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From Wamunyu to Greenwich: The Power of Perspective

Eastern Middle School Teacher Bridget Suvansri has just been selected as the Greenwich Public Schools’ representative for the 2018 Connecticut Teacher of the Year award contest after being named one of six Distinguished Teachers for the town of Greenwich this spring. She has been a pioneer in globalizing the classroom in her work as a Level Up Village Global Educator for the past two years and has made outstanding contributions to her school community as Language Arts Teacher for the Advanced Learning Program and as a Learning Facilitator at EMS. We congratulate Bridget on all her achievements! Here she reflects on a recent visit to her classroom from Level Up Village global partner Kenya Connect.

By Bridget Suvanrsi

Thursday, June 1, started out as a typical day at Eastern Middle School.  Students intently staring at iPhone screens before the bell; lots of wonderful books in hands throughout the day; kids tapping away on Chromebooks in well-lit and air conditioned classrooms.

But then something extra special and different happened during the last period of the day.  We were fortunate to have two visitors from Kenya Connect come to talk with a group of 32 students who are participating in their second Level Up Village global collaboration course this year, this time with students in Africa.  Sharon Runge, Executive Director, and James Musyoka, Field Operations Manager, from Kenya Connect visited my 6th grade classroom as part of their two-week United States tour to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the organization.

Sharon started out by sharing the work of Kenya Connect and how they help students in Wamunyu acquire the skills they need to continue schooling after 8th grade since many do not continue school past that point, and very few attend university.  She also explained that books are few and far between in Kenyan schools and students rarely read for pleasure. Moreover, they have very limited access to technology.  In fact, the students who learn how to turn on and operate a computer only get to do so as part of enrichment classes through Level Up Village programs at the Kenya Connect Resource Center which services 55 schools in rural Wamunyu. (See Sharon’s article about that here.)

One of my students, Arjun,  thoughtfully asked, “What is the end game, the ultimate goal of Kenya Connect?” And, Ms. Runge responded with a range of answers from health and safety to educational skills, but the main purpose, she said, was to lift up Kenya by fostering education and improving the overall quality of life of people living in rural Kenya.

When it was Mr. Musyoka’s turn, he strolled and gestured as he spoke, drawing the students right in. Many of them soon had their hands in the air to ask questions about daily life, school routines, education in Kenya and much more. My students learned that “hello” in Swahili is “Ham-Jambo” and learned the multi-step celebration clap that the class uses to praise students for brilliant responses!

At the end of a long school day, we learned that students walk home and arrive by about 6pm, just as the sun is setting, and begin their daily chores, such as fetching water or firewood for cooking or rounding up the grazing animals before settling down to do their homework assignments. Sharon added that doing homework or reading at night is a challenge for the students since they have no electricity, and the makeshift kerosene lamps that are often used as a light source are dangerous.

Both James and Sharon shared with us that the students who participated in Level Up Village global collaborations gained new confidence and asked better questions when they returned to their regular classrooms.  It was powerful for my students to hear how students in Kenya are impacted by the experience.  They also developed a deeper understanding of the students on the other end of their video letters.

“I find it so surprising how different their daily lives are from ours. First of all, they have to get up at about five in the morning in order to walk an hour and a half to school. Plus, when they get home, they have to go collect water or work in the fields, and then they start their homework,” said Lila. “Overall, after listening to what the teachers from Kenya had to say, I realized how much I take for granted in my daily life like access to running water, electricity, technology, and the internet.”

“After hearing their presentation, I think it will impact how we as a class use Level Up Village, and when we are exchanging videos with our partners, we will have in our minds that this is such an amazing opportunity for the students in Zimbabwe, as well as for ourselves,” said Ambika.

In an email following his visit, James wrote, “What an amazing experience it was to meet students at Eastern Middle School. This was a highlight of my school visits during my trip in America! The students were so engaged and curious to learn about life in Africa. What amazed me most was to see that every answer to a question seemed  to generate more questions; a clear sign of how the students seemed to love cross-cultural understanding.”

“Through the video letters, we have been able to learn from each other,” wrote Evans, a student at Kenya Connect who participated in the Global Conversations course. “I have personally realized that as students we have so much in common though we belong to different cultural backgrounds.”

This recent visit was a wonderful example of the power of meaningful conversations, and I am fortunate to have had this moving experience with my students.  In the end, I am reminded that I, too,  need to appreciate the resources I have at my fingertips and to continue to say “Yes!” to rare opportunities when they arise.