Zambia is Not the Only Country...

I recently came across an old copy of a Dave Eggers book called What is the What, detailing the life of Valentino Deng, a Sudanese refugee who came to the US over 15 years ago.  I had read it a decade ago, while traveling through South Africa, and was surprised to read about what had happened to Deng after the book’s release.

Deng was just 7 years old when a military group attacked his home in Sudan, forcing him to flee by foot and join the “lost boys” of Sudan. Here he wandered with other young boys who had escaped the civil war, finding a home in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, and then Kenya. He spent nine years in the camps, where he learned to read and write, and eventually worked as a social advocate and reproductive health facilitator. He applied for refugee status in the US, promising himself that if he made it there, he’d use his blessings to help his fellow Sudanese citizens.  His integration into the US was challenging, but he settled in Atlanta where he worked at a health club and attended a community college.

Five years after he arrived in the US, What is the What was published and he pledged to use the proceeds from the book to help his home town. He built a high school in Marial Bai, operating without tuition for its students. It has become one of the most sought-after schools in the country with only about 15% of students getting in. Deng has also tried to enroll at least 50% girls, and accepts almost all of the girls that apply. And after the success of the school, he was selected as the Minister of Education for Northern Bahr el Ghazal, where the school is located. He now is responsible for 875 schools in the District!

Deng’s story is a reminder to me that there are good people all across the globe, doing their part to further education for their fellow citizens. What’s more – some are able to turn incredible hardship, adversity and luck, into a lasting impact on the world’s youngest constituents. While I am often hyper-focused on the work we are doing – checking back in on Deng’s story was a good reminder for me that Joel village is not the only village, Eastern Province is not the only province, and indeed, Zambia is not the only country, in dire need of educational support systems.

To Make of this World a Brotherhood and a Sisterhood

In the flurry of graduations, I came across Melinda Gates’s commencement address at Duke University in North Carolina – and I wanted to share a piece of it.  Most people know Melinda Gates as the wife of Bill Gates, and sometimes as the co-founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, created in 1994 to improve healthcare and decrease poverty around the globe.  But in her own right, she was once a project manager at Microsoft, working on Publisher, Encarta, and other multimedia products. Her address at Duke struck me though, because of its discussion of technology:

The people who say technology has disconnected you from others are wrong. So are the people who say technology automatically connects you to others. Technology is just a tool. It's a powerful tool, but it's just a tool. Deep human connection is very different. It's not a tool. It's not a means to an end. It is the end -- the purpose and the result of a meaningful life -- and it will inspire the most amazing acts of love, generosity, and humanity...I believe we are finally creating the scientific and technological tools to turn the world into a neighborhood. And that gives you an amazing ethical opportunity no one has ever had before. You can light up a network of 7 billion people with long-lasting and highly motivating human connections…I hope you will use to the tool of technology to do what you already had it in your heart to do. To connect. To make of this world a brotherhood and a sisterhood.

Gates starts by saying something that we know, every single day in our schools.  Our teachers use technology in our classrooms as a tool.  Our schools and the learning that happens within its walls could not exist without our teachers. And it’s why we invest in our teachers – we pay them a fair living wage, we provide them with support and feedback from our trained teacher supervisors, and we give them the tools they need to succeed.  When she goes on to say that we are finally creating a way to turn the world into a neighborhood – our teams are doing this every single day!  Our US and Zambia teams are connected to one another – even though we are over 12,000Km apart, even though we are separated by an ocean, and even though we are on other sides of the world.  We all use technology in our everyday lives, but in this context specifically, we use it to build relationships that just wouldn’t have been possible twenty years ago. 

-Reshma Patel, Executive Director

What Can You Question?

I was recently reminded of Jane Goodall – the British primatologist, anthropologist and UN Messenger of Peace.  Goodall was born in London, and had a fascination with animals from a very young age.  At 18, she left school and worked two jobs in order to finance a longtime dream to visit Africa.  She eventually visited South Kinangop, Kenya, where she met the famous anthropologist, Louis Leakey.  Soon she was working closely with him, studying primates on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in the Gombe Stream Reserve.  She was just 26 years old.

Goodall’s first attempt to study chimpanzees failed – she wasn’t able to get within 200 yards of them without them fleeing. She eventually was successful getting close to another group of chimpanzees, and after two years of seeing her every day, they allowed her to move quite close to her.  Goodall didn’t have collegiate training directing her research, and her methods and observations were some that strict scientific principles may have overlooked.  For example, instead of numbering chimpanzees, she gave them names, and noticed that they had individual personalities.  Goodall’s research is best known for challenging two beliefs that were held by scientists at the time:  that only humans could make and use tools, and that chimpanzees were vegetarians.  She developed such close bonds over her 30 years living with the chimpanzees of Gombe, that she is – to this day – the only known human ever to be accepted into chimpanzee society.

