Monday, September 29, 2014

Saving Arts Ed

In today's edition of The Answer Sheet blog on the Washington Post's website, Valerie Strauss highlights the importance of arts education by featuring a piece by New York Times Magazine writer, Michael Sokolove.

His expose about the "emergency-room approach" to education in the poor inner-cities of the United States made me reflect sadly on the majority of schools in Tanzania.  Particularly the paragraphs about children living in relatively close proximity to paragons of the arts (or in my students' case, sites of natural beauty), but not having the opportunity to experience them.  How many of my Msarangans have seen lions in the Serengeti, swam in the ocean off the coast of Zanzibar, or climbed the heights of Mt. Kilimanjaro?  As Sokolove says, "Children already living in a narrowed world need more access to the arts, not less."

But I was able to buck up kidogo, envisioning Vumi and our little team of teachers leading the weekly Furahi-days at Msaranga Primary with paper-bag puppets, duckpin bowling, and of course, the Macarena....  I guess I can be proud that I've helped resuscitate arts ed in at least one public primary school in Kilimanjaro....


Though the benefits of arts education are very real, it is one of the big, unfortunate casualties of the high-stakes testing era, with its laser focus on math and English Language Arts - especially in schools with big populations of students who live in poverty.  Just how effective a good arts program can be was shown by Michael Sokolove, a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, in his book titled "Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater," about an elite high school theater program in a blue-collar Pennsylvania town.  The book will be issued in paperback on October 7th.  Here's a piece by Sokolove on saving arts education.

Arts instruction in America's schools is something that almost everyone agrees is a great idea.  Just, apparently, not for all children.

Let's say that you are thinking about enrolling your child in an exclusive private school and you visit several before making a choice.  At each one, you're likely to tour the music room, the visual arts studio, the well-appointed theater decorated with posters from previous years' musicals.  It's a good bet someone will tell you, with great earnestness, that these facilities exist because the school cares deeply about educating "the whole child," which can't happen without teaching the arts.  Which, of course, is true.

But it is also true that as America has cleaved apart into haves and have nots over the last couple of decades, serious arts education - taught by certified, in-school instructors - has receded in many communities or even disappeared entirely.  We've got some whole children that need nurturing, and then some half-children.

Students in private schools and comfortable suburban districts still get the whole robust menu - staples like foreign languages and social studies along with an opportunity, to learn to play the French horn or win a part in "The Crucible" or "Beauty and the Beast."  Less fortunate children have been on the receiving end of what I'd call an emergency-room approach to education - one that addresses only the parts of a child thought to be in most dire need of attention.  Their curriculum may consist solely of reading, writing, and mathematics - the subjects tested on high-stakes exams.

The shame of this is we know it's wrong, and we do it anyway.  Longitudinal studies have shown that students who receive sustained in-school arts instruction have better attendance, better grades, and higher graduation rates.  Neurological research suggests that immersion in the arts can cause an actual change in the structure of neurons and make the brain more receptive to other kinds of learning.

The anecdotal evidence of how arts education benefits children is every bit as powerful as the stories of how participation in scholastic sports "saves" certain kids.  When I was researching a book on an elite high school theater program in the blue-collar town of Levittown, Pennsylvania, I met a student who was taking special education courses - remedial math and English, life skills - because high doses of chemotherapy she received to treat childhood leukemia were thought to have damaged her ability to retain and sort large batches of information.  But she was able to memorize long scripts - and win statewide awards for her acting - because the narrative through line of plays came clear to her.  Theater animated her as nothing else ever had.

Elsewhere, the children most in need of arts instruction have been the least likely to have access to it.  Anyone who has spent time in America's poorest inner-city neighborhoods knows that they are virtual islands, with no bridge to the mainland.  A child deep in Brooklyn or Queens may never have set foot in Manhattan, let alone inside a Broadway theater.  A child in Los Angeles might live three miles from the beach but has never felt the sand on her bare feet or dipped a toe in the Pacific.  One in Washington D.C. may have never been inside one of the Smithsonian's free museums.

Arts transport.  It's often said they are an an essential part of what makes us human - and an element of that is the ability to imagine another reality, apart from the one we are living, a skill essential to resilience and ambition.  Children already living in a narrowed world need more access to the arts, not less.  But that has not been the trend.

The reason is no great mystery: the accountability movement in education - from President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind initiative up through President Obama's Race to the Top - has resulted in a zero-sum equation in America's schools.  Time spent on anything other than the essential mission of elevating test scores is too often perceived as time wasted.

