“The Power of First” reflecting on a TEDx talk by Tammy Tibbetts

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This week I attended a panel discussion on the Future of Fundraising and one of the panelists was Tammy Tibbetts, the co-founder and CEO of She’s the First, which supports girls who will be the first in their families to graduate high school. 

Tammy is a first-generation college graduate and has given international speeches, including a TEDx talk about being the first and finding your passion.    Tammy discusses being the first at something and explains that it does not matter if you are the first in world history, in your community or in your family.  Either way, she says,  “it takes guts and courage to be the first and to stand up to your critics – especially your own inner critic.   It takes passion and persistence to charge forward and meet your goals.”  Tammy also speaks about generosity, giving back and working with others to help them be a first, “never underestimate your ability to make someone else a first –the first person to support them or believe in their dreams.”

This speech made me think about our students, teachers and staff in Zambia and how many of our students will be the first in their family to go to school or learn to read and write.  For our teachers, it is often the first time they have a stable income and an opportunity to work outside the family farm.  It is only with the support of our network that Impact Network is able to help these students and teachers be “a first.” Additionally, Tammy’s talk made me reflect on the work of Impact Network to be one of the first to bring e-learning and access to quality education in rural Zambia.    Being the first can be challenging, but it can also lead to the biggest rewards.  

Heading into the weekend, I think we should all think about two of Tammy’s favorite questions, “what are you the first to do?” or ”what will you be the first to do?”  Mostly importantly “what will you do to help someone else be a first?”

- Katie 

Humans are Not Rational and the Work of Richard Thaler

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Last month, one of the founders of behavioral economics, Richard Thaler, won the 2017 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.  You may have heard of Thaler – he’s most well-known for his book Nudge and is a writer for the New York Times.  But he’s contributed immensely to modern economics and his work is often summarized with “Humans are not rational.”

Economics often relies on an underlying assumption that all parties or stakeholders are behaving rationally.  Thaler’s work turned this theory on its head, and more than that – he worked to identify ways to predict that irrationality and improve the future of economics. His landmark paper in 1985 identified ways that people account for money in different – and illogical – ways.  And while this seems somewhat minor, it has big implications for public policy. For example, in Morocco, researchers used this research to look into how cash transfers can influence education.  They investigated the use of a “labelled cash transfer” – a small amount of money given to parents in poor, rural communities, and allocated to education support. Parents were told the money should be spent on their child’s education, but it was given to them regardless of whether their child was enrolled. Researchers found that this little nudge was enough to lead to large gains in school participation, while cash given to parents only if their child attended led to no gains. (read more here: https://www.povertyactionlab.org/evaluation/cash-transfers-education-morocco).

Thaler’s work has influenced a lot of different industries – from health care to finance, from for-profit to non-profit, even from the boardroom to the classroom.  But what I like most about it is that it is a rare brand of research that can be implemented in multiple settings without having to be an economist yourself!  For us, it got me thinking – what messaging do we give our students, how do we present the supports we provide to the community, how can we use nudging to improve our teacher practice?  Some things to think about as we head into the weekend…

Asked how he will spend the prize money, he quipped, "I will try to spend it as irrationally as possible!"

Fostering a Culture of Collaboration & Creativity

This week we have a guest post from our Implementation Specialist, Felicia Dahlquist who is currently in Nairobi as her visa is processed and has been meeting with various organizations  – these are some of her reflections on her time there.

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As a teacher I often felt pressure to be creative and thoughtful in my practice. But with the many competing tasks required of teachers (both socially and administratively), it was challenging to come up with new ideas and be truly responsive to my students’ needs. Even when I did have new ideas, I didn’t always know how to implement or prioritize time for them.  I saw how busy other teachers were and perhaps felt too proud to ask them for help and advice. As a teacher you often feel like you should be able to do it all independently and that each challenge faced is on you alone- after all, it is your responsibility to ensure that each student learns what they should. Playing it safe and sticking to what you know therefore often becomes the easiest option. But will that lead to the best outcomes?

In many ways I think that the independent and ‘safe’ mind-set ingrained in teachers also translates into the wider global education sector. Governments, NGOs and private education organisations work independently to solve the big education challenges relating to access, quality and retention in school. Instead of asking each other for help and support, many actors keep their findings and challenges to themselves. This is partly due to the nature of the education funding, which is driven by competition for limited financial resources, causing education actors to rarely join forces or share successes and failures. But I would equally say it is due to pride and the desire to independently solving things, not admitting the challenges and failures.

