Meet Naomi: An Education Fellow Working with us in Zambia

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I arrived in Katete on a Thursday afternoon; I had left home three day earlier at 3am Monday.  The long flights and long bus ride left a lingering exhaustion in the back of my head.  The air was warm and the sky blue so I sat a minute on the steps of Impact Network’s main office and watched as the red dust settled on the road.  Soon I am off, helping input data into spread sheets and experiencing the hustle and bustle of the busy staff working in the office.    

So here I am…on the next adventure!  My name is Naomi and I have come from the forests of Maine in the USA to intern with Impact Network for three months.  I am a Master’s student studying Global Policy with the University of Maine’s School of Policy and International Affairs.  Since volunteering at an orphanage in Zimbabwe in 2016, I have been excited to return to this part of Africa and working with an education NGO fits wonderfully with my studies and personal career goals. 

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                When I arrive in Joel village where I will be staying, it has already turned dark. My first impression of the village is the sounds of chatter all around. There is the sound of singing, drumming, babies crying, and laughter, laughter, laughter.  Sharon, another intern, and Lweendo, a Zambian staff member, show me to my modest room nestled between two classrooms in a block of the school.   As I settle in and await sleep, the music begins to rise and rise.  It feels as if it is all around me where I lay in my bed. I have arrived on the eve of a holiday and the village is celebrating!  The next morning, I emerge to the see the landscape.  The sun is just rising and already women crowd around the borehole to pump water in the middle of town.  They walk elegantly posed straight backed, bucket on head, back to their homes to begin the day’s activities.  Sharon and I have breakfast at our Zambian village host Bessie’s house, and then we are in the office and off to work.

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                By the end of my first week, I feel I have been here for much longer.  Under the guidance of the Director of Academics and Evaluation, Felicia, I am inputting and processing the data from last terms exams. This includes grades for 6,000 students and evaluations of over 120 teachers. I am using excel in all sorts of new ways!  I also started working with school support officers to help build sexual education and life skills curriculums.  Next, I will be headed out to schools to help with the literacy assessments of grade five students.   I can already tell that the summer will be packed full and I will learn a lot! 

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                Most days I am surrounded by people.  The students are excited to come talk to me.  Most children laugh and laugh as I greet them, Mwauka Bwanji, Muli Bwanji?   Again and again, I hear… how are you? How are you? How are you?   Me, I am just fine.  I am enjoying my new African home and looking forward to the months ahead.

- Naomi

 

How is Iceland like Rural Zambia?

Every four years over a billion fans tune in watch 32 nations compete in the World Cup, the most watched sporting event in the world. Soccer/football is the most popular sport with our students and staff and you can catch students playing a sunset game many days on a field near our schools. This year’s World Cup is in Russia, and includes 5 teams from Africa.

Iceland is surprising us all and making waves this year with its first World Cup appearance. It’s the smallest country to ever qualify with a population of 340,000 (just 3% of the population of New York City!). To put that into perspective, the next smallest country to qualify was Trinidad and Tobago in 2006 with 1.3 million people. Iceland began their unlikely journey by beating England in the semifinals of the Euro Cup in 2016 and then solidified their spot by defeating Kosovo in October 2017 of the European Championships. Iceland has slowly been putting itself on the map in the soccer world contrary to the prior belief that they were too small to ever be on this world stage. The road to the World Cup began almost 20 years earlier when the country focused on providing quality coaches and access to everyone regardless of the ability and socio-economic status. The surprisingly easy access that players had to training facilities and top-rate coaching allowed them to continue their training regardless of the size of their town or the bad weather outside.

Iceland’s cast of characters is made up of an unlikely bunch, and coach Hallgrimsson, a part-time dentist, is asked about this in every media encounter. He began a press conference at the World Cup by saying, “before anyone asks, I’m still a dentist and I will never stop being a dentist.” The goal keeper is a movie director that has put his career on hold, but was behind the a World Cup Coca-Cola commercial that includes the famous thunderclap.

