Sunday, January 29, 2017

Take That, Jeff Sessions!

In an almost perfect coda to last week's entry, I am posting the latest graphs formulated by the inimitable Angi Stone-MacDonald showing the results of last year's cohort in their first six months of intervention.  

Since then, of course, they've undergone another six months of intervention and will need to be tested for the third and final time, but we've not yet started this process.  

Schools just opened up again for 2017 on the 9th of January and predictably, everything is going very polepole.  This is not a surprise.  It happens every year.  After a month off for vacation (Christmas and New Year's festivities galore), the shock of re-entering real life (and work) is quite the doozy.  I guess this is true everywhere but perhaps doubly so in a climate where our winter months are actually the hottest time of the year.  It's quite difficult to get into the whole hapa kazi tu mode when all you want to do is drink cold beers under the shade of a palm tree.  And sleep.
Anyhoo, someone PLEASE tell Jeff Sessions that special education is NOT an indication of the "decline of civility" as he suggests, but rather a way of ensuring that ALL children receive the education they deserve and that is appropriate for their abilities.  

Though, I'm guessing that if he doesn't care about SPED in an American context, he's probably not gonna be swayed by the successes of my little Tanzanian program....  Make America Great Again?  Yeah, right....

PS: You can see that the third child on the second graph, "AH," did not make any progress from Test 1 to Test 2, and we know exactly who he is and have a plan in place to board him at Gabriella.  So despite his lack of progress with Toa, he will be just fine once he's settled in his new classes.  I'm guessing Mr. Sessions would find this VERY perturbing and shockingly inconvenient!

Monday, January 23, 2017

Sessions: "He Clearly Doesn't Know a Whole Lot of Anything"

I wrote this entry before leaving the States but never found an appropriate time to post.  Why not now, a few days after the inauguration of our new President?  Might as well start getting used to the status quo....


Hi all, it has been just about one month since Donald Trump was elected to be the 45th President of the United States in a surprising and disturbing upset over Hillary Clinton.  As was true during his loooong and tiresoooome campaign, The Donald continues to delight in shocking the public with his brazen political viewpoints, bizarre social media habits, and now, his totally inappropriate choices for his cabinet members.

The hearts of Democrats everywhere are bleeding over the likes of Rex Tillerson, Exxon CEO and Putin pal, as Secretary of State; James Mattis, former "Mad Dog" Marine general, as Secretary of Defense; Betsy DeVos, GOP megadonor and public school naysayer, as Secretary of Education; Ben Carson, former Trump foe and self-pronounced government novice, as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development; and Scott Pruitt, well-known climate change skeptic who brought twelve lawsuits against the EPA, as head of the same agency.  Dark times are indeed upon us.

Perhaps the scariest pick of all - for me, for Toa, for special needs and learning-disabled children in America, for similarly challenged children all over the world who look to their American counterparts as shining examples of how to succeed in the face of such disabilities and needs - is Jeff Sessions.  

One of Trump's earliest supporters during the campaign, the anti-immigration senator from Alabama has a much criticized record on race relations and was once denied a judgeship amid concerns over past comments about blacks.  As Attorney General, Sessions will head the Department of Justice.

Please see below a recent article in Forbes expressing a variety of concerns raised over Sessions' appointment as pertains to special education and disability rights.  (BTW, the Sessions outrage poured out of multiple sources the last couple weeks, so in addition to Forbes, if you're interested to know more about this vile creature, check out The Parent Herald, The Washington Post, and The Huffington Post, to name a few.  I feel sure Sesh can also be found amidst the pages of The Satanic Verses, Goethe's Faust, several volumes of the Harry Potter series, and any book by George Orwell, fiction or nonfiction.)


Would Special Education Rights Be Safe With Jeff Sessions As U.S. Attorney General? 

Senator Jeff Sessions, if confirmed as U.S. Attorney General in the incoming Trump administration, would become the nation's top law enforcement officer.  That would make him responsible for defending and enforcing federal education laws that guarantee students with disabilities the "free appropriate public education" (FAPE) they are legally due.

But special education and disability advocates worry that he may not be up to task given the attitudes and misconceptions he revealed in statements to the Senate floor in 2000.

