The Classroom Compromise: Preserving Mother Tongue Languages in African Schools

Did you know that one language disappears on average every two weeks, often taking with it the correlating cultural heritage and traditions? Today, February 21st, we celebrate International Mother Language Day, started in 2000, to promote mother tongue-based multilingual education and preserve linguistic diversity. Yet in an increasingly globalized world, governments, schools and scholars across the African continent are torn over language usage in education.

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Many African governments have taken a strong stance on the language of instruction, amidst a global debate over its’ role in primary education. Some governments have opted for public schooling to be entirely in English meanwhile other have establish policies that are more inclusive of a diversity of languages. Liberia, for example, decided that all public schooling should be completely in English, whereas the Government of Zambia pushed for early primary grades to be in local languages while English language instruction starts in grade 5.

Studies have shown that students greatly benefit from learning in their mother tongue, especially in the early years of education. According to the United Nations, “To foster sustainable development, learners must have access to education in their mother tongue and in other languages. It is through the mastery of the first language or mother tongue that the basic skills of reading, writing and numeracy are acquired.”

On the other hand it is hard to argue against the importance of English and the opportunities its mastery opens up for young people. In African countries where job opportunities are few, English has become not only a competitive advantage but a necessity to obtain paid employment.

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The debate also trickles down to community level where parents, students and teachers are in two minds over what language their children should be taught in. “There is a divide between parents who want their children’s schooling to be in English and those who want their schooling to be in local language,” says Daniel Mwanza, who works for education NGO, Impact Network, in Zambia.  “This is usually a split between those parents who are literate and those who are not.”

“Literate parents see the opportunities that speaking English brings to their children and communities, therefore they want them to learn it from a young age. Meanwhile illiterate parents can feel disconnected to school life that is conducted in a foreign language, being less inclined to send their children to school on a regular basis or at all.” Mwanza says.

He goes on to underscore that “a complete emphasis on English takes away from local culture. There is so much of our Chewa culture in Eastern Zambia that cannot be described or understood through English. If instruction was only in English students might disengage from the culture that has made them who they are.”

As International organizations are heavily involved in education across the African continent, the debate on language of instruction also relates closely to wider questions of participation, inclusiveness and the agency of communities in shaping education initiatives.

Chinelo Nwosu, Program Manager for Impact Network explains: “I have seen the true importance of one’s mother tongue in an educational space. While developing community-based programs in Rwanda while I was a Peace Corps volunteer, I found that participation and engagement drastically increased when activities were conducted in the local language instead of English. When assessing the status of education and potential interventions in countries where English is not the first language, many believe that a child’s access to English will be a cure-all; completely disregarding the students’ most useful resource for agency; their mother tongue.”   

Impact Network focuses on providing access to quality education in rural Zambia using students’ mother tongue language as well as frequent exposure to English. Impact Network developed the eSchool 360 model, a technological solution that delivers high-quality, low-cost and sustainable education to children in under-served areas. In partnership with Mwabu, they provide teachers with tablets and projectors to deliver class lessons taught in the mother tongue of students and teachers.

“I feel proud of Impact Network schools because we find a good balance between honoring our culture and being more inclusive to the community. At the same time we also emphasize the importance of English, were we are connecting that very community to further opportunities and capabilities,’ says Mwanza.

So in time for International Mother Language Day, Impact Network is taking the time to appreciate the importance of bridging the language debate and finding a compromise in the classroom to benefit everyone. As one of their teachers, John C. Lungu says, “Confidence in English will undoubtedly open up much needed opportunities for young people later in life. But we cannot forget about our local African languages that are integral to honoring our cultural diversity and setting students up well in the early years for success in life-long learning.”

- Felicia

Silver Lining

This week, Karly Southworth, our Head of Expansion, has some thoughts on the cholera outbreak, and what our team was up to during the delay in school opening.  

