March 19, 2015

Dinner with Friends

For all of us who spend time on the Maranyundo Campus, leaving and saying goodbye is always hard. For me, as a teacher, it is hard to leave a place called school that is so clearly focused on learning and on the relationships among teachers, students and administrators that make the learning not just possible but meaningful, rewarding. For anyone who comes to campus, the warm and genuine welcome that the Benebikiras extend to visitors makes one so comfortable here. It is a place where friendship and productive partnerships are able to grow.

So on Thursday afternoon, as we prepared to leave for meetings in Kigali before flying home on Friday, it was nice to know that Jen had planned a dinner at India Kazanah in the city for new and old friends of the Maranyundo Project. Jen had invited people who have been encouraging and supportive of the Maranyundo Initiative from its earliest days. Former mayor of Nyamata, Gaspard Munsonera, (an admirer of Mayor Menino), was mayor when the Maranyundo School was planned for the location in Nyamata that had been an encampment of poverty and suffering. It is important for educators to consider how important the role of mayor is in supporting a vision for schools; we sometimes do not realize how much takes place behind the scenes in order to bring projects like the Maranyundo school to reality. His wife, Vivienne,  a member of the Parent Advisory Board also came. 

Architect Straton and his wife Emme Uwizymana joined us; Straton is still telling his wife about the Tufts Symposium in December and how much he and his daughter, Doris, learned there. Two of the headmasters whom we met with this week attended: Advisory Board member Martin, headmaster of the Lycee de Kigali, and Principal Martine who has become a great admirer of Sr. Juvenal and her commitment to girls education. Brother Straton who has been a valued mentor and advisor from the beginning of the school came to dinner along with two of his Marist brothers who teach at Byimana School for Science. Jen also invited Chris and Jen Hedrick. Chris is the CEO of Kepler University, a program that is providing competency based programs for students through on-line and hybrid models. Originally from the Seattle area, he and his wife have been working in Senegal before coming to Rwanda. Jen Hedrick is head of the Peace Corps programs in Rwanda, focused particularly on providing tutors English and literacy for Rwandan schools. And of course, Sr. Juvenal, Sr. Josee and Sr. Constance, the bursar of the school and Javier joined us.

Jen welcomed us all to the table and described how meaningful it was to be able to be among people who had encouraged and supported the development of the Maranyundo Girls School from its beginnings. She described how gratifying it was to share the story with new friends who are also dedicated to ensuring education excellence for girls in Rwanda. It was such a pleasure to sit at table and enjoy good food and convivial conversation with people who are so supportive of the education enterprise yet see that enterprise from so many different vantage points. It is a reminder of how complex education is and how many different kinds of supports it needs to be effective at the point of “delivery”…in classrooms with teachers and students. At table were people like Headmaster Martin, Brother Straton, the Benebikirka sisters who provided a vision for the school with inspiration from Senator Aloisia Inuymba. Political support and parent support were represented as well as the architect whose careful attention and respect for the buildings and classroom spaces is apparent throughout the campus.

To have a school that supports student learning, all these constituencies are important. In this small landlocked country in Africa, those of us from Boston are learning anew how collaborative we all must be to ensure that schools work for students and their teachers. In the end, each school has a narrative that begins with a belief that learning is essential for progress, for our future(s) and builds on the energy and commitment of community. Bits of that narrative are composed every day, in each and every classroom, each and every school. When the narrative includes careful listening, genuine exchange of ideas and direct conversation, the collaboration is as gratofying and comfortable as a good dinner with friends.

March 18, 2015

Educator Talk is Global

Thursday was a day for many meetings; with Sister Juvenal, Dean Joseph, teachers we had observed during the week, and with our own Boston team. It is so gratifying to share the work we have done with our hosts, to identify the strengths that are so apparent, and to share in real dialogue the future directions in which Sr Juvenal and her faculty want to go. As we have learned in the Maranyundo Initiative, as well as in or own US education reform efforts, the central component that makes partnerships work to improve something as complex as education for young people must be direct and thoughtful communication. We have it here!

After our individual meetings were over, we met with the entire faculty of the school. They came to the meeting having completed a brief survey. We asked them what they enjoyed most about teaching their subject area. We asked them what was most challenging for them in teaching. Finally, we asked them to think about what resources would help them create the ideal classroom. Our goal for ourselves was to learn more about each teacher and what this faculty cares about, individually and collectively. Our goal for the teachers was to share ideas about resources that will help them develop as educators.

The Do Now of our meeting asked them to share with a partner their vision of the ideal classroom. Wow! Did they get right to work on that idea! They enthusiastically shared with one another and a few folks volunteered their “dream classroom.” “When students are participating,” “When  I am teaching what I know best,” “When a student tells me I have helped them to learn something new.” “When technology works.” Then the faculty met in their planning groups (Humanities, Math & Science, Languages) to share their responses to the survey questions. Again, their conversations were animated, supportive, honest.

