autism awareness groups crying foul, parents of autistic children going on Twitter rage spirals, accusations of "glamorizing" autism - seriously?? - and tomfoolery of various other natures (an article titled "Jerry Seinfeld Drops a Junior Mint into Autism Community" was posted to the Age of Autism website).  

From my POV, whether Seinfeld is actually autistic or not -- and let's be clear, this is not an easy illness to diagnose -- doesn't really matter.  He admitted on national television to feeling different, other than, awkward, and occasionally embarrassed or out-of-the-loop.  Why on earth then, should the public vilify him for coming out with feelings similar to what an autistic child might feel or be treated as having?? 

And why then is his ailment marked as "celebrity autism" to be rejected by the "bona fide" autism communities?  Is Michael J. Fox's Parkinson's "celebrity Parkinson's"?  Is Magic Johnson's AIDS "celebrity AIDS"?  Is Catherine Zeta-Jones's bipolar depression "celebrity bipolar depression"?

I feel like even if Seinfeld isn't *clinically autistic*, his bringing to light of his own accord and as a media persona the social struggles and fears that he has experienced is worthwhile.  And that rather than jump all over him for being a celebrity who comes out as such, we should applaud him for being honest about his difficulties, regardless of whether he is a card-carrying member of the autism club.  He is not denying that there are many others suffering on the lower-functioning end of the spectrum.  

But, what do I know....?  It just seems, these days, haterz gonna hate and we canNOT all be friends....

Jerry Seinfeld believes he's on the autism spectrum -- and it's no laughing matter.

The 60-year-old comic legend made the surprising admission in an interview with NBC's Brian Williams.

"On a very drawn-out scale, I think I'm on the spectrum," Seinfeld said in an interview that aired Thursday night.

Williams then asked what led Seinfeld to conclude he suffers from the widespread developmental disorder that impedes social interaction.

"You know, never paying attention to the right things," the Manhattan-based funnyman said.

"Basic social engagement is really a struggle."

Seinfeld, known for his "have-you-ever-noticed" brand of observational humor, is considered one of the top comics of his generation.

On stage, he kills.  But he revealed to Williams that he often finds himself floundering during casual conservations.

"I'm very literal," Seinfeld said.

"When people talk to me and they use expressions, sometimes I don't know what they're saying."

That description fits the symptoms of the disorder, which include an impaired ability to communicate with others and repetitive behaviors or interests.

"I don't see it as dysfunctional," he added.  "I just think of it as an alternate mind-set."

Seinfeld's candid admission was cheered by many on social media, but some autism advocates said they were concerned by Seinfeld's suggestion that what he suffers from is not an actual disorder.

"What frightens me with these kinds of statements and stories is that I don't want people to think that autism isn't a serious diagnosis, or that it's not a struggle for individuals and their families," said Wendy Fournier, president of the National Autism Association.

"What many people don't understand is that on that lower-functioning end of the spectrum, we have individuals who are suffering and whose lives are at risk."

"Autism is not a designer diagnosis," Fournier added.

Dr. Michael Rosenthal, a clinical neuropsychologist at the Child Mind Institute in Midtown, said he's not convinced Seinfeld is in fact on the autism spectrum.

The symptoms the comic cited, Rosenthal said, "are things that exist in a lot of people who don't necessarily have an autism spectrum disorder."

"They are certainly characteristics in people with autism, but the general population can have challenges in these areas as well," Rosenthal said.

"Autism is a spectrum," Rosenthal added, "and human behavior is a spectrum as well."

Monday, November 10, 2014

Class Inaction

Here's a story that caught my eye in a rather unpleasant way this past week.  According to NBC.com, a class action lawsuit has been filed against the city alleging that the Department of Education "fails special needs students."  Sadly, it's just another example in which first-world education standards fall far short of expectations.

In fact, in my opinion, the Tanzanians have this one all wrapped up; vocational training is HUGE in the Tee-Zed, whether due to many students' inability or ineligibility to pursue higher education, the strong demand from the agriculture and other informal sectors, or the high rate of unemployment which makes skills acquisition essential.