While the outbreak of cholera delayed the start of schools,  the extra couple of weeks with all of the Operations Managers and Teacher Supervisors together in the head office was incredibly beneficial. The thing I most enjoyed was the team building, which helped to strengthen the cohesiveness of the group by improving communication and trust. Each of the skills we focused on can be transferred to their clusters where they are expected to building strong teacher teams. 


Communication is an essential part of any professional environment. One fun activity we did had the managers sitting back to back for five minutes with one telling the other what to draw to match a picture they were given. We had a lot of laughs with this one!



Another exceptionally valuable aspect of the time we gained was the chance to work on computer skills. Our site managers came into their roles with a limited knowledge of Office and computers in general. They are appreciative of the opportunity to learn a great deal of computer skills through working with Impact Network. It was certainly enjoyable to see their eyes light up and awe on their face when they learn a shortcut in Excel, Word and PowerPoint. As we all strive for efficiency, it’s often small things, which are second nature to long-time computer users, that make a big difference. Although the site managers rarely have a chance to come together, they are encouraged to keep using and improving their skills and to transfer their knowledge to their colleagues whenever possible.

There was also an opportunity for the Teacher Supervisors from the Expansion and Katete West projects to come together and contribute to the new teacher observation matrix, and receive guidance on effective methods of coaching teachers and tracking teacher performance over time. Their combined experiences teaching and observing in the classroom made for constructive discussions.  There was plenty of time for the team to practice using questioning to elicit productive self-assessment. To practice identifying and applying the matrix during a teacher observation, the team broke into groups and performed role plays for the others to assess.


We are thankful all Impact staff have remained cholera-free and we are grateful for the time it gave us at the start of the year. The managers were eager to get back to their sites and confident to apply what they practiced over the extended break!

- Karly

Understanding and Learning from Failure


Last week I learned that Ursula Le Guin passed away after a long illness on January 22nd.  Le Guin was a famed American novelist, known for her role in the fantasy and sci-fi genres.  She also brought a much-needed feminist and racial lens to the genre – often making her heroes dark-skinned and more nuanced than the macho male characters that tended to be celebrated in science fiction at the time.  My first encounter with Le Guin was part of the required reading in my university days, with The Wizard of Earthsea.  I loved it so much that I ended up reading a number of the Earthsea series books over the years, and still give The Wizard of Earthsea to nieces and nephews when they are teenagers.

Le Guin was born to parents with a diverse set of friends and interests, perhaps contributing to what she would later write about. Her father was an anthropologist, famously collecting data on various tribes of Native Americans in the 1920s. Her mother was a writer, who retold traditional stories from indigenous Californians for the masses.  Together, they raised their children to read frequently, and to engage with other adults in their circle – including Robert Oppenheimer, who later became the subject of one of her books.  She traveled to France and met her future husband, eventually settling in Portland, Oregon with their three children. She went on to write dozens of non-fiction and fiction works for both children and adults.

A while back I came across a commencement address that Le Guin gave in the early 80s at Mills College.  And in it, I found solace in this quote:

Success is somebody else’s failure. Success is the American Dream we can keep dreaming because most people in most places, including thirty million of ourselves, live wide awake in the terrible reality of poverty. No, I do not wish you success. I don’t even want to talk about it. I want to talk about failure.

Because you are human beings, you are going to meet failure. You are going to meet disappointment, injustice, betrayal, and irreparable loss. You will find you’re weak where you thought yourself strong. You’ll work for possessions and then find they possess you. You will find yourself — as I know you already have — in dark places, alone, and afraid.

What I hope for you, for all my sisters and daughters, brothers and sons, is that you will be able to live there, in the dark place. To live in the place that our rationalizing culture of success denies, calling it a place of exile, uninhabitable, foreign.

