On Speaking from the Heart

Here in the US, January 21st marks Dr. Martin Luther King Day (his official birthday was January 15th), and I hope that we can each spend some time honoring Dr. King in our own way.

Dr. King is remembered for so much, but his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech is one of his most famous. His address called for the end of racism in the United States, spoken to over 250,000 civil rights supporters at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Each MLK day, I try and read something that Dr. King wrote. But today, by chance, my cousin sister played a recording of this iconic speech while we were driving and it reminded me that while the words are important – the passion and conviction behind those words are moving in their own right.

Instead of focusing on the man, or the movement he inspired, I wanted to learn more about the actual origin of the speech. It had been known to have several versions, written at different times. It was drafted with the assistance of Stanley Levison and Clarence Benjamin Jones, in Riverdale, New York. Jones claimed that "the logistical preparations for the march were so burdensome that the speech was not a priority for us" and that "on the evening of Tuesday, Aug. 27, [12 hours before the March] Martin still didn't know what he was going to say." Toward the end of its delivery, noted African American gospel singer Mahalia Jackson shouted to Dr. King from the crowd to “Tell them about the dream!”, and he stopped delivering his prepared speech, and said:

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.'

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

What struck me was that the most moving part of Dr. King’s 17-minute speech was the one that was off-course. That the most famous passage, the one that resonated with the crowd 50+ years ago, and with me still as I re-read his words – is the one that was not planned, not scripted, but purely from the heart. It reminded me of the value of speaking honestly, and warmly – not just when addressing an audience, but also when, and especially when, addressing one another. We are each connected to one another, if not informally through friendships that have evolved over the years, then through the collegiality that comes from working together towards something we truly care about. And it’s important to remember that in our communications, while it’s crucial to talk about the tasks we need to get done, and the to-do lists we need to make progress on – it is equally important to connect with one another on a deeper, more meaningful level. It is only from that deeper level that we can become the community that Dr. King so often speaks of.



"You cannot leap-frog literacy..."


We piloted a guided reading program in 2018 and are so excited that this project will continue in 2019! Providing education in truly under-served areas can bring unique challenges. While the average first grader at Impact Network school is 8.9 years old, there are also sometimes teenagers in first grade. These older students did not have the opportunity to go to school before, or experienced disruptions in their school attendance, which often reoccur. What skills should be prioritized when children have never been exposed to formal education?

Nic Spaull, director of Funda Wande, a South African teacher training organization, makes a persuasive case that primary schools should focus relentlessly on teaching children to read:

https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2018-09-10-literacy-you-just-cant-fake-it/ . Reading fluently is a fundamental skill that unlocks higher-level learning. Impact Network has been doing a lot of work recently to improve the reading comprehension of our students, through a fifth grade guided reading program piloted in our Katete West Grade schools.

Here’s some highlights of what we have learned:

· Always assess. Measuring the abilities of each child before, during, and after each educational intervention is the only way to provide personalized learning designed with individual strengths and weaknesses in mind, and the best way to understand whether an intervention is working as planned.

“Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.” – (1).jpg

· Teach to the right level. In alignment with UNICEF and USAID, the guided reading program at Impact Network uses leveled texts, so students can practice their skills at their current ability level, before moving on to the next level. Especially given the reality of multi-age classrooms in rural Zambia, it’s critical for learning that we meet students where they are.

· Provide children with time to read independently, and time to read in pairs. Reading is not only a skill, it’s a habit of attention. Silent sustained reading opens up a new way of imagining the world to children. Reading in pairs helps kids test their knowledge with peers.

· Create small group activities that guide children through the skills they are mastering, such as sounding out phonemes. Teachers and school support officers can maximize their effectiveness by working with small groups of students who are at the same level.

We have been happy to see that after participating in the program, students that started at the lower levels have been able to match the abilities of higher level students by the end of the term! The program helped to close the gap we see between some of lowest and highest ability students. It’s the support we get from our incredible donors, networks, and organizations that makes it possible for Impact Network to continue to tweak our academic programs to better serve our most at-risk students. Here’s to a great 2019!

-Margaret Sagan

"Why 2018 Was the Best Year in Human History!"


