Teaching Problem Solving and Engineering in Dallas

This week I had the incredible pleasure of presenting at the Region 10 Now4Forever: Full S.T.E.A.M. Ahead! Conference in Dallas, Texas. The conference was held across three days in two sites and I presented on two days: one day at the northern site and one day at the southern site. Having never visited North Texas before, I got to see Frisco, Richardson, Dallas, and Waxahachie, Texas. We traveled to Dallas a day early and also enjoyed visiting the Fort Worth Zoo, the #5 rated zoo in the country. After finishing at the conference on Thursday, we rounded out our Dallas fun with a Double-A minor league game at Dr. Pepper Park in Frisco seeing the Frisco Roughriders take on the San Antonio Missions. It rained torrentially two days for about 30-45 minutes two days and we learned that was called a “gulley washer.”

We had incredible rain storms each day, but they were short.

We had incredible rain storms each day, but they were short.

I really enjoyed presenting at the conference and met some wonderful educators and administrators and was so well taken care of. They made everything easy and fun. I presented on the work of myself and my colleagues on using problem solving and critical thinking skills to teach STEM to children birth to five years old.

Photo courtesy of Nancy Alvarez

Photo courtesy of Nancy Alvarez

I know that Anne, Kristen, and MaryLu would have had fun working with these educators to expand thinking on how young children with and without disabilities can participate in engineering activities and improve their problem solving skills.

Photo courtesy of Daelynn Copeland

Photo courtesy of Daelynn Copeland

Based on the many engaging discussions with participants across the two days, we generated a list of resources that I wanted to share with the participants and other educators. Some of you may be familiar with these ideas, but if not, please use the links below to learn more.

Fun materials for the STEAM activity

Fun materials for the STEAM activity

I would like to thank Region 10 and especially Kelley Estes-Jones and Andrea Mitchell for inviting me to the conference and all the facilitators who helped me throughout the two days.

As always, please leave comments or email me for more information.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Early Childhood UDL Planning Sheet-Blank

Resources on Engineering and Robotics:

Writing with Symbols

Dycem Sticky Mats

Bristle Blocks

Time Timer

Wiki Stix

Intellikeys and Intellitools

If you want more information about the ideas problem solving skills and engineering design for children birth to five, please our book Engaging Young Engineers: Teaching Problem Solving Skills through STEM.



Fulbright in Zanzibar in my future (it is really soon)!

The State University of Zanzibar Tunguu Campus

Ever since I finished my doctorate, my goal had been to get a Fulbright grant for my first sabbatical after tenure and spend another year in Tanzania doing research and teaching. In Tanzania, US Scholar Fulbrights are teaching/research grants requiring grantees to do both teaching and research. For me, this was perfect, because I love both and I actively integrate my teaching and research. I was very honored to be awarded a Fulbright Scholar grant and am working on preparations to live in Zanzibar from September 2016 to July 2017 and teach and do research at State University of Zanzibar (SUZA).

I am so grateful for this opportunity and for the people and projects like the Toa Nafasi Project and the Irente Rainbow School who have been wonderful collaborators and helped me on my journey to this new partnership at SUZA. I have already met and worked with wonderful friends and colleagues at SUZA and look forward to this new adventure.

Here is an article about my upcoming experience published by my university: https://www.umb.edu/news/detail/fulbright_winning_umass_boston_professor_to_work_in_tanzania

A preschool in Zanzibar like the ones I will study over the next year

A preschool in Zanzibar like the ones I will study over the next year



Getting out of our comfort zone together

This past week I have been doing teacher training with the 12 teachers in the project. The main purpose of this trip this time is to do teacher training and then follow up with some coaching and mentoring. One of the benefits of the project for community members is that the project hires young women who have a high school education, but no formal teacher training to be teachers. Teachers learn on the job with support from more experienced teachers in the project and I come periodically to do professional development with the teachers to top up their skills. On this trip, based on experiences in the past and current literature on professional development. We know that one-time professional development or training is minimally effective when there are no additional support or follow-up. Workshops in conjunction with coaching will more likely to result in teachers using new ideas (Joyce & Showers, 2002). In addition, teacher practices are more likely to change when focused training is followed by on-site mentoring from a coach who provides feedback and support for effective implementation (Fox, Hemmeter, Snyder, Binder, & Clarke, 2011; Onchwari & Keengwe, 2008; Sheridan, Edwards, Marvin, & Knoche, 2009; Snyder & Wolfe, 2008).

