ConnecTeach Tanzania: Misigiyo Project Reflection

ConnecTeach Tanzania: Misigiyo Project Reflection

Amy Miller

I did not fully grasp how powerful and effective the ConnecTeach model is until I went to Tanzania with Bhavani.

I had the incredible opportunity in October of 2018 to travel to Tanzania with the NGO ConnecTeach to facilitate an educator workshop over the course of 9 days. I have been fortunate to work with Bhavani and ConnecTeach over the past four years through my role as Director of Education at the World Affairs Council of Dallas/Fort Worth. We previously collaborated to provide leadership trainings to North Texas high school students by facilitating conversations around social issues such as conflict, gender inequality and environmental conservation. Through those conversations, I got a glimpse of the effective model ConnecTeach developed to address significant social problems in communities around the world by engaging in conversation about controversial issues and empowering community members to affect positive change locally. I did not fully grasp how powerful and effective the ConnecTeach model is until I went to Tanzania with Bhavani though. 

We arrived in Karatu, a town in the north of the country, ready to work with a group of 10 educators who live and work in the nearby Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The majority of the educators were Masai, a nomadic indigenous tribe that herds cattle as their main source of income, who for the most part had received little to no training or professional development as teachers. Some of them manage classrooms of over 100 students of different ages and learning levels on their own. The resources available to these educators were very minimal in schools that were made from sticks thatched together with a small blackboard at the front of the space. As we learned over the course of the workshop, corporal punishment was commonly practiced in their schools as a form of discipline and punishment. 

Our goal for this workshop was to empower these 10 educators to see themselves as leaders and as agents of change in their communities. Additionally, we wanted to equip them with the skills to manage their classrooms without the use of corporal punishment, considering logical consequences for students’ actions instead. Throughout the course of the workshop, we also helped the teachers to grasp educational concepts related to differentiated learning, collaborative projects, foundations of English language learning, reading and writing strategies, and problem-based learning. Many of these concepts were brand new to this group of educators and took some time to review and check for understanding, but by the end of the workshop they showed a strong understanding and appreciation for these concepts. 

The most impressive shift in thinking during the workshop, in my opinion, is that the educators now say they will no longer use corporal punishment on their students.

Over the course of those 9 days, we tied learning concepts to social issues and initiated dialogues with the educators to consider what societal problems they see in their bomas, or villages. Some of the most prevalent issues they brought up related to poverty, lack of adult and sex education, misconceptions related to health, early marriage and gender inequality, as well as a lack of infrastructure. In discussing these issues, we emphasized the important role education plays in addressing and solving these problems. We also helped them to see their powerful roles as leaders in their communities because they are impacting the minds of multiple generations as educators. They can help to shape conversations and ideas around many of these issues by working with the students, parents and elders. We also helped them to develop a community survey, which they would use to ask community members about their perceptions on these social issues. By the end of the workshop, the teachers told us they were empowered and excited to facilitate their community survey and embrace their roles as community leaders.

  One of the most significant challenges we faced over the course of the workshop was the language barrier. While a couple of the educators had a high level of English language skills, the majority had some difficulty expressing their thoughts in English, and one of the educators, Ana, spoke no English so we relied heavily on one of the teachers, Saning’o, to translate our ideas into Kiswahili or Ma so that she could understand. Saning’o had the challenge of not only translating our words but also the cultural relevance of our examples to ensure that Ana understood how the themes tied into her understanding of the world. In the end, everyone grasped the ideas we were teaching but it took a significant amount of time to translate these concepts and check for understanding. Our hope is that Ana will learn some English language skills before we see her again so that we might be able to converse with her directly. 

I truly believe that this workshop had a significant positive impact on these educators, allowing them to see more clearly their roles as leaders.

The most impressive shift in thinking during the workshop, in my opinion, is that the educators now say they will no longer use corporal punishment on their students. One teacher in particular, Loomoni, said early in the workshop that he would use creative forms of corporal punishment on his students such as holding uncomfortable positions for hours, doing push ups, laying outside in the hot sun, and beating them with sticks. We spoke with him and the group about the importance of fostering a learning environment in which the students feel safe and comfortable asking questions as well as expressing when they do not understand a concept. In order to create such an environment, the students need to respect the teacher, not just fear him. Instead, we encouraged them to consider logical consequences for the students’ actions in order to help the students feel safe and understand the implications of their actions in the real world. 

I truly believe that this workshop had a significant positive impact on these educators, allowing them to see more clearly their roles as leaders and the responsibility they have to challenge longstanding ideas that can be detrimental to the prosperity of their communities. The educators were so grateful for the opportunity to work with ConnecTeach and are eager to work with us again. At this point, I’m excited to see the work that they produce while we’re away based on the assignments we gave them. Bhavani and I encouraged them to start a book club to foster more literacy skills, develop lesson plans based on the strategies we shared, and complete the community survey with a total of 4,000 community members. There’s a lot of work to be done before we return, but I’m optimistic they will take the assignments we gave them and run with them. I look forward to the day when we will be able to sit down with these educators in person again and discuss what they’ve been working on to develop their communities while we were away. I have every confidence they are now enacting the change they wish to see in their villages thanks to ConnecTeach.  

