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!

Chitenge, Chitenge!

Timepo’s son peaking out from his chitenge wrap

Timepo’s son peaking out from his chitenge wrap

I can’t believe time has flown by so quickly but the final weeks of my stay in Joel are upon me! Aside from busy exam week preparations, I’ve had a bit of souvenir shopping to do. I spent last Saturday wandering around the market and shops of Katete picking out chitenge fabrics to bring back home with me. I plan on using fabrics I bought to make tablecloths, a quilt or two, and decorative pillowcases to give friends and family as gifts from my stay.

A decorated crocodile Nyau

A decorated crocodile Nyau

Days here are brightened by women and girls wearing beautiful swaths of brightly colored fabrics. The chitenge is a multipurpose piece of material- typically two meters long and waxed so that it can be tucked in and worn as a skirt. The chitenge can be wrapped around the back or front and used to carry children or items purchased in the market. I’ve even seen some mothers carrying one child on their back and one on their front! The chitenge can also be worn as a shawl when it’s cool out. The Nyau, a secret society of traditional Zambian performers, are decorated with bits of chitenge fabric alongside the grass and animal skin they wear. Strips of chitenge fabric can be woven into rugs and sewn into patchwork quilts. It’s an incredibly versatile piece of material! You’ll see women wearing a chitenge over their jeans or slacks as it is considered a sign of respect towards the community elders. Among the bright prints and patterns, you’ll see the face of Edgar C. Lungu, the president of Zambia, and his party, the Patriotic Front. They serve as a way of showing political and religious beliefs, Zambian pride, and even the staple crop in Zambia- maize. Chitenge fabric comes from all over Africa and usually has a mark with the pattern number and place of origin. The fabric can range from polyester/cotton, pure cotton, or even a silk blend. They range from 15 kwacha ($1.50) to 45 kwacha ($4.50).

Chitenge chairs on the banks of South Luangwa  

Chitenge chairs on the banks of South Luangwa  

 Tons of patterns and colors from the Handover Ceremony

 Tons of patterns and colors from the Handover Ceremony

My pack home is going to be a bit heavy from all of these!

My pack home is going to be a bit heavy from all of these!

While at the market I practiced my haggling skills- something I picked up while living here! I window shopped for a little while- there are hundreds of patterns and you may not see the same pattern twice. I’m excited to start sewing which I’ll do as soon as I’m back in the States. I’m sure I’ll think of Joel Village and life in Zambia every time I see them!

It was written in the sky...

I arrived in Zambia on March 13, just one day after the 2017 Africa U-20 Cup of Nations (hosted by Zambia!) wrapped up. The top four teams qualified for the 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup in South Korea – and Zambia came in first.  The buzz in the country reminded me of the beloved 2012 Africa World Cup team and win. .  It was a politically charged event – Libya and Tunisia both qualified for the tournament despite the political turmoil in their nations at the time.  In the final, during a dramatic shootout, Zambia defeated third-time finalists (and favorites to win) Cote d’Ivoire.  It was the country’s first continental title, and the Zambian team dedicated the win to the members of the national team who died in the 1993 Zambian national football team plane crash. 

More than two decades ago, the Chipolopolo were a promising Zambian team with their eye on the 1993 African World Cup.  In the late evening of April 27, 1993, the plane ditched into the Atlantic Ocean, about 500 yards away from Libreville, Gabon, killing all of the passengers and crew, including 18 players.  After losing almost the entire team in the crash, the country faced the difficult task of resurrecting a new team to compete in only a few months. Defying all odds, they reached the final in the 1993 African World Cup, and played against Nigeria – despite a loss, they returned home national heroes.

In 2012, while the celebrations continued, the team’s coach, Hervé Renard, had only one explanation: “There was a special spirit with us,” he said. “It was written in the sky.”  In the three days before the final game, Kalusha Bwalya – one of the only survivors from the 1993 team – led the team to the beach of Libreville to honor the team that they had lost two decades before. The team walked as close as they could to where the plane went down, said a few prayers, and paid their respects.

I thought this was a poignant reminder of the strength we gain in remembering where our beginnings lie.  Each of us will face struggles in our daily work, and in our personal lives.  And each of our scholars faces struggles as they progress through their education.  But focusing on these struggles alone will get us nowhere – we must build from it, gain strength from it, and endure.  If we want to succeed in changing the fate of education for our students, we have no choice.  But just like a football team – we are not alone in this determination.  We all have one another to rely on, to gain strength from, to lean on.  And together, we will succeed – I have no doubt.  We must have faith that it is also written in the sky for us – that we are destined to succeed in our work to educate our students.  We must believe in our work and our mission wholly to find the strength to persevere. 

- Reshma

"We start each day by saying hello to each other": Read Kristen's interview with teacher Mphumulo Banda!