Our head teacher addressing the teachers before the day's training.

Our head teacher addressing the teachers before the day’s training.

 On Monday, I trained teachers for about three hours on strategies to make the literacy instruction more interactive and to encourage child participation in the small group sessions. In addition, because all school have at least two teachers, I talked about various co-teaching methods and how to best utilize both teachers in the classroom to keep children active and engaged in learning. This is especially important because some of our “classrooms” are a collection of desks in a semi-circle on the veranda outside the main classrooms. Tanzanian classrooms, like many classrooms in East Africa, are very full and schools are very full, so there are rarely extra rooms for a classroom for our project. During instruction in the small groups, people are walking about, children may be playing, other children may be outside on recess, and cars are zooming by in the distance. Teachers need to work together through their content and enthusiasm to keep children focused. That being said, I was amazed at how focused most children were, particularly because these children were in our project because they have some type of learning delay or disability.


Our outdoor classroom at one school. (Faces blurred for adherence to IRB permissions)

Our outdoor classroom at one school. (Faces blurred for adherence to IRB permissions)

On Tuesday, I trained teachers on additional math strategies to work on counting, addition, subtraction, shapes and colors. In addition, we talked about a small change we made to the assessment that we give students and provided pointers for giving the assessment with the highest level of fidelity. The main concern in the assessment implementation is that teachers are helping the children too much or giving them too many chances to answer the question before moving on. I did watch two teachers give assessments to children when I arrived and they did well overall, but these pointers will be helpful. As a teacher, I can sympathize that I want to help the children too and want to see them do well, but we also need to know what the children can do on their own. Because we want to be confident that the children have learned skills and knowledge to be successful in the regular classroom, we need to know that they can perform these tasks independently because there will not be a teacher in the typical classroom ready to help or guide them, because there are usually 50-70 children with one or two teachers.

One of the teachers reading a story to the group.

One of the teachers reading a story to the group.

As I have mentioned here before too, we do not necessarily use the most interactive strategies, and some innovations you would find in certain US or European classrooms, because we want the students to be able to succeed in the classrooms that they are returning to that still use more rote instruction than inquiry-based learning. We get the children involved and check for understanding and use comprehension and critical thinking strategies, but the activities are not so far from the typical classroom. This was a hard decision for me to make, but I also saw early on that the teachers we were working with also were not familiar with strategies outside of didactic instruction. We have taken it slowly with teachers, introducing more interactive strategies gradually over the years and reducing the amount of straight choral response instruction in our classes.

One of the teachers calling a "student" to the board to write a word.

One of the teachers calling a “student” to the board to write a word.

In the training this week, I really asked the teachers to step outside their comfort zone and model teaching strategies for each other. First, I asked specific teachers to model a strategy that I had just shown them and use it with their “students” (the other teachers). Then, I asked them to plan a lesson and execute that lesson, using the combination of strategies as they might in a 20-30 minute lesson where the children had at least 2 whole group activities (6-10 children per group) and independent work time. While asking them to model single strategies was uncomfortable, planning a lesson and executing it as a group using co-teaching strategies was at first, literally incomprehensible. We had brought in a translator to help me, because my Swahili is not as polished at this time as I would like it to be and I thought the teachers would get more out of the training if my points could be reiterated in Swahili or better Swahili than mine. For me, using a translator was a bit uncomfortable also, because I wanted to believe that my Swahili was good enough, but I know that at the moment conversationally I am fine, but to explain the finer points of pedagogy and instructional strategies I needed help. I did an ego check and recognized that the most important goal was for the teachers to get the most out of the training, not for me to be able to do the training in Swahili. I am glad that I had support from two wonderful people who work with the project to translate and expand on my Swahili.


