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!

Road to Expansion

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As many of you know, earlier this year, Impact Network received a grant to expand to 35 schools in partnership with AIR, and combined with a randomized controlled trial evaluation.  And over the last six months, our team has been working fervently to make this a reality.

This has involved in-depth meetings with district representatives from the Ministry, and the careful coordination with the heads of each of the schools. It’s included individual site evaluations of all 35 schools to determine what supplies are needed – how many iron sheets, how many windows, even how many nails. This culminated into dozens of orders for construction supplies from vendors in the three districts that we work, transporting hundreds of resources and materials, and overseeing the maintenance works at close to three dozen different sites. Meanwhile, solar installations are taking place across these same schools, along with orders for school supplies and furniture, pencils, pens, notebooks, and everything in between. All this in areas that aren’t always accessible by car, where cell signals often don’t work, and where reliable transport is very hard to come by.

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 But more than all of those logistics, this expansion has involved the hiring of teachers across these schools, teacher supervisors to help train them, and operations managers to oversee the day-to-day management of the schools. It’s been a Herculean effort – involving hundreds of applications, scores of interviews, and the onboarding of close to 40 new staff members to the team. Over the month of August, we have been training each of these groups, spending time with them, and helping them build relationships with one another. 

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 The partnership that we have witnessed over this month has been incredibly enduring.  And to the Expansion Team in Zambia – Daniel, Karly, Dalitso and Hope – we owe our greatest thanks and gratitude.  This expansion truly could not have happened without them, and we are incredibly lucky to have them on the Impact Network Team!

Intern Update: Fergus Attends 1st Teacher Training

 A couple of weekends ago I attended my first teacher training with Impact Network. It was a fantastic experience that gave me a real insight into the dedication the Impact Network teacher’s have for their jobs as well as the great support they receive.

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The training took place on a Saturday 29th July at Mnyaula School beginning at 8am, which meant piling into a car with James (Operations Manager), Teselia (Teacher Supervisor) and Joseph (teacher in charge at Joel school) at 7am in order to get there in time to set up. This was my first time visiting Mnyaula and I had not grasped how far the distances are between some of the Impact Network schools (the drive was about 40 minutes from Joel) and therefore how impressive it is that Teacher Supervisors and other management staff regularly travel between these schools to observe teachers, sort out maintenance issues and generally ensure the schools are running smoothly.

The day started with a breakfast of bread and tea (providing me with a much needed caffeine boost), followed by an opening prayer and a reading of the itinerary, which included a series of presentations from the teacher supervisors and myself (*gulp*).

The first presentation was a joint presentation by the teachers of Mkhazika school on classroom objectives. Right from the outset it was fantastic to see the rapport that the teachers, from all schools, had with one another and how eager they were to read points from the presentation and answer questions. The presentation focused on the difference between short-term and long-term objectives and how these objectives form the outline for any good teaching plan. It was encouraging to see that the teachers had a good grasp on the material and I certainly learned a lot.

The next two presentations before lunch were from the two Teacher Supervisors, Teselia and Petros. Teselia’s presentation was on the importance of keeping a positive attitude at work and the steps that can be taken when teachers are having personal or professional problems. Petros then presented on classroom management, specifically how to encourage students in a positive way and how to best deal with disruptive behavior. I had worked with both Teselia and Petros during the week and was very pleased about how well their presentations were received. These presentations in particular highlighted a real sense of community between the teachers and management staff and reminded the teachers about the support system they have available to them.

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Next up was lunch, a traditional meal of nshima (a maize dish, kind of like a dense mash potato), along with chicken and a cabbage relish. I had been eating nshima everyday for the past three weeks but this was my first attempt at eating it in front of a large group of people! Nshima is eaten by rolling it into balls in your palm and then combining it with bits of chicken and relish - luckily I passed the test and managed to eat my meal without too much embarrassment (although I was advised to make bigger balls of nshima, apparently mine were child-sized!).

After lunch it was finally time for my presentation about learning through play and interactive classroom activities. The idea behind the presentation was to give the teachers some easy-to-use interactive activities and ideas around play in order to make their lessons more engaging. In the presentation I focused a lot on role play, as well as some specific activities (like math bingo). The presentation went down well with the teachers - particularly when they got a chance to play the games themselves! The presentation ended with time for open debate between the teachers about the pros and cons of interactive lessons and using play for all primary age groups. The teachers were split into two groups, one for and one against, and were very willing to start debating - there was a lot of laughter as well as some very good points made on both sides, which showed that the teachers had really engaged with the topic.

