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.

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. 

Passion or Sense

7 August 09

I could live in Mbita.

As I stood in the soccer field outside of the Suba Centre, during our last day of workshops, this thought returned. It wasn’t the first time the thought had appeared.

It was the first time I let myself believe it.

The work Dan Otedo and Paul Oduor are doing with the Suba Teachers Guidance and Counseling Association and the Suba Youth Resource Centre respectively is something I would like to be a part of.

I don’t want to bring change. I’ve been quite cognizant of that since our trip began. The moment we begin to think of ourselves as bringing knowledge to the teachers we’re working with here is the moment we fall into the trap of seeing teachers as vessels transporting knowledge.

Perhaps even more than when working with students, it is incumbent upon us to be fellow learners at every moment.

What I want to do is help those who are bringing the change. Dan and Paul have vision that allows them to see what can be here. I want to help make that road smoother.

One night, Paul explained an ongoing argument with his mother over his dedication to the SYRC over finding paying work. “On the one hand,” he said, “I can understand why I should do something sensible as she wants. On the other hand, though, I feel a great passion about the Centre and do not want to leave it.”

Stuck between passion and what is sensible. How can a person not want to make smoother the journey of one who works for the betterment of the world?

When we were in Cape Town, Khanyiso, one of the leads on the EduNova team, said, “The good work has begun,” as we were parting one day.

I responded by telling him the work would always continue. I knew this to be true before leaving home. The scale of the work is greater, the urgency much more personal than five weeks ago.

I could live in Mbita.

That Damned Silver Bullet

3 August 09

Muhammad is an administrator for Suba District schools. As he put it, he’s responsible for the hiring and sacking of teachers. In the time we’ve spent together, I’ve found him to be a genuinely good person.

During our first workshop session in Mbita, I learned Muhammad had no idea how to work with a computer.

Yet, when Lois had the teachers position themselves around the room according to whether they “Strongly Disagree,” “Disagree,” “Agree,” or “Strongly Agree” with the statements, “ICT integration is one of the biggest challenges facing schools in Kenya,” and “The Internet will be in my school in the next 2 years,” Muhammad was with almost every other participant on the “Strongly Agree” side.

He’s bought in to the hype.

Though he and many of the other teachers don’t know how to use a computer (some have never touched a computer), Muhammad has come to see ICT as the silver bullet.

This has been the case with teachers at every conference on technology that I’ve ever attended. “What tool should I be using?” they’ll ask.

My answer, “The right one,” is rarely well received.

My goal during our preparation for this week of workshops was to explore the habits of mind that encourage learning and curiosity in learners and are fortified by ICT.

The essential question, “What if we had known the Internet was coming?”

Seriously, think about it.

If we had known the Internet was coming, that technology would be ubiquitous and that connectedness would be global, how would we have prepared?

My topics to consider this week are “Learning in an Information Age,” “Multiple Intelligences,” “Cooperative Learning,” and “Backward Design.”

I think that list and the ideas it contains is the beginning to my answer.

It’s about ideas, not tools. It’s about taking ideas and adding to them to make them our own.

Muhammad’s sitting on all the tools he needs to change the game of Kenyan education. I’m not sure he’s going to like that.

Remba Pt. 2

31 July 09

As we left Remba Primary, Dan Otedo, head of Suba Teacher Guidance and Counseling Association and our partner on the ground in Mbita told us we’d need to make a detour before heading to the boat.

We’d failed, we were told, to check in with the Beach Management Unit. Protocol dictated, Dan explained, that visitors to the island check in with the BMU as a matter of security.

A spark of sarcasm asked both what exactly they were securing and how thorough they really were if we’d made it from the far end of the island to the school, talked with the faculty, met the students and then started our way back with only the suspicious looks of the island’s inhabitants to hold us back. I kept this to myself.

The Beach Management Unit Office was at the tend of the island near where we’d docked. Making our way meant navigating through the maze of shacks and stalls that had led us to the school. The only comfort came when I felt a small hand in mine and looked to see a little girl from the school holding my hand. As soon as we made eye contact, she slipped her hand from mine and fell back giggling to walk with her friend.

Dorothy, one of the members of SuTGuCA said the little girl had never seen a white person before and had been curious what I felt like.

“What did she think,” I asked.

Dorothy asked my new friend what her impression had been and laughed at her response.

“She says you are soft.”

Putting her childhood side-by-side with mine, I had to agree.

Up a small hill and we arrived at the offices of the BMU. The tin building with a view of what qualifies as urban sprawl on Remba was locked.

“The head of the BMU will be here soon,” said a man who I now registered had been with us since we had disembarked. I had noticed him silently observing in the staff room at the school and just chalked him up as an overly passive teacher.

It turned out he was a member of the BMU and had been the one who had advised Dan of our faux pas in failing to check in when we arrived on the island.