I recently read an article by the CEO of Results for Development (R4D), Gina Lagomarsino, who talks about how the global education sector has a lot to learn from the global health sector. One of the things she highlights is the importance of ‘bolstering collaborative learning approaches’ for example through peer-to-peer learning and the co-creation of tools and resources. Strong collaboration has been ingrained in the health field for a long time, where health professionals frequently share evidence of good AND bad practice in order to achieve the best health outcomes for their patients. So why not do the same for students?

As I visit Nairobi, I am reminded of the importance of collaboration and learning from what others are doing. The education ‘ecosystem’ in Kenya is rich with a high density of innovative education initiatives. It is hard not to take notice of all the new schools (Bridge, Moringa School, Kidogo, Nova Academies), Edtech projects (BRCK Education, Enenza Education, KyTabu, Arifu and eLimu) and public school transformations that are ongoing. Kenya is ranked as having the highest education quality on the African continent yet still has a long way to go. But there is much to learn from what is happening in Nairobi and from the knowledgeable individuals who are seeking to drive change.

Attending the Metis Fund EdConect event in Nairobi in October, I had the pleasure of meeting educators and change makers from across the education space in Kenya. Metis, an organisation whose main aim is to create communities of practice and co-learning opportunities for individuals/organisations working in education, is one example of how collaboration is having a profound impact on driving quality. The 15 Metis Fellows this year include education professionals who work with girls’ education, education technology, early childhood education, indigenous education and improving government curriculum, among many things. Sharing their ideas and experiences with each other in the fellowship and actors in education more broadly is creating a dynamic atmosphere and pace of wanting to improve learning across the board. Read more about Metis and the inspiring work of their fellows here.

I also had the opportunity to visit a social-enterprise (Tiny Totos) working with early childhood education in Nairobi’s slum areas. Despite the stark contrast between Nairobi’s urban slum communities and rural and remote areas where Impact Network operates in Zambia, I was also struck by the many similarities during my site visit.  With lacking infrastructure, limited access to resources and high rates of illiteracy, parents in both places struggle to find viable options of quality education for their children. Equally so, the practical and logistical challenges are in many ways the same. But the use of technology is providing solutions to many of those challenges.

I was fascinated to learn more about how Tiny Totos have built their own app and trained staff and school mangers in data collection to find efficiencies in their implementation. The app allows the central team to collect information that helps them to detect risks and prevent issues in implementation. The team in Nairobi were equally fascinated by how Impact Network is using student and teacher tablets to provide a well-rounded curriculum and interactive learning for children. It was a wonderful experience to share examples of good practice and discuss how challenges might be tackled. Despite our different contexts and areas of focus, it became clear to me how important an investment in collaborative learning is, in order to prevent re-inventing the wheel and slowing down the search for innovative and impactful solutions.

I am humbled by the reminder that as a teacher, educator or manager of an education initiative we are most certainly not better on our own. I will carry on reflecting over how we at Impact Network can continue to foster a culture of collaboration, creativity and learning among our teachers and colleagues as well as with other organisations.  It is through honest conversations, partnerships and cooperation that we will be able to find even better solutions and creative alternatives for our learners as well as evidence for truly impactful change.    

Meet our Parents: Memory Phiri

This week, I thought I’d bring an old interview with one of the Impact Network parents back to life – meet Memory Phiri! Huge thanks to former intern, Nicky Lama for originally putting this together!

Memory is 25 years old and has 5 daughters, 2 of which are currently studying at Impact Network schools. She is a very lively person who has a good stance on why she needs to educate her daughters. Here is what she had to say:

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How important do you think educating children is, in your case especially daughters?

I think the more education they get , the better it is. Both sons and daughters should get educated but especially in my case since I have 5 daughters, I think education will help them be economically strong when they grow up. They can become doctors and leaders.

Why did you choose to send your children to Impact schools? Do you see any difference when compared to other schools?

Yes! Thereis a lot of difference. Here at impact the teachers are very good and serious with their teaching. The children also get to use machines (tablets) which makes them smarter. It is also easy as it is very close to the village.

Who helps the children with homework at home?

