Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Post-Party Depression

Like any new mother, I have been experiencing a bit of the blues, but my child, rather than a flesh and blood mtoto, was my entry into the fourth decade of my life, a day that was anticipated with both great excitement and great trepidation and which occurred on April 9th of this year.

Following the blessed event, I appeared to go through a cycle of five major emotional phases as I see it, summed up in what I am now calling "Post-Party Depression."  Fortunately for me (and Scientologists everywhere), no medication was required for treatment.

First came the flutter and flurry of activity leading up to the big jamboree.  For weeks beforehand, I really could think of little else.  Not so much the party we would eventually throw, but the countdown.  It seemed a slow plank-walk to adulthood.  Then things accelerated rapidly and the actual day came and went too fast.  Balloons were blown, drums were beat, a goat was slaughtered, wine was drunk.... the people came.

These events led directly into the second stage of the cycle, the actual euphoria of being in the moment.  It's a big party.  There's food and drinks and entertainment and gifts.  And it's all for me.  Meeee!?  I am being celebrated.  Wowza.

Fun times.  Followed by less fun times.  Third stage was the seismic aftershock of the next day, which included my lying on the living room floor in my pajamas like a dead beetle for most of the morning and early afternoon.  Amongst the detritus of "the morning after" with the few friends who stuck around the whole night, I waxed hungover about my newfound adult status.  The good, the bad, and the ugly.  Unfortunately, this stage was rather lengthy and lasted at least another 24-36 hours.  It can be characterized primarily by stupefied disbelief.  I'm 40.  Party's over.

Fourth was the literal nuclear wasteland that was my house, my body, and my mental state when I fully came to and realized the who / what / where / when / why of the situation I was in.  It was not so much a sobering up as an epiphany.  Punctuated by the exclamation of terror released by the housekeeper when she came to work the next day.  So this is what it's gonna be like from now on.  It was not pretty.  Kinda like The Walking Dead.  Except I was the only zombie for miles and there was nothing to eat, not even a goat.

Of course, you all know me well enough to know that the fifth and final stage was the rally, the reboot, the revival.  The light at the end of the tunnel signified the end of the party weekend and the start of a brand-new work week.  As a grown-up.  Initially a bit brutal like Sandra Bullock re-entering the Earth's atmosphere in Gravity, it actually didn't take too long to normalize again.  As LL Cool J famously claimed, "Don't call it a comeback / I been here for years...."  Copy that.

Now, several weeks later, I have had time to get used to the idea of "40" and, while there was a slight dip at the two-week mark (Sex and the City fabulous 40 descends into Larry David existential crisis 40), these days has me seeing the big 4-0 in a new light with new possibilities on the horizon.

The Project is doing amazingly well, with expansion in our very near future.  Challenges are being faced and conquered, and weaknesses recognized and resolved.  My core group of family, friends, and general loved ones remains intact and probably in even better harmony than before 40 since now I know who really loves me (!!), and I love you guys too!!

I feel I am in a good place at 40 years (and 20 days) old and am proud of my recent professional accomplishments, personal development, and these legs!!  Recognizing that there will always be bumps in the road, I have high hopes for the year ahead, and as long as I remain vigilant about the neck cream, I think this may be my best decade yet!

Many thanks to everyone who helped me get this far; I, clearly, could not have done it without you.  Hope you enjoy the photos from the big bash below!

The set-up


The catering


The background

The guests


The cake

The gifts (yes, I did wake up on my 40th birthday to a flat tire, of course I did, why wouldn't that happen??)


And finally, here's your girl, from crying baby in yellow terrycloth to running down a dream to 40 in Daisy Dukes with a classic look on my mug, that's me!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Common Core .... Give Us More, or Close the Door?

This recent article from caught my eye.  It's titled "Common Core: What's Right for Special Education Students?" and comments on the debate currently raging in the American education sector about whether special ed kids should be held to the same standards of success as their typically developed counterparts.
In particular, the article talks about testing, standardized and otherwise.  I think most special education experts would agree that while an assessment of some sort is important for establishing a baseline of a student's ability, tests in general should not be the only indicator of achievement targets.  Particularly when discussing the achievements of special ed students whose talents presumably vary widely and distinctively even amongst that sub-group as well as compared to general ed students.
I tend to agree with Julie Cavanagh in this article that an immoderate emphasis on the outcomes of a test undercut the idea that a student's education, whether it be general or special, should be a distinctive and discrete experience.