We stood in swarms of sam waiting and pretending not to notice suspicious stares from the locals.

Five minutes later, a large man in shorts and a tank shop approached the office with slender man in dark pants and a bowling shirt by his side. They unlocked the padlock securing the BMU office and made his way inside. Happy to be out of the sun and relatively sequestered from the sam, we followed the larger man inside.

Plastic patio chairs were arranged and we took our seats with the larger man and the man in the bowling shirt seated facing us on a raised platform.

I didn’t really start to feel as though there was reason to worry until I heard Dan respond to the BMU chief inquiry as to why we were on the island.

Remba was our tenth school visit in three days and I had heard day explain TWB-C and our work with SuTGuCA enough to fill in for him should he be taken by a coughing fit mid-sentence. This was not the standard response.

The mixture of apprehension and put on reverence in his voice led me to think we had committed a larger transgression than had earlier been indicated.

The situation was uncomfortable.

Here we were, sitting in front of the head of the very unit we had just learned was turning a blind eye toward the education of Remba’s children – and we hadn’t popped in to say hello when we’d arrived.

Making matters worse was the fact that midday equatorial sun on a tin structure provides a person with a personal understanding of a cake in an Easy Bake Oven.

The BMU chief didn’t notice. In fact, it appeared as though we were keeping him from his nap. As the members of the team took turns introducing ourselves, I couldn’t quite tell if his eyes were open. I felt like Luke sitting across from a possibly-inebriated Jabba the Hut.

After some questions asked for the ceremony of it, Dan spoke up.

“We have some other schools to visit today, sir, so we would greatly appreciate it if you would release us to continue on.”


While I was attempting to put the word into proper context, the BMU chief nodded his assent and we had sprang to our feet to shake hands and make a hasty exit.

I’m not sure if we were in any real trouble; Dan still just laughs when I ask. What I do know is the state of affairs in this pseudo-governmental building did nothing to show me a reason to hope for the children of Remba.


I’ve had some time since we left Remba, and I still can’t find the hope. I want to.

Remba Pt. 1

31 July 09

When you board a boat from Mbita, the first island you pass is Rusinga. Then, there’s Kibougi, Ngodhe, Takawiri, Mfangano and Ringiti.

When you’re boat pulls approximately parallel to Ringiti and you’re still motoring, there grows in you a sense of understanding for those Old Worlders who believed sailing into the horizon would lead one to fall off the edge of the earth.

Wait about 30 minutes after that point, though, and you’ll realize there’s something out there.

In waters whose ownership incites great debate between Kenya and Uganda rests Remba Island.

As we pulled close, I grew confused. Perhaps, I told myself, we are just stopping here to refuel before we head to whatever island school is next on our itinerary. But Remba was our destination. Existing solely as a base of operations for fisherfolk, Remba stands as a pile of rocks with corrugated tin structures shoved up against one another. Aside from people, chickens, goats and, inexplicably, cows, the bulk of Remba’s population is sam – a type of flying insect that crowds the air and makes opening one’s mouth a dreadful mistake.

We disembarked, surrounded by nonplussed fisherfolk, and I was distinctly aware of my foreignness. While Mbita has taken on a feel of familiarity, this place was not my own.

Our party made its way through the shacks, sheds and sam to the far side of the island to Remba Island Primary School. In the middle of a barren rocky expanse stood two corrugated tin structures larger than any others on the island and divided into classrooms. We ducked inside the staff room to meet the school’s faculty. Five of the school’s 9 teachers sat at desks on a dirt floor grading the school’s end-of-term exams as though unaware of their environment.

Of Remba Primary’s 150 learners, we were told approximately 130 were complete or partial orphans sent to live with female relatives on the island. It was difficult to get an exact tally on the number of pupils at the school, one teacher told us because many students were migrant and moved with the fish. They’d gone to Class 8, the teacher said, but those students had moved so now the school only went to Class 7.

Though the school operated on an inclusion model, it was more out of necessity than design as there was no special education teacher to meet the needs of the school’s 4 deaf and 3 mentally challenged learners.

When he was campaigning, Remba’s MP had promised an allocation of Ksh 500,000 to the school. They’re still waiting.

“Because community members and business owners don’t have children in the school,” one teacher told us, “they don’t see the need to fund the school.”

The closest semblance of government on the island, the Beach Management Unit, was decidedly uninvolved.

The outhouse dug for the school hadn’t been maintained by the community and the learners were left to relieve themselves in the sparse clumps of grass near the water’s edge.

As we stood in the sweltering staff room and I watched the kids through the mesh wire that was standing in as a window, I was keenly aware of a pain somewhere in my heart.

Everything was stacked against these kids. Everything. Cut off from the mainland community that had hosted us so warmly since our arrival, the only thing the children of the island in their favor was their ignorance of what they didn’t have. 