This week, our 4,000 scholars returned to school, ready to learn their letters, multiplication tables, and chemistry tables.  And so much of what is taught in schools, centers around success -- answering the teacher correctly, scoring points on exams, and completing practice questions right.  But what’s harder to teach, and harder for students to get comfortable with, is what went wrong.  When they fail, it’s so important for them to realize why they failed. It means working with our scholars when they aren’t quite grasping the concepts, and understanding where they have gone wrong. It means seeing their mistakes, learning from them, and turning that process into motivation – so that every time they do fail, they are getting more and more comfortable in Le Guin’s “dark place.”

The full text of her speech can be read here:

- Reshma

Access to Education in Uncertain Times


Next week the 2018 academic year begins for all the students at Impact Network schools. Yet across Zambia, many children may be denied access to education this year largely due to two main pressures from the past few months.

One of the pressures is a flare up of Cholera across the country, which has delayed the opening of schools and has had a profound impact on people’s sources of income. With many markets having been closed and large public gatherings restricted by the Government in order to prevent the spread of the disease, livelihoods have been compromised.

Another factor is the ongoing drought. In much of Zambia, it has left many farmers worried about their crops and this year’s planned harvest. Parents are not sure if they will be able to feed their children and continue to support their families. Some have even reverted to selling their government subsidized fertilizer to make ends meet, which will certainly jeopardize their source of revenue later in the year.  

A lot of research from across the African continent emphasizes that when people’s livelihoods are impacted by external ‘shocks’ to the economy and the little savings people have are spent on sustaining their families, education is first to be side-lined. Yet, it is also overwhelmingly agreed that education is a key component to breaking the cycle of poverty and creating financial stability among vulnerable communities.

Although public primary education in Zambia is technically free of charge, there are many ‘hidden costs’ associated with attending school, such as uniforms, pens, books, and PTA fees among other things. These costs, when added up among all of the school-aged children in a family, can be the difference between a parent being able to send their children to school or not. Students might enroll late or not at all due to a family’s financial situation during times of economic hardship.

As such, I am thankful that Impact Network is able to contribute to the stability and continuity of children’s education in the communities we work in. All the students in our schools receive the materials they need and parents do not need to contribute with any additional expenses to their children’s schooling.

On Monday over 4,000 thousand students will start school with Impact Network, and although we know that many of their parents will be struggling to make ends meet, we also know that through continuous education, the future of these communities will be more secure and prosperous. We can only hope that in the future even more children will be able to attain all the benefits that going to school entails.


The Pursuit of Life Long Learning

Over the holidays and in the new year, I have been trying (and mostly failing!) to be a more involved citizen and community member. I came across some of the writings of Jiddu Krishnamurti – an Indian philosopher, writer and speaker.  Krishnamurti was groomed to be the new World Teacher – an “advanced spiritual entity appearing on Earth as a World Teacher to guide the evolution of mankind.”  He later rejected this and claimed to have no loyalty to any one group, nationality, religion, philosophy, etc. He became a renowned author and speaker, commenting on topics ranging from the nature of the mind to human relationships.

I know – some hippy-dippy, tree-hugging stuff!  It’s not usually the type of work I’m interested in.  But I came across this quote over the December break and couldn’t help but learn more about him.


There is no end to education. It is not that you read a book, pass an examination, and finish with education. The whole of life, from the moment you are born to the moment you die, is a process of learning.

For me, this particularly resonated.  Growing up, I was a very good student – but I was always looking for the end.  I was always looking for the test to be over, for the paper to be finished, for the term to let out.  And I always thought that “learning” was something you checked at the door when those things finished and you could go back to regular life.  But growing older, changing careers, and meeting a partner that was truly intellectually curious made me rethink a lot of those goals.  And it made me want to strive for something better for myself, and for our scholars in Zambia.


The intrinsic desire to learn is something that is so hard to teach inside classroom walls, but it’s something that resonates through every aspect of our work with Impact Network.  This week, as we kick off our teacher training in Zambia, it particularly holds true for our teachers and staff. Our incredible team in Zambia embodies this fundamental desire every day – and there is no better role model for our students. We always ask for teacher and staff feedback during our monthly training sessions, and for as long back as I can remember, the team has shown a thirst for knowledge, and asked for more – more training, covering a wide range of topics.

