Monday, April 28, 2014

Vacation, All I Ever Wanted

Greetings, my peeps!  I am back in the Mosh, safe and sound, and extremely well-rested.  Most of you wouldn't even recognize me these days as a spell away with good friends was exactly what the doctor ordered, and I am overflowing with good cheer.  In fact, I just fielded a phone call from my Moshi bestie who literally demanded, "Who are you, and what have you done with my Sarah??!!"  Indeed.  I am refreshed, rejuvenated, and ready to take on the next phase of the Project.
But before we get to that, a quick word about Istanbul and my friends there.  Never fear, this is not a random tangent, but does indeed relate to Toa Nafasi.  Somehow.

You see, when I first returned to the States from my original volunteer stint in Tanzania, I studied TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) at Teachers College, Columbia University (my alma mater and, therefore, already a very special place to me) over the summer of 2008.  While there, I met Jennifer and Trevor and the three of us became fast friends.  Each of us brings something different yet complementary to the table and that summer was one of the best of my adult life, both in the classroom, on the streets of New York and, if we're really being honest, bellied up to the bar.  We laughed, we cried, we got to know each other, we exchanged ideas, we learned to teach.  Each in his or her own way.
And three more different people, I would challenge you to find.  Trevor is originally from Utah and was an NYC newbie at the time, but about to spend a couple years getting his Master's at TC.  Jennifer grew up upstate so was familiar with the city, but ready to leave the U.S. for love: she had met a wonderful Turkish man just before TC and wanted to follow her heart abroad.  And me, I think you know....
The course was small in size (maybe 100 students) and short (just one summer), but we took courses in everything from Second Language Acquisition and Intercultural Communication to Pedagogical Grammar and Assessment.  We also team-taught real adult language learners enrolled at TC's Community English Program and were observed and given feedback from TC advisers.  Truth be told, it was a very thorough course and I learned a lot about teaching English as a second language....BUT....the friends I made have turned out to be far more significant than the certificate I earned!  Especially given the fact that not a single day since the course ended have I taught in English; all my teaching experience in TZ has been in Swahili!!
Anyhoo, Trevor, Jennifer, and I have remained close friends for the past six years despite being physically very far-flung.  Jennifer married her Turkish boyfriend, Betal, and they now have a beautiful baby boy.  She taught ESL at the international school in Istanbul for several years but left when she went on maternity leave.  When she is ready to work again, she plans to open her own kindergarten in her artsy neighborhood of Cihangir and teach the way she wants, in the Montessori style.  She'll probably remain in Istanbul for the duration, but she gets to the States when she can.

Trevor completed his Master's at TC and taught ESL to high school students in the rough-and-tumble South Bronx for a couple years before heading to Bethlehem in 2013 to teach English at the university level.  On the side, he supports a group of women who formed a cooperative whereby they cook food for people in order to raise money to care for their special needs children.  Plastic bullets and tear gas while crossing the security wall between Israel and Palestine are a regular part of his current life, but I can happily (and selfishly) report that he'll be back in New York by the time I get there this Fall as a new job opportunity has come his way.  And, again, me, I think you know....!
We've re-grouped a couple times since the summer of '08, often two of the three of us in New York or DC but only as a troika twice: in Istanbul in 2010 and now in 2014.  I like to joke that we are the Istabullu version of the Olympics, a rare and magnificent event that occurs every four years!  It's funny, I never had any strong desire to visit Istanbul before, but it has since become one of my favorite foreign destinations.  Not only because Jennifer lives there, knows all the great places to go, and speaks the language, but also because it is a beautiful, cosmopolitan, and multicultural city.  Since this is not a travel blog, I won't gush at length but should anyone want any scoop on the Big Bul, do let me know!  It is a must-see!!
I guess my final point is this: I find myself very lucky to have made two such good friends with whom I share common interests (travel, education, red wine) and great conversation (books, politics, the finer points of several premium cable television shows).  That we can come and go in and out of each other's lives physically yet still remain as comfortable and intimate as ever is a testament not only to *our* bond but to the notion of friendship in general.  And the fact that we all met while in the pursuit of our life's work tops off the whole shebang.

