I know the name of this project isn’t super creative, but it gets to the point. You might be wondering what in the world I have to do with Uganda. Let me explain. A year ago, teaching post-virtual learning brought new challenges. I naively started the school year thinking This year is going to be different. Things are going to start to feel normal again (just with masks). I couldn’t be more wrong and I know I wasn’t alone. Since this is the first time any of us have gone through something like this, no one could predict what was around the corner. We just had to experience this new reality and take the challenges as they came. I would be lying if I said things felt more close to normal and the students were the same as before Covid. In general, we saw students act more aggressively toward one another, lack basic social and academic behaviors they once had at their developmental level and many lacked compassion for one another. I know I wasn’t alone in these observations. Many teachers across the country mentioned the same observations in the closed Facebook groups I belong to. It was alarming and many teachers felt overwhelmed and unsure of what to do.
In one of the groups a teacher had mentioned the memoir, I Will Always Write Back as a suggestion for a nonfiction text. I read the novel and it became the catalyst for a series of events that changed things for me. As a former social worker, I have always been interested in different cultures and the way people live, think and celebrate life. I got to thinking: My students only know what they experience. Maybe one way they would feel more compassionate toward one another is to help them learn authentically about other ways of life that are different from their own experiences. I researched many websites that had programs for KeyPals and PenPals and put my information out there. I was hoping to connect with another teacher from a different continent. Months went by and I had not heard anything. Finally, the weekend after we had finished reading A Long Walk to Water, which takes place in Africa, I received an email from a teacher, named Joachim, in Uganda. He was interested in connecting and having his students write to my students. From that point on, we regularly emailed and shared information about our cultures and lives. My students were especially excited to write to the students from Victory Primary School in Kayunga, Uganda.
There was a huge learning curve when it came to communicating with Joachim. There is so much we take for granted that is part of our day to day lives. For example, The Victory Primary School does not have a computer or photocopier. Joachim communicates with me through a cell phone that was gifted to him from a former student who now lives in Florida. I learned that I should not “reply” to his emails, but start a new email each time. I also needed to keep my emails short and not include pictures. All of that uses data, which is at a premium when you do not have WIFI wherever you go. Instead, we use the WhatsApp to share things like pictures and school schedules.
As a precaution, I read through the letters sent from his students before giving them to my students. I didn’t know what to expect and I wanted to be sure that I was being careful of the information going back and forth. His students sounded like sweet kids who in many ways, are like our kids, just with much less. One student, reported losing her father last December, leaving her mother with five girls to raise on her own. Other students stated that they enjoyed digging in their free time. I learned that matooke is a favorite food among his students. They also enjoy netball. My students and I got a kick out of looking up recipes for matooke on Pinterest and watching netball on YouTube. We had never heard of the sport before and Joachim couldn’t believe it. It’s kind of a big deal out there!
The experience of connecting with a teacher from Uganda has opened my eyes to so many things and it has fostered a greater appreciation for what I have. Things like electricity, running water, and public education are not common there. Many lack basic school supplies and struggle to afford things like shoes, a school uniform and money for school tuition. And these facts are the reason I am writing this blog. This is the first year since starting my business that I am not doing Santa or holiday minis. I wanted to focus my time on doing something charitable for the holiday season. After all, isn’t that one of the themes in the beloved classic, A Christmas Carol? Sorry, I couldn’t resist. I had to tie a literary classic into my post somewhere! This is where you come in. My goal is to help as many of Joachim’s students as possible this holiday season. I cannot do it without the help of our community. If you are interested in helping in some way, please fill out this FORM and I will reach out to you. Thank you for reading my blog and considering helping!
Uganda students receive their second round of letters.