Moreover, I would venture to say that Toa Nafasi sort of sets kids with learning difficulties and special needs on the course to finding their niche to pursue a vocational skill since, for the most part, academics will never be their strong suit.  I'd like to think that we are providing that catchment to which Mr. Khattab refers in his last sentence: to give kids "a future, to be independent, to be self-sufficient, to help [themselves]."

Read on....


A class action lawsuit claims the city's education department systemically failed to comply with state and federal laws requiring transitional services for special education students.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York Wednesday.  One of the plaintiffs, 16-year-old Mohand Khattab, attends New Utrecht High school in Brooklyn.  The special needs student, according to his parents, was never given a vocational assessment or subsequent training to help him transition into life after high school.


The school system never even disclosed something like that to us -- to let us know that he is entitled to vocational assessment or vocational training," said his father, Hossam Khattab.  "We don't know anything about that."

Khattab sought legal help once he obtained his son's individualized education plan and realized there were no plans to assist him with life after graduation.

"We have to make vocational assessments for him to know his ability exactly or what his vocational interests are," said Hossam Khattab said.

According to the New York City Department of Education's website, the District 75 Office of Transition Services "is committed to insuring that every student receives the services needed to achieve his or her desired post-secondary outcomes to become productive members of the community."

This includes working to make sure skills are developed and supports are provided so that every individual can become as independent as possible.

Attorney Gary Mayerson, who filed the class action lawsuit, claims the DOE has violated state and federal law by not providing this assessment and training to potentially tens of thousands of students.

"Parents are not informed by the city about what transition is," Mayerson said.  "In fact, most parents walk out of the IEP meeting not knowing anything about transition."

The DOE said it's working with the school and Khattab's family to ensure the boy gets the help he needs.

"The DOE is committed to providing the services our students need to thrive in and out of the classroom, and we are working with this school and the student's family to ensure that we provide the student with appropriate services," the agency said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Khattab's father hopes it's not too late.

"I don't want him to continue to fall through the cracks anymore," said Hossam Khattab.  "We are trying to give him a future, to be independent, to be self-sufficient, to help himself."

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Year of Living Dangerously

Hello, hello, hello, and many salaams to all!  It is now November and I am more than halfway through my annual stateside sojourn during which I have been addressing administrative and fundraising concerns.  This Fall has been fruitful - if a little rushed - and I am looking forward to a productive 2015 when I go back to Moshi at the end of December.

Since I've been in New York, the Project has been in Vumi's capable hands as she supervises the two other teachers.  In addition to managing the current program, Vooms has begun investigating possibilities for expansion into the two neighboring schools of Msandaka and Kiboriloni.

As for the students, you already know that the 2013 group has, for the most part, been released back into the mainstream pool of pupils full-time, but with some follow-up where needed.  The second group from 2014 is around the halfway mark through their tuition/curriculum modification program, and Vumi emails me weekly that they are all making great strides.  Three children from 2013 whom we determined would be better off in a self-contained classroom are now at the Gabriella Children’s Rehabilitation Centre where they are being provided special education and boarding.  So far, just one child from 2014 is at Gabriella but I am expecting to register at least one other little girl when I get back. 

Please find below a bar graph created by Angi Stone-MacDonald depicting the progress of the 2013 students for the whole year of their intervention (the first six months results are posted alone in the entry titled "Angi of the Morning" from September).  You can clearly see the huge difference between the initial assessment (green) and the midway assessment (red).  The one-year mark (blue) shows a bit of slowing down for some of the kids but that is not unusual.  As we have always stated, Toa Nafasi is about getting slow learners up-to-speed so that they can succeed within their communities.  No one is trying to generate little Einsteins here; we just want all the kids to have a good chance of getting through the Tanzanian school system with the skills to make good lives for themselves.  Of course, should we happen to stumble upon a tiny genius or two along the way, well, that would just be icing on the cake!!