We came back together as a large group and each group presented their conversation. Using the blackboard, they filled the spaces with real teacher talk about what they like best. The discussed what is challenging about teaching in a world of standards and national exams, global outreach and jobs that require increasingly complex problem solving skills and deep thinking across the disciplines. The next steps they would like to take included learning more about their subject area, having more time to group students and have them work on project teams, and keeping students (and teachers!) alert for the long day that is necessary to fit in so many subjects and labs at the school.

Jen took careful notes of the conversations that we will send to each teacher. Our goal was to model the kinds of student-centered pedagogy that is so confusing to contemplate when your own education has been stand and deliver “filling the empty vessel.” (Not to mention in another language than the one you are currently teaching in!) Marian, Jane and I enjoyed being “teachers” to these thoughtful, eager “students” and closed the session by reviewing whether or not we all had met our goals. Sister Juvenal closed the meeting by reflecting on how much she felt had been accomplished and how thoughtful the teachers had been in sharing their ideas.

It is always amazing to me that when you get a group of teachers together, regardless of age, years of teaching, grades and content areas taught the conversation is vital, thoughtful, interesting. Across cultures and languages, national standards and economic realties, teachers share a respect for learning, a desire to deepen their own content knowledge. They identify successful practice as practice that gives students a chance to experience the satisfaction of problem solving, learning new ideas, identifying new questions. In the global village of our current century we need to have these teacher conversations that help educators cross the boundaries of cultures, disciplines, language. Meetings like our workshop with the Maranyundo faculty is an example of how much we have to learn from one another and how much of that learning we can pass on to our students! Teacher talk is universal. Let’s keep talking.

March 17, 2015

Among the Green Hills of Rwanda

 We spent most of our St Patrick’s Day on the road. We traveled from Nyamata to Gitarama to visit the Biyamana School of Science and Technology run by the Marist Brothers and to see our good friend and mentor, Bro. Straton.  Traveling in Rwanda is an opportunity to see the startling beauty that is this Land of a Thousand Hills. The ways in which agriculture flourishes on the hillsides in neat careful squares is a marvel. You see banana trees, dodo, beans, carrots, tomatoes and scores of native vegetables that are used in cooking. There are rice fields flooded while the workers tend them. In most of this section of Rwanda, the soil is very dry; the rainy season that this country looks forward to in March and April has not yet arrived and many people are convinced that the climate in this country along the equator is changing rapidly.

Even with the lack of rain, the eye is delighted by the horizon and the green hills that have made this place known as the Country of a Thousand Hills. The mountains to the north are the national refuge for the gorillas, a major tourist attraction. There are also five volcanoes in Rwanda. The mountains also served to discourage exploration by Europeans until the Germans eventually found their way to this prosperous kingdom with inhabitants living rather peacefully even though some family groups were hunters and pottery makers, some were herders, some raised crops. The history and culture of Rwanda is interesting to study because it was not colonized until late in the infamous Scramble for Africa. Eventually, the Germans and then the Belgians made their presence known in this green green world of hills and rivers.

After looking at the biology, chemistry and physics labs at Byimana, new construction after a fire on the campus 3 years ago, we hit the road once again and had a most extraordinary opportunity. We visited Urukundu Village, a home for children run by Mama Arlene, an extraordinary, civically engaged philanthropist. Arlene Brown came to Rwanda 20 years ago from Philadelphia and saw a need for a place to care for children whose families could not care for them. Over the years it has grown to include a school for PreK-6, a dental facility, a place for mothers and infants, as well as housing for 43 children ages 10 months and up.  Once they are ready for high school, they go to boarding schools throughout the country and return to their Urukundo home on holidays and school breaks.  When they are 21, they leave this nurturing nest to make their way in the world. Jane OConnor of our Maranyundo Team was eager to see the three children who she and her family have sponsored, 3 thriving boys ages 6, 3, and 10 months. We had a delightful time visiting with them after a tour of Mama Arlene’s facility.  We were  happy to see Kabossi, a child from Nyamata thriving with Mama Arlene’s care.  He was found and placed through the work of one of our former Maranyundo tutors, Rebecca, whose mother Diane Currier serves on the Board of Maranyundo.  They have sponsored Kabossi since his placement at Urukundo at the age of three.

It is impossible to describe the comfort and nurturing that Mama Arlene provides for her “family.” One facility we saw, however, tells a story that reflects the values of this culture. Mama Arlene had been approached by a father to care for his day old infant whose mother had died because they could not pay to stay at the hospital after delivering the child. In response to this tragic loss, Mama Arlene created a quiet, comfortable space for others to recover from childbirth with their infants. Once I have more Internet, I will post the photos of this lovely and loving room.