Thoughtful educators know that practicing for upcoming tests - at the expense of lighting up children's mind and imaginations - is destructive.  But they have been incentivized, to use a favorite active verb of corporate America, to act against their better judgment because their salaries and career prospects have been set by how students score on tests.  In extreme cases, schools can be shuttered as a penalty for bad scores, and who wants that on their resume?

A report issued last spring by Scott Stringer, New York City's comptroller, found that 28% of the city's schools did not have a single full-time arts teacher - and 42% were without one in lower income neighborhoods.  Some principals who received "supplemental arts funding" used it for non-arts purposes, including test preparation.

Not just the arts - but arts spaces within schools - were being disrespected and often used for other purposes.  Suzy Myers Jackson, executive director of the nonprofit Opening Act, which brings after-school theater to some of the city's lowest performing schools, told me of discovering "this amazing theater" at a high school in Queens.  "It was almost like a black box but when we got there you could hardly see the stage.  It was used for storage.  Our kids cleaned it up."

We are at a juncture right now, with a possibility to set a new course.  In July, New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio announced that the city would spend an additional $23 million for arts education, some of which would go to hiring 120 new arts teachers in underserved schools.  Chicago and Los Angeles also have recently announced plans to bolster arts education in their public schools.

But will these initiatives take hold and will they last?  Some arts advocates are encouraged because David Coleman, the architect of the Common Core and now president of the College Board, has spoken eloquently about the centrality of arts education.

But the Common Core is an idea more than a program (with details to be filled in by the states), and it does not change the incentives for educators.  Its focus is on mathematics and what it calls English Language Arts.  "To me, the Common Core is a wolf in sheep's clothing," says James Catterall, a professor emeritus at UCLA and founder of the Centers for Research on Creativity at the California Institute of the Arts.  "If you look at it closely, the tests that flow out of it and will be high stakes will be basically in language arts and math.  The arts will not be tested."

So let's test the arts, without ruining them, instead of abandoning them once pre-kindergarten teachers assure that every student can identify their colors.  And let's study, support, and expand these fledgling initiatives to put arts teachers back into public schools.

Perhaps that can be a bridge to a true national consensus that arts education is not just for privileged kids.  It's not an extra or a frill, no matter how desperately some students may struggle to grasp the basics of reading and math.  For some of those very children, it's a lifeline, and the pathway to mastering those other subjects.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Climate for the People....?

In the last week, two things relating to climate change (and, subsequently, education) caught my eye.

The first was the occasion of largest and most diverse climate march ever, in which more than 400,000 people jammed the streets of New York City prior to the United Nations climate summit.  Amongst the marchers were U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, former Vice President Al Gore, and actor Leonardo DiCaprio.  These celebrities were joined by students, veterans, unionists, and farmers of whose presence Rolling Stone magazine said, "This confirms that the climate battle is no longer the burden only of environmentalists and older activists familiar with the barricades, but of everyone.  The devastating effects of climate change are being felt around the world....and the real fight for the planet is just beginning."

The second was this piece that ran the same day in The Guardian and addresses the issue of developing nations' budgets for climate change programming and how these funds are straining those allocated for health and education.  In Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Uganda in particular, a new study exposes the funding gaps between plans to address climate change and what is actually available.
Read on....


Poor countries have had to divert large chunks of their budgets to adapt to climate change and now run the risk of crowding out spending on health and education, a new report suggests.

Over four years from 2008-11, Ethiopia committed 14% of its national budget to climate change, or nearly half of the national spending on primary education.  Meanwhile, Tanzania spent 5%, which is almost two-thirds of its health spending, according to the report by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI).

Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Uganda, the three countries featured in the report, are heavily dependent on rain-fed agriculture and have all experienced higher temperatures and reductions of water sources consistent with climate change.  All have invested heavily to adapt their farming and cities in the absence of promised international aid, said Neil Bird, a climate researcher at ODI who wrote the report.

The study exposes large funding gaps between each country's proposals to address climate change and what is actually available.  Ethiopia's climate change strategy calls for annual spending of $7.5 billion, but the country is estimated to be able to afford only around $440 million per year.  Tanzania needs around $650 million a year to address current climate risks and enhance its resilience but can only spend $383 million.  And Uganda's climate change policy is estimated to cost $258 million per year compared to current public spending in the region of $25 million.