I try to help as much as I can as I have studied till grade 4. Most times they complete it themselves.

Do you think using the tablets are helping the children?

The children love the tablets! Even when they are at home they talk about how they saw different flags, pictures, animals and colours on the tablet. They say the machine also speaks.

What do you think about higher education for your girls, for which they may have to leave the village?

I think my girls should pursue higher education. The only problem is once students reach higher grades we have to start paying school fees which becomes very difficult for us. Even books and uniforms are not cheap, so I fear I will not be able to help all of them.

Is there anything you want to say to the people who are helping us help your children through education?

Yes! I want to thank them for providing these opportunities to our children. I only hope that they can include higher grades so that it becomes less difficult financially for us and our children can reach higher studies.

It’s parents like Memory and students like her children that make our work worthwhile each and every day!  Memory feels very strongly about education and enthusiasm like hers is a huge contributing factor for Impact Network to continue the work we are doing - to help provide better educational opportunities to the children across our schools.

Meet Our Intern in Zambia - Monica Pacanins

Hello! I’m Monica Pacanins. I’m originally from Venezuela but I grew up in a smallish town in Alabama, mostly in the Latin American community centered around the Catholic Church. Due to my multicultural upbringing understanding cultural differences came easily to me later in life. When I got to university and discovered Anthropology, I fell in love. I didn’t know exactly what I would do career-wise, but I had three goals:

1)      To continuously challenge myself as much as possible. To always be growing.

2)      To really understand people, how they live, and how they see the world. To attain the deepest level of empathy possible.

3)      To do whatever I can to make life better, in whatever capacity, for people anywhere - Especially children.

Since graduating in 2012, I have done pretty much that (the first two at least) and often ended up in the field of education. After completing an Indigenous studies course and farm work in Australia and a 5-month self- supported, community service-themed bike tour across the U.S., I was ready to leave the familiarity and comfort of the West.

A community outreach project at a local girls school in Hebron

A community outreach project at a local girls school in Hebron

I taught in northeast China and then made my way through Southeast Asia. Later in Arizona, I worked group foster homes with students who had learning disabilities and taught English in a refugee center. The most difficult, yet most rewarding experience has been the opportunity to live and work in a very conservative, Muslim city in Palestine. I worked in an English center with mostly high school and university students. I was so moved by how welcoming and passionate the students were and how eager they were to learn and practice English. We often had group discussions allowing students to develop and express their thoughts and ideas. I know its cliché, but I really think I learned more from them than they did from me.

A field trip to Bethlehem before Christmas organized entirely by the students for us teachers

A field trip to Bethlehem before Christmas organized entirely by the students for us teachers

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After my most recent job in southwest China, I was pretty comfortable with teaching and ready to challenge myself again. I knew that living somewhere in Africa, specifically in a rural environment, was something I still needed to experience. I also wanted to be doing something productive while learning and developing new skills related to education or development. I came across the Implementation Internship with Impact Network and knew it would be perfect. I knew this was exactly what I wanted and what to expect when I arrived in Zambia, yet I was still pretty shocked. It’s one thing to know about something from pictures and facts, but it’s another thing to see it all as it is and feel it.  The first afternoon/evening here started with a bicycle-taxi ride into the village, I went back and forth between “Wow this is amazing!” and “What have I gotten myself into?” This is definitely the most remote and isolated place I have ever been, which is made more difficult by being the only foreigner here at the moment.  I went to sleep that first night under the mosquito net with church music echoing from nearby and I had tiny, tiny doubts.

The next day I joined Teselia, a Teacher Supervisor, in her observations at the Joel Village School. Within the first few minutes of the first class I knew that I was in the right place. I couldn’t believe that all of this was happening way out here in rural Zambia; that others have worked and are working hard to make this possible, that in a place with so few resources, so many kids are getting a quality primary education, especially one that exposes them to technology and allows them the chance to use it. I attended 5 classes and in all of them teachers had prepared their lessons well from the curriculum using interactive group work and hands-on activities. The students all participated and stayed focused, which is not easy in the heat. They were completing their writing assignments at the end of class with sweat streaming down their faces, and even I was struggling to stay alert.