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The more I read about the team, the more I see consistent themes and messages on why they are successful: laying the groundwork, hard work paying off, believing in yourself and believing that you deserve to be there.

These are lessons we try to instill in our students every day. While Iceland and its glaciers, hot springs and fjords could not be more different than our farming villages in rural Zambia, I can’t help but notice that at first glance, someone might overlook our students or think our villages are too remote or rural. Much like Iceland, most people don’t know much about Zambia. It is our collective responsibility to put Zambia on the map and share the stories of our amazing students and staff. With access to quality education paired with hard work and believing in themselves, our students have the opportunity to become the next teachers, doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs – and hopefully even, soccer stars at the World Cup.

Most of the world has celebrated the Iceland soccer story but the odds of them making it out of their group stage were small. However, on Saturday Iceland had a draw 1-1 with favorite Argentina, surprising the world and overcoming the odds once again. I hope Iceland and our students in Zambia keep surprising the world and blowing past the world’s perceptions!

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- Katie

Parts Unknown: The Curiosity of Anthony Bourdain

As tributes to Anthony Bourdain have been pouring into every news outlet across the country, I must confess not knowing very much about him before yesterday.  I knew he was an NYC Chef, hosted a food show, had eaten with President Obama in Vietnam, and Mike reminded me that he wrote Kitchen Confidential. But beyond that, I really never paid much attention.

That changed yesterday as I read so many articles about how he has changed the travel landscape almost as much as the food one.  Throughout the day, the thing that stuck with me most could be pared down to just one word:  curiosity.

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Bourdain was curious about the world.  When he traveled around to “parts unknown”, he wasn’t just curious about the food.  He wasn’t just interested in the best restaurant.  He was interested in the people, in the culture, and in the heart of the cities he went to. It’s a curiosity that I know I don’t have inherently, though I aspire to.  And it goes so much deeper than the superficial exterior of just tasting one dish at a local hotspot. Take the episode “Iran” for example, from Season 4.  He masterfully showed Americans a version of Iran that they had not considered – one that was tolerant, warm, and in his words, even pro-American. His episode “Los Angeles” pretended that everyone who lived there was Korean and stayed within the confines of LA’s bustling Koreatown.

A quote that has been making the rounds over the last day:

“If I am an advocate for anything, it is to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.”

Reflecting on his message, I can’t help but feel that Bourdain’s work and life served the world of international development too.  One of the toughest things about running a non-profit that benefits students in Zambia is trying to get people here in the US to understand what life is like for rural Zambians.  What it is like to have children, and to want desperately for them to learn to read and write, but to have no options for schooling. Or to have options that are too expensive, or ineffective.  It’s a hard thing to try and get people to put themselves in the shoes of people they know, never mind a culture of people halfway across the world in a country they haven’t heard about.

But Bourdain inspired and challenged all of us to be a little more adventurous.  To be a little more open-minded.  To be a little more curious about the world around us.  May we honor him by doing just that in our future years.

-Reshma

Treating All Students as Scholars...

I got to listen to a podcast last week from an education author I admire – Paul Tough (who’s the author of How Children Succeed and more recently, Helping Children Succeed).  There are a lot of lessons from his work in the US education system and what is happening in our colleges to try and make sure that students from all backgrounds have equal opportunity in this country (this article has a good summary).  But what struck me is how many of the lessons translate into every day interactions and how we treat our peers, our colleagues, and even our strangers.

The first, is that framing matters.  Treating students, even struggling ones, as scholars is important. It changes how they think of themselves. It changes their perception of what is possible.  And it’s the difference between overcoming obstacles, and giving up.  It’s not something I’ve emphasized before – we always talk about all of our students deserving access to a quality education.  But it’s equally true that our students – our scholars – have immense potential in Zambia, if they have the opportunity to reach it.

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The second, is that messaging matters.  We send and receive messages every single day – be it by email, phone, or in person (and yes, those count as messages!).  Those messages can make a difference.  It’s often the difference between a student who feels like they belong to a community of peers, and one who feels like they will never fit in.  It’s the difference between having symptoms of depression, and not.  And it can be the difference between a student staying in college just a little bit longer, and dropping out. In every interaction we have, we have an opportunity to make our messages both stick, and be positive. 