Welcome to 2019! I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday and are ready to get the year started!

This incredible article has been making the rounds: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/05/opinion/sunday/2018-progress-poverty-health.html

As Nicholas Kristof puts it, “Let me try to make the case that 2018 was actually the best year in human history.” With the Our World in Data (https://ourworldindata.org/) information, Kristof lays out a number of incredibly achievements:

  1. Over the course of 2018, 100 million+ people got electricity, and another 100 million+ people got access to clean drinking water.

  2. In the 1980s, 44% of the world’s population was living in extreme poverty – today it is less than 10%.

  3. Child deaths have decreased dramatically – from 19% in 1960 to 4% today.

While Kristof didn’t spend a ton of time on the education gains that have been made, but I looked back at the Our World in Data dataset, and learned that:

Literacy rates are at the lowest level in history – and while there is still a lot of work to do in developing countries, most evidence shows that younger generations are better educated than older ones.

The world is more educated than ever in history, a result of both the increased understanding that education has benefits, and that governments now provide more funding and support to education. (There is a neat interactive map - https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/mean-years-of-schooling?year=1950)

Secondary and tertiary education is becoming more and more important. In 1970, there were only 700 million people in the world with secondary education or higher, but by 2100, we are expecting 7 billion people to be in this category.

In the last 20 years alone, we have halved the number of out of school children.

Still – there is a lot of work to do. Current projections estimate that it will not be until 2050, that most literacy gaps will be filled. While a ton of work has done to expand educational access, the truth remains that education quality has been more difficult to tackle. For us, it makes the work we do in Zambia even more critical – and worthwhile. As we reflect on 2018 and look forward to another year – I’m so impressed and pleased with the progress Impact Network has made to improve education quality for our 6,000 students. I can’t wait to see what 2019 has in store!


Breaking Through Barriers Can Be Fun

Last week, for the first time, women accepted Nobel prizes in both Chemistry and Physics.


Dr. Donna Strickland, a professor of physics at the University of Waterloo in Canada [from Reshma: my alma matter!], became one of only three women in history to win a Nobel Prize in Physics, and the first in over 50 years. The previous winners were Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert Mayer, in 1963. Dr. Strickland shared the award with two male scientists – French physicist, Gérard Mourou, and American scientist, Arthur Ashkin, who pioneered a way of using light to manipulate physical objects.

Dr. Strickland won the award for her innovative work on high-intensity laser pulses. Her work with Dr. Mourou “paved the way towards the shortest and most intense laser pulses ever created by mankind,” according to NobelPrize.org. Their method, known as chirped pulse amplification, allowed for more precision in laser technology and has allowed for several real-world applications, including Lasik eye surgery.

In order for Dr. Strickland to do the work, she had to learn to become both a plumber and mechanic. When things did not go as expected, she considered finding new solutions one of the fun parts. Dr. Strickland loves what she does. “Not everyone thinks physics is fun but I do,” Dr. Strickland said in her speech. “Cyndi Lauper had a big hit, ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,’ but they wanted to wait until the workday is done. But I wanna have fun while I’m working.”


In the chemistry field, Dr. Frances H. Arnold, became the 5th woman and 2nd in the last 54 years to be awarded the Noble prize in Chemistry. She is an American professor of chemical engineering, bioengineering and biochemistry at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. She also shared the award with two male scientist, George Smith of the University of Missouri and Gregory Winter of the MRC Laboratory in Cambridge, England. Dr. Arnold won it for her work conducting the directed evolution of enzymes and proteins that catalyze chemical reactions. This work could lead to more environmentally friendly manufacturing of chemicals, including drugs, and in the production of renewable fuels.

Dr. Arnold believes “As long as we encourage everyone — it doesn’t matter the color, gender; everyone who wants to do science, we encourage them to do it — we are going to see Nobel Prizes coming from all these different groups.” Maybe even one of our students in rural Zambia.