The report, released on the eve of the New York climate summit where world leaders will seek to catalyze action on climate change, highlights how poor countries are overwhelmingly having to finance adaptation to climate change themselves: "There is an existing international commitment to provide $100 billion a year from 2020, but ODI's research shows that the current estimates of global adaptation finance amount to a tiny fraction of that sum."

"In the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, international support to assist countries adapt to climate change has averaged only $130 million annually, far less than the $1.1 billion that the UK alone spent on the floods three years ago, in what Archbishop Desmond Tutu calls 'adaptation apartheid,'" said Bird.

In contrast to the minimal help offered to countries that have played no role in man-made climate change, rich countries are already investing heavily in adaptation through strengthened flood-defense systems, coastal protection, and other measures.  The UK spent approximately £700 million on flood defenses between 2010 and 2011.  Poorer countries and their citizens have to address the adaptation challenge with far fewer resources, says the report.

"While richer countries invest heavily in flood-defense systems, coastal protection, and other projects, poorer countries have no choice but to divert scarce resources, potentially reversing the progress made in tackling poverty," said Kevin Watkins, executive director of ODI.

In Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Uganda, climate change is seen as an economic development issue rather than solely an environmental concern.  This is reflected in the spending ministries such as agriculture, water, and energy.  Relevant government programs include irrigation projects, dry-land management initiatives, and development projects designed to promote renewable energy and energy efficiency.

The ODI urges greater transparency to increase confidence in the effectiveness of climate finance and proposes a new approach to supporting national action on climate change.  This suggests that public climate finance from the international community should match the level of domestic public spending relevant to climate change in those countries acknowledged to be the most vulnerable.


Sighhhh....  So, clearly a bunch of different issues at play here, and I'm sure a great debate could ensue, but in the interest of time management, a rundown of the major points IMO below:

*I could almost forego pointing out the massive difference in the effects of climate change upon the masses and their reactions to it in developed countries vis-a-vis developing ones.... almost....  I suppose the photos say enough....

*So, in a new twist on the "sink or swim" idiom, it appears that in this case, developing countries must "sink or be eaten alive by sharks"....  How else can you describe having to choose between funding environmental programming or health and education?

*This is particularly messed-up when you take into account that these countries rely heavily on agriculture for their economies.  The issue of climate change is therefore not just a passing fancy that they can march for one Saturday in September; it is the backbone of their financial systems!

*Meanwhile, wealthy Western countries are not only able to invest in programming that addresses existing climate change dilemmas, they can also shore up their resources to protect them against future crises.  (And they can organize marches....)

*I could spin out into a long-winded criticism of the U.N. here, but I won't.  Let's see what happens....

*And, finally, allow me a moment of unapologetic smarm in reporting that Gore was seen making his exit from the People's Climate March in a Chevrolet Suburban SUV, just after giving reporters a sound bite about renewable energy....  Guess it would have been "inconvenient" to walk....

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

It's Fun to Stay at the K.C.M.C.

This post isn't particularly timely, but I finally have a moment to write it, so here goes....

I have mentioned several times that one important aspect of The Toa Nafasi Project involves a "referral" phase in which we try to assist students who are under-performing in the classroom due to reasons other than a learning difficulty.  We usually start referral appointments after the first assessment is completed and then follow up as need be over the course of the year, but of course, if a student presents immediately with a medical or psychosocial issue, we'll address it straight off the bat.  Still, it is more likely that Vumi or I will notice a child maybe squinting at the chalkboard or leaning close to his notebook when writing which would indicate poor eyesight; or that, in talking to one of the parents, we find out something in the child's history that would lead us to want to have him or her looked over by a doctor, such as a missed milestone (not crying at birth) or maladaptive behavior (bed-wetting).

To address such concerns, we have developed a network of healthcare professionals on whom we can call when we see some of these other non-LD type issues.  I've written recently and often about the services Toa Nafasi receives for Msaranga Primary School students from the Gabriella Center, and a few times about those provided by Comprehensive Community-Based Rehabilitation in Tanzania or CCBRT (mostly for maternal and newborn health or severe mental and/or physical disability).  But many other of the docs we work with are located right in the main hospital in Moshi, a facility called Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center, which is known to be the best in the region but which would probably shock the average Western patient right out of his or her hospital gown.  Nevertheless, we have to work with what's available and - knock on wood - so far so good.

