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.