"Sessions perpetuates the common misconception that inclusion means throwing all students together in the same classroom, with the same curriculum and with the same supports," said Shannon Des Roches Rosa, senior editor at Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism and mother to an autistic adolescent.  "What inclusion actually means is that students are part of the same school community, with the curriculum differentiated for individualized learning styles (which may mean that students don't all have the same classes together), and supports in place for those who need them.  Research consistently demonstrates that students included in this way thrive—all the students, not just the special ed students, and even the special ed students with significant support needs."

Sessions' appointment has been condemned by the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, which called the Department of Justice's work as "vital to the disability community" but called Sessions "a staunch opponent of civil liberties."

"We have grave concerns that under Sessions, the Department of Justice would not protect the rights of disabled people and other marginalized populations," ASAN wrote.

Their concern grows from his past characterization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), passed in 1975 to ensure children with disabilities received the education they deserved as much as other students.  In his statements, Sessions said the laws that protect and ensure education to special education students "may be the single most irritating problem for teachers throughout America today" and "very sincerely" suggested that accommodations for students with disabilities are "a big factor in accelerating the decline in civility and discipline in classrooms all over America."

Sessions has already shown difficulty carrying out his legal duties to protect students with special needs while serving as Alabama's attorney general from 1994 to 1996, when he "used the power of his office to fight to preserve Alabama's long history of separate and unequal education," as Thomas J. Sugrue argues in an op-ed in The New York Times.  Despite the order of Alabama Circuit Court Judge Eugene W. Reese that the state fix the inequitable funding across the state's public schools, which had been preventing the poorest districts from providing "even basic services to students in need," Sessions spent his tenure fighting and attempting to discredit Reese.

It was four years into his first term as a U.S. senator that Sessions said on the floor, "It is clear that IDEA '97 not only undermines the educational process, it also undermines the authority of educators."

Yet his statements make it clear how little he understands IDEA, FAPE, special education, and the needs of students with disabilities.  In fact, when Sessions first describes special education students, he refers only to those with "a hearing loss, or a sight loss, or if they have difficulty moving around, in a wheelchair, or whatever."  It's unclear what "whatever" might refer to, but given that his examples are all outwardly identifiable physical disabilities, Sessions appears not to recognize that disabilities also include the vast number of less outwardly visible ones, such as autism and other developmental disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, mood disorders, cognitive disabilities, personality disorders, dysgraphia, sensory processing disorder and other "invisible" disabilities.

Sessions then identifies the biggest problem with IDEA as an obstacle to effective "discipline" in school.  "We are telling special children with physical disabilities, or disabilities as defined by the federal law, that they don't have to adhere to the same standards other children do," Sessions said.  "Right in the classroom, we create, by federal law, two separate standards for American citizens."

But his statements completely neglect what the purpose of special education is: to accommodate the needs of children with different abilities precisely because they cannot, developmentally or physically or cognitively, adhere to the standards set for other students.

"I can understand where he is coming from, but as a teacher of those students who get those different standards, most of my students are not capable of working on the regular standards, so we have alternate standards for children to learn," explained Melissa Patterson, a special education teacher in Milwaukee who has been working in special education since 1997.  "Some of those standards are behavior management practices, so yes, a student who knows better who slaps somebody will get suspended while a child who doesn't know better who slaps someone will get a chance to correct the behavior.  But if it continues, they get the same consequences."

Many of Patterson's children operate at the cognitive level of a 2-year-old despite being in fourth and fifth grade, she said.

"Two-year-olds don't know you don't slap someone or take away a toy, so there's a little bit of leniency," she said.  "Once they've learned it and you know they've learned it and they know better, that leniency is gone."

Rather than "undermining" the authority of educators, Patterson said IDEA leveled the playing field for students with special needs, ensuring that they receive just as much education from art, music, gym and other specialist teachers as regular education students.

"I think he needs to go sit in an actual special ed classroom and see how it works and see the good that is happening instead of what he thinks is happening because he clearly doesn't know a whole lot of anything," Patterson said.  "He needs to understand that regardless of disability, these kids are kids, and they're in school to learn.  We need to help them do that, and it's his job to enforce that that is done."

