I am happy to welcome Ashley Aaoki as my third guest blogger. Ashley is a beginning teacher in SD 67 in beautiful Okanagan. She is passionate about teaching and about sharing her love of learning to students and teachers in all corners of the globe. In this post, she shares her extraordinary and inspiring journey from her childhood days of “playing teacher” to bringing the joy of reading, writing, and learning to students and teachers in an orphanage and school in Arusha, Tanzania (Africa).
“Stand against the grain, get a purpose in your heart and ask yourself , “What can my life do?'” – Benjamin Cole Brown
Education has always been at my heart center. I can recall memories of the young(er) Ashley standing in front of the chalkboard, which perfectly hung in our playroom, assigning spelling tests and math quizzes to my little sister – she was naive and I was bossy! Evolving from that heart center laid another passion: traveling, but not any “type” of travel. I wanted to have authentic conversations with the local people, work alongside children who (just like my students) dreamed, laughed, and cried, and learn about what (extra)ordinary people face every single day. On a single piece of paper I wrote, “travel to Africa”. It was a dream placed in my heart and I kept it there for a long time. That was until the summer of 2016 when the dream in my heart and reality met.
Last year I had the privilege to travel as a teacher chaperone to Arusha, Tanzania. I had just closed the door on my first year of teaching and was coming off an emotional high. For a year I had been planning, preparing, and dreaming about my exciting journey ahead to bring twenty students and three teacher chaperones (I was one of the chaperones) to Tanzania, Africa. We dedicated four labour intensive workweeks in an Orphanage/School located in the slums of Arusha. The work was challenging, the conversations I with those at the orphanage broke, yet it also captured my heart. Every. Single. Piece. Maybe it was the conversations I had with the children just like the ones my mom would have had with me as a child, “You are so loved, valuable, beautiful, and worthy!”, or maybe it was sitting on the rocky orphanage floor reading to the children just like my dad would have read to my sister and I at night. It might have been every moment, big or small. Whatever it was, I knew I needed to return and give more of myself.
When I signed up for the second trip, I spent a lot of time thinking about the skills I had and what I could offer, specifically to the teachers at the orphanage. Several conversations had been exchanged during the previous summer about professional development, which sparked the teachers curiosity; simply because professional development was beyond anything they had experienced before. I knew that collaboration, especially in this capacity could make a significant difference. I just didn’t know quite how.
Shortly after spring break had concluded (and a conversation was had with one of my colleagues and fellow chaperones) I had a vision of offering a reading and writing workshop for the teachers. There were many unanswered questions I had: How do I (a second year, 23 year old teacher) offer a workshop to teachers? Do I really know what I’m doing? What should I teach them? But I knew that if I asked the “right” people, there could be support given. I began by asking a mentor of mine for ideas and suggestions. At that point, she suggested I contact Adrienne Gear. Now, I have a small confession to make: Adrienne is essentially a celebrity in my teaching life. Not only was Adrienne a teaching celebrity, I also used all of her books in my classroom during my first year of teaching (Reading Power and Writing Power – fiction and nonfiction), proudly displayed the Reading Power Poster on the chalkboard; had attended every workshop or presentation she had given in our area, and reviewed her blog weekly for book recommendations for the classroom. I knew how powerful her books had been for me, as a beginning teacher, in providing a focused direction, plan, and process for teaching my students in both reading and writing. At times (especially during my first year of teaching) I would feel so overwhelmed with the tasks of teaching my students how to read and write and I found myself cherry picking from a variety of sites – including Pinterest. I felt myself often existing at a crossroads between the “let’s make cute anchor charts that we’ll use once because we can’t remember what its purpose was” and progressing my students along as individuals who could be effective, capable, imaginative readers and writers. The problem wasn’t my students – it was my lack of direction, failed processes, and confusing plans. But Adrienne’s books were straight forward and transformed my teaching and I dreamed of the endless possibilities of sharing these ideas with the teachers in Tanzania.
And so I tried to be “cool” (inside I was NOT!) and contacted Adrienne directly. Following a couple of email exchanges, she told me that she would be more than willing to support the workshop by providing a list of anchor books that I might choose from as well as offering to donate some books for the teachers. (cue Ashley celebrating and dancing like she’s 5 at a birthday party shortly after having cake!). She contacted her publisher at Pembroke, Mary Macchiusi, and together they donated 20 books – ten Reading Power and ten Writing Power books – to give to the teachers. I spent several weeks carefully selecting the activities and information I was to share. Anchor charts were made with my neatest elementary teacher printing, and several books were purchased (thanks to several fundraising projects that happened within our district and my school). I packed up all of the items ready to be placed on the planes and felt as prepared as I possibly could. This would be a complete surprise for the teachers, and my excitement was building!