To them, we say thank you – and good luck as we start the 2018 school year!


Showcasing the Best of Africa's Art

I came across a TED talk on social media this week by art curator Touria El Glaoui. Glaoui is on a mission to showcase new art from African nations and the diaspora. She also founded 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, an international art fair dedicated to contemporary art from Africa, drawing reference to the 54 countries that make up the African continent. Glaoui shares beautiful and inspiring contemporary art that tells powerful stories of African identity and history. 


As I watched this video, I saw similarities with how Impact Network aims to share powerful stories from Zambia and Africa to educate and engage people.  When I speak about my job with people I meet, they often don’t know where Zambia is. And even the people who have heard of Zambia often don’t know much about it or its education system.  And why would they?  There is not a lot of everyday news out there about Zambia or the many other African countries. And most of the time, when stories do hit the US news cycle – they are negative. They depict African countries with corrupt governments, illnesses, wars, poverty, etc. Not to get political, but the President isn’t the only person who has the impression that these are “s**thole countries.”


It is our job within the network to educate and inform people of this amazing country and its people, especially our students.  These students have the potential to be Zambia’s most successful doctors, lawyers, teachers, and artists.   They have dreams, and education is the first step for them to reach those. We can be advocates for them, just like Touria is for artists in Africa.  Who knows, we might even have an artist within our walls that will one day be featured in the I-54 art fair.  



Cheers to a New Year and Higher Goals for our Students


As 2017 comes to a close, the team in Katete West has taken the opportunity to pause, gather evidence of students’ performance and reflect closely on the goals for 2018. Through an assessment of 10% of students in the 9 Katete West Schools, the team has been able to gain a better understanding of students’ strengths and weaknesses in order to provide more thoughtful support in the new year.

The assessments were largely inspired by the subtasks that make up the Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) and Early Grade Maths Assessment (EGMA), which are widely used assessment tools in Zambia and beyond. A key part of the assessment was oral reading fluency in English and Chinyanja, which is often measured by the number of correct words per minute (CWPM) that a student can read.

The Government of Zambia and USAID has set a benchmark of 20 CWPM for grade 2 students, yet in a 2015 study only 8% of students in Zambian grade 2 classes reached that benchmark and therefore a national target of 33% by 2020 was set. Impact Network’s students are already greatly exceeding this target as 50% of grade 2 students assessed could read more than 20 CWPM. This is worth celebrating!

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Another widely used indicator for literacy relates to the number of 0-scores or, how many students cannot read a single word. In the 2015 study by USAID 64% of grade 2 students scored 0 on their oral reading fluency assessments. At Impact Network schools only 14% of students assessed from grade 2 scored 0, which is great progress. However, this is still 14% too many as we would like to see the 0-scores be eliminated completely! It is important to ensure that no child is left behind during the process of learning how to read, as literacy in many ways acts as the key to other academic success.

So although Impact Network students are performing well beyond national targets and have achieved great results, there is still much to be done and new highest to strive for. The assessments have helped the team come up with many ideas for 2018 on how to address some of the challenges identified. These include tailoring teacher trainings, enabling more peer learning among teachers and considering additional initiatives to complement the curriculum in specific areas.


2018 has many opportunities for further learning and the student assessments are only one example of how learning outcomes can drive decision making to further improve the quality of education in Impact Network schools.

Cheers to a new year and higher goals for our students- Onwards and upwards!


Student Assessments - Part 2

The end of the school year is here for Impact Network. Student assessments are complete and the results compiled and analyzed. The Katete West team finished the literacy and numeracy student assessments in all schools over the course of 3 days. The team managed to assess students from grades 2-6 at each school.


