Things I Know 8 of 365: Perspective is powerful

Life is a long lesson in humility.

– J.M. Barrie

“Gramma, my baby is turning 17.” My mother to my great-grandmother as my 17th approached.

“Oh, sweetie, my baby just turned 75.”

Perspective is powerful.

I’m finding it difficult to muster the initiative to complete the pedagogically disagreeable grad program to which I was awarded a scholarship.

A former student and first-generation college student is struggling to keep their financial aid for the second semester because of the negligence of an absentee parent.

Perspective is powerful.

SLA must work each year to scrape together the funding to keep our laptop program afloat.

Teachers in the Suba School District of Mbita Kenya must work each day against the spread of HIV/AIDS, teen pregnancy and longstanding negative views about the relative worth of women to keep their female students enrolled in school.

Perspective is powerful.

A friend of mine is working to balance their personal life, professional life and intrapersonal life. It’s proving a frustrating endeavor.

My best friend Katy’s sister’s fiance dropped their “Save The Date” notes in the mail Tuesday morning on his way to work. Ten minutes later, his car was T-boned when going through an intersection.

He’s in the hospital, unconscious under heavy sedation.

Yesterday, he responded to stress stimuli for the first time.

Today is his birthday.

I shared what’s going on with Katy’s family with my friend struggling with balance.

“I need to get over myself,” she said.

Perspective is powerful.


We should be less stuffy

14 August 09
As a sort of culminating activity for the week’s subject-specific sessions, Silvia headed up a showcase evening Friday. The original idea was for the teachers to be able to share the poetry they’d been working on during the week. Not so much a poetry slam, more of an open mic.
At some point, Silvia said, “And there will be snapping.”
The evening was decidedly devoid of snapping.
It was also the most open of open mics I’ve ever seen.
A few minutes prior to its start, as I was finishing my final plate of ugali until next year, Silvia asked me to emcee the event.
My thought had been to stay for the first few poems and then quietly sneak off to bed. It had been a long week and rest was in short supply.
I’m glad that’s not how it turned out.
I stood behind a desk festooned with glowing tea lights, declared the celebrations begun and asked who would like to start.
Now, in a North American setting, it would go something like this: the handful of extroverts would rule the night and subject the crowd to what they wanted to say with applause in between. People would be pretty sure they’d enjoyed themselves, congratulate those who’d shared and some would quietly kick themselves for not participating.
In Kenya, things work a bit differently.
Following my initial call to begin things, all I needed to do after each successive act was say, “Who’s next?”
There was singing, dancing, at least two conga lines, storytelling, more singing and, yes, some poetry.
The evening turned into something that can more closely be likened to a camp jamboree than a teachers’ poetry showcase.
It was while the “All-male Out of Africa Band” was performing (and not necessarily the same song) that I stopped and looked at the assembled crowd.
I want more of this back home.
I want inhibitions and self-consciousness lowered and removed from the equation enough to let us celebrate together and create whatever we can create.
I know it can happen at times when imbibed beverages have greased the wheels, but I’m saying spontaneous celebration.
Maybe this is happening other places and I’m not privy to it. If so, and you’re reading this, you know how to contact me. I got a drum in Kenya, and I’ll be happy to bring it with me.

They Understood! (by design)

13 August 09
Last Thursday was a bit of a frustration. I say this because understanding last Thursday is important to understanding the mood with which I took on today.
Last Thursday, I had the charge of leading back-to-back workshops introducing the concept of backward design to Kenyan teachers who admitted afterward they often don’t plan their lessons until they arrive at school, let alone plan entire units of study.
Even state-side, this can be a difficult concept, necessitating 1 or 2-day workshops to effectively communicate the methodology and its implementation. Last Thursday, I had 90 minutes in a poorly ventilated room with teachers who were either waiting to go to their next session dealing with digital storytelling or who had just come from a session on digital storytelling. An hour-and-a-half pedagogy session on a complex and difficult concept wasn’t quite what they were hoping for.
Add to this the cantankerous nature of the Kenyan educational work scheme (Read, “scope and sequence,” though mainly “sequence.”) and you’ve got a party.
That is you’ve got a party if your idea of a party is a hot and sticky room filled with confused teachers who, at times, were clearly just nodding at what the hyperactive muzungu was saying.
Last Thursday dispensed with, one can imagine the feeling in the pit of my stomach when Sunday’s planning session included assigning me the task of leading the backward design session today.
You know what, though? It rocked.
I’ll admit I entered the room with a bit of trepidation. My confidence hadn’t exactly been boosted at Wednesday night’s planning session when Simon, one of the Kenyan facilitators helping with the session, said, “I cannot see the implication for this in our system.” Awesome.
I told Simon he wasn’t the first Kenyan I’d heard that from.
By the end of the session, though, Simon and Mary, the other Kenyan facilitator in the session, were singing a different tune.
I approached them during the session’s second run and asked if they felt comfortable circulating amongst the groups of teachers who were working to backward design their plans for when they return from break in September. Mary gripped my hand, saying, “I am so happy to be learning this.” And I’m pretty sure she meant it.
Simon nodded in agreement and made his assent further known when he stood and told his colleagues “As an architect plans how a house will be finished before it is built, teachers must plan how they want their students to show what they have learned before teachers begin teaching.”
When another participant suggested to his group that they change their planned assessment because it didn’t seem relevant or authentic enough, I think I could have kissed him.
Take that, Thursday!