Jane Goodall was successful in part, because she thought different – or as we like to say now “out of the box”.  She was able to do that because she was genuinely passionate about the subject, and had the curiosity and courage to challenge the status quo.  Sometimes questioning things is the only way we can truly understand them.  Having a team with differing viewpoints and a diverse skill set actually makes us stronger, even if it makes our work harder.  This week our interns have been questioning things a lot in Zambia – why things are done a certain way, whether we have thought about x, y or z.  It’s forcing us to think creatively too. What can you question this week?

The Bigger Picture...

I often lose sight of the bigger picture while going about the business of our work; when I walk into a classroom, I miss the tens of curious, smiling faces for the rigorous inspection of lesson plans, classroom management and time on task.  I’m constantly looking for the improvements – how can the groups be managed better, can we set up the tablets more efficiently, why is there a spelling mistake in that poster?

That’s why weeks like these are incredibly refreshing for me.  We had visitors in Joel village!  On Sunday and Monday we welcomed Rob and Patti Ivry – longtime friends and supporters to the organization.  After a wonderful day in the village on Sunday, I got to experience our classrooms through the eyes of someone seeing our work for the first time.  I was able to see their faces as we traveled through dusty roads and came upon one of our schools in the middle of nowhere. I was able to witness their delight as our first graders welcomed them to our classrooms with a very loud “Good morning, madam/sir!”.  And I was all ears when they compared our Impact Network classrooms to those they have seen around the world. 

Our classroom management was amazing – students appeared to lose little time settling into their desks and getting into groups.  The content seemed quite sophisticated – fourth graders spelling chlorophyll (I admit to wondering whether it was one L or two Ls, but the ten-year-old at the board was correct!) and seventh graders learning the difference between “who” and “whom” (all three of us got one of these examples wrong!).  Students were engaged and mostly undistracted by our presence in the classroom.  Teachers, even some that had only been with us a few months, were clearly focused, determined, and excited about teaching.  After a day observing three schools and over a dozen classes, Rob and Patti led their own classes – of yoga, and art work! Despite a language barrier, Mpumulo’s grade three kids had an incredible time.  A huge thank you to them for taking time out of their trip to visit us, and giving back to the communities that we serve.  And an even bigger thank you to the teachers, staff, and especially the students, who let us into their lives on a windy Monday.

The Power of Partnership

Two years ago this month, my colleague Julia Firestone and I got an email from Zizwani Mhango, a Zambian living in the UK who came across our work and wanted to chat about it.  By chance on this call, we mentioned a “pie in the sky” idea from one of our co-founders, Mike Weiss, to use fingerprint data to track attendance data at our schools.

The idea had come about a year after struggling through our attendance data and analyzing it. It had become painstaking to track our students over time – daily attendance records weren’t entered into data systems until the end of the term, and it took an immense amount of human-power to transcribe it, match students over time, and analyze the information.  Students names would be spelled differently each term, dates of birth were unknown, addresses were non-existent, and often times the registers were dusty and dirty from the term and difficult to read. See an example photo below! And by the time the team in Zambia saw summary data on how each school and teacher was doing, the next term was already underway.

It was around this time that we started increasingly seeing smartphones unlocked with people’s fingerprints. We did some initial research – the units were expensive, they weren’t designed to be used in dusty, rural conditions, and they often needed to be connected to the internet, which wasn’t an option for us. We talked about this with Zizwani, and he mentioned a startup non-profit he knew that was working to solve this exact issue.

A week later, we were on a call with Alexandra Grigore from Simprints discussing their product and its development. They were still in early stages, field testing different sensors for local conditions in developing nations.  A month later, the Simprints team was planning to visit Zambia to include our students and parents in their field testing.  Two months later, Dan Stori, Alexandra, and Zizwani were at Kanyelele Community School working with our communities.

All of this brings us to the last two weeks, where Helen Lundebye, James Thomas and Julia Kraus from Simprints, and our very own Alex Schilling, travelled to Zambia to roll out our attendance pilot.  It’s the first of its kind being used for education purposes, and their time here was incredible!  It started with training our management staff on the system, answering questions, and adjusting the work flow to meet their needs. Then, the management staff trained the teachers in the two schools for the pilot, showing their mastery over the program.  And on Monday and Tuesday, we enrolled close to 700 students across two schools using the new system.  This week, our teachers have been using the scanners to take accurate attendance electronically – our students line up for school, and scan their fingerprint as they enter.  Once the database creation is complete, management staff from New York to Joel village will be able to see the attendance in each teacher’s class (including teachers themselves) over the week.  We’ll be able to troubleshoot issues, track down students who have been absent, and work more closely with our communities.  We’ll have accurate data in real-time, rather than unreliable data at the end of the term or year.