I was very impressed from the beginning by the whole team. The designated leaders (grade 7 teachers) succeeded in coordinating the movement of students to ensure that each of the 2 boys and 2 girls selected completed each assessment. It wasn’t an easy task since it was also exam week, and students didn’t necessarily want to stick around after exams to be assessed even more. There was a great amount of cooperation among team leaders, teachers’ in charge and other teachers allowing for a smooth process overall. It was fun for me as well to become more familiar with some of the schools farther away I had yet to visit, and to get to know a lot of the teachers and students better.

The first two days I joined groups going to Mkale and Zatose. I was surprised by the distances and conditions of the roads that made our journey over an hour each time. It left me with a greater appreciation of the dedication of Impact Network teachers and teacher supervisors who navigate these roads to teach and observe in schools and attend teacher trainings weekly.


It is now rainy season, so Day 2 in Zatose was a race against the storm to finish assessments and avoid being on the road. That was when the extent of the remoteness really sunk in. After concluding everything, heavy rains came and we discovered an issue with the car. I panicked in silence thinking, What are we going to do? While waiting for the rains to pass and then for the driver and the teachers, also self- ascribed “bush mechanics” to work on the car, I made the most of that time by interacting with the grade 6 students who had just finished . When asked if they were excited for grade 7 next year, they answered with big, bright smiles that they were. My inner teacher emerged and to pass the time I introduced a game everyone back home learns in their childhood--hangman. Of course, I explained everything in English as my Cinyanja skills are not coming along as I’d hoped, but they got the concept rather quickly, even finding it really funny. That was the highlight of the whole project for me, being able to interact with students in a way that is both educational and fun on both sides.

The other time spent in the schools with the students was very revealing.  I helped to assess some of the older students in Math and English reading. Observations of strategies different students used to solve math problems were intriguing, but I was blown away by hearing some of the students reading abilities in English. It still makes me really proud and honored to be working with others who are improving learning outcomes in these extremely rural places.


We are now in the process of sharing the results with teacher supervisors in preparation for January 5 teacher training. While a lot of learning is taking place in schools, we have also learned with the results, (further detailed in Felicia’s upcoming blog post) specifically areas in literacy and numeracy where students can be learning even more. In discussions with the teacher supervisors, they have been quite surprised, but also very interested and motivated in their workshop planning to improve teachers’ skills in these areas. 



Fact vs. Opinion

This week we have a guest post from Chinelo Nwosu, our Program Manager

At the end of every year, I like to reflect on the decisions I have made and how they have shaped my path for the year. And my personal theme for this year has been: persevering against all odds. Throughout this year I often found myself thinking back to one of my favorite times during my Peace Corps service, that I’d like to share with you!

The first 3 months of my Peace Corps journey began in a small village, Taba, in the District of Kamonyi, in the Southern Province of Rwanda. Taba is where I went through training which included long hours of language (Kinyarwanda), sessions of tech training for teaching the Rwandan Education system, and cross-culture & Health sessions just to name a few. While this time was filled with exciting new experiences, it also had its occasional stresses. Just when those stresses were beginning to peak, we were given the opportunity to put our training to the test. We were allowed to teach the children of the surrounding villages – this was to give us practical training, and it also helped with our confidence in the classroom. For some, like myself, this was our first time teaching in a classroom setting so I was extremely excited to be paired up with Zack, one of my training group’s very experienced teachers.

Since our theme for the week was opposites, we decided to teach Fact and Opinion. “Good Morning class, today we are going to discuss fact and opinion”, Zack said very loudly. After all of the students repeated “Fact and Opinion” in a low mutter, they took out their notebooks and prepared to take notes on the day’s subject. After giving definitions for both fact and opinion, Zack then gave examples, to ensure that they understand. “Rwanda is in eastern Africa.” “It is a beautiful day today.” “I think Fanta Citro is better than Fanta Orange.” After every example, Zack took a poll from the students on whether the statement was a fact or an opinion. He also allowed the students to give their own examples, but before he turned it over to them, there was one last example: “Men are stronger than women”. Right after those words left his mouth the class roared with students yelling “Fact. Teacher, FACT!” Even though taking a poll was not really needed because we knew how the majority felt, we still took a poll. While the majority of the class felt that the aforementioned statement was a fact, there were two students who quietly insisted that this statement was an opinion. As the students laughed at the two, Zack broke the news to them, “Men are stronger than Women is….. an opinion.” The class began to emphatically disagree, yelling “Not. Teacher, NOT! ” “You lie me.”