In other news, we are preparing to hold the annual Toa Nafasi "friend-raiser" in the United States, once again in Washington DC (I was born and raised there) but also in New York (my college and post-college stomping grounds).  It's been a busy few weeks plotting the invitations and guest lists, venues and catering, my speech, and most importantly, my outfit (!!), but I think we will be good to go once they roll around in a month (DC) and two weeks (NYC) respectively.  Please contact me if you plan to be in either either location in mid-November and early December and would like an invitation!!

And, as I am keenly aware of the need to diversify our sources of funding in order to make The Toa Nafasi Project a public charity rather than a private foundation, I have turned my attention (polepole) to continuing the good work of Lizzy Conley, our short-term, part-time administrative assistant from the summer, and started working towards the procurement of a foundation grant.  We have a few possibilities but it's tough-going and a lot of work, so if any readers out there know how to research opportunities and write proposals, give me a shout-out; you may have a job with The Toa Nafasi Project!!

That, my friends, is the haps for now.  Back at you at the end of the week!!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Answer Sheet

I am starting to really get down with The Washington Post's blog, Answer Sheet, by education writer Valerie Strauss.  I've re-posted a couple of her entries on my blog before to bring attention to the unfortunate - and, unexpected - similarities between the two seemingly disparate education systems in the western world and those of developing countries like Tanzania.  

We all know that teaching is one of the great noble yet highly under-appreciated professions, but what is it like to be a student in this day and age?  In this particular piece, a teacher in the United States finds herself on the giving end of the apple and gains a greater perspective on how kids are faring in the classroom these days.  A lot of Ms. Wiggins' "takeaways" may seem commonsensical, but I think with the amount of stress and strain that teachers face (with little pecuniary or tangible end results), it's a good article to read and revivify the m├ętier.  We need to remind our educators in the U.S. (and those abroad as well - I think I may translate parts of this into Swahili for Vumi and the Toa Nafasi team) that just as tough as it is to be at the head of the class, it's also pretty hard out there in the back....And we all need to work together to come together in the middle!

BTW, this latest post was brought to my attention by my good friend and national political reportrix extraordinaire, Nia-Malika Henderson, and if you all haven't heard of her, well, check my girl out here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/people/nia-malika-henderson


Teacher Spends Two Days as a Student and Is Shocked at What She Learns 

By Alexis Wiggins 

I have made a terrible mistake.

I waited 14 years to do something that I should have done my first year of teaching: shadow a student for a day.  It was so eye-opening that I wish I could go back to every class of students I ever had right now and change a minimum of ten things - the layout, the lesson plan, the checks for understanding.  Most of it!

This is the first year I am working in a school but not teaching my own classes; I am the High School Learning Coach, a new position for the school this year.  My job is to work with teachers and administrators to improve student learning outcomes.

As part of getting my feet wet, my principal suggested I "be" a student for two days: I was to shadow and complete all the work of a 10th grade student on one day and to do the same for a 12th grade student on another day.  My task was to do everything the student was supposed to do: if there was a lecture or notes on the board, I copied them as fast I could into my notebook.  If there was a Chemistry lab, I did it with my host student.  If there was a test, I took it (I passed the Spanish one, but I am certain I failed the business one). 

My class schedules for the day
(Note: we have a block schedule; not all classes meet each day):

The schedule that day for the 10th grade student:
7:45 - 9:15: Geometry
9:30 - 10:55: Spanish II
10:55 - 11:40: Lunch
11:45 - 1:10: World History
1:25 - 2:45: Integrated Science

The schedule that day for the 12th grade student:
7:45 - 9:15: Math
9:30 - 10:55: Chemistry
10:55 - 11:40: Lunch
11:45 - 1:10: English
1:25 - 2:45: Business

Key Takeaway #1: Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting. 

I could not believe how tired I was after the first day.  I literally sat down the entire day, except for walking to and from classes.  We forget as teachers, because we are on our feet a lot - in front of the board, pacing as we speak, circling around the room to check on student work, sitting, standing, kneeling down to chat with a student as she works through a difficult problem....we move a lot.

