Thursday, October 22, 2015

Julia from the Block

On this "sunny day," in addition to "sweepin' the clouds away," we can also celebrate the addition of Julia, an autistic character, on the long-running children's television program Sesame Street.

According to CNN (excerpted below) and other national news sources, the little lady is the newest member of the Sesame Street family which is already comprised of such famous Muppets as Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, Cookie Monster, and Oscar the Grouch as well as a group of ethnically diverse human actors like Maria, Susan, and Mr. Hooper.  The program is known for its educational content communicated through the puppets and actors, animation and short films, and humor and cultural references.

As author Malcolm Gladwell has stated, "Sesame Street was built around a single, breakthrough insight: that if you can hold the attention of children, you can educate them."  Gladwell also called the essence of the show the "artful blend of fluffy monsters and earnest adults."  Indeed.

Don't get it twisted however: despite Julia's burgeoning career, she's still, she's still Julia from the block!


All cheers for Julia, the newest friend to join Elmo, Big Bird and the Sesame Street family in a new program designed to spread awareness about children with autism.

The bright-eyed and cheerful little girl plays an essential role in Sesame Street and Autism: See All in Amazing Children, an initiative launched Wednesday to promote awareness about autism. 

One in 68 U.S. children has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  A 2014 report by the CDC estimates that 1 in 42 bpys has autism, 4.5 times as many as girls (1 in 189).

The Sesame Street and Autism: See All in Amazing Children program is available as an app and on desktop.  It includes daily routine cards and resources to help family, friends, and others who encounter children with autism.

Sesame Workshop partnered with 14 other organizations, including the Yale Child Study Center and Autism Speaks, on the initiative. 

In the digital storybook, Elmo plays with Julia on the playground and helps his friend Abby Cadabby understand that Julia plays differently than them.  Through his patience and understanding, he helps Abby understand Julia.

"Elmo's daddy told Elmo that Julia has autism," he says.  "So she does things a little differently.  Sometimes Elmo talks to Julia using fewer words and says the same thing a few times."

As the group goes on a quest for a snack, Julia places her hand over her ears when inside Hooper's store. 

"What's the matter?" asks Abby. 

"Julia has really good ears," explains Elmo.

"Sometimes she hears noises that Elmo doesn't notice.  Like the noise the blender makes.  She really doesn't like it!"

The website also tells the story of the character Benny and the real-life stories of Nasaiah and Thomas. 

Sesame Street is using #SeeAmazing to encourage people to share their stories, videos, and pictures on social media to keep the conversation and network of support ongoing.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Up, Up, and Away!

Some good news this week out of the Research and Development side of The Toa Nafasi Project.  We have recently learned that the first article about the Project written by Dr. Angela Stone-MacDonald will be published this December in the DADD Online Journal, a new yearly publication from the Division of Autism and Developmental Disabilities of the Council for Exceptional Children.

It is a comparative piece looking at the use of language and terminology from both her dissertation research conducted in Lushoto in 2009 and her work with Toa Nafasi in Moshi from 2012 to the present.

Angi considers that what the Project does for students in working with Tanzanian teaching staff as the lead and not explicitly conveying to the parents that their child might have a "disability" is the best move given the conservative nature of Tanzanian culture.

Her reasoning?  If we start talking about the children in terms of disability and we distinguish "disability" from "disease," are we setting them up for discrimination in a system where they are currently viewed as lazy as opposed to being somehow aberrant?

Students who have gone through the Toa Nafasi protocol have overcome the labels of "lazy" and "stupid," but can they overcome a label of disabled in this culture?

We want all young children to start school from a position of strength and build on his/her capabilities.  The capability approach supports the holistic view of the child and the growth of that child's knowledge, skills, and innate talents.

Please check out Angi's latest output for the Project: graphs of the progress of the 2014 cohort at six months and after one year of services.  Methinks that despite the cultural issues attendant with addressing disability, the actual improvement the kids are making is extraordinary - I hope you agree!

Monday, October 12, 2015

Vive La France!

Good morning, merry Monday, and happy Columbus Day, people!

Why so chipper, you ask?  Well, because I am pleased to finally be able to announce in no uncertain terms the landing of our first grant here at The Toa Nafasi Project!!

Last year, I had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of a lovely young lady named Sara whose family runs a charitable foundation out of their native France called Masalina.  Turns out Sara and her family have spent considerable time in Tanzania, mostly Arusha, and had heard about Toa Nafasi through a mutual friend.

Their interest piqued, Sara represented the family at last year's "friend-raiser" in DC where she met me, Angi, and crew, and learned about the activities of the Project in detail.  She urged me to apply for funding and once Rhiannon joined us in April this year, we were finally able to bang it out.

Shortly thereafter, I was sent the following letter (translated from the French), but was wary of publicizing the award prior to having the money in the bank, as it were.  Well, the check has now cleared, so pop open the champagne and laissez les bon temps rouler!

The Toa Nafasi Project has officially diversified its sources of funding and, as grant begets grant, we are hopeful that this is the first of many!!



The board of the Masalina Foundation has ruled at its meeting of May 19, on the grant request presented by the Toa Nafasi organization for children with learning difficulties in the village of Msaranga in Kilimanjaro region.

I am glad to inform you that the members of the Board with the favorable opinion of the Founders, have decided to grant you support amounting to X Euros to help finance the Toa Nafasi program allowing the development of every Tanzanian child taking into account their strengths and weaknesses in conjunction with teachers and parents.

With my best wishes for the continuation of your actions, please Madam, accept the expression of my respectful homage.

Thank you, merci, and asante to Sara, her family, and everyone at Masalina!!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Right Said Ed

I'm still feeling a bit funky since returning to New York, so I've been remiss about writing an original piece for the blog in recent weeks.  I'll try to remedy that shortly, but until then, at least we have this political fodder over which to muse! 

With the election set to take place later this month, the headlines out of Tanzania continue to be dominated by news from the campaign trail.  From the Daily News, this article on presidential hopeful, Edward Lowassa, and his call for the overhaul of the entire Tanzanian education system piqued my interest.... and prompted a lil' chuckle.
Union presidential candidate on the Coalition of Four Opposition Political Parties (UKAWA) ticket, Mr. Edward Lowassa, has promised to overhaul the entire education system to meet current challenges and changes.

Addressing a campaign rally at Mwembeyanga Grounds in Temeke District in Dar es Salaam yesterday, Mr. Lowassa said his government will review the curriculum of both primary and secondary education should he clinch the top post of the land.

"I will start my leadership with education as my top priority.  All I need is a big number of your votes to have the mandate to deliver what I have promised you," said the former prime minister.

Mr. Lowassa reiterated that education would be free from kindergarten to university level and that the funds to finance the promised free education would be drawn from the country's natural resource endowment, including gas.

"I am vying for the presidency because I hate poverty.  I want to lead Tanzanians to alleviate poverty.  The gap between the haves and have-nots has become huge," he noted.

Drumming support for Temeke CUF parliamentary candidate, Mr. Abdallah Mtolea, Mr. Lowassa said the aspirant would be able to deliver to expectations in development if the Tanzanian people would enable him to become their MP.

Earlier, Mr. Mtolea, whose party is among the four political parties forming UKAWA, pointed out the state of education in Temeke constituency was bad and he asked Mr. Lowassa to address the problem.

"We have a few schools, which do not accommodate the number of children in the constituency while many students are performing poorly in examinations," he said.

Mr. Mtolea promised to eliminate financial contributions to schools by parents should he be elected the area's MP, noting that since Temeke was among the good tax collectors, the district would be able to finance all education costs.