This year, we took probably over twenty different children to various clinics at KCMC, but they almost always have to start at "Casualty" which is (strangely) where we check in.  (The word mapokezi means "reception" in Kiswahili which is, decidedly, less strange.)

Oops, I forgot to say that Vumi will have already explained to the parents that Toa Nafasi will cover the costs of the exam and any follow-up or meds necessary as long as the parent can a.) prepare the child for the visit and get to the hospital ON TIME and on the DAY SCHEDULED, b.) pay their own transport fees to and from KCMC, and c.) join the child or arrange for another family member to be there to hear any diagnosis given and treatment recommended.  Toa Nafasi is here to help but WE ARE NOT FOSTER CARE, people!!

So far, this system has worked out pretty well though I have been suckered into paying for snacks and things when the day runs long which it almost inevitably does.  Waiting at KCMC is about as interesting as watching paint dry and as time-consuming as well, and it's not like anyone besides me will think to bring a book or a bottle of water, so the kids can get kinda feisty and cranky.... and the parents are hardly any better....  I think for next year, Vumi and I should remember to tell them to pack their own snacks/lunches and that we should bring some coloring books or small games that can be played in the hallways during these down periods to keep cantankerous kidlets occupied.

Case in point: Namani below, who even the ever-patient "Angi of the Morning" found to be on the extreme end of the bad behavior spectrum.  (Truth be told, he could probably benefit from some kind of ADHD med, but there's NO WAY I'm going down that road with these kids.  The responsibility I would undertake in terms of long-term care and cost, and all the possible side effects of the meds notwithstanding, simply getting him or her to adhere to the dosage and scheduling would be harder than summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro.)

Anyhoo, after checking in at Casualty, we start the waiting process at whichever clinic we're at that day, most often Eye, Ortho, or Neuro.

Poor eyesight is a common reason other than a learning difficulty why a child might be doing poorly in school.  And, unlike in Western schools where the teacher might call in the parent to say, "Little Sarah can't see the board," there is not too much communication between teachers and parents in Tanzania.  (Though Toa Nafasi is working on changing that!)

Sometimes, there are complications for the mother at the time of birth and the infant might have to be yanked out abruptly which results in mild bone deformities.  Though these injuries wouldn't necessarily cause a child to do badly academically, if they are concurrently failing in school, then we want to make sure they have good and proper use of all their limbs, in case down the line they will become fundis or day laborers, so Ortho will address these kinds of issues.

And finally, and quite unfortunately, what we see A LOT OF is problems with the mama related to either her pregnancy period or the time of labor that have resulted in shida or "trouble" for the kid.  These run the gamut from lifestyle and environmental health causes (malnutrition, drinking while pregnant) to infections (malaria) to autoimmune disorders (HIV/AIDS).  And they can result in neuropsychiatric illnesses for the child ranging from hyperactivity to autism to epilepsy to many things in between.  There is a very good Dutchwoman doctor on-staff at KCMC to whom I always bring my kids for Neuro consults.

This year, we had the opportunity to go to the Ear, Nose, and Throat clinic for the first time so that a student could have his adenoids removed.  According to mama, Francis was having trouble breathing which obviously gave way to myriad other troubles - inability to sleep, lack of concentration, poor quality of life in general - so we admitted him for surgery and after a couple days, he was back in school and doing much better.  He was a real champ getting his bloodwork done prior to surgery, but when he first woke up post-op, he clearly didn't know what was going on and had a real tough time of it, poor lil' guy....

Anyhoo, all of this is to say that simply because The Toa Nafasi Project works with slow and struggling learners within the primary school classroom, we aren't ones to ignore horses of other colors!

If a student is performing poorly academically, there could be various issues at play and it is up to us, once we've assessed the pupils, to address each individually and to provide as much of a solution as we possibly can.  Such is the "referral" phase....

Now, my next goal?  To edit the signage at KCMC....  I spotted this medical fridge in the Peds ward and just had to take a pic!  I wonder then if a Tanzanian defibrillator is a defiblirator??

Monday, September 15, 2014

Success Academy, 'The New York Times Magazine,' and Public Education

Once again, I must apologize for the long delay in posting a new blog entry.  As usual, there is too much to do and not enough time in which to do it!  At any rate, a personal update on Toa Nafasi to come shortly, but until then, please have a look at this Diane Ravitch piece that ran on The Huffington Post just last week.