Toward the end of his statements, Sessions says he is "sorry that I'm old-fashioned and believe we should be teaching all students to be responsible for their behavior."  But his complaints actually are old-fashioned given the progress that has occurred in public education, suggested Carl Hendricksen, a 35-year veteran of special education teaching in Illinois.  Hendricksen retired from teaching special education in 2013 but the high school vocational classes he now teaches in Peoria, Illinois, still include some special education students.

"We've moved on from some of the expectations toward SPED students and the idea that if a student was acting out emotionally or physically, we should get them out of the building," Hendricksen said.  "Best practices teach the teachers and administrators that being fair is being consistent, but being consistent is not always fair.  Everybody behaves differently and functions differently, so the same punishment doesn't always fit the same crime for different people."

Hendricksen said one revelation for him during his teaching career involved thinking about what kind of treatment he would want his own children to receive.

"Students in special ed will be living, breathing citizens in this world.  How do you want to treat them?"  Hendricksen said.  "How would you want someone to treat your child?  Do I really want my kids treated like I'm treating these kids?"

Yet Sessions implied that he wanted to see more "punishments" and discipline for special education students who act out behaviorally, which is unlikely to be in the child's best interests.

"The solution would be understanding why those students have difficulties, and creating trainings based on that understanding, rather than suppression or 'extinction' or bribing, all of which ignore the reasons those students are extremely frustrated," Des Roches Rosa explained.  "Most often the students are having a hard time communicating what is wrong with them, due to communication challenges, processing needs or delays, illness or a medical condition, sensory sensitivities, or a combination of all the above."

Sessions also complained about the Individualized Education Program, or IEPs, that outline specific goals and accommodations for each student with special needs.  He cited a teacher's letter that IEPs have "become almost contracts with the parents, and schools have to obey them to the letter of the law" or else risk lawsuits.

But they are intended to be a contract, with input from not only the student's parent but also a general education teacher, an administrator, the student's special education teacher and any other specialists the student interacts with, Patterson said.

"What the problem is with that, I have no idea.  It's saying this is what we need to do to give your child what they need to be able to succeed in school," Patterson said.  "Can you be sued if you're not giving the kid what they need?  Yes.  Should you be sued?  Absolutely.  It's the school's job to educate the kids.  If they're not educating them, what are they doing and what are my taxes paying for?"

Des Roches Rosa agreed, pointing out that lawsuits over IEPs occur not because the plans are legally binding themselves but because "parents of kids with disabilities too often have to end up suing school districts in order to get the services that are their legal right under IDEA and FAPE."

A major reason for this, Des Roches Rosa said, is inadequate federal funding to meet students' needs, something Sessions himself noted in his remarks: "We agreed to pay 40% of the cost.  We have never paid more than 15% of the cost.  It has been below 10% in most years."

Patterson agreed that schools lack the funding they need to hire enough staff and to provide the different kinds of evidence-based training and strategies teachers need for effective classroom management.

"We say we're doing all these professional development opportunities, but it’s the same stuff we've been spoon-fed for 15 years that means absolutely nothing at all," she said.  "On both sides, we need not more PD but better quality PD and things that are going to work."

The lack of funding harms not only students but also special education teachers, such as the one in Loveland, Colorado, who filed a lawsuit against the district that let her go after she filed a 20-page police report on various injuries she received from students while on the job.  Sessions refers to similar concerns in his statements but blames these problems on the students—even though the new age of ubiquitous cameras has revealed that special education students risk mistreatment by staff as well.

Just last month, a teacher in Mississippi was caught on video pinning a student with special needs to the floor and then dragging the student across the gym floor by the student's hair.  In another video, she strikes the student on the head with a thermos.

Other videos elsewhere shows an officer beating a special education student in the hall, a teacher in Georgia kneeing a 4-year-old special needs child to the floor and a teacher in Brentwood, New York, physically assaulting a special education student by shoving him, then placing him in a headlock and dragging him out of the hallway.

An investigation at The Seattle Times found 5,000 restraint and seclusion incidents at 10 school districts, "but many of the incidents, at least as they were reported, did not appear to justify the need for restraints or isolation."

Sessions says he believes in public education, but he appears not to believe in "free appropriate public education" for all students based on the remarks he made—even though he would be responsible for enforcing FAPE as U.S. Attorney General.