One of the highlights of the day for me was during a Grade 2 Social Studies class. The topic was Human and Child Rights. After introducing and discussing the topic, the students were put into groups to do role plays. It was all in the local language, so I didn’t know what was being said, but it was acted out and expressed very well, humorously too. The students were all engaged and laughing together. But my favorite thing of all, was seeing how each class had its own way of supporting and providing positive feedback to the students; like a little clap and chant they all do together when a student answers or demonstrates correctly.

I’m looking forward to contributing whatever I can over the next three months. I’m already so inspired by everyone involved in the organization -- the management, the local teachers and supervisors and especially the students. I’m excited to learn as much as I can about this model and the ongoing projects as well as the problems and ways to work creatively with others to solve them. I hope I can use what I’ll be learning in the future and continue to work in education development around the world.

Rubin "Hurricane" Carter's Lifelong Fight for Justice and Knowledge

This week, a song reminded me of the famed American middleweight boxer, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter*.  The Hurricane was born in May of 1937, and was at the height of his career in 1966 when he was wrongfully convicted of a triple-murder and imprisoned for almost 20 years.  He was exonerated in 1985, and became an activist for the wrongly convicted after his release.

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Carter earned his nickname “The Hurricane” for his lightning-fast fists.  After previous run-ins with the law, he learned to channel his anger and frustration into his boxing and in December of 1964, he was widely regarded as the best bet to win his next title bout.  In prison, and frequently in solitary confinement, Carter survived by devouring books on all subjects -- reading law, philosophy, history, metaphysics, and religion.  During his darkest times, he was confident that he would one day be proven innocent.  After a long battle with the justice system, he was released in 1985. Carter moved to Toronto, Canada (my homeland!) where he worked on a book documenting his life, founded an advocacy group called Innocence International, and often lectured about seeking justice for the wrongly convicted.  Up until the months before his death three years ago, he was found campaigning and writing about the release of those people in prison whom he believed to be wrongly convicted.

“They can incarcerate my body but never my mind,” the Hurricane told The New York Times in 1977.  It’s one of humanity’s greatest truths – that what we learn, and know, is protected from imprisonment.  Every day that our scholars are in our classroom, every lesson that they absorb, every single word they read, is a tool – a tool that equips them to change their community, their country, and the world.  Each day, in very small steps, we are making big strides in the long and never-ending process of preparing our scholars for what’s to come in their lives.  Every single one of us plays a role in that journey – whether you are on the ground in Zambia, working with our teachers and student every day, or whether you are here in the US helping to raise funds to support our schools.  

Let's Celebrate World Teachers' Day

World Teachers’ Day took place on October 6th and we want to thank all of the Impact Network teachers that make our work possible!  There’s an old saying that I’m sure you know – “If you can read this, thank a teacher.” In fact, I recently read the following:

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“The depth of the teachers’ influence is in the basic fact that doctors, engineers, journalists, lawyers, economists, architects, accountants, and human resource experts, to name but a few, have all gone through the able hands of a teacher.”

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 https://www.daily-mail.co.zm/we-salute-teachers/

But I would take that a step further.  If you have accomplished anything over the last year, over the last month, even the last week – if you’ve accomplished anything, you have a teacher to thank.  Teachers are not always those in front of the classroom.  They are also the friend who came over in middle school to help you with a math project. They are a parent that stayed up late with you to explain an English assignment. They are the mentor at work who is patient with your failures, and celebrates your successes.  All of our skills come from somewhere and someone who invested their time and energy into helping us succeed.  And they should all be revered.

Shakuntala Devi - The Human Computer

I recently read an article on Shakuntala Devi – an Indian writer and mathematician, popularly known as “the human computer.”  She was considered a gifted child, and her math skills eventually gave her a place in the Guinness Book of World Records.*  As a pre-schooler, she could memorize an entire deck of cards from beginning to end.  At the age of 5, she was extracting cube roots in her head. She could tell the day of the week that someone was born seconds after learning their birth date.  In her early years, she famously solved a tough mathematical problem 10 seconds before the fastest computer at the time.

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You might think that Devi spent huge amounts of time with a math tutor, and advanced math classes.  But the truth is that her father noticed her incredible talent while he was a circus performer – a trapeze artist, lion tamer, and magician. He saw his daughter’s math skills while teaching her a card trick at the age of 3. Her father worked with her tirelessly, while continuing to showcase her amazing memorization skills across India, and eventually the globe.  Devi may have been naturally gifted, yes – but she would not have become the force that she did without a dedication to her practice and an immense joy in numbers themselves.  We often want our students to succeed so much, that we forget about that playfulness piece.  Devi was enamored by numbers – they were like a second language to her, and they could be found anywhere.  What stimulated that curiosity?  What led to her intense enjoyment of numbers?  And was it just luck that led her to be born to a circus performer, who could hone that skill into a talent that was broadcast to the world?