I won’t pretend to completely understand their work, but the story has some great lessons around loving what you do, breaking through barriers and thinking about different ways to solve problems. Our Zambia staff might not be up for a Nobel Prize this year, but they turn these lessons into practice each and every day by going up against tough rural conditions, limited resources and unpredictable circumstances. They do this with determination, grit and a smile. As the school year has just come to an end, we want to thank them again for their hard work and commitment to Impact Network.

staff 2.jpg

Happy Holidays!


Who Among Our 6,000 Scholars?

I recently saw this interview of Trevor Noah, celebrated South African comedian, with his grandmother in South Africa. It’s humbling, refreshing, kind – and funny.

Noah was born and raised in Johannesburg, and his 2016 book Born A Crime details his life growing up in South Africa during Apartheid. His father was of Swiss German descent and his mother was Xhosa. At the time he was born, it was illegal for his parents to be in a relationship, and so his life was literally a crime before he was born. The book really feels like a tribute to his childhood, and notably, his mother – a single mom who came from very humble beginnings and had a difficult life. She was jailed and fined for being in an interracial relationship, was in a violent relationship for 4 years, and suffered severe gunshot wounds when an ex-husband tried to kill her. Despite all of this, she was tough, but also tried to be fair and show him love in the face of adversity.

Today, Trevor Noah hosts The Daily Show, an American late-night talk/comedy show. And while I rarely go a week without trying to catch a few clips of the show, the book offers a much more personal look at him and his life. Some surprising things emerged. He speaks EIGHT languages. His mother actually converted to Judaism and had a bar mitzvah for him at 13. He hosted an educational TV program and was on a soap opera before moving on to comedy. He’s actually a decent ballroom dancer.

Trevor Noah.jpg

“We tell people to follow their dreams, but you can only dream of what you can imagine, and, depending on where you come from, your imagination can be quite limited.”

- Trevor Noah

The thing I always find incredible about stories like Noah’s are just the sheer amount of hard-work, determination and frankly – luck – that got him from growing up in hiding in Soweto to hosting a comedy show in New York City. I always wonder – who among our 6,000 scholars will become a comedian? Who will end up on TV? Who will become a celebrated author? Is there any that might become all three? As we close out our school year, each and every one of our students have given us the gift and opportunity to help shape them into a successful character this year. And while each of these stories and potential successes gives meaning to the work we do individually, collectively they hold a power that is greater than us. Together, we are trying to expand their imagination of what is possible, and make their dreams more complete.

Congratulations to our scholars as they finish the 2018 school year!


Moving Boldly Into 2019

What a year we’ve had! The 2018 academic year is drawing to a close, which makes this a good time to reflect on lessons learnt and feedback received, but also to think about how to incorporate these into our plans for 2019. One of Impact’s key strengths is our willingness to experiment and to challenge both our ideas and ourselves and this can only make us better going forward!

How do we learn from this year? Some of the questions we are asking ourselves are:

· Feedback from teachers – did we give them enough support, did we provide sufficient resources and time, were coaching sessions appropriately structured and what improvements can be made?

· Feedback from parents – what do they think about Impact’s program, how often do they interact with their child’s teacher, what are their perceptions on the use of technology and homework, and what changes would they like to see?

· Feedback from learners – what are their favourite things about school, what do they think about the classroom technology, how do they relate to their peers and teacher, and what are their hope for the future?

· Feedback from other members of staff – what lessons can be learnt in terms of data collection and presentation, child protection, safeguarding of equipment, and what improvements do they want to see?


Feedback from everyone is important. We’ve done great things this year – refining our programs, creating new partnerships, taking on special projects and filling much needed positions, but one of the most important things now is to continue to improve. Learning from the feedback is one of the best ways to do this. So, how do we improve moving forward?

· Continued innovation and willingness to change - We challenge preconceived notions of traditional schooling that tend to limit the possibilities and seek to harness the diversity of talents and ideas and passions. We continuously evaluate the performance of the project, highlight the gaps and tap into our collective minds to find solutions. Our course is not set in stone, it grows and changes as our experience and understanding changes.

· Openness – We can learn from others as they learn from us and we are curious about the possibilities. Identifying and incorporating new ideas keeps our delivery challenging and stimulating for the students. At the same time, new ideas ensure our operating methods and service delivery are always updated, innovative and efficient.