No matter the resources lacking at any of the other schools we’d seen so far on the trip I’d felt a sense of growth and hope. All the schools so far would be okay. 

I couldn’t see the hope here. I couldn’t see the school’s growth.

Cheating (in) the System

6 August 09

So tired today. It may be the teaching of backward design. It may be the fact that I made the mistake of wearing long pants and the room I was teaching in had no air flow to speak of. It may be any  number of things. My money is on the idea that we’ve been going for about 5 weeks now and there are bound to be days that are more difficult than others.

Today was that day.

I’d been told that some teachers will purchase pre-written exams and administer them to their learners without reading the contents. This, I was told would lead to learners attempting to answer questions about material they hadn’t learned or even encountered in class. Try as they might, many would fail and need to repeat a class because their teacher was too lazy to write a decent exam.

I hadn’t believed it when I’d heard it.

When discussing the importance of designing assessment in Stage 2 of the Understanding by Design process, I repeated the story I’d heard.

“Does this really happen?” I asked.

“It does,” some responded while the others simply shook their heads at their lesser colleague’s actions.

I suppose my main ire is at the idea that, if you’re going to be an exam-centered educational system, at least do it well. Have a system you can be proud of or at least defend.

I’ve started to identify in some inexplicable way with belonging here. The unexpected affirmation of what I’d heard from my colleagues made me angry. Too much stands in the way of education for teachers to be pulling a bait and switch because they can’t bothered to do their jobs. More than just this, I think I’d enjoyed the idea that the similarities I’ve found between the South African, Kenyan, Canadian and American educational systems ended with what we do right. I didn’t want a reminder that our lowest common denominators are, indeed, common.

Maybe I’m just tired, and I should remind myself of the teachers here this week and their seemingly endless dedication, curiosity and hope for being able to do even better by their students.


But do you have a song?

4 August 09

Part of working with 45 teachers on ICT skills when you’ve only 11 computers available to you is the fact that not everyone can be on a computer all the time.

As such, my lot this week has been to perform as song and dance man attempting to make pedagogy sexy.

A few summers ago, I had the illustrious task of making data sexy for a conference presentation.

That was 90 minutes. This has been a week of 90 minute sessions taught next door to the room where they really want to be – with the computers.

Still, it’s been good.

Yesterday, Mama Jane said, “These people came just thinking they were going to touch computers. You have given them real professional development.” That’ll make you feel good.

Tuesday, my task was to talk about the idea of Multiple Intelligences and its implications in education.

Not surprisingly, an inventory of the teachers showed very few scored highly in the logical-mathematics and verbal areas with the majority blowing kinesthetic and interpersonal out of the water.

After I pointed this out, we had a healthy discussion about the fact that most of their classes are taught using verbal instruction and asking for logic/maths based skills when we had a room of 30 teachers who didn’t count that as one of their learning strengths.

Whilst all of this was going on, Mboya sat at the back of the room with the group of teachers who scored highest in the area of musical intelligence.

As we’d been coming up with the names of various Kenyans who exemplified each intelligence, Mboya’s colleagues had listed him as a chief example.

I’d joked, that he should write a song about the day.

At the end of the session, I was mid-sentence dismissing everyone when Mboya spoke up, “May I share the song?”

Of course.

He stood and sang:

Zac is a wonderful teacher,

Zac is a wonderful teacher.

He teaches with John and Jody and Lois.

These are wonderful teachers.

I stood a little shocked and completely humbled. The room applauded and laughed a little.

I started to finish my dismissal when Mboya spoke up again, “May I teach the song to everyone?”

I laughed and said, “I don’t think…” but was cut off when the room filled with teachers saying, “Yes, yes. Teach it.”

You don’t know humble, you don’t know gratitude until you stand in a classroom of adults (whom you’re pretty sure would rather be playing with computers next door) rather intently and quite literally sing a chorus of your praises.

I’m tempted to go all meta here or reach for deep reflection. Instead, I’m going to let the moment stand – a small sweet memory that I will take with me always.

When does the game change?


05 August 09

When Dan Otedo was talking to our team about what he’d like us to do whilst we’re here working with teachers from Suba, he said, “Inspire us.”

No small order.

We’ve attempted to include some sort of “wowza” factor each day using a tool that’s within reach to the teachers here. To put “within reach” into perspective, on the news last night, it was announced that non-urban areas would be experiencing planned blackouts starting tomorrow from 6 AM to 6 PM because there’s not enough water to power the country’s hydroelectric plants. (The news announced that the blackouts would be two days each week starting Thursday, but left one to wonder what the other day might be.)

Today, we showed them Skype.