But students move almost never.  And never is exhausting.  In every class for four long blocks, the expectation was for us to come in, take our seats, and sit down for the duration of the time.  By the end of the day, I could not stop yawning and I was desperate to move or stretch.  I couldn't believe how alert my host student was, because it took a lot of conscious effort for me not to get up and start doing jumping jacks in the middle of Science just to keep my mind and body from slipping into oblivion after so many hours of sitting passively.

I was drained, and not in a good, long, productive-day kind of way.  No, it was that icky, lethargic tired feeling.  I had planned to go back to my office and jot down some initial notes on the day, but I was so drained I couldn't do anything that involved mental effort (so instead I watched TV) and I was in bed by 8:30.

If I could go back and change my classes now, I would immediately change the following three things: 

*Add a mandatory stretch halfway through the class.

*Put a mini basketball hoop on the back of my door and encourage kids to play in the first and final minutes of class.

*Build in a hands-on, move-around activity into every single class day.  Yes, we would sacrifice some content to do this - that's fine.  I was so tired by the end of the day, I wasn't absorbing most of the content, so I am not sure my previous method of making kids sit through hour-long, sit-down discussions of the texts was all that effective.

Key Takeaway #2: High school students are sitting passively and listening during approximately 90 percent of their classes. 

Obviously I was only shadowing for two days, but in follow-up interviews with both of my host students, they assured me that the classes I experienced were fairly typical.

In eight periods of high school classes, my host students rarely spoke.  Sometimes it was because the teacher was lecturing; sometimes it was because another student was presenting; sometimes it was because another student was called to the board to solve a difficult equation; and sometimes it was because the period was spent taking a test.  So, I don't mean to imply critically that only the teachers droned on while students just sat and took notes.  But still, hand-in-hand with Takeaway #1 is this idea that most of the students' day was spent passively absorbing information.

It was not just the sitting that was draining but that so much of the day was spent absorbing information but not often grappling with it.

I asked my 10th grade host, Cindy, if she felt like she made important contributions to class or if, when she was absent, the class missed out on the benefit of her knowledge or contributions, and she laughed and said no.

I was struck by this takeaway in particular because it made me realize how little autonomy students have, how little of their learning they are directing or choosing.  I felt especially bad about opportunities I had missed in the past in this regard.

If I could go back and change my classes now, I would immediately: 

*Offer brief, blitzkrieg-like mini-lessons with engaging, assessment-for-learning-type activities following directly on their heels (e.g. a 10-minute lecture on Whitman's life and poetry, followed by small-group work in which teams scour new poems of his for the very themes and notions expressed in the lecture, and then share out or perform some of them to the whole group while everyone takes notes on the findings.)

*Set an egg timer every time I get up to talk and all eyes are on me.  When the timer goes off, I am done.  End of story.  I can go on and on.  I love to hear myself talk.  I often cannot shut up.  This is not really conducive to my students' learning, however much I might enjoy it.

*Ask every class to start with students' "essential questions" or just general questions born of confusion from the previous night's reading or the previous class's discussion.  I would ask them to come in to class and write them all on the board, and then, as a group, ask them to choose which one we start with and which ones need to be addressed.  This is my biggest regret right now - not starting every class this way.  I am imagining all the misunderstandings, the engagement, the enthusiasm, the collaborative skills, and the autonomy we missed out on because I didn’t begin every class with fifteen or twenty minutes of this.

Key Takeaway #3: You feel a little bit like a nuisance all day long. 

I lost count of how many times we were told be quiet and pay attention.  It's normal to do so - teachers have a set amount of time and we need to use it wisely.  But in shadowing, throughout the day, you start to feel sorry for the students who are told over and over again to pay attention because you understand part of what they are reacting to is sitting and listening all day.  It's really hard to do, and not something we ask adults to do day in and out.  Think back to a multi-day conference or long PD day you had and remember that feeling by the end of the day - that need to just disconnect, break free, go for a run, chat with a friend, or surf the web and catch up on emails.  That is how students often feel in our classes, not because we are boring per se but because they have been sitting and listening most of the day already.  They have had enough.

