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The Power of Poor People: Two Days at Barefoot College

The Power of Poor People: Two Days at Barefoot College

After hours of driving on sporadically paved roads, we parked in a small and remote village. The stars were brilliant above and the air was quiet enough to hear the chewing of a water buffalo in a nearby pen. We turned a corner and there was this circle of light lined by the silhouettes of children. They each had a small notebook and a pencil and looked curiously at us as we approached. The children here spend their days taking livestock to graze, but for the past six months they’ve been assembling on this patch of cement at night to learn.

There are dozens of these night schools in the surrounding countryside, most of them much more established, and all organized by the TED Talk famous Barefoot College. Barefoot is most famous for its adult learning programs, specifically its program to train semi-literate grandmothers to become solar engineers. The women come from all over the world, and when they complete their 6 month training they return home to solar electrify their villages. The women I spoke with (one from Namibia and two from Colombia) were five months into their program. They all said that, at first, it was very difficult. Most of the women don’t share a common language, and the food took some getting used to. A Colombian grandmother gave me a look of surprised concern when she said, “The food. They don’t eat meat. And there’s no fish.” I asked one of the trainers what it was like on the first day. “On the first day, there is a lot of crying. They are thinking too much about their husbands or their children, and they are missing home. We do a lot of hugging and watching to make see who is not eating. But after two weeks most of them are OK.”

But the women talk about these early challenges as distant memories. When I asked how they felt about what they had learned, their faces lit up in flashes of joy. One Colombian grandmother looked up from her screwdriver and circuit board to explain, “For me, to learn something like this at this stage in my life. It’s something to make me very proud.”

This kind of pride is found all around Barefoot. There is a disabled man who trained to become a blood pathologist and now runs tests for thousands of people in nearby villages. There is a Barefoot dentist who was trained informally by an Italian dentist during her six month visit. She now does regular exams, fills cavities, and educates children at the night schools about dental hygiene. The entire complex was designed by a Barefoot architect. He was awarded a national award but refused to accept saying that he was just one of many people who came together to make the new campus a reality. None of these people have any formal credentials. In fact, there is a general disregard for ‘paper’ qualifications and the stuffiness that comes from people who hold them.

Barefoot College meeting

A morning meeting of the staff at Barefoot College

Barefoot is a living testament to the wisdom and capacity of poor people. It’s a statement against those who think solutions need to be imported to places like these. I asked the Barefoot architect how he learned to design buildings if he never studied. “From each other,” he said.

Of course, efforts here are not always easy. A long-term volunteer told me that, after being here a while, people started to open up to her about how for every success Barefoot has had there have been 5 or 10 failed attempts. But what allows people here to keep going is that these are their ‘failures.’ Missteps can be treated as learning experiences. There is a palpable sense that Barefoot is an institution of, by, and for the people who live here and in the surrounding villages. This feeling of self-determination is powerful and ripples out to the culture of the night schools as well.

When we left the night school, we couldn’t help contrasting it with what we had seen in rural schools in Malawi. In Malawi, the attempts at education took the form of imitation. Once they had the appearance of learning (a physical school, teachers, desks, uniforms) there was pride that education was happening. But the reality was far different. Students weren’t learning much of anything in the classes we saw. Here they had none of these things. Children were circled up on the ground outside in the same clothes they wore all day. But they were engaged. They knew that this space existed to serve them and curriculums were adjusted to be more relevant to their daily lives. Children led each other through phonics drills and corrected the teacher when he made ‘mistakes’ in his multiplication tables. Hours away from any city and kilometers from formal electricity, in a circle lit by solar powered lamps that were engineered by semi-literate grandmothers, children were sitting and eager to learn. I asked them what they enjoyed the most about night school. “Everything,” they said. It was beautiful.