The other motivation behind the presentation was to get teacher’s to start thinking about ways to make test prep and review more interesting.  With the end of Term 2 fast approaching it is important for teachers to start planning the week of revision for their students for  the end of term exams. Over the rest of the afternoon the teachers discussed (both in grade groups and all together) ways in which they could use the skills they learned from the day’s presentations, including keeping a positive attitude, lesson objectives, classroom maintenance and interactive lessons, to make their review sessions as clear and engaging as possible.

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The training finished around 4.30pm and it was time for everyone to go home for a well-deserved rest and to enjoy the weekend. After a brief selfie-taking session with some of the teachers I hopped in the car back to Joel and looked out the window at the stunning Zambian landscape.  The drive gave me time to  think back on everything I had learned over the day as well as topics to start researching for the next training in a few weeks time. 

Motivation Monday: 73 Year Old Mulomba Mutakwa Sat for her Grade 12 Examinations

Earlier this month, Mulomba Mutakwa sat for her grade 12 examinations.

With 12 of her fellow students, she arrived at Kabwe School for Continuing Education, ready to take her history test.  Like her fellow students, she was anxious about the test, but had prepared what she could and was eager to take it. The Director of Home Health Education Service in Kabwe convinced her to sit for the examination, and she reported back that she did her best.

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“I was very anxious but I am happy that I wrote the paper. It has motivated me and I am encouraged. I feel I can do it.”

She intends to go on to university to take a course that intrigues her.

In any other context, Mutakwa’s story is unremarkable, even mundane.  Until you learn that she is 73, and the oldest person in Zambia to sit for her Grade 12 examinations.

Mutakwa is a grandmother of four, and a role model for them and the nation, on the importance of an education. While she never had the opportunity to complete her education as a child, she still went on to become an educator – teaching at the primary school level. And her story is a reminder of one of the basic truths of life – that it is never too late.  It’s never too late for each of us to achieve our goals – to take that photography class, to learn another language or to change careers. And for our students, it’s a reminder that the power of education continues throughout their lives.  That what they learn now will stick with them during the many stages of their lives. And that they can inspire and be inspired by other generations before them.  We often hear stories from our parents and communities that our scholars are bringing what they learn home – teaching the alphabet to illiterate parents and grandparents, writing numbers with younger siblings. We should never underestimate their potential.

 Full article: https://www.lusakatimes.com/2017/08/06/73-year-old-mulomba-mutakwa-sits-grade-12-examinations/

Looking Back: A Decade of Progress

I had a chance today to read Bill and Melinda Gates’s Annual Letter from the Gates Foundation (I know, many months later!). It’s a fascinating letter (as it always is) and I encourage you to check it out for a refreshing read on how far we have come over the last decade of their work: https://www.gatesnotes.com/2017-Annual-Letter.

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Bill Gates has always been a fascinating person to me, though I know he is not as popular in my demographic as his partner/rival, Steve Jobs.  But Gates did a big chunk of his recruiting at the college I went to, he visited the campus, and many of my friends interned at Microsoft.  Not long after I graduated, he announced that he would be leaving Microsoft to work full-time at his foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  I remember hearing him speak at some point and being impressed by his determination to make the world a better place.  That sentiment certainly came through in the above letter. 

Some things about Bill Gates that you might not know – he started writing computer programs at 13, the first of which was a tic tac toe game you could play against a computer (using BASIC – the first programming language I learned too!).  His parents remarked that he often moved slowly and was late, owing this to his curiosity and thoughtfulness.  He dropped out of Harvard to start a computer company, and didn’t get his degree until 32 years later.  And while he is both widely hated and widely loved, even his detractors must admit that he helped spearhead one of the greatest revolutions in modern history – making computers accessible to the masses.  It is this same computer that allows me to type this email today, that allows me to read that annual letter above, and that allows Impact Network to exist at all.  It is this same technology that makes quality learning accessible to our students, that brings tablets into our classrooms, that creates more engaging lessons for our students.  And ultimately, it is this same technology that will give our 2,300 students the opportunity to learn.

One of the quotes I read recently from Gates rang more true to our work than anything I’ve read:  “Technology is just a tool. In terms of getting the kids working together and motivating them, the teacher is the most important.” We provide our teachers with incredible tools – tablets, lesson plans, resources, and professional development – because we believe that they are the best asset we have in the classroom.