I think this story reflects Rwandan culture in the sense that when the people see that there is a need in the village, they problem solve and strategize to address that need. They are a remarkably resourceful, people. People like Mama Arlene (84) have been drawn to this resilience and found ways to support the energy and creativity she encountered 20 years ago. Her foundation has a website,, that provides a glimpse into this project and the many ways it benefits children in the country.

On the road back to the Maranyundo Campus we talked about how many different ways we have seen Rwandan children being served by their community…in schools and residences and civic centers. This is a culture that values its children, its youth. It was nice to think about all that as we continued along toward Maranyundo among those green hills…on St Patrick’s Day.

March 16, 2015
"What a Wonderful World It Would Be "

Today we visited two schools in Kigali. The Lycee de Kigali, the school that was visited by George and Laura Bush when they visited Rwanda, is located on one of the thousand hills with extraordinary views. The school has an interesting history. It was started in 1975 to serve Belgian and French students whose families remained in Rwanda in various positions after independence. As the nation continually searched for a stable government, the population of Belgian and French families in the area began to drop and the school began to consider admitting local students who could qualify.
Elizabeth King has written a chapter in Educating Children in Conflict Zones that records this time of education turmoil in Rwanda.

“Under the two Rwandan Republics (1962 – 1994) …secondary exams were graded in light of ethnic identity and ethnic equilibrium policies were partial to Hutu.”

The school closed in 1994 at the time of the Genocide Against the Tutsis. Today, under the direction of Headmaster Martin it is a school that the government puts on the agenda for visiting heads of state because it embraces the ideal that all Rwandan youth must receive a high standard of education.

(A bit of gossip? When George Bush was scheduled to come to the Lycee, his advance team notified Headmaster Martin that the President would be bringing a significant gift to the  school. Speculation was intense. Was he bringing computers? A variety of books for the library? A fleet of vans? He brought mosquito netting. ..certainly an important gift in a country plagued by malaria…but the Lycee had only 10% of students who slept in campus accommodations.)

Today the Lycee has 1400 students from the Kigali area and about 200 students from rural areas who board. The campus also has housing for 27 of its teachers. We visited their science labs as we continue to seek designs for the new science labs at Maranyundo. A lab technician takes care of all lab materials and set-ups for the teachers. A head science teacher meets regularly with his staff to develop “student centered lessons” with an emphasis on lab work in biology, chemistry and physics.

The second school we visited was also on a hill with spectacular views of the city including the National Stadium. The Wellspring Academy was started the same year as Maranyundo and serves students from elementary grades through secondary. Like Maranyndo, they have been adding a grade each year; now they are adding the secondary grades. There will be 600 students. The school follows the Cambridge International Curriculum  and has a strong Christian tradition. The website is informative:  and gives you a sense of the many models of schooling that are springing up throughout the country. The Headmaster, School Principal Martine, is a soft spoken, gracious educator who clearly admires the work of Sr Juvenal and her staff. Her focus on careful interviewing of prospective faculty and her continuing efforts to develop her teachers is impressive. She and a Deputy Principal are focused on making sure teachers develop in their craft.

The conversations that spun out in each of our visits reflect the global issues that concern educators everywhere. Educators from distant school districts…(thousands of miles apart!)…in different cultures,  can immediately share the discourse of the challenges and rewards of teaching the young of our communities. Imagine if these global educators could have opportunities to share more often…to speak honesty and thoughtfully about the ways we can support one another. As the song imagines, “What a wonderful world it would be!”

March 14, 2015
What Makes a Successful School?

There is a question we are asking as we talk with various constituencies. We want to know from those familiar with the day to day operation of the school, why is MGS so successful?  The girls score exceeding well on the National Exams. They are poised and confident when they speak in public events. They are motivated to learn. They help one another in study time.  They take responsibility for setting up and cleaning up at mealtimes. They take care of their learning spaces and the dorms. They enjoy competing in basketball and volleyball. To what can we attribute these positive elements?

On Friday, I visited a chemistry class of the Senior 4 girls. The Senior 4s is the first class of students to start the new high school for STEM disciplines. In the Chemistry class, there were several students, new to Maranyundo, who had not ever used the lab equipment with which the girls who had been students at the middle school are so familiar. The teacher had made certain that each lab group was a combination of veteran MGS students and students new to the school.

As I visited each group assembling their lab equipment, I asked the new students what they liked about the school. Inevitably there were three things that the girls appreciated. “The discipline is good.” Remarked one student. When I asked what she meant by “discipline,” she replied, “Well, the girls treat each other nicely here. We work hard together. Students are happy.” “The teachers here are good,” offered another. “They are patient to help you learn. There is no yelling.” Another student wanted me to know that “the food is very good and the dining room is nice.” These kinds of comments were very consistent throughout my inquiries.

