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 (!!), http://www.amazon.com/Community-Based-Education-Developmental-Disabilities-SpringerBriefs/dp/9400773196/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1409657785&sr=1-1, 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, http://blogs.umb.edu/angelastone/.  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!

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