And last, students need support.  In the case of a 4-year college that has resources available, this translates to smaller classes, advising, and additional instruction.  In the case of our 2,500+ students in rural Zambia – it means some of those same things!  We have smaller class sizes compared to government schools.  We may not have a formal advising system, but we have Teacher Supervisors who coach our teachers closely to improve, and a management staff that knows our students and populations well. Our teachers use classrooms outside of regularly scheduled times to provide additional instruction in the form of tutoring.

- Reshma

Costs Cannot Be the Only Driver...

Almost a quarter of a century ago, Hitachi announced that it had developed the first memory chip capable of holding 1 MB of data.  This sounds like a pittance now, but at the time, it was revolutionary! 1 MB of data is actually one million bits (1 MB) of information, and truthfully speaking, the cost of the chip was too high for most practical applications of it.

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Two decades later, and you can get a one terabyte drive (one million MB!) for about $50.  The cost of one gigabyte of storage on a computer has gone from around $700,000 in the 1980s to (almost) free today!  Our phones routinely have upwards of 16 GB of space on them.  Our emails no longer have space or size limitations like they did when email first came out (remember when you got those emails that you were running out of storage?!).  The progress has been nothing short of incredible.  At the time, no one knew for sure whether it was ever going to be possible for 1 MB of data to be made cheaply and well – at least to the extent necessary for it to be commercially and personally available.  If the inventors and backers who created the technology that went into this chip had thought about costs alone, the 1 MB chip would never have been invented.  In short – at its inception – the computer chip was not a cost effective endeavor.

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But people did endeavor.  And we’re glad they did.  Because of them, our Mwabu tablets can come loaded with thousands of lessons, lesson plans, and resources that serve our students and communities every day.  Because of them, laptops from across our five clusters are able to send dozens of reports each month to our head office in NYC.  Because of them, our 6,000 students have the opportunity to learn and can receive a quality education.  Costs cannot be the only driver to future innovation, but let’s make sure their investment is worth it today!

-Reshma

Data, Data and Downtime: Thank you Zambia, for Sharing your Gift!

Hello world. My name is Sharon, I’m 54 and I’m the newest intern at Joel Village. I’m originally from England but I’ve been living in Southern Africa for 17 years and consider Knysna, in the Western Cape of South Africa, my home. I’ve had a long and very varied working life starting off as a Chartered Surveyor managing and valuing commercial property, then in to IT Sales, then to Africa where I ran my own business’s before working on the admin side of an International Investment Consultancy.

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Over the years I’ve been attracted to the NGO sector and have applied for many jobs but to no avail, it’s a tricky nut to crack! After spending some time in Vietnam, teaching English, I was looking for my next position and there it was: my dream job with Impact Network, working in Africa, in education. I have a deep love of Africa and being given the opportunity to play a small part in raising the education levels in rural communities is very special indeed.

Fortunately, I love working with Excel and Databases. Just after I arrived here both month end and end of term coincided to produce a perfect storm of data!  I felt a bit overwhelmed at times especially with the month end reports as the raw data needs a lot of manipulation and cleaning (and chasing people to update) to produce the end result. There’s also a deadline to adhere to as a lot of the information goes to our funders; the people behind the scenes who make all of this possible. Monica, my predecessor, had explained what was required but watching somebody explain the ins and outs of compiling the reports and then actually doing it yourself is a very different process!  Anyway, I now have a month end under my belt and the next one should be a lot more straight forward, especially as I’ve started working on some strategies to streamline the production of the reports.

The end of term data is a whole other story. Results for the six examined subjects, (handwritten, on paper) were collected from teachers gathered for the training days. This task was overwhelming purely because of the sheer volume of information that had to be processed manually but everybody contributed with the data input, both in Zambia and New York including some volunteers (Thanks, Reshma’s Dad!). The resulting spreadsheet is standing at over 4700 lines (so far) and is the biggest data collection undertaken by Impact Network. I think I can speak for all of us when I say we’re waiting with baited breath to find out what the data will reveal!