On Saturday, we planned a luncheon to thank the teachers and the Benebikiras for the roles they played in effecting the successful National Exam results in January. I asked the question to four parents from the Parent Committee that meets monthly. Their answers were very consistent. “Discipline at this school is wonderful because of the leadership. The students feel safe and appreciated. They learn to control themselves; they develop a sense of how to live with one another and taking care of their spaces.” Another parent was appreciative of the “time” the students have. “The school is structured to give the students the gift of time. Teachers give students time to work, to study. They take time to help them. They take time to make sure students understand. Time is a special thing in this school.” There are many things that make this school successful,” said another parent. “But it is the leadership that thinks of those things. School leaders make a difference.”

There is interesting insight to take away from these informal conversations about what the Maranyundo School for Girls a school in which students are “happy,” teachers are “patient” and able to give their students “the gift of time.” Both students and their parents appreciate “discipline” as it is conceived by the administration as an element that is developed within the students and practiced as community. Both students and their parents appreciate the teachers, and the “gift of time.” It is also apparent that the school leadership, under the direction of Sr Juvenal, takes responsibility for all aspects of this school…the curriculum, the food, the schedules, the community…in ways that support the students whom everyone acknowledges are the future of this entire nation.

We arrived last evening from Boston via Amsterdam. Stepping from the plane into the warm Rwandan air I relished returning to the unique feel of the place. There is a new arrival terminal that gleams with efficiency. We were given visas, had our passports stamped and reviewed. All with welcoming stance. I felt I had truly arrived, however, when I was embraced by Sister Juvenal and company and we set off for the school on that familiar ride to Nyamata.

After a welcome dinner at the Residence, and the delight of seeing Sister Josie looking so well, we planned for a day of observations in the Maranyundo classrooms. Each morning we are beginning our day with breakfast with Sr Juvenal to hear from her how she is viewing what is happening in the school, in Nyamata, in Rwanda. She also has a schedule for the day for each of us and we pay attention to her schedule!

I began my Thursday in Biology class with the 10th graders who are the first class at the new STEM high school. The girls were wearing their lab coats and their teacher, Aggery, was having them work in groups of 2 or 3 to set up their microscopes for lab practice looking at cells. He was asking them to prepare slides for viewing red onion skin and pond water taken from the pond on the campus. (I can provide evidence that frogs with lusty lungs live in that pond because they serenade us at night!)

The girls set up their lab spaces, setting up the microscopes carefully, and worked together to prepare their slides. They eagerly invited my participation to view their slides. In one group, I asked them what the "agenda" for this lab class was and they answered, "To observe." I asked them what it meant to observe. They replied with ideas like, to look to understand, to look at details we cannot usually see, to be amazed by small things.

It was clear that working with lab materials is very important to them. One student told me, "When we see something in the microscope that we have prepared, the image stays in our heads. When I see a picture in a book, I forget it." Another student explained why she values lab time so much. "When you practice like a scientist you know a lot more than the theory." She smiled when she said that!

The National Exams are including "practicals" as part of the exam administration in sciences. Sr Juvenal says most of the schools in Rwanda do not have the lab materials needed to give the students opportunities to work together and practice with lab skills and materials. The girls at Maranyundo know they are privileged to have the lab spaces and "stuff" to do "practicals." They also have a teacher who believes strongly that they can learn so much by "feeling like scientists" and having fun working with one another.

The scientific discourse the girls are practicing demonstrated that they are developing solid academic vocabularies to articulate their thinking and how their observations are leading them to consider new ideas. As one student told me, when I asked her what looking at the pond water under the microscope made her think about, she said, "That when you can see water you really can't see ALL of water." I like that talk. I also liked the use of the word colleague that a student used when I asked her to demonstrate for me how she prepares a slide. "My colleague holds this for me so I can..." She made me realize that they are colleagues in this classroom. And for 90 delightful minutes, they allowed me to be among them as a person thinking about science, thinking about the relationship of theory to practice, and how much fun learning can be!

        March 2015: A Trip to the Maranyundo Campus

Maranyundo Board  members Jane Oconnor, Marian Grogan, Jennifer Boyle and I are planning to travel to the Maranyundo Girls School from March 10 through March 21. We are looking forward to seeing the campus, both the familiar and the new. The graduating middle school students who took the National Exam last year included 3 girls who scored among the top ten students in the nation.  We will celebrate with the teachers and with the current students who hope to match these accomplishments! We are also eager to see the new academic building as the first class of 63 girls enters the new STEM high school as 10th graders.  We are grateful to Sr. Juvenal, the teachers and the students for inviting us to share in the warmth and pride of the Maranyundo Girls School. 

Keep checking this blog site for updates.