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barefoot college night school (2)

SPARK Schools: Where Vision Drives Reality

SPARK Schools: Where Vision Drives Reality

Every school has a vision statement nowadays but most don’t take them very seriously. I remember talking with a student in Baton Rouge several years ago about his school. “Everybody is always talking about helping us ‘Be Great,’” he said, referencing the school’s vision. “But they’re not even giving us the tools to be alright.”*

I recently spoke with the head teacher at a school made of mud bricks in rural Malawi. He was quick to hand me the school’s vision statement, which talked about preparing students to contribute to the future development of Malawi. But when I asked what he wanted to prioritize to make that vision a reality, he raised his arms and laughed.

James Baldwin, the great black American writer and intellectual, has a line about how artists and revolutionaries are both “possessed by a vision and that, they do not so much follow this vision as find themselves driven by it.” Most educators talk about vision as something that provides direction. But it was this more radical idea, of a vision that possesses and drives that came to mind when Elizabeth and I met Dee Moodley, Blended Learning Lead and instructional coach at SPARK schools in South Africa.

Dee is a remarkable woman. She is quick to laugh and reflexively curious. She’s concise and passionate in her views but also eager for feedback. When you talk with her, the conversation seems to almost overflow with ideas and reflections gathered through her almost two decades of experience.

Dee Moodley

Dee Moodley

When Dee talks about SPARK’s vision, the ideas are inextricably linked with the priorities to make that vision a reality. SPARK wants their children to be able to compete on an international level, so they use the most rigorous international curriculums. Most schools in South Africa let out around 1:00. SPARK goes until 4:30. The vision is also a central part of the teacher recruitment process, “We’re employing individuals for what they believe in… We need teachers to believe that children can succeed. One-hundred percent. And that’s not a dream for me, it’s a reality.” But making it a reality for other teachers can be tricky. Many teachers who come to SPARK have been in schools where the students struggle to meet the much more basic local standards. So, getting them to expect students to master the most rigorous curriculums in the world can be challenging. (For more on the holistic support systems SPARK creates for its teachers, check out our previous post)

One teacher with almost 10 years of experience talked to us about how starting at SPARK was disempowering. Initially he felt that the expectations were too high and the rigor too fast-paced, “and your planning is different because the outcomes you’re going to reach are completely different than what you’re used to.” But he was originally attracted to SPARK by the vision and values so, he chose to see the challenge as an opportunity for growth. Now, this sense of continuous growth is what he enjoys most about SPARK.

Several other teachers had similar stories. Taking the vision seriously made their work much more difficult, but it also made the work more rewarding. In every group we spoke with, people would bring up SPARK’s vision as something that motivated them and bound them together. There was a clear pride in their conviction that, the school would do whatever it takes to make sure every student could succeed.

But perhaps the most remarkable comments came from Patience Ndlovu, a staff member who was first introduced to SPARK as a parent. She spoke about how she was initially skeptical of ‘these new schools,’ but when she first visited SPARK she was struck by the warmth that welcomed her. She was further impressed by the positive feedback from her child, “I could see that this is coming from an educator who is positive. The minds that created SPARK are coming right through to my little child. I was imagining this just seeping through the whole community and I just love that. I was thinking that this is where education should be going. That’s why I love being part of this, I don’t know, this goo juice seeping through to the next generation.” You know a school is truly vision aligned when a parent sees a direct link between the founders of the school and the attitude of her child.

At SPARK, the commitment to students (and to the personal growth necessary to help students) really is like a ‘goo juice’ that seeps into every decision at the school. Talking with the faculty, there is a sense that they are part of something exciting. Something that may have the potential to ripple across South Africa to redefine what people should expect from education. But for this greater vision to become a reality it will take a lot more than SPARK showing the way. It will take many more people who are willing to be possessed and driven by a new idea of what’s possible in education.

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This is our second post about our day at SPARK schools. Our first piece can be found here.

*This student, Dominique Ricks, has since gone on to graduate from college and become a teacher. He was recently voted ‘Teacher of the Year’ at his school outside of Baton Rouge.