Will this be on the exam?

12 August 09
As several of the teachers attending this week’s workshops are commuting to Utimishi Academy rather than boarding here, the late afternoon workshops are optional.
Add that to the fact that subject-specific offerings run concurrently with sessions in the computer lab, and it’s easy to imagine attendance in a session on creative writing at 4:30 in the afternoon might be a bit low.
Such was the case for Moses’ session Wednesday.
Determined to make certain Moses had a full house, Silvia and I strongly encouraged the boys who remain here at school during break to join us for the session.
It was a thing of beauty. Teachers and students blended together to a crowd of learners.
Moses rolled through concrete and abstract wording, death by adjectives, vivid imagery and on into poetry.
It was when he asked the students to create their own poems that a certain hitch was thrown into his giddy-up.
Alex, a boy in Form 4 raised his hand.
“Because I am used to the Kenyan way of doing things,” he began, “is this for examination purposes? Or, is it for enjoyment purposes?”
I’ve written and thought quite a bit lately about the exam-centered nature of the Kenyan educational system, but it wasn’t until Alex’s question that its true effects hit home.
Here we were, talking of poetry and creation and beauty (Moses had begun the lesson by writing “Poetry is all that is worth remembering in life,” on the board) and Alex wants to know if this will be on the test.
Moses rolled with it, though, telling Alex that being able to understand and create poetry will surely serve him when he’s asked about literature in a more formal setting.
Still, that Alex was torn between his natural creativity and curiosity and his perceived need to regurgitated what he receives in school speaks volumes.
I worried he hadn’t taken Moses’ words to heart until the end of the session when Moses asked if the participants wanted to share what they had written.
Alex volunteered first:

Across the Indian Ocean,
Lapses of the reimental blue waves against equatorial gold shore,
Grits of sand like smithereens,
Mother Nature at her uttermost,
Golden field rays with rich viramin,
Sweet sunny weather;
A Faira fisher man rows, rows away from shore,
Boar moving mermaidously.
The white-capped wadawidan drums of goatskin fill the ambience.
Choirs of angels on earth, with beat alone.
A spotted swordfish cannabar, peony and violet essence.
The African Coast, home.

In the deep vaults of my mind.

I think things might be ok here.

Change Agents

11 August 09
In the same way I forget how daunting beginning to work with kids can be to novice teachers until I get to observe them, I’d forgotten how nerve-wracking conference presentation can be to the uninitiated.
Tuesday was a refresher course.
As part of building capacity in the second year of TWB-C being her in Naivasha District, some of last year’s participants are leading the sessions this week.
For North Americans, conference attendance and even presentation may seem like part and parcel to the teaching gig. For most Kenyan teachers, such is not the case. Indeed, last week, I was trying to explain continued professional development to a teacher in Suba District and received the reply of, “If you’ve graduated from teacher college, why would you need to attend more trainings?”
Luckily, this particular sentiment is not held by the majority – at least not the majority of those teachers I’ve met.
For my own part, I was proud of and impressed by the confidence and preparedness of the Kenyan facilitators. Things weren’t perfect, but nothing went haywire either.
Whilst I could sense some anxiety, I didn’t have a clue as to what they were feeling until our debriefing Tuesday night.
Nerves all around, we found.
One Kenyan facilitator, Samuel, summed it up best, “I thank God I gathered my courage and kept on.”
I’m thankful he did too. If the comment from the teacher in Suba is any indication, many teachers here don’t see the need for continued professional development. With colleagues like Samuel, though, I expect minds will be changing.

Feeling Thirsty

10 August 09

Things are a little different in Gilgil. For one, workshops are starting Tuesday and running through Saturday. For two, this is the second year a TWB-C team is working with teachers here. For three, our ICT team has joined with the other subject-area team on the ground here in Kenya to form one uber-team. (Perhaps that’s over-selling it, but I like using “uber” as a prefix.)

For the uninitiated, TWB-C works on a 4-year model of capacity building. The first year, a team works with local teachers in areas those teachers have identified as high-need. The second year, the TWB-C teachers and local teachers run the workshops together. The third year, the local teachers plan the workshops and TWB-C teachers fill in and help as needed. By year four, the local teachers should have it all under control and only a few TWB-C teachers will be around for program analysis and to gather feedback.