Impression, Influence, and Impact: Why I Volunteer for ConnecTeach

Impression, Influence, and Impact: Why I Volunteer for ConnecTeach

By Amy Merk 

As confirmation numbers and departure times get set for our second ConnecTeach adventure, I have begun to reflect on what our first trip meant for me. It’s taken me almost a year to realize it, but ConnecTeach really has changed my professional life forever as an educator. In the first month, as I got back and started getting my own classroom ready, the first trip was an opportunity to “give back”, “make a difference”, and use other such well-intentioned clichés, which made a good impression in the faculty lounge. After we got feedback from the teachers we visited, my experience became more than just a conversation topic- I was a positive influence on other teachers. What I didn’t expect was that this week, I would feel the true impact that ConnecTeach has made on me.

If anyone saw me in my classroom that morning before school, they might have thought I had finally lost it. I was giggling out loud as I cut strips of paper, folded them up, and put them in jars.

During March and April, the faint smell of number two pencils on scantrons becomes a stronger and more frequent sense memory. You can see a change in the faculty in many schools across the US. Still dedicated, still determined to engage, but somewhat doubtful. Will I get my students to where they need to be? Will my students’ test scores reflect the growth that I know they have made? The never-ending push toward rigor leaves some with rigor mortis. The brightly colored bulletin boards created by energetic hands back in August have now dulled.

At ConnecTeach, we believe that students should be engaged in meaningful learning. Students should be allowed to develop thinking skills through cooperative learning and multi-sensory experiences. I greet my students with a smile as I try to enact lesson plans I developed based on these very principles. But Tuesday, all I saw all day long were tired, discouraged faces- from my students, from my colleagues, and even from myself as I caught my reflection in a trophy case proudly displaying our test score performance from last year.

And then…Wednesday morning at 4 am- it happened. I jumped out of bed and yelled “I have to practice what I teach!!!!!”

In July, I remember standing in front of a captive audience at the Hope School in Hyderabad, telling the teachers how important it was to empower students to take responsibility for their own learning. We got the teachers up and moving to demonstrate learning as an active process, and that teaching, also an active process, must be an act of constant reflection and growth. “Teaching is an art and a science,” I had told them,  “a profession where creativity meets trial and error.” This was all going through my mind as I got ready for work on Wednesday, knowing what I had to do.

If anyone saw me in my classroom that morning before school, they might have thought I had finally lost it. I was giggling out loud as I cut strips of paper, folded them up, and put them in jars. Ten minutes before the bell, I delivered my gifts. I gave the fifth and sixth grade math teachers each a jar of bad math jokes. By eleven o’clock, I had performed a reminder rap about rules and procedures to 25 sixth graders. After lunch, I caught a student making a flip-book in his math journal during class. Expecting me to reproach him for off-task behavior, he looked a bit puzzled when I enlisted him to make one demonstrating the division process we were learning (he was more than happy to oblige).

I really don’t know how many test scores I increased on Wednesday. What I do know is that I saw about forty more smiles than I had seen the day before. If school is a place where teachers and students want to be, there is engagement. Where teachers and students support each other through collaboration, there is engagement. Where students realize their teachers are also learning, there is engagement. Where there is engagement, there is learning.

ConnecTeach challenged me to do what I am asking other teachers to do. It impacted me as well as many in my school on Wednesday morning in Bedford, Texas, in the same way we hope to impact schools halfway across the world. My work as a ConnecTeach volunteer is the best professional development I could ever have. As we prepare for our second trip, I hope that my fellow volunteers will get to experience this same gift, delivered at that time during the school year when we all need it the most, all for the cost of a few hours of our spare time. Thank you, ConnecTeach, for the impact you make on everyone involved in this project, especially the one you continue to make on me.

Format, Structure and Successful Students

Format, Structure and Successful Students

Teach children literacy skills, they can read a book. Teach children to think, they can change the world.

By Amy Merk

Education must prepare students for their future. If we want students to embrace this unknown future, educators must also embrace it. There is no certification course that can tell teachers what the future looks like. Right now, teachers all over the world are preparing students for jobs that have not yet been created. So how do we do it?

This is the challenge of wisdom over knowledge. This is the challenge that teachers all over the world are facing right now.

The good news is that there are schools where education is being transformed. There are teachers who understand that the format and structure of education must be amended to keep pace with the skills necessary to succeed in a global world. For teachers who serve students with generational economic and education deficits, this shift represents a unique opportunity to bridge this divide.  Since all educators are facing this challenge, teachers of historically underserved students can be invited into this wave of innovation on an equal playing field. ConnecTeach invites these teachers into this conversation on global education, because we are all preparing students for an unknown future.