"Anytime anyone targets special education students as having 'discipline' problems, that is a red flag for me," Des Roches Rosa said.  "If the school is sending home the message to parents that the kids are bad rather than in need of understanding and support, those students are going to spend their entire lives—in the class, and at home—in a state of constant trauma and stress.  That terrifies me."

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Nuthin' but a G Thang

This past week was the first really busy one since I have been back and next week is gonna be a straight-up doozy, so I am taking this quiet minute on a Saturday morning to pen this post and then it's off to the pool for a lil' fun in the sun.
On Tuesday, Gasto and I gathered our various children - his daughter Theresa who is going into Standard Four, and Vumi's daughter Grace (my ward, as it were) who is going into Nursery "C" since she is still too young to enter Standard One (she just turned six!) - and marched off to Holili, up near the Kenyan border where the School of Ritaliza of Mt. Carmel is located.
You might recall from this blog entry last year - - which recounted our inaugural sojourn out to Ritaliza for Grace's first year of boarding, presumably Nursery "B" in which she earned the marks below.

Although she grabbed 4th place in her class (out of how many children, I am not sure), either she REALLY hates sports or she has a terrible personality!  I'm sure it's the former if she's anything like I was in grade school.  Climbing ropes and playing "Capture the Flag" were the banes of my elementary existence.  And like me, G is rocking out the humanities: her reading and language scores are through the roof!  Proud aunty, I am....
Just like last year, we were accompanied by Mongi, Vumi's widower and G's dad as well as Hyasinta.  We also took along Teacher Glory who was brought into Toa Nafasi primarily as a caretaker for G during the time she spends in Msaranga.  Happily, it turned out she was a worthy teacher and so she got a job out of the sitch as well.  Gasto's adopted daughter, Helen, also came with us, a lovely girl who just finished Form Four and is awaiting the results of her national examinations.
UNLIKE last year, however, it was Gasto who got all riled up by the severe matrons who were doing the children's intake.  I feel like this process is made more difficult by the nasty matrons and could potentially be done in shorter time than say, the four hours we were there waiting.  

Last year being G's first year and us not knowing what to expect, we had all sorts of issues acquiescing to their demands.  Clothes, toiletries, school supplies, everything is up for discussion and debate.  Why this soap and not that?  Names must be sewn into clothes in a certain way; if it's not up to snuff, then down to the nearest outpost to find a seamstress to do the work properly.
They were not too kali (stern) with us this time, but they really gave Gasto a run for his money.  He had bought Theresa the best of everything and her suitcase was the envy of every student there, yet the matrons went batty over everything from her daftari (notebooks) to her chupi (underwear).  It was hot and dusty and there were parents and kids and younger sibs all over the lawn.  They had not thought to provide lunch or even bottles of water, so everyone was passing out and the kids were acting up and general chaos ensued.

Finishing up with G early, we had to wait on Gasto who was truly given the run-around, and lost his temper a couple times, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  (Since I am usually the ranter/raver, it was nice for a little role reversal.  Also good to know Gasto is a human being and not the unflappable superman he often projects.)
Hyasinta and I sat on the grass and gossiped until I complained my matako yamechoka (my bum was tired) and got up to take selfies with G, who introduced me to all her little friends, and was very pleased to be able to show off her mzungu aunty.

We didn't get out of there until darn near sundown and, of course, in keeping with the ireful tone of the day, Gasto (the most careful driver ever) got a speeding ticket on the way home.  Still, mission accomplished: two little dumplings back at school and a bunch of tired adults headed home to empty nests.
Thank goodness for Drogo!

Monday, January 9, 2017


Greetings, dear readers, and once again, Toa wishes a very happy new year to you all.  This first week of 2017 has already been fraught with challenges and complications, but we are working through them, one by one, and hoping that the light on the other side of this tunnel will shine through and guide us to a better place.

In light of my somber mood, and taking advantage of the fact that school still has not started in earnest and we are in a bit of a "honeymoon period" work-wise, I am going to take this opportunity to ponder, if y'all don't mind.  The object of my reflection is a word, a phrase really, that the night guard at my house (the norm here in Tanzania) said to me the other day upon seeing me for the first time in 2017.

"Tumechaguliwa."  We have been chosen.

He said it once and I said, "Huh?"  He said it again, and I paused to catch the meaning.