 

“Teaching is the Way of Sharing Knowledge to One Another" - Q&A with Edith Zulu

Edith teaches grade 1 at Mnyaula Community School

What is your favorite subject to teach? Why?

“Teaching is the way of sharing knowledge to one another. As for me, my favorite subject to teach is English language. Since I was little, I used to feel good or rather admire our English teacher. I like teaching English as a subject because I would want my community, city and my country at large to be able to speak and understand this language, in case of our visitors who come from different countries and are not able to speak or understand our language.”

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What do you like to do in your free time when you are not teaching?

“Free time is the time or period that one may have to do what he/she wishes to do. In my free time, I like doing the following: having fun with my family and friends especially my daughter whom I feel misses me a lot when I am at work, reading novels and other different story books, taking pictures, cooking, sports and visiting my family members who stay nearby my village.”

In three words, describe your personality.

  1. Joker- I like passing jokes with my family and my friends
  2. Social- I like meeting different people and it just feels as if we have met for a lifetime
  3. Talkative- Yes I am talkative but very sensitive to the mood of the environment

Tell us about your family.

My family? Woah, it’s very interesting. I come from a set of seven ladies and one man and Mummy and Daddy. All together we are eleven since I am a single mother of one girl. My parents are farmers and they depend on farming. My elder sister is married with six children, my only brother is married with two children while my immediately younger sister is also married with two children, and they are all married in the villages and depend on farming. My four sisters are still in school; one is in grade eleven, the other one is in grade eight. Our last born are twins and they are doing grade five at one of the schools under Impact Network. As for now, that’s what I can say about my family whom I love the most and I always say that my family is my pride.

If you could visit any place in the world, where would you visit? And why?

Visiting new places is one of my hobbies and if I could visit any place in the world, I would have visited America.And you know what? The American people are friendly (most of them) and fun, always want to chat with anyone.

Marie Curie: Which Path Will You Choose?

Last month I happened to watch a couple of pieces of the TV series Genius on Albert Einstein and ended up learning something about Marie Curie (apparently, Einstein wrote her a letter telling her basically to “Ignore the haters!” – see below).

Born Marie Sklodowska in Poland 1867, both of Curie’s parents were teachers, and she excelled at school in her formative years. Though she graduated near the top of her class, she couldn’t attend the University of Warsaw because of her gender. She instead attended what was known as the “floating university” – more informal classes held in secret that admitted women – and received some scientific training from her father. Curie and her sister also worked out a deal so that they could study abroad and receive a real degree – she would work and help pay for her sister’s schooling and then they would switch. Curie worked for five years as a governess and a tutor, and then travelled to meet her sister in Paris.

It was here in Paris, at the Sorbonne, that Curie immersed herself in the sciences – first completing a master’s degree in physics and another degree in mathematics after that. She was introduced to Pierre Curie when she was in need of a laboratory, and a romance developed.  They were married in 1895, and their work together unearthed some of history’s greatest scientific discoveries. Together they pioneered the research on radioactivity, and discovered two elements (polonium and radium). At the age of 36, Curie was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics, along with her husband. A few years later, her husband died tragically, and Marie Curie continued her scientific research on her own, later earning a Nobel Prize in chemistry.

You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end, each of us must work for our own improvement and, at the same time, share a general responsibility for all humanity, our particular duty being to aid those to whom we think can be most useful.

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Whenever I read about Marie Curie, and women pioneers like her, I find myself overwhelmed by the what ifs. What if she hadn’t gone to the floating university? What if she hadn’t made that deal with her sister? What if her studies hadn’t brought her and Pierre Curie together?  What if she had given up just a little bit earlier?  Increasingly, these questions bring me back to our own work.  There are countless potential pathways that each of the lives of our 2,300 students could travel along.  Which ones will matter? What decision points are along the way?  What can we do to improve their odds?  How do we teach them to persevere, as Marie Curie did?

Meet our new Education Development Intern in Zambia

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Hello,

My name is Fergus and I am going to be working with Impact Network as an Education Development Intern over the next three months.

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Since graduating University in 2012 I have spent a number of years working in the social sector in London, most recently with a social enterprise called Localgiving where I trained charities across the UK in digital skills and fundraising. This role gave me the opportunity to work closely with new charities each week, covering a diverse range of causes, and I was constantly inspired by the positive impact that these local organizations were able to make on their communities through harnessing digital skills.