That this debate is occurring in a developed country like the United States should provide some clue as to the challenges facing educators here in Tanzania where we are light-years away from even having a discussion about the possibility of implementing IEPs.
I'm not hopeless -- actually, very hopeful -- but the task at hand is not an easy one, and I can only trust that we at Toa Nafasi are doing our part to help.

Nothing lights up ten-year-old Billy Flood's face brighter than when he talks about music.  The pint-size Beatles fan loves writing his own songs, and playing the keyboard and bass.  However, when getting on the topic of Common Core and end-of-year testing, that light dims a little.

"It was kind of a nerve-wracking experience," said Billy, a fifth-grader at a public school in Brooklyn, New York.  "I think I was pretty nervous taking the test." 

Billy, who is on the autism spectrum, is one of more than 180,000 special education students in New York state learning the Common Core state standards and who took the state test at the end of last year.

More than 40 states have implemented the Common Core State Standards Initiative setting specific achievement targets in math and English language arts. 

Since Common Core was launched in 2009 - New York adopted it in 2010 - there has been a divisive national debate on these standards. 

Within that debate, there are also questions as to whether special education students should be measured by the same standards and taking the same tests as general education students. 

"He's come home saying things like 'I don't know anything.  I can't do anything.'  This is based on the two prior years of him taking the test - third and fourth grade," said Lynda Flood, Billy's mother.  "It rips my heart out because I know how smart he is; I know how intelligent he is; I know what he can do.  Those tests, they don't prove at all what my child is capable of doing."

Special education students in the United States have what is called an Individualized Education Program (IEP).  It provides support and services for each student depending on their learning needs.  Some of that support comes in the form of accommodations during test-taking like getting extra time, having some questions read out loud, and being in a different testing location. 

However, even with these accommodations, special education teacher Julie Cavanagh doesn't think that's enough with regard to the Common Core.  She firmly believes that the new standards have made learning more difficult across the board, especially for special education students. 

Cavanagh, who teaches third and fifth grade at PS 15 Patrick F. Daly in Red Hook, Brooklyn, said the new standards represent a "developmentally inappropriate curriculum" for special education students and has had the additional effect of "taking away from schools' and educators' ability to really focus on differentiated and individualized sort of goals for those students."

Cavanagh specifically teaches students who take alternate assessments, which means they don't take the same standardized tests as everyone else.  These special education students also have IEPs but might receive more accommodations and modifications than other special education students because their learning disabilities are more significant. 

Alternate assessment allows Cavanagh to write her own version of the end-of-year state tests - still based on the Common Core, but modified for her students. 

However, some special education teachers think the basic accommodations for their students - the IEPs - are enough to help them succeed within the Common Core framework. 

"I believe that given the opportunity, special education or not, the standards should be set high because once we're out of school, the standard is set high.  So there is no real benefit for the child to set the standard low in their early life so that when they get out of school they are now not functioning as well as they could have," said Dan Blackburn, who teaches special education for kindergarten through fifth grade at Amber Charter School in Manhattan. 

Blackburn's school doesn't have alternate assessment and students have to take the standardized test at the end of the year.  He agrees with raising the standards and having them applied consistently across the United States.  While Blackburn acknowledges there are some difficulties that come with Common Core, he believes "with the right persistence and the right attitude that it's going to help our students learn to be productive global thinkers."

Imelda Vazquez's daughter Crystal is in Blackburn's fifth grade class.  Crystal has a learning disability and English isn't her first language, but Vazquez said she is happy her daughter is held to the same high standards as the general education students. 

"If she leaves [graduates] without being well prepared, it won't serve her.  So it [Common Core] has to be helping her a lot," said Vazquez. 

Even Cavanagh agrees there shouldn't be a two-tiered system where children who have IEPs are working toward one set of standards and children who don't have IEPs are working toward another, but feels the Common Core's "over-emphasis" on testing "really undermines the work of that individualized, differentiated experience" that has become the hallmark of special education. 