Hear, hear!!
Since this entry is already pretty long and more than a little mushy, I will save the tale of today's re-entry into Msaranga for next week.  Photos of the troika (in non-troika format since somebody had to hold the camera) below!

Friday, April 18, 2014

National Sovereignty and Children's Day in Turkey

Merhaba from Istanbul, my faithful readers!  I am in Turkey visiting friends (more on them next post!) and I have learned that we are coming up on a very interesting holiday genuine to this country.  Solemn ceremonies and children's festivals take place throughout Turkey on National Sovereignty and Children's Day, held on April 23rd each year.  Children take seats in the Turkish Parliament and symbolically govern the country for one day. 

The date, April 23, marks the first gathering of the Grand National Assembly (the Turkish Parliament), which took place in 1920 during Turkey's War of Independence (1919-1923).  Mustafa Kemal Ataturk proclaimed the parliament an important step toward building a new state after the Ottoman Empire was defeated during World War I.  Ataturk reportedly dedicated the Turkish Republic to children in Turkey.

Every year on this day, Turkish schoolchildren take seats in the Parliament and symbolically govern the country.  They elect a president who then addresses the country on national television.  The state-run Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) brings children, aged 8 to 14, from different countries around the world to Turkey who stay with Turkish families for a week and participate in children's festivals, which culminate in a gala-performance on April 23.

Pretty cool, huh?  Imagine if Kikwete stepped aside for just one day back in the Tanz and let the kids run things?  Absolute mayhem, especially with my little ruffians, but national holidays like these really go to show where a country's heart lies, what shared values form a nationhood, and who the denizens of any given land truly are.

Those are my musings for now....more next week when I am back from vacation.

Happy National Sovereignty and Children's Day to all!

Friday, April 11, 2014

"Much to Our Bewilderment"

Hello all, hope everyone is well.  This week was kind of a wash work-wise since we are on vacation from school, my car battery died at the Nakumatt, it's been raining Genesis-style for six days now, and my birthday fell right in the middle of it all.  To the left and the right of starting Year #39 of Life were the first two seasons of Girls on HBO (watched through 2x, truth be told), the yearly Crest Whitestripping of my teeth, and a massive spring cleaning at Villa Favorita (my mom's name for my Moshi "estate").  None of that qualifies as Toa Nafasi-related, but it is what it is....

Anyhoo, my offering for today is this bit from the Tanzania Daily News on inclusive education in the country.  I must admit, it's not hugely informative (and contains the clause which I found amusing enough to be the title of this post), but at least disability is still making headlines in the TZ papers.

Holla back next Friday from beautiful Istanbul where I will visit with two of my favorite people in the whole world, both of them teachers from the United States, both teaching English as a Second Language abroad.  Some very interesting stuff to come!!


Tanzania has to promote an inclusive education system through which variously disabled students can excel as it has been their dream for so long.
Tanzania League of the Blind (TLB) Vice-Chairman, Mr. Robert Bundala, said recently that the system must recognize and respond to the diverse needs of students, accommodating different styles and rates of learning so as to ensure quality to all through appropriate curricula, organizational arrangements, teaching strategies, resource use, and partnerships with local communities.
Mr. Bundala said that if that is done, then the Ministry of Education and Vocational Training can pride itself on successfully implementing the Big Results Now (BRN) strategy.  He said that facilities for disabled students should be made available right from nursery school all the way to the university level.