After getting the students to calm down, Zack explained to them why it was an opinion. They did not believe him. So we decided as a team to introduce them to the wonders of… Arm Wrestling! We showed them a demo. As Zack and I sat on either side of the desk, we quietly argued about whether or not he was going to let me win to prove the point. I won, in both cases. To drive the point home we decided that I should have a REAL arm wrestle with one of the boys in the class. The biggest kid (I believe he was in his late teens) in class chooses to arm wrestle with me. By this time students were excited to see the outcome. The student and I took our seats and Zack prepped our hands for a proper Arm Wrestling Battle. Anticipation was building. I needed to win so that a whole day’s work would not be ruined. I felt like I was on an afterschool special and I, in that moment was an example for women everywhere! Just as Zack let our hands go the Dean of Discipline (a female) walked in and began to cheer me on.


After about a minute filled with grunting and suspense, it was over. I was the victor. The females were beyond excited, including the Dean of Discipline. As my right arm throbbed, I took immense pleasure in changing the way that not only the males viewed females but also how the females viewed themselves.


I am sharing this story because it is one that I often return to when I need motivation. One that often makes me think of hope, promise, perseverance and challenging one’s self to go against the perceived norm. This story of my students makes me think of our students in Zambia and the students’ lives that we have yet to touch. Prior to establishing our nine pilot schools, popular opinion might have been that the children in our communities had all of the odds stack up against them. But with the passion for education and commitment to our mission, Impact Network and our supporters are making victory more attainable for our students. With each day of lessons, each year of matriculation, we are gradually changing the narrative of that preconceived opinion and creating several new truths for our students and their futures.

Grit Can Predict Success

I recently came across a 2013 TedTalk by Dr. Angela Duckworth on what is the best predictor of success in a person’s life, including when it comes to goals in education.


Dr. Duckworth left a job in management consulting to teach math to seventh-graders in a New York public school.  When teaching, she quickly realized that IQ wasn't the only thing separating the successful students from those who struggled.  And after more experience, she realized that what is needed in education is “a much better understanding of students and learning from a motivational perspective, from a psychological perspective.” 

Dr. Duckworth left teaching and went to graduate school to become a psychologist. Her research spanned a wide range – including West Point Cadets, national spelling bee participants, and corporate sales people.  In all of those very different contexts, one characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success.  It wasn't social intelligence, good looks, physical health or IQ. It was grit.  She defines grit as the following:

“Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it's a marathon, not a sprint.”

Dr. Duckworth goes on to say she does not have the answer of how to build grit in people and that is it something we all need to work to understand better.   “We need to take our best ideas, our strongest intuitions, and we need to test them. We need to measure whether we've been successful, and we have to be willing to fail, to be wrong, to start over again with lessons learned.”

Another researcher, Dr. Carol Dweck at Stanford University, studied something called the “growth mindset” – the idea that when kids learn that the brain grows in response to a challenge, they're much more likely to persevere when they fail, because they don't believe that failure is a permanent condition.

I would bet that while our students at Impact Network might not study the “growth mindset” at an early age, they see around them the daily challenges of rural life in Zambia.  They see people fail and try again, because of the very nature of their circumstance, and ultimately they see their communities succeed because of this. So I believe that every day, our scholars are learning how to be “gritty”, and that given the chance to attend school, they will be successful! They will be the future lawyers, doctors, nurse and teachers of Zambia. 


Take the grit test yourself!