Over the last week, I have thought a lot about all of the little steps that got us to this point.  A chance email from a Zambian living abroad.  A coincidental connection to a startup organization.  The follow-through on any number of individuals to have calls and really talk about our work honestly.  The openness to new ideas and working with other organizations towards a common goal. Opening our schools and communities up to visitors.

This is the power of partnership.

- Reshma Patel, Executive Director

Know More Today About the World...

I spent some time this week thinking about what drives us – as individuals, as employees, as family members, as citizens.  And I came across this quote:

“For me, I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others.

You'd be surprised how far that gets you.”

― Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an American astrophysicist, and currently serves as the Director of the Hayden Planetarium.  Tyson grew up in the Bronx, and had an strong interest in astronomy from a very young age.  He started giving lectures on astronomy at the age of 15. Eventually attending Harvard, Tyson went on to earn degrees from Harvard, The University of Texas, and Columbia University.  He eventually hosted an education science TV show called NOVA ScienceNow.  As the Director of the Hayden Planetarium, Tyson resisted the conventional theory that Pluto was a planet (it has since been demoted to a dwarf planet). 

Tyson is driven by two things – to learn, and to lessen suffering.  There’s remarkable simplicity in his words – and how they drive his actions, his decisions, and his quest for truth in this world.  Different people have different goals in life – some choose to live lives with no regrets, others choose to always do the right thing (even if it’s the harder one).  But when you reflect back on who you are, can you whittle it down to just the essentials?  I’m driven by the fact that there are still 57 million children around the globe who are out of school.  I’m driven by the fact that only half of students in areas that Impact Network operates complete primary school, and that very few complete secondary school.  I’m driven by the fact that every day, I wake up, determined to be a part of the solution to change those statistics.  I’m driven by the central philosophy that we each hold the power to leave this earth more equal than we found it. 

What drives you?

- Reshma Patel, Executive Director

Number 261

This week the annual Boston marathon was held, and a board member (thanks, Swan) pointed me to the incredible story of Kathrine Switzer. Switzer was the first woman to officially run the Boston marathon 50 years ago this week (A quick side note: runner Bobby Gibb ran the previous year but had finished unofficially because she wasn’t registered. She finished ahead of two thirds of the male runners). Switzer’s coach insisted that a marathon was too far for a “fragile woman” to run and discouraged her from attempting the race.  Switzer registered for the race as K.V. Switzer, escaping the oversight from the marathon organizers. When they realized a woman was on the course, one of the organizers attempted to remove her while she ran.

Over the course of the race, Switzer was greeted by snickers, but also incredible support from women in the stands when they realized she was running. It wasn’t until five years later that women were permitted to run in the Boston Marathon. She continued her running career, winning the 1974 New York City Marathon. She went on to commentate for marathons and advocating for women’s opportunities in racing. What’s remarkable about Switzer (and Gibb’s) story is the excuses that they were given for women not being able to participate initially. They were told that anything longer than 800m would injure women, rendering them unable to have children. They were told they would turn into men, growing hair on their chest and getting big legs.

Even more amazingly, this past week, Switzer ran the Boston Marathon again, 50 years later, at the age of 70, using her same bib – Number 261.  It was a reminder of two things really – that age really is nothing but a number, and that progress and real change can happen if trailblazers continue to break barriers and supporters and allies continue to advocate.  Here’s to all of the trailblazing scholars in our own Impact Network schools!

- Reshma

Sports Day at Joel Village!

While working in the office last Thursday, Mphumulo Banda (a previously featured teacher) popped in to give the staff handmade invitations to his Grade 3 Sports Day. It was really neat to get the invitations and we were all excited to go see what was in store.

Throughout the term, Grade 3 students practiced long jumps, 100 meter dashes, and playing football. Sports Day is a 2 hour lesson plan in the iSchool tablet and serves as an Expressive Arts revision to mark the end of the term. It was a day for students to put all they had learned to the test! Students competed in teams and they chose the team names Kafue, Zambezi, and Luangwe after three large rivers in Zambia. The day began with students preparing the field for the activities. Students were given a variety of tasks, such as setting up the high jump poles and marking a perimeter around the field. It was a very windy day so marking the perimeter was a bit challenging!

Students busily preparing the perimeter of the track  

Students busily preparing the perimeter of the track  

The highlights for me were the high jump and the egg race. The high jump got progressively harder and it was really fun to see the students participate. The final height was over 4 feet- some students tried and fell, others started sprinting and then stopped abruptly with huge grins on their faces. The Egg Race, a staple field day competition from my childhood, was the most exciting event of the day. It was a relay race and the last team with an unbroken egg won. The students started out very slowly but picked up the pace as they got more confident carrying the egg with a spoon. The looks of surprise when the egg fell was priceless!

The final challenge- an egg race!

The final challenge- an egg race!