We’d tried the North American ubi-tool in South Africa with a 50 percent success rate. Knowing the likelihood of Kenyan wireless modem bandwidth being enough to support video or even audio chat, I opted for good ole’ text chat.

When we started here at around 8:30 AM, it was 1:37 AM on the east coast of North America. Still, Dean Shareski was awake (I don’t know why). Tyrone (an SLA student) was also online, and Chris Lehmann popped on after a plea on twitter(I love my principal). The team assembled, the exchange was interesting.

My workshop today was on using cooperative learning in the classroom, so I asked what our guests considered collaboration’s role in learning to be:

Chris Lehmann: 08:42:11

    Simply put — it means that your idea and my idea are both made better for their interaction.

Dean Shareski: 08:42:13

    Collaboration is the connecting of ideas and information with human beings. We used to just call it research.

Sharon Peters: 08:42:42

    Some called it cheating

Dean Shareski: 08:43:02

    I cheat everyday.

Tyrone Kidd: 08:43:02

    it can be.

Chris Lehmann: 08:43:05

    cheating, to me, is when person takes another person’s ideas without contributing anything.

I have to tip my hat to Chris for this last one. One of the things I’ve been bringing up over and over again here is the proposition that, if I share an idea with you, then you don’t really own it until you add to it.

A few minutes later:

Sharon Peters: 08:46:05

    question from a teacher: What do you know about Africa – Kenya in particular?

Tyrone Kidd: 08:46:22

    Not much

Chris Lehmann: 08:46:23

    Honest answer: not enough.

Dean Shareski: 08:46:35

    not much. Our view would likely be very stereotypic

Dean Shareski: 08:46:46

    This is why Skype and tools like it matter….

Dean Shareski: 08:46:56

    to be able to learn from and with all of you

Chris Lehmann: 08:47:07

    Much of the knowledge I have of Kenya beyond what I learned in school and what I see in the media is from the people I’ve met.

Tyrone Kidd: 08:48:13

    I really don’t know much about  Kenya. Would love to learn about it though.

(That’s why I love our kids.)

I was hit most, though, by two things.

1) The ability to connect and communicate in this way could will be a game changer. That goes for Kenya and North America as well. If Michael Malone is correct in The Future Arrived Yesterday and the second and third million participants in the global marketplace are about to arrive, both sides need to start having much deeper conversations about what it’s like to be us.

2) I have no idea when that game is going to change. Every school we visited last week was lacking electricity and plumbing. Two had generators, but no way to buy fuel. One could literally see the power lines, but was waiting for a transformer to be installed somewhere down the line. When we asked about the timeline for the transformer’s installation, the teacher we were talking to rolled her eyes and said she’d been told within the year, but that they were working on “Africa time.”

When it happens, it’s going to be overwhelming. When it will happen, I know not.

‘Why do you care about special education?’

30 August 09

“When I go home and walk down the street, people treat me like a traitor. They say, ‘Why did you betray us and abandon the normal students.”

– Benedict, Special Education Teacher

Obalwanda Special School for the Mentally Handicapped

Mbita, Kenya

In Kenya, according to Mama Jane, it’s not uncommon for someone to answer an inquiry as to what her child is up to by responding, “He graduated from college but he couldn’t find a job; he’s a teacher.”

Calling or not, this doesn’t set the lights a’shimmering down the career path to education.

Thursday, we found things could be worse.

Anyone in education in Kenya will tell you that Special Education in the country has gone neglected. Having a child with special needs it seen by most to be shameful and as Jane was introducing us to the district’s newly minted coordinator of special education, she admitted sometimes you will find children who literally haven’t seen the light of day because of their family’s pride.

At Obalwanda Special School for the Mentally Handicapped, I met Benedict, the teacher in charge of the school’s integration program.

He was genuinely taken aback when I began peppering him with questions.

“Why do you care about special education?” he asked.

I explained that I had always taught in an inclusive classroom with students with disabilities who had been mainstreamed.

His surprise that I was interested as a “traditional” teacher and that I wasn’t a special education teacher trumped that of his surprise at my questions.

Benedict said he was responsible for the mainstreaming of 5 the school’s 43 residential students into classes at the primary school that shared both its grounds and its principal with Obalwanda. (When I say shared, I mean shared with a wire fence dividing both schools’ yards.)

It was going well, he said. The students were taking things more slowly than their counterparts, but they were doing generally well.

I asked how they were being accepted and Benedict said the stigma had been noticeable when the program started a year ago, but things were getting better.

Teachers had been the biggest problem, he said. “They won’t make time to talk about what the students need,” he said.

It’s sad some of the things I’m learning are international.

Benedict is doing good things, though, despite the many obstacles.

We weren’t there long, but I feel the same could be said for the Obalwandan faculty.

If only the teachers could enjoy a least restrictive environment, imagine what that would mean for their learners.