Our experience from 2018 is that our staff are resilient, open to change and always looking to improve the ways in which we interact not only with students, but with the communities that we are part of. We look forward to building on these experiences in 2019, learning from the things that were less successful and moving boldly into 2019, stronger and better than ever!


"The arts and sciences are avatars of human creativity..."

Over the weekend I came across one of the new 2017 Lego pieces featuring a woman named Mae Jemison. Jemison was born in Alabama, in 1956, and moved to Chicago when she was three years old. She entered kindergarten knowing how to read, and when teachers asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, she said a scientist.


Jemison was a bright student, exceling in her studies, as well as pursuing opportunities as a dancer. She entered Stamford University at the age of just 16, graduating four years later having completed the requirements for both a Bachelor of Sciences and a Bachelor of Arts. She got a medical degree four years later from Cornell Medical College and became a general practitioner. She traveled to Cuba, Kenya and Thailand to provide medical care, and then served as a Peace Corps Medical Officer in Liberia and Sierra Leone.  And then, after achieving so many amazing accolades, Jemison was inspired by the flight of Sally Ride – the youngest American astronaut to travel to space.  She was accepted to NASA’s astronaut program in 1987. Five years later, she was the first African-American woman to travel in space on the Space Shuttle Endeavour.  Today, she is retired, but still teaches at Cornell, and is the current Principal of the 100 Year Starship Organization.

Jemison has been a strong advocate for a more comprehensive education connection between arts and science – pushing for a vision of learning that combines arts and sciences, intuition and logic. 

“The difference between science and the arts is not that they are different sides of the same coin even, or even different parts of the same continuum, but rather, they are manifestations of the same thing. The arts and sciences are avatars of human creativity.”

One of the things I love about what we do in Impact Network schools, is that it does just that.  While learning how to add and subtract, students often learn about how to care for their environment.  While piecing together how to read, they are also creating artwork.  While figuring out the parts of a flower, they are also learning about the origin of light. When is the last time we did that as adults?

-Reshma Patel, Executive Director

A Long Walk Ahead

I must admit, I am a sucker for these feel good stories and came across a great one recently. Walter Carr, a 20 year old college student in Alabama was scheduled to start his job as a mover, 20 miles from his apartment. Unfortunately, he had a problem. His car broke down and he could not find a ride. He thought about his options and decided to walk. He searched google maps and realized it would take about 8 hours so he ate dinner, took a nap and woke up at midnight to begin his journey, the night before his first day.

Carr jogged some and walked a lot and when his legs began to burn he stay focused on his goal. Around 4AM a police officer stopped to ask if Carr was alright. Carr explained he was headed to his first day of a new job. The police officer asked when he last ate, took him to get some food and then dropped him off at a nearby church because it was safe. The officer needed to get home because his shift was over, but told Carr the next officer would come by and check on him. Carr continued to walk because he was worried about making it to his job on time. A little while later the next officer, Scott Duffy, approached Carr as he was walking and drove him the last 4 miles to his job. They arrived at the moving site, a house, at 6:30 AM and the police officer explained the situation to the home owner, Jenny Lamey who started to cry. Lamey offered Carr a bed to take a nap and some food but Carr insisted to start working. After a successful move, Carr played basketball with the Lamey’s 3 sons. One of Carr’s co-workers gave him a ride home and the next day Lamey started a GoFundMe page with a goal of raising $2,000 to help Carr with his car troubles. Within a day it had raised $44,000! The owner of the moving company, Luke Marklin surprised Carr and gave him his own car. Marklin said “we set a really high bar for heart and grit and …you just blew it away.” Carr was surprised with all the attention the story received but was happy to hopefully inspire someone. “Don’t let nobody tell you you can’t do something. It’s up to us whether we can.”

Carr and Lamey

Carr and Lamey

How far would you be willing to walk to run an errand, go to work or go to school?