We have been chosen.

We have been chosen to enter the new year.

We are the lucky ones who have been chosen to enter the new year.

We are the lucky ones who have been chosen to enter the new year unlike so many others whose destiny was different.

We are the lucky ones who have been chosen to enter the new year unlike so many others whose destiny was different and who didn't heed the call.

My first thought was that Ibra's sentiment was a matter of Fortune, an acknowledgement of the providence bestowed on us by powers up high.  Obviously, it is not a given for any of us to still be here from one year to the next or even one day to the next.  Accidents happen, illnesses ensue, all manner of tragedy is, of course, possible.  Is this a Tanzanian way of looking at things?  Probably.  My American self rarely ever impugns more meaning to the new year than what I'm going to do on New Year's Eve.  It's just a day to say "What are we doing tonight?  Where"s the party at?" or "I can't be bothered to stay up until midnight.  I'm just going to chill at home with the cat(s)."  And then the following day comes.  And the next and the next until we are far away from New Year's and well into, well, the current year.  I certainly have never regarded it as my good fortune to "have been chosen" to pass into the new year.  Maybe this is the year to start….?

Another idea is that Ibra could have been referring to Fate, which is different than Fortune.  He and I were both "fated" to enter 2017 whereas others were not; we were pre-destined to live another year.  Fate has an element of "being written in the stars" whereas Fortune seems arbitrary and whimsical.  This then means that whether or not Ibra and I are here in 2017 has nothing to do with actions we may or may not have undertaken ourselves, nor our good luck, but is something that is beyond our control.  We were meant to be here.  Another Tanzanian way of looking at things?  Sure.  By taking away any consequence of action, it is pretty easy to say, these things are in God's hands, we mere mortals have no control.

And speaking of God, whichever God you pray to, we can acknowledge the religious underpinning to this sentiment as well.  The Book of Matthew says, "Many are called, but few are chosen" in reference to Jesus's parable of the wedding feast, the idea that being called to the kingdom of heaven is like being invited to sumptuous celebration.  However, in the parable, the many would-be guests ignore the invitation in favor of their own busy schedules and worldly pursuits.  They have indeed been "called," but only the truly pious are "chosen," i.e. only a few can actually hear the word of God, and understand what will happen to them when the end of age comes.  Again, a Tanzanian way of viewing the world?  Definitely.  At least amongst the Christian population of this country, and many Tanzanians are fiercely Christian.  You're gonna be shocked but I actually like this exposition best.

Fortune makes us passive bystanders in our own lives, attributing positive outcomes to serendipity, "happy accidents."  Likewise, Fate robs us of our action.  If everything is pre-destined, then we are just rolling merrily down the stream, bobbing up against whatever is in our path until we finally plunge under for good.  Matthew's parable is the only way in which we human beings retain our free will and dynamism.  We are all given the same shot at being wedding guests, but it is those of us who hear the unspoken call, the silent cry, who end up attending.

I'd like to think that Ibra's statement is akin to us being invited to the wedding, and I hope to use the remainder of this year to try and be worthy of making the cut.  I'd like to right my wrongs, love my friends and forgive my enemies, learn and teach and teach and learn, and most of all, not to waste a single day.  After all, not everyone is chosen and I'm hoping for a repeat appearance in 2018.

By the way, in case anyone was wondering what I replied to Ibra after his pronouncement, I said:

"Yeah, bado tupo."  (Yeah, we're still here.)

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Free Your Mind

Happy new year, one and all.  I hope everyone's celebrations went off smoothly and safely and that no one is any the worse for wear today?!

Drogo and I played it safe this year, opting for a pajama-clad (well, for me, anyway) binge-watch of HBO's The Newsroom rather than braving any sort of rowdy festivity in the outside world.  Drogo and I find Sam Waterston soothing....

Anyhoo, in lieu of original content, here's an article from The Citizen earlier in the week.  It's titled "Trials, Tribulations of Free Education."

I feel like I coulda wrote the thing myself based on Toa's experiences at Mnazi.  Over-population of Standard One?  Check.  Under-resourced teaching staff?  Check.  No physical classroom to put the inflated student population?  Check.  Contributions required from other stakeholders to build classrooms?  ....  Check.

