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.

 

Let us pick up our books and our pens

Last week, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai finished high school and celebrated her 20th birthday – less than five years after being shot in the head by the Taliban on her way home from school.

Yousafzai is a Pakastani student and education activist from the Swat District in Pakistan, where the Taliban had banned girls from attending school at various points in time. As a young girl, she wrote a blog under a pseudonym for the BBC, explaining her life under the Taliban, and the importance of girls education. On October 9th, 2012, she was shot in the head and neck in an assassination attempt by Taliban gunman while returning from home on a school bus, after taking an exam.  Yousafzai came very close to death, but went on to make a full recovery. She finished her last day of secondary school in Birmingham, England, and spent her 20th birthday in Iraq. There, she visited Yazidi girls who had been released from captivity in Iraq and Syria, and heard about their dogged pursuit of education even in the direst of circumstances.

As far as activists go, Yousafzai is unwavering in her commitment to speak out against injustice and her support for education rights across the globe.  As far as teenagers go, she is absolutely incredible. Less than a year after her injury, she spoke before the United Nations, not against the Taliban, but in support of the right of education for every child:

“Dear sisters and brothers, we realize the importance of light when we see darkness. We realize the importance of our voice when we are silenced…The wise saying ‘The pen is mightier than the sword.” It is true. The extremists are afraid of books and pens. The power of education frightens them…So let us wage, so let us wage a glorious struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism, let us pick up our books and our pens, they are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution. Education first."

Each of us is a part of this struggle for education. Yousafzai’s message is connected to our mission -- every child deserves and education, and as Yousafzai says, so shall we do – one child, one teacher, one book, and one pen at a time. When you find yourself looking for the meaning of our work, and wanting to connect your daily responsibilities to the larger world – read these words.  Though Yousafzai could have resorted to revenge, to violence, to bitterness – she choose to be stronger because of it, and to use the attempt on her life for better.  May we all have the strength to do this when we encounter hardship and violence in our own lives.

- Reshma Patel, Executive Director

I am using my music as a weapon...

By chance last week, Katie and I happened to meet one of the stars of “Fela” on Broadway.  Fela is the story of Fela Kuti, a Nigerian musician and activist famous for inventing “Afrobeat” music.

Kuti was born in the late 1930s to a feminist activist mother and minister/principal father in Abeokuta, Nigeria. He initially intended to study medicine, but his love for the trumpet prevailed and he enrolled at the Trinity College of Music in London. From 1963 to 1970, Kuti developed his Afrobeat music genre everywhere from Ghana to LA. He returned to Nigeria in 1970s and began to develop song lyrics that were more politically active – his lyrics often shined a light on the disenfranchised and exposed corruption in the Nigerian government.  He paid the price for his political action – he was arrested 200 times, beaten, his home was set on fire, and his mother was thrown from a window during one of the government raids he endured.

He continued to develop his music, sharing the stage with other activists as part of Amnesty International – including Bono, and Carlos Santana.  But by the 1990s, his health had started to fail and he slowed his pace – in 1997, he died from complications of AIDS.  He produced 50 albums over his life, and over 1 million attended his funeral in his home country, Nigeria.

With my music, I create change...I am using my music as a weapon.
- Fela Kuti

The quote above just reminds me – each of us has at our disposal, the ability to use our greatest talent as a tool (and weapon) to right injustices.  People from Mandela to Malala have focused on the power of education as a weapon – a weapon we can use to fight poverty, ignorance and a tool we can wield to change the world. It’s a concept we think of every day while we do the ground work of ensuring our 2,300 students receive a quality education in rural Zambia. And listening to Kuti’s music has created that same power for me, just in a different way.  Hope that you add it to your playlist this week!

- Reshma Patel, Executive Director

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?