It took three explanations by the translator for the teachers to finally understand what I wanted them to do. After they started, I realized that because they had never been to teacher training college, they had never been asked to do mini-lessons or model full lessons in a classroom of their peers. I have visited enough teacher training colleges to know that micro-teaching is very much a part of teacher training around the world, but not necessarily something known to people who don’t participate in that world every day like I do. Despite the language hiccups, the lesson demonstrations were well done and it was clear that the teachers understood the key strategies and how to implement them.

The children using the new ten frame cards for addition and subtraction from the training.

The children using the new ten frame cards for addition and subtraction from the training.

Now it was time to observe them teaching children to see how they used the strategies there. To be continued in a few days…..


Cute little animals are everywhere

Friday and Saturday included two adventures in the car of different types with lots of animals, but not the normal East African safari animals, at least not for the most part.

Friday, we went to Arusha to run various errands such as picking up notebooks for the teachers for training and a whiteboard for one of the classrooms meeting out on the veranda of the school, because there are no extra classrooms. During lunch, we were joined on the edges of the garden by this vervet monkey.


On the way back from Arusha, we saw Mt. Kilimanjaro out from behind the clouds with its gleaming white snow on top. It is truly a beautiful site that I never get tired of seeing.


Saturday, we went into the foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro in the Machame area to take Sarah’s kitten to the vet for his final rabies shot. He was very brave, but did not want to be contained during the ride.


The vet is a German man who runs this farm with his wife and helps to also rescue and rehabilitate wild animals.


Recently, they have had a cheetah and a baby elephant, but they were no longer there. Because we wanted to get back with Sarah’s cat, we didn’t do the full tour or hike, but here are a few photos of a baby monkey they are raising and a few older monkeys.

They also had two marabou storks we saw that were within five feet of us and scary.


The smaller, cuter creatures included these mongooses (who of course can be vicious) and rabbits.





There were many others, but I didn’t get any pictures, including porcupines who are nocturnal and were sleeping in their holes. I think it would be really fun to do the horseback safari sometime. The pictures on the farm’s site look amazing.

Mud, Glorious Mud!

This week, I very excitedly returned to Moshi to volunteer at the Toa Nafasi Project. In my role as an educational consultant, I am focused on fine-tuning the use of the assessment and teacher training on this trip. During my trip, I will conduct fidelity checks on the assessment that they use for the students and hold two half-day trainings to top up the teachers’ skills.  Following the training, teachers will have opportunities to practice their skills and receive coaching and mentoring during the remainder of my time to support their use of the strategies. I will also be working the head teacher of the group to support her in providing coaching and mentoring on the strategies to her teachers when I leave.

It has been two years since I have been back and I want to see how the teachers administer the assessment to ensure that they are administering it with fidelity. During the trainings, I will teach some new strategies for reading, writing, and math and reinforce the strategies the teachers are already using in the intervention.

For my new readers or to remind readers, the Toa Nafasi Project has several components, but the key component is the pull-out small groups conducted during the school day to teach and reinforce basic concepts children are learning in their grade 1 classroom in reading, writing, and math. Below is the model used in Toa Nafasi and the small groups represent a Tier 2 intervention for these students.

 RTI Toa Pic

Some things in the project have not changed in the last two years. The children are still eager to participate in the Toa Nafasi Project small groups and the teachers are still doing a wonderful job supporting the children.


But, the project has now expanded to a total of four schools. The growth has been phenomenal and has necessitated hiring more teachers for a total of 12. They are all wonderful and eager to support these young learners to be successful in the classroom. Two of the new schools are close to Msaranga, but one school is a bit of a walk, especially in the current muddy conditions. We are nearing the end of the rainy season, but yesterday it still rained and had rained all night, the night before. We walked the two miles to the school and back, slipping and sliding a bit. This map shows one way of our journey.


Sarah and I had dressed for muddy hiking, but our head teacher made the walk easily in her very professional skirt and flats. I was impressed. IMG_2739



On the way, we saw several examples of people who had given up on wheeled transport, including this gentleman with his bike.


The walk was very beautiful and took me into parts of the village that I had never seen.


