April 19, 2014  

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How I Spent my Winter Vacation

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Do you remember writing your back to school essay after the long, slow summer months ended? The one that began, “How I spent my summer vacation?” Children’s author and illustrator Mark Teague wrote and illustrated a delightful parody of the topic in a book of the same name in 1995, but my vacation was a bit different than his humorous book claimed to be.

From December 27, 2011 through January 12, 2012, I was a working visitor at Woodland Star School (WSS) in Limuru, Kenya approximately 40 miles from Nairobi. This is the first year of this multi-age, multi-nationality school which is run by Amy McKelvey of Hattiesburg, Miss. The students are ages 4 1/2 to approximately 14, and at one time there were seventeen nationalities of students represented.  (Some of the students’ parents work for NGOs or other systems in which there is movement and the family must be uprooted often.) Amy and I met over 20 years ago as beginning teachers in the Hattiesburg Public School system, and we have remained friends through relocations, transitions, and moves over counties, countries, and continents. 

Woodland Star School (WSS) was formed with several tenets in mind, but students are the primary focus. The center of learning is thematic and unified; one thematic study which took place in the fall of 2011 included Africa, then Kenya, then those were analyzed with a view of the local community as well as the families in the school, and businesses of the surrounding area such as a dairy, a farm, a tea plantation, a conference center, a tree and garden nursery (including a study of Wangari Maathai), and an area for raising cattle and other livestock. Another theme is a “green focus” so there is a shamba (garden) and recycling by the teachers and students. After school choices and activities include sports, drama and musical instruments, and horseback riding lessons. 

My time there was spent in a variety of ways: I used a literacy assessment by Learning Media Limited (2004) titled Writing and Reading Assessment Profile: Primary to assess the younger children approximately 4 1/2 to 11 years-old. With it I was able to evaluate the reading and writing levels of these students, and thereafter, I conducted parent conferences to update the parents on their children’s literacy development. For many of the adults, our conference was their first professional discussion regarding their child’s literacy experiences. One of the youngest children at WSS is Caroline. Her parents are the directors of the local orphanage. She arrived at WSS knowing almost no English although she is fluent in Kikuyu and knew some Swahili. Her father, Patrick, and I have known one another for many years as I have been an active supporter of the orphanage since the late 1990s. He is delighted to have his daughter at the school and has expressed that this experience is one that will help her have an educational understanding which will put her far ahead of her peers. Caroline is attending WSS by way of donations and scholarships. I observed the teachers and held conferences with the Albanian early-childhood teacher, the Kenyan physical-education teacher, the Kenyan science and Swahili teacher, and Amy as the literacy, math, and art teacher.

This was my fourth time in Kenya. I began going there in the late 1990s, and each time I am delighted with what I experience, and I am reminded of the commonalities of teaching and working with children- no matter the country or the location. Children require time to learn, attention to their individual needs, and support for their strengths to flourish. Children need recognition and affirmation from their peers, and the adults in their learning circle so that they develop intellectually, emotionally, socially, and physically. Children need adults who are firm but affirming, and who are willing to help guide through missteps in ways that are positive and helpful and point towards growth. The very best of us empower the young to be their own teachers and leaders. My very best teachers and mentors helped me thrive in these ways, and I can see the seeds of the same things happening at Woodland Star School in Limuru, Kenya.

Now that I am back in the U.S. working with Mississippi teachers, university students, and children, I am reminded that the essential elements of learning are universal and global. Children - no matter the country or the location - require time to learn, attention to their individual needs, and support for their strengths to flourish. 

Stacy Reeves is serving as state president of Mississippi Reading Association for 2011-2012.