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Kenya Big Picture Learning - Out of the Classroom and Into the World

Just a few weeks ago, I had the great fortune to travel to Nairobi to work with Carol Owala and 25 scholars from Kenya Big Picture Learning. It was a phenomenal experience, learning so much about Kenya and its education system, the obstacles impoverished youth face daily, and the hope they have for the future. I originally met Carol at Big Bang in Atlanta and was instantly drawn to her, her inspiring story, and her vision for Big Picture Learning Kenya. At a transition point in my own work and with a desire to connect to some international education work I did earlier in my career, I reached out and offered support. Throughout the fall I had weekly video calls with Chris Oyola, the Kenyan internship coordinator, helping prepare for the planned school holiday internship program. At some point it became clear that the best way for me to understand the work and thus be most helpful was to experience it firsthand. So, off I went on the ultimate “leaving to learn” and jumped right into helping train 25 scholars for a two-week internship.

These 25 BPLK scholars, from the most impoverished areas of Nairobi, volunteered to spend the first week of their school holidays engaged in conversations about growth mindset, project planning, essential questions, and preparing for internships by role playing how to act in an internship and by writing elevator speeches. At the end of the week, students reflected on what they learned. One student’s comments exemplified what most students said:

I learned how we can solve the problems in our society or community. We should educate our members in communities about the importance of having unity in our society and this will help us to achieve our goals. I understand that we can work and sort out the problems that are facing us. Last but not least, I learned that it is good to try in each and everything that we see is hard.

It was clear that these students had grown in just that short week and were ready for their Learning Through Internship (LTI) experiences. They were truly thinking about their future and ways Big Picture could help connect them to people and options for a positive future.

The world the Kenyan students come from is far different from my world in Massachusetts and yet, in many ways, Kenyan students were not unlike my Leominster students. In Kenya students are not guaranteed a secondary school education, as entrance to secondary school is determined by an exam. Public secondary schooling is sub-par and costs money. Pedagogy most often demands rote learning and does not encourage questioning or student agency. This became clear when we discussed essential questions and students struggled to find their voice in questioning. In a video call with Leominster, the Kenyan students noticed the American students were not wearing uniforms, had coffee in the classroom, and were sitting informally on the tables (in fairness the call did happen before the school day in Leominster started). Despite some of these differences, the similarities were striking as well. They all love music, talking with their friends, social media, and they certainly can’t get enough of selfies! Much like Leominster students, the Kenyan scholars were anxious about starting internships, worried they might be bored or might not know what to do in the work place. They were also excited to venture into a new realm and learn from a mentor. They think deeply about the world around them. The students from Massachusetts and Nairobi share a cautious optimism, with big dreams and hopes that Big Picture can help them access opportunities they may not otherwise have.

The week wasn’t all work. Carol and her husband, Dennis, took me sightseeing over the weekend. We fed giraffes, avoiding their sloppy “kisses,” learned about orphaned elephants, shopped in the Maasai Market, and had a fabulous tour of Karen Blixen’s home where Out of Africa was both written and filmed. We went to Kibera, the largest informal settlement in Nairobi where many of the BPLK students are from. These are the poorest and largest slums in Nairobi. Kibera is where Carol grew up and where she and Dennis founded an inclusion preschool. We visited on a Sunday when the streets were filled with people and music echoing from the churches throughout the settlement.

On Monday we were excited to get back to work and launch students on internships, but there was an unanticipated issue. I had heard of the corruption and in my last two days in Kenya I experienced it up close and personal. In an activity with the students the prior week, we had a deep discussion about pressing issues facing their communities. Overwhelmingly, the students named corruption as one of the biggest problems and returned to this issue throughout our conversations. We talked about the power of teenagers, education, and awareness. Carol and I wanted students to see how they could leverage their internships to help solve the problems they witness and experience. For still unknown reasons, a neighbor of the BPLK office paid police and some other officials to kick us out of the office, and threatened to arrest an American college student, myself, and Carol. Most students were fortunately at their internships and thus not involved. The American student and I were escorted off the property, but Carol stayed, stood her ground, and did get arrested. Her arresters bribed her to give them some money and they would let her go. They suggested she plead guilty and just pay a fine. She did not give in. She knew her rights and demanded to be told the charge, released, or taken to court to see a judge. Despite being continuously badgered for money, she resisted. She was taken to city hall, put in a cell, and seen in court before a judge. The judge, clear that there was no legitimate charge against her, let her go. When she was safe and the students were safely home, we talked about the day and the importance of knowing your rights. Most people don’t, submitting to the intimidation, paying the bribes and thus perpetuating the system. Teaching about rights and responsibilities has long been my passion in American schools. It is evident this must be a part of the Big Picture Learning curriculum in Kenya.

Carol is a passionate, determined, warrior fighting for the most vulnerable youth of Kenya. She is now more determined than ever to advocate for them and change their stories for a better future. Through Kenya Big Picture Learning she will not only help the children of the slums gain important job and life skills and build their networks, but these youth will also learn about their rights, how to advocate for themselves, and work to make change in their communities.

I left before internships were finished, but the latest update is that they were amazing. Students made connections, started developing projects, and began to prepare for exhibitions. I am honored to have been a part of this first Kenya Big Picture Learning program and can’t wait to see and be a part of the next chapter for Carol and her scholars.