Cavanagh also says the focus on teacher accountability can be counterproductive.  In New York, 20% of an educator's evaluation is based on students' standardized test scores.  Cavanagh said this puts an immense amount of pressure on the teachers as well as the students. 

"I think where we run into a problem is expecting that children with or without an IEP are going to be able to demonstrate proficiency on those skills at the exact moment that the state or some [policymaker] has decided that they should be doing that."

This year, Billy's mother, Lynda, has decided her son won't take the state test, though schools with less than a 95% participation rate in the assessments risk losing "significant federal funding," according New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch. 

As for Billy, he's just trying to stay positive.

"My mom always tries to push me into confidence, no negativity....  It works actually....  The confidence works."

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Finding the Calvin Within

As a qualitative rather than quantitative person, I am often at a loss when it comes to expressing just how Toa Nafasi is making an impact on an unemotional and practical level.

I can very easily get excited about the Project and jabber on at great and non-sequential lengths about discoveries made from children's drawings which have led us to critical breakthroughs in their emotional and psychological states, or probable influences in their backgrounds or home lives which have contributed to their intellectual or academic situations.

But I am not a number-cruncher nor a graph-maker, I do not manipulate data nor do I know the technical terms associated with the collection, analysis, and presentation of such information.

Therefore, disclaimer clearly stated, I present to you now in its most fundamental form, an example of the positive impact that I believe Toa Nafasi is having on the slow-learning children in the Standard One classroom at Msaranga Primary School.

Check below some pages from the assessment done in August 2014 on a young gentleman named Calvin.

You can see here Calvin's very limited ability to identify basic syllables and numbers.

Obviously, without a mastery of syllables, he cannot read simple words.

Doesn't know his shapes or colors.

Without being able to identify numbers correctly, Calvin certainly cannot be expected to solve even the most basic math problems.
When he was asked to write easy Swahili words - baba, mama, etc. - Calvin failed to do so since again, he has not yet mastered the syllables involved in building them.

Shortly after testing, we enrolled young Calvin in our tuition program and Vumi and the crew set about getting him up-to-speed by working with him Toa Nafasi-style: individually and/or in small groups a half-hour out of each regular school day and then returning him to the normal Standard Once classroom for the rest of his lessons.

Fast-forward to March 2015, seven months later....

Calvin's got all but one syllable identified and every number.

He aced all the simple words and got halfsies on the more complex ones.

Colors and shapes?  No problem!!

Not only has the kid got his number identification downpat, he's also figured out strategies for completing simple arithmetic problems.

Okay, so he didn't score 100% on the new exam but he did leaps and bounds better than he did on the first try, even being able to write a few simple Swahili words from memory, not copying from the board!!

Now, since I freely admit my limitations as a researcher and analyst, so I can't say by what percentage he improved or what it means for the others in his cohort or any fancy lingo like that.  But what I can say, and what I know for sure, is that without this program, Calvin would never have gotten the opportunity to make these advances much less succeeded at them.
The chaos of the regular classroom, the shortcomings of the system, the overall environment of a developing nation do not provide a catchment for those most vulnerable amongst us.
I am extremely proud and exceptionally gratified to be part of this Project that does offer an alternative.  And, I am so appreciative of the rest of the team and the part that each individual plays - and don't worry, there is a graph-maker on staff!

A luta continua!!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Usonji Day

Earlier this month, we celebrated World Autism (usonji, in Kiswahili) Awareness Day here in Tanzania with a grand march in Moshi from the YWCA through the main streets of town, ending up at the Hindu Stadium for some speeches from the organizers and dances and sodas for the kids.

The day was put together through the efforts of several local and international NGOs, most notably Autism Connects Tanzania, the Gabriella Rehabilitation Center, Comprehensive Community-Based Rehabilitation in Tanzania, and Building a Caring Community.  Other local NGOs and schools participated including Pamoja Tunaweza Boys and Girls Club, Neema International and the Tuleeni Orphanage, the primary schools of Korongoni, Mwereni, Msandaka, Shauri Moyo, and Shirimatunda, all of which have special units for disabled students.  The Toa Nafasi Project was also involved, although much more marginally than I would have liked as neither Vumi nor I had really gotten our acts together to organize ourselves properly!