In addition, there was a good deal of sarcasm and snark directed at students and I recognized, uncomfortably, how much I myself have engaged in this kind of communication.  I would become near apoplectic last year whenever a very challenging class of mine would take a test, and without fail, several students in a row would ask the same question about the test.  Each time I would stop the class and address it so everyone could hear it.  Nevertheless, a few minutes later a student who had clearly been working his way through the test and not attentive to my announcement would ask the same question again.  A few students would laugh along as I made a big show of rolling my eyes and drily stating, "OK, once again, let me explain...."

Of course it feels ridiculous to have to explain the same thing five times, but suddenly, when I was the one taking the tests, I was stressed.  I was anxious.  I had questions.  And if the person teaching answered those questions by rolling their eyes at me, I would never want to ask another question again.  I feel a great deal more empathy for students after shadowing, and I realize that sarcasm, impatience, and annoyance are a way of creating a barrier between me and them.  They do not help learning.

If I could go back and change my classes now, I would immediately: 

*Dig deep into my personal experience as a parent where I found wells of patience and love I never knew I have, and call upon them more often when dealing with students who have questions.  Questions are an invitation to know a student better and create a bond with that student.  We can open the door wider or shut if forever, and we may not even realize we have shut it.

*I would make my personal goal of "no sarcasm" public and ask the students to hold me accountable for it.  I could drop money into a jar for each slip and use it to treat the kids to pizza at the end of the year.  In this way, I have both helped create a closer bond with them and shared a very real and personal example of goal-setting for them to use a model in their own thinking about goals.

*I would structure every test or formal activity like the IB exams do - a five-minute reading period in which students can ask all their questions but no one can write until the reading period is finished.  This is a simple solution I probably should have tried years ago that would head off a lot (thought, admittedly, not all) of the frustration I felt with constant, repetitive questions.

I have a lot more respect and empathy for students after just one day of being one again.  Teachers work hard, but I now think that conscientious students work harder.  I worry about the messages we send them as they go to our classes and home to do our assigned work, and my hope is that more teachers who are able will try this shadowing and share their findings with each other and their administrations.  This could lead to better "backwards design" from the student experience so that we have more engaged, alert, and balanced students sitting (or standing) in our classes.

Thursday, October 16, 2014


At a time when there's lots of icky, hot-button acronyms being bandied about in the news and media (ISIS, ISIL, NIH, CDC, FOMO, STBY, DILLIGAS, the list goes on - or, TLGO), I thought it would be a good time to post a quick shout-out to the IASE or International Association of Special Education, four little letters that rep The Toa Nafasi Project in a super-good way.

I first hooked up with the IASE back in 2009 when I sought out the advice of Mary Gale Budzisz, past president of the organization.  I had just started thinking about the Project and MG (another great two letters!!) was more than happy to pass along her words of wisdom.  Since then, we've kept in touch and visited each other often (see my blog post, "Southern Comfort," from November 2012), most recently this past July in Moshi when MG and current IASE president, Iris Drower, visited The Toa Nafasi Project at Msaranga Primary School.  Traveling with them was educational and behavioral consultant, Meghan Gallagher, who had first visited Tanzania a few years back.  She volunteer-taught, coincidentally, at the Irente Rainbow School in Lushoto, the old stomping grounds and dissertation research site of our very own Angi Stone-MacDonald!  IASWAA!!

IASE's vision statement is "to improve the quality of life and service delivery for all individuals with special needs."  Additionally, they have established a Volunteer Service Committee "to facilitate the identification of special educational needs in nations with developing economies, and to connect a volunteer resource person who is an IASE member."  You can find out more about IASE on their website, http://www.iase.org/, and if you look under Volunteer Service Projects in Tanzania, you'll see Toa Nafasi listed as a service site!

Finally, the 14th Biennial IASE Conference will be held in Wroclaw, Poland in June 2015 and, while I'm not sure whether I'll be able to attend, I am fairly certain Angi has submitted a proposal on behalf of the Project.  More on this to come....