The Persons with Disabilities Act of 2010 stipulates that all people have an equal right to education and/or training in an inclusive setting.  It further states that a child with a disability may attend an ordinary public or private school except where a need for special communication is required and that in these ordinary schools, they shall be provided with appropriate disability-related support services or other necessary learning services from a qualified teacher or a teacher assigned for that purpose.
As compared to that doctrine, Mr. Bundala said that the country falls far short and that children with disabilities suffer a lot in pursuing their education dreams.  He challenged the Ministry to take up its responsibilities and see if, given the services promised them, the disabled students do not turn out to be as good as or even better than those without disabilities.
He said that the accomplishment of these duties will highly reduce discrimination against disabled in Tanzanian society.  "Inclusive education helps to bring awareness and reduce discrimination; enhance communication, cooperation, and creativity; increase capacity building; and improve support and care.  But, we still have a big problem as society continues to discriminate and we implore the government to execute the law so that we get our fair share."
The TLB Chairman in Hai District, Mr. Abraham Marima, said he cannot comprehend why the policy should cause such a predicament since the law was enacted in 2010; it is very clear and could help many immensely.  "Tanzania ratified a United Nations Agreement on the right to quality education for the disabled, the law to that end was enacted in 2010, but much to our bewilderment, up to now there is no implementation of the same."

Saturday, April 5, 2014

A(pril) Is for Autism

In order to highlight the growing need for concern and awareness about autism, the Autism Society has been celebrating National Autism Awareness Month since the 1970s.  The United States recognizes April as a special opportunity to educate the public about autism and issues within the autism community.*

The characteristic behaviors of autism spectrum disorder may or may not be apparent in infancy (18 to 24 months), but usually become obvious during early childhood (24 months to 6 years).  The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) lists five behaviors that warrant further evaluation:

  • Does not babble or coo by 12 months
  • Does not gesture (point, wave, grasp) by 12 months
  • Does not say single words by 16 months
  • Does not say two-word phrases on his or her own by 24 months
  • Has any loss of any language or social skill at any age
Any of these five "red flags" does not guarantee autism, but because the symptoms of the disorder vary so much, a child showing these behaviors should have further evaluations by a multidisciplinary team which may include a neurologist, psychologist, developmental pediatrician, speech/language therapist, learning consultant, or other professionals knowledgeable about autism.

At first glance, some persons with autism may appear to have an intellectual disability, a sensory integration disorder, or problems with hearing or vision.  To complicate matters further, these conditions can co-occur with autism.  However, it is important to distinguish autism from other conditions, since an accurate diagnosis and early identification can provide the basis for building an appropriate and effective treatment and education program.

A brief observation in a single setting cannot present a true picture of an individual's abilities and behaviors.  Parental (and caregiver) and/or teachers' input and developmental history are important components of making an accurate diagnosis.

There is no known single cause of autism, but it is generally accepted that it is caused by abnormalities in brain structure or function.  Brain scans show differences in the shape and structure of the brain in children with autism versus in neurotypical children.  Some researchers are investigating a number of theories, including the links among heredity, genetics, and medical problems.  Other researchers are looking at problems during pregnancy and delivery as well as environmental factors such as viral infections, metabolic imbalances, and exposure to environmental chemicals.

A few facts and statistics about autism that everyone should know:

  • 1% of the population of children in the U.S. ages 3-17 have an autism spectrum disorder
  • The prevalence is estimated at 1 in 68 births
  • 1 to 1.5 million Americans live with an autism spectrum disorder
  • Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability with a 1,148% growth rate
  • $60 billion is spent each year on autism-related services
  • 60% of those costs are in adult services
  • The cost of lifelong care can be reduced by 2/3 with early diagnosis and intervention
  • In 10 years, the annual cost will have grown to $200-400 billion
  • The cost of autism over an entire lifespan is $3.2 million dollars per person
  • Only 56% of students with autism finish high school
  • The average per-pupil expenditure for educating a child with autism was estimated to be over $18,000 in 2000.  This is nearly three times the expenditure for a typically educated student
  • The unemployment rate for people with disabilities was at 14% in 2000, compared with 9% for people without disability.  Additionally, at the same time, only 21% of all adults with disabilities participated in the labor force as compared with 69% of the non-disabled population

*All information presented here is courtesy of the Autism Society.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

A Woman's Work

A man may work from dusk to dawn, but these women's work is never - EVER - done!