Fortunately, I was able to attend (wearing the Msaranga school uniform tee-shirt which luckily was the autism color, blue) although Vumi was not.  I went originally as a bystander with the Pamoja Tunaweza team, an outfit run by my good friend Shay Bell and others, but once we got there, I re-grouped myself with the Gabriella group since lo and behold, my four boarders were amongst the marchers!

Shamimu was the first Msaranga kid to board at Gabriella and she is flourishing beyond words!  Her academic skills have surpassed our hopes and she is definitely going to be able to rejoin her cohorts back in the village at some point soon.  That is, provided that her home situation is sorted out and we can keep tabs on her behavioral issues.

Nuru was the second to board and is definitely somewhere on the autism spectrum.  She too is thriving at Gabriella but will probably remain there until matriculation when we can figure out which vocational skill she will be best suited for as an adult.  Luckily, her baba is a great guy and will continue to be a supportive parent to her for whatever she needs.

My two boys at the Center, Danny and James, are also doing great though when Vumi and I visited a couple weeks back, Danny had been ill and taken to the hospital.  He looked a bit thin at the march but when he saw me, he gifted me with the biggest and brightest smile ever.  James remains a bit of a mystery to us all.  He is quite locked into himself emotionally, and it's hard to tell what's going on inside his head.  But he is definitely somewhat more extroverted than he was when I first met him.

Typically, Shimmy-Sham came and glued herself to me all day long and we roasted together in the hot sun watching the Gabriella folks drum and dance and listening to the speeches given by all the organizers and illustrious guests.  I had not bothered to bring my camera with me so I have no documentation of my own, but Shay has graciously allowed me to show these Pamoja Tunaweza pictures so you can get some idea of how it all went down.

Next year, I vow to do about a million times better than I did this time around!  World Autism Awareness Day happens annually on April 2nd and, to my knowledge, events were held all over the country (and, presumably, the world?) with marches in Arusha, Dar es Salaam, and Mwanza as well as Moshi.  In 2016, Toa Nafasi will represent for realz and this won't be such a piddly and belated blog post.  It truly was a beautiful day for a beautiful cause and I am only sorry that this piece couldn't do it justice!!

Autism is a general term used to describe a group of complex developmental brain disorders - autism spectrum disorders - caused by a combination of genes and environmental influences.  These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by communication difficulties, social and behavioral challenges, as well as repetitive behaviors.  It is estimated that 70 million people are affected by autism worldwide, making it an urgent public health priority that requires increasing global awareness, services, and research.

The goal of Autism Connects Tanzania is to provide support for families, current organizations, and schools in Tanzania and help educate about autism and intellectual disabilities, in order to protect children, youth, and young adults from harm, and to connect them with services that will help enhance their lives.

In developing countries, children with disabilities such as autism are often forgotten.  They are hidden away in their homes and denied access to school due to the lack of education about the causes of their disabilities, knowledge on how to best help them, and the myths that exist due to the disabilities these students face.  In countries where basic education is difficult to provide even for those without disabilities, the children that face the most challenges are often left behind and struggle to have a voice to fight for them.  Autism Connects Tanzania is working to help these children have a voice that can be heard by all, following these four tenets:

Education - By educating people about intellectual disabilities and autism, ACT will create a society eager to fight to protect and serve children impacted by these disabilities.

Empowerment - By providing resources and support on how to best help and support children with intellectual disabilities and autism, ACT will be able to encourage people to create more supports in their society.

Connections - By connecting those working with special needs children with each other and encouraging collaboration, ACT will create a diverse society of supporters and advocates working for change and help provide more children with services they desperately need.

