Suzanne Simard began her teaching career in a one-room schoolhouse on a Native reservation in British Columbia. “The school had a hitching post out front, and some children rode to school on horseback,” Suzanne recalls. She taught children in rural Canada for more than 20 years, “children whose parents were illiterate, who had no running water, no electricity,” she says.
During those years Suzanne also earned a master’s degree, trained teachers, taught at the university level, and consulted to school districts and British Columbia’s Ministry of Education. In 1998, a friend suggested she work for EDC on a school reform initiative in Guinea. “It was an instant love affair between me and EDC,” she says. “Everything I had learned in Canada I could apply in a holistic way in Guinea. For me, work has to be meaningful and challenging, but it also has to be good in the truest sense: good for people, good for society.
“Zanzibar is a small place, and everyone knows everyone,” reflects Simard. Recently, she has been spending a lot of time on this island, part of Tanzania and just off the east coast of Africa. There, she has worked with the Ministry of Education to pilot models for the development of Zanzibar’s first-ever system of public preschools. She and her colleagues are involved in every aspect of preschool startup—from developing curriculum to training teachers to distributing chalk and counting cubes.
Tell us about the communities you work in.
We work in villages with the lowest rates of academic achievement. They are extremely rural, extremely poor—roads of dirt and sand, no cars, no public transportation. You see children everywhere, but there are no preschools, and the primary schools are a good distance from town.
Where are your schools located?
We have opened 126 preschools—called pre-primary centers—right in the heart of the villages. The new centers serve 20–25 children who gather with one adult under the shade of a tree. Occasionally, a village will have an empty room available or some other small meeting space to use. To get started, each center receives a blackboard and a solar-powered radio. The children come to the centers for 30 minutes of radio instruction in Swahili, math, and life skills. This is followed by 60 minutes of play-to-learn activities that reinforce the daily lessons.
For the activities, children receive a slate, a game board, and an empty water bottle filled with simple learning materials: bottle caps, seashells, stones, seeds, strips of cloth. The bottles and most of the materials have been donated from local hotels or collected by parents. We also hire and train artists in the city to design flash cards, wooden dice, and counting cubes.
Who staffs the centers?
There is a huge teacher shortage in Zanzibar, so we don’t compete with the primary schools for trained teachers. Instead, we work with local leaders to identify one adult from each community to manage the center, and we train them. Each district also has a “mobilizer,” someone from the community—a retired teacher, for instance—to observe a number of centers, offer suggestions, solve problems, and act as the link between the centers, EDC, and the Ministry of Education.
What are some of the challenges of working in these Muslim communities?
We are very respectful of local beliefs and customs. We hire only local educators and scriptwriters, and it is truly a partnership. We teach them about the principles of active learning, and they teach us how to adapt those principles to their culture.
For instance, we can’t feature a boy and girl talking together. Even though children do in fact learn and play together, it isn’t appropriate for us to present that on the radio. So the active learning in Zanzibar is more focused on the individual, and cooperative work is done in same-sex groups. In other countries, we have the children stand up, sing, shake it up a little. We tone it down in Zanzibar.
What is the relationship between the centers and the Muslim religious schools?
In Zanzibar, every child attends public school and a Madrasah, but religious education is first and foremost. So in developing the preschools, we work very closely with the Malims [religious teachers] as well as the village elders and political leaders.
How have the communities responded to the new centers?
Parents love it. Many are illiterate, so they are deeply moved by all their children can do. At the end of the pre-primary year, children can count to 100, identify their letters, and write their names. The parents see the joy the children take in learning, and it is contagious.
The Radio Instruction to Strengthen Education (RISE) program in Zanzibar is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Originally published on July 25, 2008