Also, I can't remember whether I announced this on the blog previously or not, but NHD (no harm done) in doing it again:

I am very pleased to announce that The Toa Nafasi Project consultant Angi Stone-Macdonald will be repping the program this Spring at the annual convention and expo for the Council for Exceptional Children with a presentation titled "Assessment and Curriculum Supports for 1st Grade Students With Mild Disabilities in Tanzania."  Hongera sana, Angi!! 

TTYL, everybody!!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014


Okay, I'm gonna be predictable and jump on this bandwagon, but it is a worthy bandwagon and one that speaks to some of the core values of The Toa Nafasi Project.

There was a lot of reportage on Malala Yousafzai this past week, but I am choosing to reprint John D. Sutter's CNN Opinion piece because rather than lionizing this young heroine, I feel it "every-girls" her and gives a sense that we can all be a lil' Malala if we choose to be.

You have to love Malala.

The 17-year-old Pakistani advocate for girls' education who, on Friday, became the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize told "The Daily Show's" Jon Stewart last year what she would do if she were confronted again by a member of the Taliban.

"I'll tell him how important education is and that I even want education for your children as well," she said. "I'll tell him, 'That's what I want to tell you; now do what you want.' "

This from a girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban.

For exercising her right to go to school.

Malala Yousafzai was only 14 years old at the time -- and just 11 when she started blogging anonymously for the BBC about the struggles of life in Pakistan's Swat Valley.

Stewart's response was priceless as well: "I know your father is backstage and he's very proud of you, but would he be mad if I adopted you?"

It's not just him.  The world has adopted Malala.

She reminds us of the transformative power of education, especially for the 31 million primary-school-age girls, according to UNICEF, who aren't in school worldwide.

And, as important, she is a beacon of hope -- a reminder that the human spirit holds in it immense possibility, warmth, humility and forgiveness.
Malala is the world's new symbol of hope.

Her crusade for education rights only seems to be getting stronger as the years pass.  And in the world of ISIS and Boko Haram, the Nigerian group that kidnaps young girls and attacks their schools, she's needed now more than ever.

That she shares the prize with Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian children's rights activist, makes this moment all the more significant.

"The Nobel Committee regards it as an important point for a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, to join in a common struggle for education and against extremism," the committee said in a statement.  The Nobel Committee praised Satyarthi as carrying on Gandhi's tradition of nonviolent resistance.  And it called Malala's struggle "heroic."

It's not hard to see why.

"Dear friends, on the 9th of October 2012, the Taliban shot me on the left side of my forehead.  They shot my friends, too," Malala said at the United Nations in July 2013.

"They thought that the bullets would silence us.  But they failed.

"And then, out of that silence came, thousands of voices.  The terrorists thought that they would change our aims and stop our ambitions, but nothing changed in my life except this: Weakness, fear and hopelessness died.  Strength, power and courage was born."

It's telling that, according to ABC News, Malala was planning to be in school Friday [the day she won the Prize].

That's true determination.

It's the kind that hopefully will give more girls around the world the right to do the same.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

"Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue"

The subject of this blog entry is taken from Deuteronomy 16:20, the fifth book of the Torah, or Hebrew Bible.  Though I am not a deeply religious person (for those who don't know, I am mixed-race/mixed-religion, but brought up Jewish from my dad's side, the Rosenbloominators), this concept resonated with me the past couple weeks as Jews worldwide commemorated the High Holidays of Rosh Hashannah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).

Perhaps I have been more given to contemplation this year as we are gaining ground with The Toa Nafasi Project, going into Year Three of the program with a view to expansion; or maybe it's because I'm turning the big 4-0 this coming April (and my mother, who is my best friend, just hit 70....though she looks 45); or possibly, it's just that I served my first jury duty in Manhattan County Court in about ten years.  Who knows?  At any rate, weighty issues are on the brain, among them this pursuit of justice, and the related notion of tikkun olam, or "repairing the world," a more personal rendering of pursuing justice which my dad likes to reference when talking about my development work.