Welcome to the Toa Nafasi inner circle, a group of strong, successful ladies, who I think by now you know - yours truly (not pictured), Mwalimu Vumi, Mwalimu Yacinta, and Mama T, all decked out in Toa Nafasi swag.  We make this Project happen and this blog entry serves as mad props to us as we round the corner into Easter Break!!

We finished with the Observation Period far ahead of schedule.  To be honest, I learned a lot last year that I was able to apply this year and which helped things to run more smoothly.  For last year's observation, I allowed a full two months which I now see was KrAzY!  This year, I took just one month but honestly, we could shorten it even more.  Last year, I followed the principles of non-participatory observation to a hilt which kept me removed from familiarizing myself with the students and learning their various strengths and weaknesses in a timely manner.  This year, I engaged with them, not by teaching, but by checking the work in their notebooks and quizzing them one on one as they came to me for correction.

I learned that just because a child has written everything perfectly in his or her book, it doesn't necessarily mean that they understand what they've written or even know what it means!  Tanzanian children are nothing if not competent copycats; most kids can write perfectly what they see on the board but when you ask them to read what they've written, you may very well get a blank stare in return.

Another mistake I corrected from last year's Observation Period was to not concern myself so much with the teachers but rather focus on the students.  I learned their names right off the bat, filled out individual profile forms as I got to know them, and saw firsthand where each child's baseline aptitude lay, and what each child's disposition was.  In this way, I was able to move forward to the Assessment Period with a pretty good idea of who and how many of this year's Standard One students were going to need Toa Nafasi help.

Last year, I feel like I went in guns a-blazin', mzungu flag a-wavin', with a whole lotta criticism regarding the teachers and the system.  I cringe now thinking of how disdainful I was of Mama T (with whom, since then, I have become very close, so much so that I am pretty sure I am already betrothed to her firstborn son) and her teaching methodology.  Of course, it's not up to Western standards or even comparable to the education we are able to receive in America or Europe; WE ARE IN TANZANIA!  She knows that, the kids know that, and I think now, I finally I get that.

So, definitely this year's model for observation is the one to work off of for the future, and I am hoping with every fiber of my being that while I am conducting a month-long Observation Period at Msaranga Primary School in 2015, Vumi will be heading up another at Msandaka and Yacinta maybe at Kiboriloni.  Wouldn't it be amazing to expand??

Anyhoo, back to the present reality.  After completing observation at the end of February, we had information concerning all 129 students in the 2014 Standard One class.  For the most part, they were all new faces to me but there were a few stragglers from last year who were either held back due to age or ability.  Of course, Standard Two this year is my kids from last year's Standard One, so unlike 2013, we didn't have to pull anybody out.  The kids needing help in that class are already Toa Nafasi participants and Vumi and Yacinta continue to work with them, teaching them in the way Angi showed us to help slow learners.

Every one of these kids has achieved some level of success since the beginning of the tutorial sessions in June 2013 and we will keep working with them until June 2014, a full year of Toa Nafasi support.  There are a few from last year who would probably benefit from joining a Special Education classroom instead of continuing at Msaranga, but for right now, everyone except my one little girl at Gabriella remains where they are.  We are scoping out alternatives for the others but no one is in as dire straits either academically or physically as that child, so she will stay at Gabriella studying and boarding for the indefinite future.  If I manage to raise enough money, I'd like to board maybe a couple more and also arrange for some day students to attend.  Still, space and transportation remain potential trouble spots and the whole situation is ongoing, to say the least….

But I digress....  After completing observation, we started assessment with Angi's new and improved exam.  We finished in under two weeks with me, Vumi, and Yacinta testing the kids in record time.  Per Angi's instructions, we did not prompt or tip the kids off in any way.  If they made the mistake of adding instead of subtracting, oh well.  If they made the mistake of reading BE BI BU BA BO as BA BE BI BO BU, oh well.  If they didn't know their left from their right or a square from a circle, oh well.  All's fair in love and assessment!