Toa has not yet personally experienced the surplus of desks issue, but I imagine it's down the pike for us.  Stay tuned....


The government started implementing the free education policy this year [2016] responding to President John Magufuli's campaign promise.

One of the most cheered statements during his campaign was when he assured voters that once elected, his government would make sure every child from Standard One to Form Four would not pay a single shilling for education in a bid to motivate parents to enroll their children in school.

Over the years, the school dropout rate has been alarmingly high for numerous reasons including that the parents found it difficult to pay school contributions. 

Before the implementation of the policy, O-level secondary school students were paying Tsh20,000 a year for day scholars and Tsh70,000 for boarders.

There were hardly any fees for primary pupils but numerous contributions were expected to be paid on a monthly basis.  When schools opened in January 2016, the government scrapped the contributions in primary schools and fees for O-level secondary students.

The government set aside Tsh131.4 billion for free education, whereby Tsh18.77 billion was to be disbursed monthly.

From the funds, the government promised to pay Tsh20,000 and Tsh70,000 per year in school fees for day and boarding secondary school students respectively.  This, as well as capitation of Tsh10,000 for each primary pupil each year and Tsh25,000 for every secondary school student.  In addition Tsh1,500 is allotted for meals for those in boarding schools.

President Magufuli warned schools heads that no parent should be asked for contributions of any kind as the government is able to cater for all costs.

Almost a year has gone by and the ambitious policy according to some education experts was faced with a number of hurdles risking the quality of education.

As the free education was rolled out, Tanzanians were overly optimistic of its success.

In a poll conducted by Twaweza across mainland Tanzania between December 2015 and January 2016, nine out of 10 Tanzanians (90%) were confident that the free education policy would be implemented.

The survey also revealed that three out four (75%) believed the free education policy was going to improve the quality of education.

However, 15% believed the policy would not improve the quality of education as a result of the surge in enrollment, which they fear would stretch available resources.

Dubbed "The New Dawn?  Citizens' Views on New Developments in Education," the report was based on data collected from 1,894 respondents.

Despite the optimism on free education, citizens were divided on the quality of primary education over the last 10 years.

49% of the respondents thought that the quality had improved, while 36% thought it had deteriorated.  14% felt there was no change.

As soon as enrollment started, schools started overflowing with students.  Reports show that more than 1.3 million pupils were enrolled for Standard One alone.

The majority of schools in the country received a high number of pupils overwhelming the capacity of available infrastructure.

Reports from all over the country indicated that schools ended up enrolling more pupils than they could efficiently handle.

Majimatitu Primary School in Dar es Salaam, for example, enrolled 1,022 pupils for Standard One alone compared to its capacity of 945 pupils.

In other schools, pupils increased from 45 on average in a classroom to over 130 pushing some to have the pupils study under trees.

The increased pupils' enrollment in primary schools sparked a new crisis of a shortage of desks that called for a nation-wide campaign for contributions from various stakeholders to solve the problem.  The result was that more desks were made than the available number classrooms to accommodate them and in some schools the desks had to be kept outside school buildings.

The challenges were however observed by Dr. Magufuli who assured Tanzanians that his government was not going to shy from them.  He also promised to double the budget allocated for the implementation of the policy next year.

"I would like to tell you this fact, that anything good comes with challenges, and we are facing many challenges in offering free education," said Dr. Magufuli.

Following these challenges President Magufuli took a number of cost-cutting measures including mobilizing his cabinet ministers as well as private citizens to voluntarily contribute to build more classrooms and make more desks.

Education experts worried that the policy that had already sparked off a number of challenges would further affect the quality of education provided in schools.

They claimed that the educational facilities available before the policy was introduced were hardly enough to support the existing number of students.

The shortage of teachers has for long time been impacting on the quality of education provided.  In the year 2016, despite the increased enrollment of Standard One pupils, the government did not employ more teachers.

Some of the experts questioned the government's capability to allocate 20% of the national budget towards the education sector as recommended by the Incheon Declaration of 2015 of the United Nations' Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The declaration requires member countries to allocate at least 20% of their budgets to address education issues of accessibility, quality, equity, inclusion, gender, and lifelong learning.  Tanzania has however remained at 17.3% of the national budget.

Experts have however pointed out that there are still a number indirect costs and contributions that does not free education from being free.