Many of the organizations I worked with were youth-focused and ranged from local, community youth centers to national organizations such as Girlguiding UK. I also became increasingly involved in a number of youth organizations myself and decided that I wanted to gain more experience of community-level, youth organizations in an international context.

In September 2016, I began an eight month placement with the International Citizen Service in Bangladesh. During this placement I worked on education and gender equality projects in a small, rural community while leading multiple teams of young UK and Bangladeshi volunteers. It was an incredible eight months and was my first experience of working directly on education projects in a developing country.

The community in which I was working had received sporadic aid over the past 20 years from a number of different organizations, which meant there was a real contrast between well-funded schools and the unfunded community schools that had received little to no financial aid. What struck me most in the difference between the children in these schools was not simply the students’ levels of numeracy and literacy but, more crucially, their self-belief. Previous to this experience I admit to taking for granted the power of education to develop a child outside of formal learning. However, it was clear from my time in Bangladesh that children who had access to an interactive and stimulating education consistently expressed a greater confidence of their own abilities and a stronger desire to use what they were learning to better their communities in the future.

This experience motivated me to learn more about innovate ways in which organizations were improving education for children in rural communities and I was particularly excited when I came across Impact Network. By empowering teachers with tablets focused on interactive and activity based lesson plans, Impact Network is able to bring quality education to communities across rural Zambia. As an intern I am excited about tying in my previous experiences in education and digital skills and learning first-hand how Impact Network is improving education for children in rural communities.

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I’m writing this blog from my room at Joel Community School, Impact Network’s first school, where I have now been for the past couple of weeks. It has been a fantastic experience so far and I have already got involved in a range of projects, including: helping to run a day-long exam committee, observing teachers across a range of schools and helping to develop teacher training presentations.

I’m easing in nicely into village life, slowly mastering the art of making balls of Nshima (popular food made from maize flour) and, much less slowly, the art of carrying my water back from the local borehole without spilling it all over myself.

There are a lot of exciting projects for me to work on over the next few months and I will be sure to keep you all updated.

Maryam Mirzakhani and the Power of Firsts

This week, I was stunned to hear of the death of Maryam Mirzakhani. I wrote about Mirzakhani years ago in one of my first Friday emails, when she became the first woman to win the Fields Medal, the most prestigious prize in mathematics across the globe.  Mirzakhani won for her work on “the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces.”  She was born in Tehran, Iran, where she went to school and earned early accolades in mathematics (1994 and 1995 gold winner of the International Mathematical Olympiad).  She went to the US for her graduate work, earning a PhD from Harvard, becoming a professor first at Princeton and eventually at Stanford University. 

I read a fascinating interview with Mirzakhani here. In this interview, Mirzakhani credited her success to a number of factors.  First, the Iran-Iraq war ended when she was in elementary school, making it possible for her to attend a high school in Tehran with very good teachers. She befriended Roya Beheshti (a fellow mathematician now at Washington University), and they kept one another motivated. Mirzakhani had a strong-willed principal who went a long way to ensure that her all-girls’ school was given the same opportunities as the boys’ school.

When Mirzakhani got to Harvard, she learned that she needed to catch up on a few subjects that she hadn’t learned before, and said that she “…started attending the informal seminar organized by Curt McMullen. Well, most of the time I couldn't understand a word of what the speaker was saying. But I could appreciate some of the comments by Curt. I was fascinated by how he could make things simple and elegant. So I started regularly asking him questions, and thinking about problems that came out of these illuminating discussions.”  It’s okay to recognize that we don’t know something – and Mirzakhani demonstrates that it’s actually a positive thing, so long as we have the confidence and will to ask questions, think about the answers, and learn something in the process. 

What startled me about Mirzakhani was the number of firsts for her – first woman to represent the country in the Mathematical Olympiad, first woman to win the Fields Medal, first Iranian to win the Fields Medal.  Across the globe, we have some important work to do to encourage our girls to continue attending school, to give them equal opportunities as boys, and to inspire them to pursue careers in mathematics.  Even where I went to school, in my maths program, there were three men to every one woman.  We need to do better.  Impact Network actually enrolls more girls than boys – approximately 55% of our 2,300 students are young girls.  But we also have to focus on making sure they stay enrolled, and continue to succeed throughout their primary and secondary schooling years.

Mirzakhani’s obituary in The Economist was beautiful – I hope you’ll read it and remember her this week.