It all began with “The Magic Tree,” a Zambian folk tale shared by Ali Oliver-Kreuger of Interact Story Theatre during our annual professional development workshops at the Kenya Connect Learning Resource Center in Wamunyu. Four leaders of the animal kingdom undergo a harrowing journey across the grasslands to obtain the name of the tree and thus release the fruits to their starving citizens. In the end, the shy, meek, and slow tortoise is able to complete the journey, because she is not willing to give up…no matter the personal cost. The staff of Kenya Connect is much like that, working steadily to overcome the enormous obstacles of extreme poverty. The mission is to improve education for over 17,000 students in 55 partner schools by enhancing and empowering the students and teachers. My contribution is one small part of our comprehensive strategy to bring 21st century strategies to the people of this remote, rural area of southeast Kenya.
At Kyamatula Primary School, Teacher Caleb proudly presented the students in his 8th grade class who performed an original dramatization of “The Magic Tree.” His students had clearly rehearsed and prepared for my visit, and were excited to show off their English speaking skills. Sofia, Miondoni, and Kaliambeu Primary Schools were among those that had anxiously waited for me to introduce dramatic storytelling to their students. A few of the schools, under the leadership of teachers like Catherine Munywoki at Kithiani P.S., demonstrated they had fully embraced arts integration teaching strategies by applying dramatic storytelling strategies to their own curriculum. Teacher Catherine’s Class 1, 2 and 3 students dramatized the story of Christ’s birth, complete with a 20 student strong talking manger full of animated animals and a traveling star made up of 5 small people that commanded the 3 kings to follow.
Starting in 4th grade, students in Kenya must pass an annual five-subject exam in order to be promoted to the next grade level. The test is entirely in English, which is typically the 3rd language that the children speak, with Kikamba and Swahili being the first two. Literacy is a huge concern for schools, and indeed for the nation as a recent survey found that 50% of mothers nationally do not read at the second grade level, while the figure is closer to 80% in rural areas like the one served by Kenya Connect. With english being the 3rd language for these children, most are heavily (possibly entirely) dependent on their teachers at school to gain the proficiency they need to succeed. The devoted teachers at the local primary schools are eager to gain effective strategies that go beyond the traditional methods of rote memorization that are a legacy of British Colonialism. Thanks to Kenya Connect, the introduction to Arts Integration, Kinesthetic Learning, and STEAM (Science, Technology, Arts, Math) teaching strategies are bringing leading-edge pedagogy to our local educational community. These new strategies are having a huge impact and are welcomed with open arms.