Change - By creating a society in which children with intellectual disabilities and autism are supported, we will live in a country that ensures all people are able to live with dignity, quality of life and strive for a bright future.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

BFA Revisited

Hel-lo dear readers, I hope this long overdue blog post finds everyone in good spirits.  I am faring well over here in Mo-Town, emotions running a *bit* high on the eve of my 40th birthday, but it's all good.  I think I can honestly say that I am content with life these days, and ready for my next decade to be supa-dupa fabulous!!
As for Toa Nafasi business, I've got lotsa good news to share, but since we're having a big goat roast chez moi tomorrow, not so much time in which to write.  You'll have to make do with the following article from about a books donation project from Nigeria until I get some time to myself to ruminate and write in earnest.
I don't know how many of you remember my "Legally Tanzanian" blog based on my experiences here as a wee volunteer and then as Program Officer in Kilimanjaro for Visions in Action, a small US-based international NGO.  Well, this article about the books caught my eye, and I thought I would share it here as it was not so long ago that I myself was receiving 40-foot containers of donated books for distribution.
I wrote a blog entry for LT about the experience back in 2011 and you can find it here:  Clearly, it was a big job to be the one and only point person for the research on-the-ground, coordination with the US partner organizations, and recipient of the bounty from the port in Dar to the long truck ride to Moshi.  God, just thinking about it makes me wince!!
At the time, I had very mixed feelings about what we were doing since the books that came in were English-language and Swahili is obviously the national language of Tanzania.  Even English-speaking Tanzanians would not have been interested in the bulk of the books that came through: e.g. John Grisham thrillers for the adults and St. Patty's Day picture books for the kids....  Not so much....
Back in the day, I did try hard to convince the Tanzanians to whom we were gifting the books that they had significance as supplementary tomes for libraries and teacher resource centers, but I'm not sure how much of my spiel was bought into....  And I'm not sure how much of it I believed myself!!
I suppose it makes more sense for a country like Nigeria whose official national language is English though I still don't see the relevance of legal thrillers and Irish holidays for the continent.  And why the Nigerians should get into cahoots with the American NGO Books for Africa to send even more English-language literature to Tanz, I've no idea, but what's done is done.
At any rate, I won't reiterate all my old beefs from that particular mission and let the old blog entry speak for itself.  On a positive note, here's a photo of a kid who happened to be at the regional block on one of the unloading days and clearly found something that interested him, which is after all, the name of the game, si ndiyo?!
Until next week.... be well!!
Nigeria: Offor's Foundation, BFA Donate Books to Tanzania Schools
The Sir Emeka Offor Foundation (SEOF), a non-governmental, philanthropic organization focused on youth employment, widows cooperatives, education, healthcare, and infrastructural development, last week delivered a total of 20,000 academic books to five secondary schools plus a university and a primary school in the Bagamoyo region of Tanzania.
The initiative is part of its continuing effort to promote literacy in the African continent.  UNICEF had reported Tanzania's total adult literacy rate is 67.8 percent.
Since 2010, the Emeka Offor Foundation has partnered with Books For Africa (BFA), a United States-based nonprofit organization, to fight illiteracy and promote education.
Their combined efforts are aimed at ensuring African schools and libraries - including those in hard to reach communities - are sufficiently equipped with reading materials.
"Our partnership with BFA is paying great dividends and I am happy that we can help provide access to books for as many children as possible in our continent," said Offor, who added that "without education, people cannot provide solutions to their problems."
So far, the Emeka Offor Foundation has underwritten the shipment of more than 73 40-foot containers of books and computers to approximately 19 African countries, including Nigeria and Tanzania.
The estimated financial value for this logistical effort is estimated at $18 million.
"Over 99 percent of schools in Tanzania have inadequate or non-existent libraries, which are an essential asset of a school, so we are using the donated books to open a doorway that provides students a chance to explore knowledge," said Charles W. Sloan, Jr., the Manager of Nianjema Secondary School.
"The impact of this donation on the lives of these students is immense.  It is wonderful that someone from the other side of the African continent can use his time and money to help others so far away in such a dramatic way."
Getting books to some regions in Africa can be fraught with logistical challenges along the delivery route, particularly when it comes to security and hazardous roads.  A successful delivery is often a cause for celebration for schools and communities.
"Our school libraries are really lacking books, so this is big for us," said Sloan.
BFA relies on the generosity of donors, young and old, business entities and publishers who flood their massive warehouse in Atlanta with books that cover all areas and levels of education.  In addition, BFA depends on their growing volunteer team to effectively sort and repackage donated materials for onward distribution to African countries.  According to BFA, the Sir Emeka Offor Foundation is the single largest independent African donor to their organization since their inception.