I am certainly glad that I made my decision to bring my boots, but they will need a well-deserved bath.

Leaving on a jet plane ……. (jumping up and down with excitement)

I am so excited to be off on another Tanzanian adventure. I have been so fortunate that I will be in Tanzania and East Africa three times between May 2015 and May 2016.


Bags are checked and waiting for my first flight. I am going to do some fun teacher training with the teachers of the Toa Nafasi Project. I have the privilege of meeting and training several new teachers and seeing the work at two new schools, because the project is now in three schools.

While Toa Nafasi has focused their work on the three Rs (Reading, Writing and Arithmetic) or the three Ks in Swahili (Kusoma, Kuandika, na Kuhesabu), the Tanzanian education system has also shifted since January 2015 to focus only on these subjects in grades 1 and 2. Through an expensive USAID effort and several international NGO partners, many new materials including leveled story books in Swahili have been developed and were supposed to be distributed to the schools in the first half of 2016. I was lucky enough to see a few samples at the USAID office at the US Embassy in Dar in January, but I am looking forward to seeing them in the schools and how they use them. The training plan was a cascading plan using a train-the-trainer model. I am very interested to see if the materials and training have made it to Moshi.


If you look closely at the bag, the white strips are sentence strips. We going to be working the dialogic reading; sentence writing, construction, and deconstruction; and different number lines and hundreds charts to help provide children options for helping them with their counting and operations.

More to come through the next two weeks. See you all in Tanzania.

Workshop time

Wow, it has been a busy week. One week ago on June 8 I gave a workshop for the education faculty and some outside partners on basics of early childhood curriculum and pedagogy. I also provided additional materials on Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and emergent curriculum.


On the second day (June 9), we did a little bit of the items I had prepared for the workshop, but in fact spent most of the time going over the draft curriculum for the new early childhood program and discussing some of the work I had done on it. One of the community stakeholders in the room was the director of the Madrassa Traning Centre where they have a certificate program to train early childhood teachers. In Tanzania, students can do a 1-2 year certificate program (first level of college if they didn’t do their advanced level work from the British system). After they finish that, they can do a diploma (the program we are developing) if they meet the academic criteria. A diploma is kind of like an Associate’s degree. The hope in the future is to expand and create a bachelor’s and master’s program, but this is the first diploma program on Zanzibar in early childhood education. It is a much anticipated degree program in the community and government.


I had a lot of fun doing the training and having the conversation with all the faculty and stakeholders about what they know and value and what is already happening in the community. For example, there was some disagreement about whether physical education was part of early childhood education and in what ways was it similar or different from play and games. In teaching courses, do we or how do we separate this? Furthermore, looking at the differentiation between play, sport, and games?


We also talked lot about active learning methodologies and implementing practical strategies in all pre-primary schools, including in schools where their mandated curriculum does not encourage play pedagogies. In Zanzibar, there is a mixed delivery system where children at the age of 4 and 5 can attend government schools, private childcare centers (often taught in English), and community-based centers. In addition, madrassas or Islamic religious educational institutions have long been part of the early childhood landscape here, but are both private and community based, depending on the area. It seems to be that madrassas are the most numerous of the early childhood centers, but I should point out that they are not the only place where religion is taught. Because Islam is such a fundamental part of the Zanzibar culture and currently 99% of the population are Muslim, religion is taught in government schools as well. On the mainland of Tanzania, religion is taught in the government schools and some private schools and children choose to participate in Christian or Muslim classes based on their family’s religion.

I can see many wonderful things happening here in the development of the early childhood program and the application of active learning methodologies, using play for learning, and cooperative learning in the college classrooms. Here is a preview of posts to come about classrooms.