I did not attend services this new year; my longtime idol Derek Jeter's last few baseball games before retirement -- another milestone, "another turning point, a fork stuck in the road" -- precluded this and, as I said, I am not hugely devout....plus, there's no baseball in Tanz, so I was owed.  But I did find time for reading and reflection, and I stumbled across this interesting blog entry by Ron Kronish, Director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, from The Huffington Post.  Though it ran in July of last year, I found it to still be relevant and I thought I would share a few of Mr. Kronish's ruminations on the pursuit of justice and the reparation of the world:


One of the most central tenets of Judaism is to pursue justice.  We are reminded of this over and over again in the Bible, especially in the book of Deuteronomy, which we Jews began reading in our synagogues in Israel and around the world in recent weeks, and in the prophetic readings from Isaiah, which we read as supplementary to our Torah text for the next seven weeks, and on the morning of Yom Kippur.  Indeed, ours is a religion which emphasizes social justice, both in our foundational texts and in our liturgy.

What is justice?  Is the law always just?  Is the law always moral?  What happens when our morality dictates to our conscience to be civilly disobedient to an unjust law, as in the famous examples of Reverend Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Mahatma Gandhi -- some of the great religious leaders of the twentieth century, who were motivated by deeply held religious views of justice, based on their sacred texts and moral world-view?

And, what about economic justice?  About the cruel inequalities between rich and poor in so many Western liberal democracies?  Why should the top one percent of American or Israeli society live in such affluence and abundance when there are so many disfranchised poor people in these societies?  What should be done to tax the rich more fairly so that distributive justice becomes a reality and not just a philosophical idea?

Pursuing justice is a complicated and difficult process, involving many and varied philosophies, institutions, and personalities.  This is evident in many American Supreme Court cases, in which the personal proclivities of the judges are sometimes as important as their liberal or conservative political/legal philosophies.  An innate sense of justice often prevails over all the theoretical trappings.

When it comes to the issue of human rights -- especially via a vis immigrants or asylum seekers, narrow definitions of "national interests" often prevail over basic concepts of justice, fairness or equality.  Often human rights simply get in the way or are forgotten or trampled upon.  Despite the inspiring language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, so many Western liberal democracies, including the one I live in, fall drastically short in the implementation of these ideals in the daily lives which affect human beings so negatively in so many places around the world.  Indeed, I am often shocked by the sheer hypocrisy of so many so-called Western democracies which are in fact entirely hypocritical when it comes to human rights, except for those of the prevailing elites. 

Indeed, developing and maintaining a just society is an ideal goal towards which we should aspire.  But doing so systematically and sensitively is far from easy.  And the Rule of Law, while it keeps order in society, does not always lead to equal justice for all of its citizens.

So what is to be done?

The Biblical verse reminds us: "Justice, justice you shall pursue!"  According to Rabbi Harold Kushner, "This implies more than merely respecting or following justice; we must actively pursue it."  Kushner learns this from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the great preachers and practitioners of social justice among American rabbis in the last century.  I would add that the repetition of the word "justice" in this verse emphasizes the centrality of this value in our religious consciousness and behavior, both traditionally and today.

Each of us can contribute in our own way to striving for justice, whether as lawyers or judges, or rabbis or ministers, or educators, or just as citizens of the state.  Even if our system of justice often seems to be incomplete, or sometimes even unfair, each of us must do our part to bring the ideal closer to reality.

Methodologically, when discussion of serious complicated and controversial issues is done in a carefully facilitated way which engenders genuine trust and deep mutual respect and admiration for the other, an intellectual experience can become a deeply spiritual one which can have lasting effects on those participating in the process.


I think I'll close here by noting that 2014 marks the first time in 33 years that major holidays for both Jews and Muslims were marked on the same weekend.  The Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur is when devout Jews ask God to forgive them for their transgressions and refrain from eating and drinking, attending intense prayer services in synagogues.  The Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha commemorates the willingness of the prophet Ibrahim -- or Abraham as he is known in the Bible -- to sacrifice his son in accordance with God's will (though in the end God provides him a sheep to sacrifice instead), and Muslims slaughter sheep, cattle and other livestock, and give part of the meat to the poor.  I hope everyone celebrated in the spirits of peace and love, amani na upendo, with which these holidays were meant to be passed.