Mphumulo Banda is a new teacher at Impact Network and over the course of his first term has shown great initiative, a passion for education, and truly impressive classroom management skills. He teaches Grade Three at Joel Community School – enjoy!

Thank you for letting me ask you some questions, Mphumulo. Do you live in the community or nearby? Where are you from?

Yes, I do. I live in Joel, very near to the school. My parents live in Chipata but this is our family’s community. I have many family members here in Joel. I found out about Impact Network when I visited my grandmother. I was still in Secondary school then and was very interested in applying.

How do you greet your students in the morning?

We start each day by saying hello to each other. I have my students stand and sing a song for about one minute. They sing a different song each day. Then, we revise what we covered during previous lessons.

Do you like using the tablet and projector?   Was it hard to learn?

I like using the tablet and especially the projector. The students are very interested when we use the projector. It wasn’t hard to learn to use the tablet, no.

Do you like the curriculum?

 I do, very much. The learners enjoy the curriculum on the tablet and they easily understand concepts when I introduce them. The stories on the tablet are in English and Cinyanja so the students are able to follow along. Their favorite lesson so far was Thomas Tuber and his vegetable friends. The lesson was fun and the students will not forget it!

How do you get the students to listen and behave?

I have a very large class so we have rules and the students keep to them. We created our class rules together on the first day of the term and we follow them every day. If a pupil breaks a rule, I ask them to show which rule they didn’t follow and I remind them of what we agreed on.

How are the training sessions?  Do they help with your teaching? Are you close with other teachers?

I love the monthly training sessions. They are a great time to meet teachers from the other schools. It is very helpful to talk to other Grade Three teachers and to learn from them. The presentations are very helpful, especially for the new teachers. I have a close relationship with Joseph Banda, a Grade Six teacher here. He gives me good advice when I need help. He teaches extra book lessons with his students because he teaches the upper grade. I usually watch those lessons so I can learn from him. We usually plan our lessons together.

What is the most meaningful thing about teaching?

It has been my dream to teach and to help the young ones. I enjoy sharing the knowledge I have with my students. I share everything I can with them! That is the most meaningful thing about teaching for me.

How do you help the kids who need extra help?

I work closely with students who need extra help and we also have daily tutoring sessions. I use government books to help the learners during our tutoring sessions.

Do you have much contact with the parents?

Just two weeks ago I phoned the parents from our tutoring sessions. I wanted them to see what our lessons look like and what our students learn. I get along very well with the parents.

How is school different today than it was for you growing up?  Give examples.

I went to a government school for primary school and then to Secondary school at a boarding school in Mambo district. When I went to primary school we didn’t have electricity so Impact schools are very different. We didn’t have many books. I think the lessons learners have today are easier, especially because of the projector.

What is your favorite thing you’ve done this year?

I would say the garden we planted. We did that as a class and every student was involved. We dug areas for the bricks and arranged them. I had students bring plants to school and we all worked together!

Learning more about Mphumulo and his drive to be an excellent teacher really brightened my day. Mphumulo’s is a story of a young teacher with a passion for education and an Impact Network community school in his community. Talking with him today was a reminder of the positive impact these schools have for so many different people here in Katete District. I’m sure he will continue to put his heart into teaching as the year progresses!

Thanks for reading,


Reflections from Joel village...

After a two week hiatus, we are back!  I am rounding out my last day of a two-week trip here to our projects and return more humbled, more invigorated, and more excited about our future ahead.

Over my time here, I have had the immense privilege of seeing:

  • 100% of Teachers on the Exam Committee arriving on time and ready to work!  Our exam committee for term 1 met on Saturday to develop questions and exams for our upcoming end-of-term exams. It was my first time seeing the incredible dedication, time and energy in the room to ensure our students are being tested fairly and accurately.  Amazing work!
  • Teamwork – real, messy and productive team work.  From large group meetings to smaller discussions, our management team came to the table with great ideas and creative solutions to improve our programs and plan for our expansion.
  • Board Member, Anup Patel, experienced our students and schools for the first time.  From watching little people learn to read and write to seeing older scholars complete complex mathematical equations – seeing it from someone for the first time is always a powerful moment for the team.
  • Huge progress towards meeting our goals of educating students through the primary grades. Our biggest group of grade 7 students yet – 4 classes! – is working hard NOW to prepare for their examinations in November.  Our teachers are reinforcing that to be successful, they need to work a little bit each day towards a goal.

As always, our scholars were engaged in their own education, but what struck me this visit was the amazing dedication of our 60 teachers.  From our oldest teachers to ones hired just a few short months ago, I saw teachers working closely with students to learn how to write the letter S, to learn how to calculate the area of a triangle, to draw an insect, and to improve their public speaking.  Enjoy some pictures of the adventure!