Out of the 129 students assessed, we came up with 23 who I am sure have some type of issue in the classroom.  Of course, it might not necessarily be a learning difficulty, it could be a medical issue (needing glasses), a social issue (baba hits mama), or something we never even thought of (I have a set of twins, the Shemganga brothers - I kid you not - who we came to find out use entirely different first names at home than in school, so when you call one Rashidi and the other Rajabu in the classroom, neither of them know who is who!).  Because Angi is not here to work her magic and manipulate the data to tell me who we need to focus on first, I have made the executive decision to follow these 23 to the next step which is the parent and teacher interviews, and others who are question marks can wait until Angi has seen the exams and tells me who to add to the Toa Nafasi list.

So that's where we are now.  We have interviewed all the parents or guardians of the 23 kids in the last ten days and also asked Mama T to fill out teacher questionnaires for cross-referencing with the parents.  The findings were pretty interesting.  Lots of parents this year seem unaware that their kids are having trouble in school.  Others might know but are resigned to it.  In some cases, the apples don't fall far from the trees: after meeting Mama Shemganga, I kinda know why the boys don't have a clear sense of who's who.  We tried to do two different questionnaires, one for each son, but mama kept saying "they, they, they" in answer to our questions even though Vumi, when asking, would name each boy individually.  To tell the truth, I'm not entirely sure mama knows which twin is which!  Pretty tough circumstances for a kid to develop a healthy sense of individuality and purpose!!

We will continue to try and get to the bottom of each case, but where parents are concerned, it's difficult.  When they receive a letter asking them to come to school, they are often afraid they will receive bad news of some sort, so they don't come, or they come and are extremely defensive.  We have to really set them at ease when questioning them, explaining the background and purpose of the Project, and showing them their child's exam so they can see what the tatizo (problem) is.  Once they understand that we are not a.) calling them out as bad parents, b.) trying to cause trouble for them or embarrass them personally, or c.) doing anything that would involve them paying for something, they are generally down with the program.  Generally.  But it's still pretty hard to get some of these people to move.  Particularly, I have noticed, when it comes to social issues as opposed to academic ones.

The grandfather of the little girl who is now at the Gabriella Center complained quite a bit while I was in America last year about the fact that this sort of dirty secret was aired and people in the village now openly knew about it.  Of course, he took umbrage to the fact that people were saying he was not caring properly for the child and it reached the point where her behavior was so out of control and she was in so much danger that we had to take action.  Well, pardon me, but he wasn't going to do it....and I would rather risk an old man's already dubious reputation in the village than the mental and physical health of a young child.  Now, this babu is asking me to find another school instead of Gabriella because someone he knows told him that his granddaughter will "turn into" one of the kids with more severe intellectual and physical impairments if she stays there with them.  Sheesh.  It's an uphill battle.  Kilimanjaro-sized, at times....

At any rate, we are pretty much ready to start the Referral Period probably next month as we are off until Easter and then I am traveling for a little bit at the end of this month.  I am starting to put together groups of children to go to CCBRT for hearing tests and speech pathology, KCMC for eye exams, neurological testing, and pediatric visits, and Gabriella for their infamous Weeks of Therapy.  This is all for the new kids.  The old kids continue with their tuition and their own Weeks of Therapy which are scheduled every three months at Gabriella so the students and their parents can check in with the therapists there, explain how things are going, and receive further support and education from the Gabriella staff.  We actually have one such week coming up in a few days.

I think that pretty much sums up our maendeleo (developments) since the last time I wrote a lengthy piece about the Project.  I hope it answers some questions and fills you all in on the work we are trying to do here.  Back at you soon with even further maendeleo and hopefully some really great matokeo (results) in the near future!