Leaving my Comfort Zone: What I Did on the Summer Break by Bridget Suvansri

In a speech I delivered to teachers at our convocation last year, I challenged them to do something outside of their comfort zone. Little did I know that on the last day of the school year, I would be boarding a plane to Nairobi, Kenya, to do something way out of my comfort zone. I would be “walking the walk” so to speak. I would be on a mission to help promote literacy and higher level thinking strategies to teachers in rural Kenya.

Finding My Mission
For many, mission trips are religious in nature or in direct response to natural disaster. For me, my mission stemmed from a global pen pal course I wrote and piloted. Through this course, I developed a relationship with Kenya Connect, a non-profit group whose mission is to keep kids in school with various programs for health and education. The population they serve are generally subsistence farming families that live in extreme poverty (no electricity, no running water, no access to healthcare). In fact, most of the schools only have water collection tanks and hand washing stations because Kenya Connect was able to raise the funds to install them! When executive directors, Sharon Runge and James Musyoka visited my classroom to speak with my students about what life was like in rural Africa, they also asked if I would be interested in coming to Kenya to deliver staff development to teachers, I gave a resounding yes!

Finding Funds
After deciding this was definitely a trip I wanted to make happen during the summer of 2018, I enlisted my colleague, science teacher Laura Donnelly, and started the hunt for funding. Unfortunately, we didn’t get either of the grants we applied for, so we started our own fundraiser, and with the support of family, friends, and colleagues, we got enough seed money to officially book the trip. We then tapped into our district’s Educational Development Leave program. As teachers leading staff development and working directly with teachers and students, our mission was approved by our district and we received a stipend to help with travel expenses. Finally, we wanted to do whatever we could for the teachers and students, so when Kenya Connect said the students were in need of soccer balls, toothbrushes, and pens, and pencils, our student council was excited to help out! And, thanks to the generosity of the Eastern Middle School community, soon enough, Laura and I had the better part of four 50 lb suitcases filled with books and supplies, and with passports in hand, we were on our way!

What we contributed
Beyond the tangible gifts we carried in our suitcases, we brought our combined 35 years of teaching experience. WIth books, chart paper, science supplies, and post-its, we were off to three primary schools and a teacher professional development day to teach an integrated “Wind” themed literacy and science unit. Using two sets of books we brought with us (The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba, and Feel the Wind by Arthur Dorros), I demonstrated the following strategies:

  • how using a K-W-L chart is effective to tap into prior knowledge and track questions and learning.
  • how readers can track the internal and external traits of a character to determine what traits the character had, and what traits mattered most in helping the character solve the problem of the story.
  • how readers can make personal connections, use imagining as a technique, make predictions, make inferences, and summarize big ideas of the text.
  • how students can create meaning using the Taba Model of concept development and how to apply the newly developed meanings to a reading.

What struck us most during these lessons was how engaged students were with the picture books. We realized that this engagement was due to their excitement of having books in the classroom that weren’t the normal, tattered textbook that 2 or 3 students share each day.

My colleague Laura Donnelly continued our wind themed unit by demonstrating how to pose questions in advance of introducing a topic in order to provoke prior knowledge and stimulate student interest in a topic. She also modeled the technique of using of illustrations to explore scientific concepts by drawing how air pressure causes wind and conducting demonstrations with soda cans, cups of water, and hard boiled eggs to show how air pressure is all around us. The strategies we taught are commonly used strategies in many American schools, but in rural Kenya, students generally “learn” by reading about a concept/topic in a shared textbook and then memorizing the factual information presented in the books, so our approaches were radically different from their norm, so we were essentially challenging the teachers and students to push themselves out of their comfort zone to engage in these new approaches.

We also gave of our time to help with The Kenya Connect Learning Center’s “Fun Book Day” which is a day filled with games and activities to promote literacy in the Wamunyu area. Kenya Connect started the first library in the area (the schools do not have books beyond basic textbooks), and one of the goals of Kenya Connect is to enroll students into their library card program and encourage students to read for fun. We were able to help their mission by leading stations throughout the day that promoted these literacy activities in a fun and engaging way that the students had not experienced in their educational lives. Another benefit of Kenya Connect’s new library program is that teachers can check out sets of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind and Feel the Wind we donated to replicate our lessons in their own classroom.

We also visited the Wamunyu Boarding School for the Physically and Mentally Disabled. At this school, we helped to demonstrate for the teachers how they can use a parachute and a soccer ball to engage ALL students no matter their disability.

What we left with
We left with a sense of truly being welcomed into the Wamunyu community by the Kenya Connect team and the Kamba people. In traditional Kamba fashion, the students at the Fun Book Day chose kikamba names for us, and each school community greeted us as we arrived with a formal ceremony that included singing and dancing! We “took tea” at the schools which gave us time to talk with the teachers and administrators of each school. While we hope that the teaching strategies we delivered resonated with teachers, we left with a life changing experience, one that will forever frame our view of East Africa, and what extreme poverty really looks like, and how it impacts effective teaching and learning. While the area lacked modern conveniences, infrastructure, and consistent access to clean water, it did not lack hospitality, warmth, and an eagerness to share aspects of their daily life. The Kenya Connect team helped us to experience different aspects of the Kamba culture by taking us to a local market as well as a typical homestead where we were embraced by the the Kithito kya Kyeengai women’s group about a mile down the road and led back up the road arm in arm, singing and dancing which was a joyous experience! We got to “take tea” with them and learn how they hand-weave traditional sisal baskets. Finally, we had the privilege of visiting the Wamunyu Woodcarvers co-op and seeing master carvers in action!   All in all, the Kamba people’s sense of community truly sticks with me, and Kenya Connect’s mission to promote education and how they tirelessly work to fulfill that mission–despite the staggering challenges–truly reinforces the notion that education is the key to lifting up this rural Kenyan village and giving these students an opportunity to fulfill their dreams and potential, and I am honored and humbled to have experienced the Kamba culture and to have contributed to Kenya Connect’s mission.

Bridget Suvansri is a Language Arts teacher at Eastern Middle School, CT.  She participated in the 2018 Educator Trip to Kenya with colleague, Laura Donnelly.