For many children in rural Zambia the closest government school is miles away, a distance too far for little feet to walk each day. But many children do and they walk focused on their goal of getting to school because they do not have other options. However, with supporters like you, Impact Network has been able to offer over 6,000 children quality education in communities close to where they live. Many of our students face additional challenges – there is weather, family priorities and other obstacles – but like Carr, they will not let people tell them what they can and cannot do. The commitment of our students and staff inspire me every day and is one of the reasons I look forward to starting each week.


Have a great week!


Train hard, respect each other, work as a team, and honor your homeland...

We watched the NYC Marathon this morning and as we saw the fastest runners in the world compete over 26.2 miles of my favorite city, I was not surprised to learn that the winner of the men’s race was Lelisa Desisa, of Ethiopia.


A while back I read a fascinating story about a town called Bekoji, in Ethiopia. Bekoji has been the home of eight Olympic medal-winning runners. Among them they have won SEVENTEEN Olympic medals, 10 of them gold. To help you realize how remarkable that is – this small town of 17,000 people has brought in more gold medals than India (a population of 1.2 billion) has won in all of the summer categories put together.

How is this possible? No one really knows for sure! Some speculate that it has to do with the elevation, the diet, the genes, and the livelihood in the region. Others think it has more to do with the town’s coach – Sentayehu Eshetu, who has trained most of Bekoji’s successful runners. Eshetu has his training down to a science. His athletes eat specific meals, complete grueling workouts, and listen to daily discussions by their coach on where to improve. Eshetu now trains 200 young athletes from the town and his rules are simple – train hard, respect each other, work as a team, and honor your homeland. The entire culture of the town has shifted around running as a competitive sport and professional path.


I love what Eshetu is doing in Ethiopia – it’s a remarkable thing to train world-class athletes in a small village with very few resources. But now I want to shift your focus to another village, hundreds of miles away where a different kind of training is going on. In Katete, where Impact Network’s head offices are, we’re training for something that’s even longer than a marathon. Instead of running shoes and tracks, we’re equipping the communities with schools, supplies, and technology. Instead of coaches, we’ve got teachers, who are empowered with the tools and skills they need to do their job. Instead of world-class athletes, we’re raising world-class students who can compete on the world stage.

And our methods are similar too. Our students come to school, every day, for a set number of hours, rain or shine. They learn from teachers who are equipped with a tablet and projector to deliver content-rich eLearning lessons. Their teachers are also trained – they are coached weekly, given feedback in real-time, and lesson plan every day. Our students abide by those same rules – train hard, respect each other, work as a team, and honor their homeland. I want our education program to be as successful as Eshetu’s training program.


The Power of Yet

Last week, I met one of our teachers to talk about how our guided reading project in Katete West is going. Learning how to read is one of the most difficult things a child will have to learn, and this process is so unique to each individual. As a teacher, supporting this process when you have so many learners can be really tricky. Upon asking the teacher how it was going for her students she said: "Some students have not mastered reading this book..." she paused and then she quickly added "yet". "They have not mastered it-yet."

Such a small and simple word, as 'yet' can be so powerful! By building in the word 'yet' into our vocabularies, we are completely shifting our mindsets to encourage growth and reaching our full potential. 

After the conversation I found myself returning to the ideas on "Growth Mindsets", developed by Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University. Her TED talk a few years ago has certainly left a strong impression on me, and I often revisit her work to remind myself of the importance of using the word 'yet' in my vocabulary. 


·         "I can't do this" ----------- "Yet"

·         "This doesn't work" --------"Yet"

·         "I don't know" --------------"Yet"

·         "It doesn't make sense"--- "Yet"

·         "I'm not good at this" ----- "Yet"

As educators, instilling a growth mindset in our students is key to building their motivation and passion for learning. Rather than saying 'he failed his test', we can say 'he is not there yet'. Rather than seeing failure or inability to do something as an end, we can see it as a mean to grow and get better. Our students, teachers and support staff have so much potential, and without a growth mindset the challenges they face every day would certainly prevent them from succeeding.

I am glad to be reminded of this by my colleagues and teachers who continue to see an opportunity for growth and who seek out challenges even if it means failing the first time. We are all learning and growing. We all face challenges. 

We should all reminded ourselves that we do not know and cannot do everything we want to - yet.

- Felicia Dahlquist, Director of Academics & Evaluation