It is in regard to charter schools versus public schools in New York City, and it's interesting to me because I literally JUST had a convo with my friend Trevor, an ESL teacher with experience both here in NYC and abroad (Palestine!!) about what exactly charter schools are, their pros and cons.

Since I spend so much time outside of the U.S., it's also interesting to see just how similar the education systems in various countries around the world are - eastern, western, developing, developed, non-English-speaking and English-speaking - and how similar the failings in these systems can be despite the vast differences in, say, a country's socio-economic status....

After reading this article, I suppose I am suspicious of charter schools as this weird middle ground between public and private.  Maybe I don't quite get it, but a comment left by one reader resonated with me: "Private schools are held accountable by the parents, who can always remove their kids, and their money, if they are dissatisfied.  Public schools are held accountable by duly elected school boards and if parents aren't satisfied, they can vote in a new board that can make the changes they want."

So, who holds these charter schools accountable?  Especially when it comes to the issue of weeding out underperformers??

If charter schools are meant to show better results than public schools, then what means are the administrators using to get them?  And is Ravitch right in that they "teach to test" with their success rate "built on a deliberate policy of winnowing out low-performing and nonconformist students"??

Sounds very familiar....and very unfair....
(Of course, the second sentence in the first para starts the whole damn thing off on the wrong foot, so I guess I should just acknowledge that life is unfair and call the whole thing off....!)
The New York Times Magazine has a long article about Eva Moskowitz and her chain of charter schools in New York City.  The charter chain was originally called Harlem Success Academy, but Moskowitz dropped the word "Harlem" when she decided to open new schools in gentrifying neighborhoods and wanted to attract white and middle-class families. 

I spent a lot of time on the phone with the author, Daniel Bergner.  When he asked why I was critical of Moskowitz, I said that what she does to get high test scores is not a model for public education or even for other charters.  The high scores of her students is due to intensive test prep and attrition.  She gets her initial group of students by holding a lottery, which in itself is a selection process because the least functional families don't apply.  She enrolls small proportions of students with disabilities and English language learners as compared to the neighborhood public school.  And as time goes by, many students leave. 

The only Success Academy school that has fully grown to grades 3-8 tested 116 third graders but only 32 eighth graders.  Three other Success Academy schools have grown to sixth grade.  One tested 121 third graders but only 55 sixth graders; another 106 third graders but only 68 six graders; and the last 83 third graders but only 54 sixth graders.  Why the shrinking student body?  When students left the school, they were not replaced by other incoming students.  When the eighth grade students who scored well on the state test took the admissions test for the specialized high schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, not one of them passed the test. 

I also told Bergner that Success Academy charters have among the highest rates of teacher turnover every year, which would not happen if teachers enjoyed the work.  Helen Zelon wrote in City Limits: 

In Harlem Success Academies 1-4, the only schools for which the state posted turnover data, more than half of all teachers left the schools ahead of the 2013-14 school year.  In one school, three out of four teachers departed.

I also told Bergner about a website called Glass Door, where many former teachers at SA charters expressed their candid views about an "oppressive" work climate at the school.  As more of these negative reviews were posted, a new crop of favorable reviews were added, echoing the chain's happy talk but not shedding light on why teachers don't last long there. 

Bergner argued every issue with me.  He reiterated Success Academy's talking points.  He said that public schools lose as many students every year as SA charters; I replied that public schools don't close their enrollment to new students.  Again, defending SA, he said that closing new enrollments made sense because Moskowitz was "trying to build a culture," and the culture would be disrupted by accepting new students after a certain grade.  I responded that public schools might want to "build a culture" too, but they are not allowed to refuse new students who want to enroll in fourth grade or fifth grade or sixth grade, or even in the middle of the year.

He did not think it mattered that none of her successful eighth grade students was able to pass the test for the specialized high schools, and he didn't mention it in the article.  Nor was he interested in teacher turnover or anything else that might reflect negatively on SA charters.

Subsequently I heard from his editor, who called to check the accuracy of the quotes by me.  I had to change some of the language he attributed to me; for example, he quoted me defending "large government-run institutions," when what I said was "public schools."  He was using SA's framing of my views.  I asked whether Bergner had included my main point about attrition, and the editor said no.  I explained it to her and sent her supporting documentation. 