Sports Day was fun to watch because the personalities of the students really showed. There were timid students who looked surprised when they jumped the very high jumps, and competitive students who had to sit out because they got a little too bossy. The age range of students at Impact Schools varies so there were 8-11 year olds participating. Owing to that, there was a range of heights and abilities but everyone did their best! As a prize, Mphumulo passed out a school book and pencil to the three winners, all of whom were girls!

Watching students run their fastest and jump their highest without a care in the world was really heartwarming. I was especially glad to see so many girls participating and having fun as the daily reality for a young girl in Eastern Province is full of a large amount of housework. It was an inspiring morning all around!

Winners of the girls’ relay race checking in with the judges

Winners of the girls’ relay race checking in with the judges

-- Kristen Fraley, Program Implementation Intern

Congratulations, Francis Sakala!

Last week, Impact Network was represented at the Chimtende Zone Science Fair. Roughly 90 students from grades 2-4 attended the fair, and 10 students of those students came from Mkale Community School. Francis Sakala, a grade 3 student at Mkale, came in 3rd place! He will compete at the Katete District fair later this month!

I traveled to Mkale to ask Francis some questions about his experience competing in the science fair. Joseph, our Operations Manager, drove me out on the motorbike. Mkale School is one of the furthest schools from the office and it takes over an hour to get there by motorbike. The journey there is beautiful, rock formations and huge baobab trees dot the way. I learned that Mkale gets its name from the Mkale stream just behind the school. Mkale hosts grades 1-7 and serves over 200 students. The nearest government school is several kilometers away. The distance between schools is always a reminder of how far some students would have to travel if there weren’t Impact schools near their homes.  

Francis comes from Msonde Village which is right next to Mkale School. He was very shy during our interview, probably because he had an audience of his curious peers watching as we asked him questions. Francis speaks some English but we needed a translator. Sylvester Banda, a Grade 5 teacher, helped us out. Sylvester took all of the students from Mkale to the science fair so he was able to answer some additional questions.

Mangani Banda on the left, Francis in the middle, and Sylvester Banda on the right

Mangani Banda on the left, Francis in the middle, and Sylvester Banda on the right

Hi Francis, congratulations on winning the science fair!  What was your project?

I made an antibiotic paste to kill bacteria using local materials.

Did anyone help you with making the antibiotic paste?

Mr. John Lungu, head teacher at Mkale showed me which materials to use and how to prepare the paste.  

How did you feel about winning the science fair?

I was very excited to win!

What do you want to be when you grow up?

I want to be a doctor when I grow up.

Were your parents excited when you won?

They were very excited when I told them. They encouraged me to continue on in the same spirit!

I spoke with Mangani Banda, Francis’s 3rd grade teacher. He, like Francis’s parents, was very proud when he learned that Francis won. He is excited to see where Francis goes from here! I’m sure Francis has a lot of supporters from the Impact Network community and we will be rooting for him when he attends the Katete District Science Fair.

-- Kristen Fraley, Program Implementation Intern

The power of failure and imagination...

I recently got a chance to start reading the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (yes, I still read young adult fiction!), and it got me interested in knowing more about the author of the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling. Rowling was actually working at Amnesty International when she got the idea for the character of Harry Potter – a young wizard who fights the forces of evil as a young student at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The first manuscript for her novel took seven years to write and was rejected twelve times before being accepted. Six sequels later, and the books have sold more than 500 million copies worldwide.

Rowling often talks about the importance of two paradoxical things – failure and imagination.

While the obvious example of her “failure” is the rejection of the Harry Potter novel, Rowling often discusses reaching rock bottom when she signed up for welfare benefits, describing herself as being "poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless."  But it was from this place that she was able to realize her success as well.  She notes:

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

For us, failure is what has made our education model, the eSchool 360, what it is today.  Each component of the eSchool 360 came from tinkering and trying different methods, until we arrived at a solution that could best deliver a quality education to our 2,300 students. The first time we had students at a computer, we realized that the technology was getting in the way of learning, and moved to a tablet and a projector. When we first started having teacher trainings, we did it every term – until we realized that our teachers need to be together once a month to really form bonds and further their development.  When we first started tracking enrollment, we wanted to do everything electronically before the organization was able to handle that amount of data.  We learned a lot of lessons in those early days, and continue to learn them today – because of our failures.

On the topic of imagination, Rowling thinks big. Yes, imagination plays a hugely important role in her novels and characters. But more broadly:

Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.

Indeed, imagination is truly the birthplace of innovation.  The imaginator Thomas Edison invented the first version of the projector we use in our classroom each day (a movie projector!). The imaginators at IBM created the first smart phone (yes – not Apple!) which is a version of the tablet used by our teachers each day to deliver lessons. The imaginator Shiva Ayyadurai invented email – the tool we all use to communicate every single day.  Some food for thought!