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With my head, ‘in the zone’, stuck in my laptop it’s easy to forget the realities of my present location. Until, that is, a cow or goat sticks his head in the office door to see what’s going on. Or, whilst figuring out a tricky data manipulation, I ask my best friend Google how to do it, and wait…… and wait….and wait. Eventually, I grab my phone and wander around outside to find a cell signal and repeat the question….and wait….and wait. There’s no 4G here people! There’s no point getting frustrated, it’s just the way it is. While you’re waiting it gives you a chance to appreciate the small moments happening around you: the beautiful clear, blue sky; the cows, goats, chickens and dogs living their lives; the lizard scampering up a tree; the crowd of children that have gathered; the women collecting water from the borehole. Having the time to recognise and appreciate the small moments in life is a precious gift that few of us experience.

 Waiting for the Internet.....

Waiting for the Internet.....

Thank you Zambia, for sharing your gift!

- Sharon

Data is Power

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A few weeks ago the Impact Network team came together to support the biggest data collection and entry process in the history of the organization! With more students and teachers than ever before, Impact Network believes that it is even more crucial to have as much good information about our students and schools as possible.

Good data helps us to not only provide more help to our students and teachers - but better and more tailored support! It allows us to make informed decisions and be responsive to what is happening across our 44 schools and many different communities. 

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But building a school information system to accommodate so many students, teachers and staff has not been easy. The more data we collect, the more creative we need to be in terms of how information is gathered, entered digitally and processed. 

By using a mobile data collection system we have been able to create a lot of efficiencies within the team. Teacher and student attendance is now all collected through the mobile app, among many other things.

Here is a picture of our teachers engaging with attendance and assessment data in a workshop in April. By identifying patterns among students and having access to essential information, teachers will be better equipped to tackle challenges that arise in and around their schools.

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The last big piece of the data puzzle is how to process student assessment data. With 6,000 students and 42 unique standardized tests each term- this a big undertaking! Over the past few weeks team members in the US and Zambia have come together to work on this. Led by our intern on the ground, Sharon, this process is almost done! A big thank you to everyone who has worked to make this a reality: Sharon, Noah, Caroline, Jackson, Solomon, Olivia, Lweendo, Richard, Katie, Sofia, Phoebe, Dilip, and Reshma!

Data is power – and now we have so many opportunities to improve the quality of our program even further and facilitate better decision making at all levels. 

Onwards and upwards!

-Felicia

Practice Makes Progress

It’s Mother’s Day in the US (Happy Mother’s Day to the moms out there!), and I came across this incredible story. 

I have to say, it particularly resonated with me because I have a two-year-old.  I also have to say, that Dolly Shivani Cherukuri has my son beat.

 The original Mockingjay!

The original Mockingjay!

Three years ago, Dolly became the youngest Indian to score more than 200 points at an archery event. She shot 36 arrows at a target 5 meters away, and then again at a target 7 meters away. Three years later, she created a new record by firing 103 arrows at a distance of 10 meters in only 11 minutes. She continues to break records each year! Her family claims that “archery is in their blood”, and that she started training after her older brother – international archer and coach, Cherukuri Lenin – passed away.  But the truth is that, archery is in their life.  Dolly practices every day for a few hours.  She also uses light carbon arrows when she is training so that they don’t weigh her down.

Two things I wanted to highlight from this story: First, and I could say this every week, practice matters.  Dedicating a set amount of time to the practice of a skill is the only way to improve it, to hone it, and master it.  Whether it’s reading, learning an instrument, or doing long division – practice is the only thing that is guaranteed to bring progress.  Some people are lucky as well, and others have better opportunities.  But for our scholars, the more hours they can put in, practicing their literacy and numeracy skills, the better students they will become, and the more chances they will have for success.  We want our scholars to be the change makers in Zambia, but to do that, we all need to put the time into their studies, hour by hour, week by week, year by year. It starts today!