On one of our first days at the orphanage my colleague gathered all of the teachers and asked me to share the news. I can distinctly remember one teacher looking up at the sky and thanking God for me. The excitement shared amongst the teachers was palpable and I mentioned to them that I wished I could have bottled it up and saved the excitement for times in my life when I needed it. Throughout the weeks that followed (before the workshop) the teachers would seek me out on the worksite and share their excitement “oh, Ashley we cannot wait for you to teach us.”
Teacher Justin arrived one hour before the workshops schedule beginning time. He could hardly wait! Along with teaching the most vulnerable children in Arusha’s slums, Justin is the schools social worker representative. This means he completes home visits on a regular basis encouraging young boys and girls to go back to school.
On the day of the workshop, I lined up the newly purchased picture books and novels, placed the Reading and Writing Power Books in front of each seat with a duotang filled with resources, a pen, and a highlighter. Some teachers, eager to begin, arrived an hour early! We began walking our way through the components of the Reading Power book, and (taking a page out of Adrienne’s “book” on how to present) I presented lessons that I had completed in my classroom.
Ten teachers and the Headmaster joined me in a day of learning and growing – together!
The teachers were provided time to ask questions and while some were nervous each question gave me more insight into what teaching is like at the orphanage, and in Tanzania. Some of the comments shared included:
“I’m wondering how I teach this process to children with disabilities?”
This comment struck me as individuals who are disabled in Arusha are considered an inconvenience. They are often the poorest people as many don’t see employ ability for them as an option. My response to her was a Swahili term “polle, polle” (slowly, slowly). That great things can happen to those that take their time.
Following this comment another teacher placed his hand up and said:
“I’m wondering if this process will change my students personalities?”
Caught slightly off guard, I looked at this teacher and said: “No Edward, this won’t change your students. But it will give you insight into who your students are as people.”
The workshop ended with one of the teachers (who I absolutely adore) stating the following:
“I don’t know if you know this Ashley, but Tanzanian culture does not recognize reading as a common practice. Books are incredibly expensive and when people do read it’s for the comics in our local newspaper. Before this workshop I looked at these picture books here and thought ‘what do these teach my pupils? What purpose do they have?’ Now, I see that my pupils can learn about things that I’m trying to teach on my own. Lessons like helping one another out or realizing it’s okay to not be perfect. So, thank you. Thank you!”
As the teachers left following a remarkable workshop each one thanked me several times and many hugs were exchanged. Some were showing me they were connecting (using the Gear hand signal) and one even sought me out days later and spent time regurgitating as much information that he learnt as possible.
The teachers were unbelievably PROUD to be holding their new Reading and Writing Power books. I was PROUD of them for demonstrating both growth and vulnerability throughout the day of learning!
I cannot express in words how thankful I am to both Adrienne Gear and Mary Macchiusi at Pembroke Publishing for their support in making this workshop a possibility. The books were provided to the teachers as a result of their generous hearts (and donations). This was a truly magical day for the teachers and me. For a group of teachers, their eyes were opened to the possibilities that books (and reading) have in a classroom setting; the teachers reflected on what they had learned and were thrilled to implement new ideas into their classroom; and the director recognized how revolutionary this particular learning development was for a group who had (up until that point) never participated in professional development.
Following the workshop presentation, I completed a Reading Power Lesson with these students. We discussed what connecting was, and practiced connecting while listening to a culturally relevant picture book “Rain School” by James Rumford. The students also practiced reading to themselves. The library was filled with the sound of silence as the students opened up the wonders found in a great book!
On our final day at the Orphanage, as our students were saying their farewells with the children that quickly became “theirs”, I made a point of connecting with one teacher (Justin). He held my hand and thanked me again for teaching him. Just before I left he said, “Before you arrived, Ashley, the teachers were very sad. This work is hard, and it was like a grey cloud was sitting over us. When you taught us, you lifted us up. You lifted up our spirits and gave us hope. Just like the sun”. I looked at him and said, “That’s what life is about. We lift each other up, hold one another’s hands and walk together”.
This type of work has been my cause, allowed me to stand against the grain, and has reminded me how important the question “What can my life do?” is. I know that I have just started but will continue to find the answer.
Ashley Aoki was born, raised, and is currently living and working in the beautiful Okanagan Valley working (School District #67) where she will begin her third year of teaching this fall. Traveling to other countries has been an integral part of her life and teaching practice. Her passion is teaching her students about global issues and encouraging them to participate in activities that make a difference in the school, local, or global community. This past year, the students in her school (and previous school) raised over $1500.00 to support the students and teachers at the Arusha Orphanage including new picture books, novels, school supplies, land shoes. She considers herself a teacher/humanitarian, and recognizes the significant role education has on a global scale, seeing it as one of the key components that pulls individuals out of poverty.
You can leave a comment for Ashley below or contact her directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org