The teachers here who are returning from last year to help organize the workshops are great.

During a subject-area meeting between the team’s English teachers and local returning English teachers today, I got to see what a difference a year makes.

“The Kenyan teacher has to change,” Samuel told us, “I want to see a different Kenya.”

I’m fairly certain any North American teacher could stick their country in those sentiments and have them ring just as true.

Another teacher, Nduati, said, “We subject our students to a lot of torture by always standing at the front of the class and giving them ideas.”


Overall, the meeting was one of hope. Noble remarked, “What they’re saying means we’re doing good.” I hope so.

Kenya, from what I can gather, is on the precipice of moving away from its restrictive exams-based system toward one that values creativity is centered around the needs of the students and has them working collaboratively in multiple modalities.

The U.S., from what I can gather, is sliding down the hill of moving away from a student-centered model that encourages creativity toward one that is, well, what the Kenyans are moving away from.

In a way that’s not nearly as sarcastic as I wish it was, I wonder if maybe our downward slide will end up as a positive because it will force U.S. teachers to be as thirsty for change as the Kenyans.

I’ve learned in running that if you wait until you are thirsty to drink, you are already dehydrated. I’m not sure I like the metaphorical implications.

Mama Sarah

8 August 09

I’ve had a bit of a self-imposed embargo on writing over the weekends here. I’ve figured the stray thoughts that pop up on Saturday and Sunday can work their way into Monday’s writings.

Today was just too good.

On our drive from Mbita to meet up with the other TWB-C team in Gilgil, we made a detour.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Kogelo, Kenya. I highly doubt it.

The team decided it would be fun. Well, that and everyone in Mbita said we should go. Well, that and it’s the location of Barak Obama’s paternal homestead.

We pulled up to the gate around an otherwise unassuming farming compound and the police stationed on the grounds asked us to sign in and present our passports.

We obliged.

A sort of cognitive dissonance existed in the fact that we were presenting our passports outside a house that could have been the neighbor to our home of the past week.

We walked up to the house and a guide of sorts showed us to where President Obama’s father and grandfather are buried. It was a little surreal.

“If you’d like to take a seat, Mama Sarah is finishing breakfast and will greet you shortly,” our guide said, gesturing to some chairs that had just been stationed under a grove of mango trees.

I thanked him.

“Shall we go?” Sharon asked a few moments later.

“Well, the guide said if we’d like to take a seat, we can meet Mama Sarah.”


“Mama Sarah. Obama’s grandmother.”

“Are you serious?”


“Are you serious?”


“Are you serious!”

“Yes. Please stop.”

We sat down.

Twenty minutes later, the door to the main house opened and a woman came out to let us know Mama Sarah would be coming out soon and to ask us to sign the book. (In Kenya, everywhere you visit has a book.)

Five minutes laster, Mama Sarah, a large, dark woman in the Kenyan equivalent of a housecoat appeared with her cane and sat facing our semicircle.

Some turkeys who had been entertaining/threatening us whilst we waited, let out a few gobbles.

The woman I took to be Mama Sarah’s aid made introductions and then asked us each to introduce ourselves.

We did.

She asked the assembled group if we had questions.

We sat noticeably silent.

Sharon looked at me, as I’ve proven to be the team’s go-to inquisitor. The thing was, I didn’t really have any questions. For all intents and purposes, we were sitting in an an elderly woman’s front yard after arriving unannounced.

Lois, who was sitting next to me, leaned in and said, “You have a smart question?”

I told her I was working on it.

Knowing President Obama has only been to Kenya twice in his life, it wasn’t as though I could pump this woman for information on baby Barack.

To make matters worse, the more aggressive of the two turkeys was taking what I interpreted to be an aggressive stance. I was trying to come up with an intelligent question while running the hypothetical of what kind of international incident might occur if I kicked the President’s grandmother’s turkey in the face and whether or not claiming self-defense would help.

Finally, I asked the only question that seemed to matter, “How has your life changed since the president’s election?”

Her aid translated my question and Mama Sarah responded in Kiswahili, saying she was seeing more visitors and was happy to greet them. Other than that, things were pretty much the same as pre-election.

John asked what advice she had for teachers.

“Teach them well, and teach them respect.”

I can dig that.

With no further pressing questions and the ability to say we’d been there, the team posed for a group shot around Mama Sarah and we loaded the van to leave.

As we rolled away, I was a bit relieved that Mama Sarah had been a normal Kenyan. I like the idea of our president coming from everyman stock.


A little wikipedia research later on revealed that Mama Sarah wasn’t President Obama’s biological grandmother. Rather, as polygamy is a fading practice in Kenya, she was his grandfather’s third wife. The president’s biological grandmother, his grandfather’s first wife, is now deceased. Still, as is the practice, children of polygamous unions refer to each of their fathers’ wives as their mothers.