Teaching Worlds Apart: Chattanooga Teachers Connect Tennessee and Kenyan Students

By Ashley Ball, Classroom Chronicles

Karen West and Ann-Marie Blentlinger are in the middle of a story they weren’t ever sure they would read, never mind write. The two Chattanooga teachers are penning their own adventure, one that has taken them more than 16,000 miles around the world from Chattanooga to Kenya and back. Now they are preparing something else to make the journey, a library of donated books.

The exterior of the classroom where West taught at Kamangu Primary.

West, a kindergarten-turned-first-grade teacher with well over a decade of experience, and Blentlinger, a seventh-grade English language arts and social studies teacher, traveled to Kenya last summer for a 20-day trip. The pair volunteered to teach at Kamangu Primary School, a school in rural Kenya that serves 4-year-olds to eighth graders.  Now with their feet planted firmly on Chattanooga soil, the two can’t shake the impact off the hundreds of children on the other side of the world who stole their hearts.

Students at Kamangu Primary marvel at running water.

The duo arrived in Kenya this summer with $2,000 their school, Chattanooga School for Liberal Arts, had raised for Kamangu Primary. They asked the head of the African school to outline priority projects they could help fund. On the top of his list was running water and books, both lifelines for his students.

“We were able to bring running water to the school in two days. Here it takes six weeks to book a field trip, “laughed West.

The money also paid for five months of the school’s water bill. While one resource was flowing freely, the flow of words was still limited to outdated state issued textbooks.

West’s students dig into picture books she brought from Chattanooga.

“When I brought out picture books to the students in Kenya, it was like Christmas. They were just basic picture books that my kids in Chattanooga have millions of,” said West.

The two teachers recognized a critical need for texts and they knew their Chattanooga school family could help. West and Blentlinger launched a book drive for Kamangu Primary in early October. They started by asking every student at Chattanooga School for Liberal Arts to bring one book on their reading level and $1 to help pay for shipping to Kenya. Their hope is that their Chattanooga students can provide a book for the more than 400 students at Kamangu Primary.

A teacher at Kamangu Primary School uses bottle caps to teach her students the letters of the alphabet.

West and Blentlinger recognized universal qualities in the Kenyan teachers they observed and learned from. They described the teachers as passionate educators who wanted so much for their students—a sentiment West and Blentlinger know well.

A teacher at Kamangu Primary used these bottlecaps to teach her class of 44 students.

“The first day I went into class and this teacher was teaching 44 children ages 4-6 by herself. She was teaching them letters. She dug this stuff out of a box, and I realized they were bottle caps. With a ballpoint pen she had written the letters inside the bottle caps. There was no electricity and the bottle caps were tiny, so she went around to each student asking them to identify the letters,” remembers West.

It’s a memory that has shaped West’s new professional mantra,” When we become frustrated as teachers, we need to remember people in Kenya are teaching with bottle caps.”

West and Blentlinger pose with students at Kamangu Primary.

More than 8,000 miles separate Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts and Kamangu Primary School, but West and Blentlinger are bridging the gap by bringing their travels into the classroom. They are co-designing a unit on Africa, one that will feature a partnership between West’s first graders and Blentlinger’s seventh graders. The teachers will pair a first grader with a seventh grader and the duo will research the same country in Africa, ultimately putting together a presentation they will co-present. Blentlinger’s classes are also building relationships through pen pals at Kamunga Primary.Pen Pal

Students celebrate running water at Kamangu Primary.

“Now I have this urgent need to teach students about the world. There are things going on around the globe, and we have to pay attention,” said Blentlinger.

West and Blentlinger are paying special attention from their Chattanooga classrooms, tuning their students into global issues like the need for clean water even as early as the first grade.

“I still don’t have the pieces put back together yet. I am trying and figuring it out, but I am not the same person as when I left, “ said West.

The pair says a part of them lives in both places now serving students living worlds apart.

Students at Kamangu Primary smile for the camera.

The duo worked together to fill out an intensive grant application with Fund for Teachers. The program offered grants to Chattanooga teachers that proposed a detailed plan for summer professional development they could use to enhance their classrooms. The pair painstakingly poured over the application and as West says, “prayed over the computer screen.”

Any Tennessee teacher is eligible to apply for a summer learning grant. You can find more information about the application and requirements at http://www.fundforteachers.org/apply/tennessee.php. The 2017 application cycle opens on October 1, 2016. Applications will be due January 31, 2017.

While the Fund for Teachers grant is open to all Tennessee teachers for the first time ever, teachers in Hamilton County, Bradley County, and Cleveland City Schools can receive additional insight through the Public Education Foundation (PEF) in Chattanooga. PEF has managed the application and selection process since the grant began in Tennessee. They have worked with 58 Chattanooga educators to help distribute nearly $200,000 for adventures in summer professional development. This year, PEF will continue to serve as the major Tennessee partner with Fund for Teachers. If you have additional questions about the application process, please check out the PEF website for their contact information.

If you would like to donate books or make a donation to help pay for shipping, please contact tnclassroomchronicles@gmail.com.


Ashley Ball, Classroom Chronicles

Ashley Ball, Classroom Chronicles

Ashley Ball manages content for Classroom Chronicles. She is a journalist turned educator.

, ,