This is the paragraph that appeared in Bergner's article, which understates the significance of selective attrition while not mentioning SA's policy of not accepting new students after a certain grade:

On the topic of scores, the U.F.T. and Ravitch insist that Moskowitz's numbers don't hold up under scrutiny.  Success Academy (like all charters), they say, possesses a demographic advantage over regular public schools, by serving somewhat fewer students with special needs, by teaching fewer students from the city's most severely dysfunctional families and by using suspensions to push out underperforming students (an accusation that Success Academy vehemently denies).  These are a few of the myriad factors that Mulgrew and Ravitch stress.  But even taking these differences into account probably doesn't come close to explaining away Success Academy's results.

This minimizes the stark differences in demographics when comparing her schools to neighborhood public schools.  The Success Academy charters in Harlem have half as many English language learners as the Harlem public schools.  The Harlem Success Academy 4 school, which has 500 students, has zero students with the highest special needs as compared to an average of 14.1 percent in Harlem public schools.  This disparity is not accurately described as "somewhat fewer."  It is a very large disparity.  Attrition rates are high, which would not be happening if the school was meeting the needs of students.  As I wrote earlier this year:  
Moskowitz said [on the Morning Joe show on MSNBC], referring to the students in her schools, "we've had these children since kindergarten."  But she forgot to mention all the students who have left the school since kindergarten.  Or the fact that Harlem Success Academy 4 suspends students at a rate 300 percent higher than the average in the district.  Last year's seventh grade class at Harlem Success Academy 1 had a 52.1 percent attrition rate since 2006-07.  That's more than half of the kindergarten students gone before they even graduate from middle school.  Last year's sixth grade class had a 45.2 percent attrition rate since 2006-07.  That's almost half of the kindergarten class gone and two more years left in middle school.  In just four years Harlem Success Academy 4 has lost over 21 percent of its students.  The pattern of students leaving is not random.  Students with low test scores, English Language Learners, and special education students are most likely to disappear from the school's roster.  Large numbers of students disappear beginning in third grade, but not in the earlier grades.  No natural pattern of student mobility can explain the sudden disappearance of students at the grade when state testing just happens to begin.

I have no personal grudge against Eva Moskowitz.  On the few occasions when we have appeared together, we have had very cordial conversation.  What I deeply oppose -- and this is what I stressed to Bergner and he deliberately ignored -- is that Success Academy is not a model for public education.  No one expects that Bronx Science is a model because it does not have open doors; it admits only those who meets its standards, and they are high.  Eva Moskowitz pretends that her schools get superior results with exactly the same population because of her superior methods, when in reality the success of her schools is built on a deliberate policy of winnowing out low-performing and nonconformist students. 

Why did Bergner insist on obscuring this crucial difference between SA charter schools and public schools?  Public schools can't remove students with low scores.  They can't refuse to enroll students with severe disabilities and students who can't read English.  They can't close their enrollment after a certain grade.  Unless they have a stated policy of selective admissions, they must accept everyone who seeks to enroll, even if they arrive in February or March.  Their doors must be open to all, without a lottery.  It is not honest to pretend that public schools can imitate Moskowitz's practice of selective attrition.  And it is not honest to overlook that difference.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Angi of the Morning

I feel like I've not been posting very linearly lately about the events that are transpiring around Toa Nafasi and that that is indicative of either just how cray-cray busy the past few months have been or I am on the way to a split personality.  Here's hoping for the former and that you, my dear readers, have been able to follow the tangled narrative thread!

Anyhoo, this week's blog entry is singularly dedicated to Angi and her significant contributions to The Toa Nafasi Project for two years in a row.  You all know that Dr. Stone-MacDonald is a professor of Early Childhood Intervention at UMass, Boston, and that she has been working with us on the assessment and curriculum modification phases of the Project, but I wanted to fill in these broad strokes with a few more deets to give you an idea of the woman behind the Ph.D.

We first met in 2009 in Lushoto, Tanzania, when Angi was doing research for her dissertation at the Irente Rainbow School, a facility for severely disabled children.  At the time, she was working on developing curriculum for such kids, separate from the national syllabus, in order to help them function well enough to thrive within their natural environments.  The idea is to teach intellectually and physically impaired children the basic life skills and enough literacy and numeracy to succeed within the community they were raised, NOT to try to find some kind of "cure," or over-reach viable expectations by enforcing the instruction of the standard curriculum.  

Predicated on the concept of "funds of knowledge," a term coined by researchers Luis Moll, Cathy Amanti, Deborah Neff, and Norma Gonzalez in 2001 to refer to the "historically accumulated and culturally developed bodies of knowledge and skills essential for household or individual functioning and well-being," the idea is to pass on those skills inherently needed to survive within any one community.  