 More importantly, how do we teach it? 

 *The math problem that got her there?  She demonstrated the multiplication of two 13-digit numbers (7,686,369,774,870 × 2,465,099,745,779) in her head in just 28 seconds.

In Celebration of International Democracy Day

Friday, September, 15th was the International Day of Democracy.  We came across a fascinating article posted by UN Women in celebration of the International Day of Democracy:  https://medium.com/we-the-peoples/five-ways-women-are-changing-politics-for-the-better-around-the-world-efd33b0475a4

Today is meant to commemorate and uphold the principals of democracy that are shared across the globe: That citizens of a country or place exercise their power directly by electing representatives among them. And the article by UN Women speaks to just five of the many women across the globe who are improving the politics in their region of the globe.  They aren’t the heroes you usually hear of in this context – but I found their stories interesting to read:

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1.      Barbara Garma Soares, and the other 20 women elected Xefe Suku or Village Chief in Timor-Leste, a country in Southeast Asia. The country saw double the number of women elected to this office in 2016. Most of the population lives in rural areas, often quite isolated, and many (like Soares) had never elected a woman to lead their community. Indeed, her election was preceded by an amendment in electoral law that required a female candidate on the ballot for the first time.

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2.    Mehrezia Maiza Labidi, who helped draft the Constitution in Tunisia. Labidi chaired most of the sessions on Tunisia’s new constitution, established after the Arab Spring, and pushed for a clause guaranteeing women’s rights. She also was the most senior elected woman in the Middle East.

 

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3.    Coumba Diaw, who decided to join politics after leaving school at 14 to marry and become a housewife. Diaw started as a health care worker, working on reproductive health and helping with income-generating activities in her community. She began to grow close with the community and became the Mayor of Sagatta Djoloff – and is the only mayor in Louga, Senegal who is female.

These are just a couple of the remarkable stories, and I encourage you to read the article (and the “From Where I Stand” series by UN Women: http://www.unwomen.org/en/news/editorial-series/from-where-i-stand)  .  For me, they serve as a reminder that across the globe, democracy and the drive to improve our communities is propelling unlikely candidates into the world of politics. And those candidates are stepping up to the plate, filling in gaps, and leading their citizens towards positive change.  Who among our Impact Network students will become the next hero for Joel village?

**photos from UN article.  Picture credit is referenced in article

Happy International Literacy Day - September 8th 2017

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Today marks the 52nd annual International Literacy Day!  I thought that on this day, I might share some of the best moments I’ve seen across all our schools while watching one powerful transformation take place in our students – learning to read.

 

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I recall my first trip to Joel village – before we had Teacher Supervisors, before we even had tablets or solar electricity. I remember sleeping in the room next to a classroom where Dhubekire was teaching and waking up to her teaching entering grade one students about vowel sounds in combination with the letter “k” – ka, ke, ki, ko, ku (the students would say ku more like kuuuuuu).*  I remember later trips, after we started using the Mwabu curriculum, where students would be learning letters from content projected onto the school walls. I’d walk around the village and return to find students tracing letters in the dirt, with their teacher circulating between groups to make sure they were following instructions.

 

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I remember sitting in the back of a classroom when a second grade student was called on to read a tough sentence from the board. And while he struggled initially, he persevered and was able to read that sentence and the one following. I remember seeing new grade one students use the tablets for the first time, learning about a girl named Precious, and following her story as they learned the letters of the alphabet. I heard from parents who said their children came home from school and taught their younger siblings and relatives how to write the letters as well. And most recently, I saw our students perform a slam poetry piece on Nelson Mandela and the importance of literacy.

This, fundamentally, is what drives our work forward each and every day.  Impact Network started with the goal of bringing quality education to rural areas – places with no running water, electricity, and very limited resources. At our core, we strive to teach very little people to do one of the hardest but most important things that their minds can grasp. Thank you all for being a part of making that happen, and Happy Literacy Day!