Second, age ain’t nothing but a number. Dolly has been able to excel at a task at such an incredibly young age. Most kids are still trying to develop their fine motor skills at this age; Kian is working on holding a pencil correctly!  But Dolly’s dedication to her craft and her family’s steadfast support is remarkable. Providing that support to our students is what motivates each of us, every day, to improve, to change, to innovate, and to endure. 

-Reshma

 

Just Because you Can, it Doesn’t Mean you Should

Growing up, I remember my parents telling me “just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should.” This is a simple message that is intended to make one think about their actions, though for many of us, the message changes with age.

I recall a lecturer of mine once saying the word ‘should’ can be removed from our vocabulary. Often the word is negatively tied to ‘obligation’ and can shape our thought process in an unhealthy way. The word is also described as debilitating, disempowering or coercive by those who professionally dissect this particular word. In a personal experiment, I omitted the word ‘should’ from my speech for several years. True enough, I didn’t need it, or particularly miss it. It has crept back into my vocabulary in recent years, though I often strive to replace the word with empowering ones such as desire, choose or want.

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Back in January, the site managers and I had a session where we dissected the words ‘can’ and ‘should’ in relation to perceptions about women and their ability to perform certain tasks, part of what I consider an ongoing conversation about gender roles. We considered how we can be more precise in their use, in order to reinforce the point that our work is all about giving people the chance to develop their talent in a supportive environment.

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Whenever things get challenging here in Zambia, I remember this:

We CAN mold high school graduates into amazing primary school teachers. Higher education has incredible value, but throughout my life I have seen individuals do incredible things with determination alone. The guidance our teachers receive will undoubtedly remain with them and benefit them for years to come.

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We CAN provide a better quality education than the alternatives that exist where Impact works. The technologies we provide are a definitive advantage of our model, but the support we provide and standards we set also play a major role. 

We CAN shift perceived gender roles by building confidence in our scholars, empowering our teachers and maintaining an environment that is free from discrimination.

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Whether or not you use the word ‘should’ is up you to decide. Impact Network has shown it CAN improve education for thousands of Zambian children and I am one of countless others that is grateful the organization has chosen to do so.

-Karly

The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet...

I came across a quote that was not attributed to anyone when I read it:  “The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet.”

I looked it up and found that it was actually a quote from Aristotle – the Greek philosopher and scientist (hopefully most of you remembered at least that much from your own schooling!).  At 18, Aristotle joined Plato’s Academy in Athens to pursue a higher education under Plato’s direction. His time here proved him to be an exemplary scholar, but he did not inherit the position of director of the academy when Plato passed away.  Aristotle also tutored Alexander the Great, giving him access to a number of resources.  He was able to create a library and school in Athens, called the Lyceum. It was here where Aristotle spent most of the rest of his life – teaching, studying, and writing.

Aristotle, along with Plato and Socrates, is known to have laid much of the groundwork for western philosophy.  His views on physical science shaped the work of medieval scholars. Some of his zoological observations were not confirmed (or refuted, as it were) until the 19th century. He is often regarded as the “first genuine scientist in history” and his works contain the first known formal study of logic.  The world as we know it would look profoundly different if it weren’t for three parts of Aristotle:  his teachers (Plato and Socrates), his students (Alexander the Great), and Aristotle himself.  It’s interesting to remind ourselves – that we are all teachers, and we are all also students. And particularly on the teaching point, at least to me these days, our children are learning from us every day – from our language, from our actions, and from our behavior.

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The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet.  When we are learning something new – whether we are 6 years old or 60 years old – it can often be hard, it can often be overwhelming, and it can often be frustrating.  But in the end, our hard work in obtaining that piece of knowledge (whether big or small) leads to better things.  It was a good reminder to me, that our 6,000 students may struggle at times, but it is our duty, and collective responsibility to help them persevere so that they may eventually enjoy the fruits that education has to bring.

-- Reshma