To give you an example: for a child growing up in New York City, part of the funds of knowledge might be learning to ride the subway, certainly to know traffic laws, when to cross the street and when not to, and maybe also to be able to spend and make basic change with small money.  For a child growing up in Lushoto, these funds would be vastly different: let's say being able to fetch water from a source that may be quite far away (Lushoto is very mountainous), chopping firewood, and doing simple household chores like sweeping or dishwashing.  I think you get the idea.

So Angi was working on this notion as part of her dissertation, later to become this published book (!!),, when I met her six years ago.  At the time, I was just starting to conceive of The Toa Nafasi Project and so was on a recon mission to find out more, both about the state of special education in Tanz, and about special education in general.  I found Angi's work hugely informational and helpful to me in understanding the fine line we would be riding by providing special needs services in a developing country: how to remove that stigma that comes with disability and show that disabled persons have potential and worth while managing expectations by confirming that there is no cure for disability, only ways to manage and evolve it.

In addition to developing this new kind of curriculum for intellectually impaired schoolchildren in Tanzania, Angi had also devised an assessment which would later become the backbone of the test we use at Toa Nafasi.  Truth be told, that first meeting with Angi was extremely exciting and would keep me fired up for years after until I eventually bit the bullet and formed the Project.  Now, we are true colleagues at Toa Nafasi as well as fast friends.  2014 marks the second year Angi has come to Moshi and stayed in my house, working on the Project and tooling about town with me.  Thus far, it has been a very symbiotic relationship and we work well together: me, the crazy, wild New Yorker and her, the patient, plug-along Midwesterner.  Of course, it also helps that Vumi falls somewhere between us with her guilelessness and typically Tanzanian sense of logic.
Here is a photo from one of the first days of Angi's trip this year where we dug right in, re-assessing for the third and final time the students of the 2013 grouping.

Of course, teacher training is a BIG part of ensuring the success of the Project, and there were actually a couple of days when I stayed home to do computer work and Angi went out to Msaranga alone to work with Vumi and show her some new methods of teaching and also a new way to order the activities of the school day, starting with "morning meeting," continuing with "storytime," you get the drift.  For more in-depth discussion of Angi's techniques and the pedagogy behind them, PLEASE have a look at her blog,  It is extremely educational, interesting, and very readable for the layperson, so don't be scared!  Here's a pic of Angi edumacatin' the staff and then Vumi leading an animated storytime....

Some of Angi's ideas for new teaching techniques required the production of materials and, as I said, I was gaga with other work and the wageni, so Angi quickly befriended our lovely young Irish volunteer, Evelyn, and put her to work.  Eva, as the Msarangans called her, rocked it out with all sorts of new stuff to decorate the classroom and to help the teachers with their lessons.  Here is the "word wall," a tool designed to help students learn to read, courtesy of Angi and Eva!

Finally, what's the point of having a real-life doc of philosophy on staff if you're not gonna extract some serious scholarship from her?  Well, luckily for me and Toa Nafasi, Angi practically lives to analyze data and produce graphs, so we have this snazzy image to show the world the measure of our success for the first six months of intervention for the 2013 kids.  Not only are we all extremely proud of the students' improvements, we are very much aware that the results are due to the hard work put in by Vumi and the other Tanzanian teachers and we hope to be able to use this graph and other such data as markers of  evaluation when it comes to put in requests for funding.  The only way to keep on keepin' on is to show the world that IT IS WORKING!!

And, being the superwoman that she is, Angi was also mega-helpful in chipping in with the wageni.  Visitors to the Project and in Tanzania in general are a big responsibility and it can be quite overwhelming to show them all a good time, cater to each individual's needs and wants, answer all the questions, and explain all the haps around them.  Just herding eight people across the crowded streets of downtown Moshi was a challenge, so it was really nice that Angi was there to be my winglady while the Petersons and Cartusciellos were in town.  It also helped that she could address a lot of their questions about the program from the perspective of a special education expert whereas I - well-meaning and lovable though I am - am not an expert in much else than designer footwear and historical fiction....!

That's it for the mo', but I'll be back at you next week with more (belatedly) from the Tee-Zed and also what I've been up to since I have been stateside.  Until then, once again asante sana to Angi, and best wishes to all for the week ahead!