Another discussion in the stakeholder meeting with faculty that extended to other conversations later in the week involved the language of instruction in pre-primary classrooms. It seems that in government and madrassa schools, the language of instruction is Kiswahili but children learn English as a subject multiple times a week and in the madrassa they also learn Arabic as a subject. One of the purposes of private schools in Tanzania in general is to offer families a school in English. Theoretically, classes are all in English from the first class whether pre-primary or primary school. But, since English is rarely spoken at home and often not fluently by parents, it is hard for children to start in English exclusively. Only families with the highest levels of education and/or families where parents and children have lived overseas speaking English is fluent or proficient English present. Based on my anecdotal observations, people who have a bachelor’s degree or higher and/or work in levels of influence in the government education office, have stated that English should not be a medium of instruction at this early age and children should focus on learning and content knowledge in Swahili. English can be a subject, but even too much English or Arabic can get confusing for the child. My personal belief is that children should learn in Swahili based on my reading of the research. They can learn other languages later. If they are able to learn them from fluent speakers and practice both to be truly bilingual, that could be different, but that is a very small percentage of families. But, I was told but multiple people that the reason they teach English and Arabic as subjects is because the parents demand it and think their children can learn to speak fluent English when they leave pre-primary.

My colleagues and I plan to do some work and maybe write an article looking at this issue and the research and look for ways to educate parents and the community on best language practices.

This is a really long entry on my thoughts. Upcoming entries may not be in order of events but I will share my visits to early childhood centers, attending a graduation, a concert, and another super fun beach trip with my colleagues from the school of education. I will leave you with gratuitous photos of the sunset and water because I love it.


A map and orientation to Zanzibar

Here is a map to give you an idea of where things are that I have done and distances.

From Zanzibar town to the Tunguu campus every morning and afternoon is a 30 minute drive each way. When we went to the beach at Pwani Mchangani, we drove for about an hour. I saw signs that indicated it was about 30-35 kilometers from Stone Town or 18-20 miles. Given the roads and the towns we passed through, that seems right.
The market area is about 10 minute walk and the restaurants with the sunset view are about 15 minutes. There are a few closer, but I usually go down closer to the Shangani area. If I walk from my place, it is about a 5 minute walk to the Ferry terminal where you can take the ferry to Dar es Salaam. It is approximately where it says wharf on the map. All of the faculty and staff that I have met live in the Stone Town area, many in the Vuga area that directly south and inland from the sunset views near the roundabout (rotary) that is south of my sunset view circle. I learned that that area used to separated by a large creek/river from the other part of Zanzibar. The Vuga area was originally where the Western settlers and diplomats lives and the locals only came over by boat each day to work for the elite. Now, many people live in the Vuga area are they have filled in the creek so it is all solid land, similar to the situation of Boston.
Here is a website with a driving video and history for those who are interested. The top is a set of key dates, but scroll down for more in-depth information.

Random thoughts and updates

I have been very busy having fun and working with my colleagues at SUZA. I am going to try to catch up with a series of blog posts on a few different topics.

On Friday of last week, I worked hard during the day to make some additional changes to the curriculum document that outlines the new Early Childhood Education diploma program so that the following week the faculty and some outside stakeholders could review it. I also planned a training for the following week for Monday and Tuesday. During the workshop, we were also going to review the curriculum.

This trip has been so helpful to learn about SUZA and their work, but also about early childhood education that currently exists in Zanzibar. My brain is always working thinking about comparisons and contrasts of the university and early childhood settings to those on the mainland. I have really learned on this trip about the differences between Zanzibar and the mainland. It is fascinating to me to notice the differences and to think about how the different colonial history, the different government and that Zanzibar has some of its own laws and policies and makes its own books for use here that are different from those on the mainland. I would also argue that the incredible Middle Eastern influence particularly from Oman and UAE have changed the landscape and the culture.

I would be really curious to see what Zanzibaris think of the places and people in Lushoto and Moshi where I have lived and if that impression is different based on their heritage. Just some thoughts.

On random things I learned yesterday: Always where slip on shoes when going to new places. We visited several early childhood settings in and around Stone Town and I had to take my shoes off multiple times. It was not the day to wear the sandals with the buckles and that were tight and seemed impossible to pull on and off multiple times. 20150609_183540 One of my favorite things to do here is watch the sunset. I will leave you with some photos of the sunset and dinner from a few nights ago. That is meat lasagna and salad and an iced coffee.20150609_175823 20150609_175833