Praxis Malawi: It Takes a Global Village to Build a School

Praxis Malawi
Praxis Malawi

As schools across the province are in the midst of end of year festivities and rituals from graduation and exams to field trips and track meets, half way across the world in Malawi, Africa a school instead of preparing to close up for a couple of months has just laid down the footings of its first classroom.  The construction of a grade one class, accompanied by housing for the teacher and family along with the creation of the primary curriculum has been a work in progress for the past five years.  As I write this post, countless hours of discussion, deliberation, and deep thinking are transforming from the theoretical into reality.

As I have written about previously, my husband, Dr. Christopher Stonebanks, has traveled each spring to Malawi, Africa to live in the village of Makupo.  It is indeed one of the poorest places on earth, with no running water or electricity but home to a wonderful people who indeed do deserve the title of “The Warm Heart of Africa” by which Malawi is appropriately known.

This is the fifth year that Christopher has taken students for five weeks in order to engage in research.  To read about how this project came to be, I invite you to read this post.  It is a journey of unexpected twists and turns and has been an authentic example of lifelong learning.  There have been celebrations and tears along the way.  And as in any exemplary classroom, whether it lives inside a building or out over the garden wall, collaboration, commitment and lasting collegiality have been developed, fostered and maintained.

Praxis Malawi 2013
Praxis Malawi 2013

This year’s group of eleven students include a wonderful combination from Bishop’s University, two groups of  students from McGill University   as well as students from Champlain College.   Take a minute to introduce yourself to this amazing team of young academics and future teachers.  Read a bit about who they are, where they come from and what their aspirations are for their time in this tiny village in Sub-Saharan Africa.  I am always so impressed by the quality and diversity of students that are attracted to this type of experiential learning.  It is an endeavour that takes them away from the comforts and security of home and thrusts them headfirst into the unsettling environment of the unknown and culture shock.

For the first time, each of the Praxis Malawi team members has been chronicling their personal and professional journeys by means of a blog  – this one.  Narratives of learning the local language, cooking with the ladies, brushing teeth under a starry sky and fighting off large and hungry insects are interspersed with reflections on interviews with Malawian teachers and residents, challenges of creating a curriculum that will support the needs and wishes of the community as well as navigating through the stages of culture shock that each one experiences in their own way can be found here.

I urge you to visit the blog and discover more about this wonderful project and all the incredible adventures the students have been up to.  If you have time to leave a comment or two, I am sure it will do wonders to encourage them along their journey.  There is nothing more reassuring to one who is “out in the field” than to receive a note from home reinforcing the notion that all their struggles and efforts as well as their successes have been recognized by a peer, a mentor or simply an advocate.

I as well, have an invitation to offer those of you who might be moved into wanting to participate in this type of humanitarian association. As this will be a project that will continue over many years, we are looking for support by means of a Professional Learning Community.  I have set one up through LEARN and what I am hoping for is to have people from all corners of the education community here assist in the building of this new school.  Through this PLC, you will be linked to the online community and free to offer support by means of links to resources, suggestions, direction or inspiration.  This is so crucial when building curriculum.

In the fall, we will be hosting a LEARN web event that will highlight ways that schools can connect with and learn about another school half way around the world.  Rich curricular ideas and activities to build global citizenship and social awareness as well as develop reciprocal and sustainable learning will be featured.  If you think you and you class might be interested joining and supporting Praxis Malawi send me an email at and we can discuss the multiple possibilities for involvement.  Please pass along the link to the blog and the invitation to the PLC to anyone who you think might be interested.

The old adage “It Takes a Village” really does ring true here.  And the beautiful thing is that with the voice and direction coming from the village of Makupo, Malawi we are simply joining in on the conversation.

Naomi blog 2 - My new family
At the top of Mount Kasungu

These Shoes are Made for Walking: Making Sense of Digital Footprints

Let me start with a story. Some years ago I went to a conference and someone told this story about a long retired teacher who still did substitute teaching. I wish I could remember who shared this as I would like to give credit.

Photo by: Katherine Johnson under a CC license
Photo by: Katherine Johnson under a CC license

The principal of the school was concerned when this older woman was called in to substitute for a particularly difficult class. When he went to check on the class he found her lying on the desk, with her shoes displayed on a shelf above her. The students had their heads down, eyes closed. She was telling the story of where her shoes had been – the many places they had walked. She challenged them to think about where they would like their shoes to walk and how they would accomplish this.

Our students are already walking into their future and are leaving very public traces on the Internet. There is much talk about students posting inappropriate things online. You will have no difficulty finding information on the risks of being online. What I would like to focus on here is how can we help our students build a positive online presence. How can they plan where their digital shoes will walk to tell a story they would want others to know about themselves?

Students need to realize that the web is a very public place. While it is important to set privacy settings carefully, we should always behave online as if anyone can see what we post.  It is naïve to think that if we ban sites in schools we are protecting children. Instead we need to help students understand how they can create a positive place for themselves there.

Why do our students need an online presence?

In the future someone will google their name; the more positive hits, the better the impression! And let’s keep in mind that no hits doesn’t give a good impression either!

Photo by Dekade under a CC license
Photo by Dekade under a CC license

Who might google them (or you)?

  • Prospective employers – Our students will be applying for jobs, even if just for summer or part-time positions.
  • University admission officers
  • Prospective partners – More and more, people google before dating someone
  • Their family – What do they want them to know
  • In the future… they might google themselves
    Will they be happy with the tracks they have left? What feels good now (e.g. party photos) may not feel good in the future. And will they be happy in the future when children or grandchildren google them?

One way we can reach our often consumer conscious students is by talking about branding. How do they want their brand perceived? How can they build that brand online? What do they want people to see when they google their name? Start the conversation with this video by Daniel Pink

What should go online? Encourage students to write about volunteer jobs they do, fundraising they have been involved in, accolades they receive for academic, sports or arts participation. Are your students supporting a cause? Make sure to publicize it online.  Not only will they be sharing their accomplishments, but also their ability to communicate effectively. Class blogs (even starting in early elementary school) help students understand appropriate online behaviour and more – how present themselves online. While students cannot totally erase the things they might not want to be found, by building a robust positive picture of themselves online, they can ensure that the recent positives rise to the top of a Google search.  Teach them to create a portfolio which links some of these things in one place. I use You can find out a bit about me here.

When I started blogging and developing my online presence, there was a lot of scare-mongering about using one’s name. As a result, much of what you find online about me is under susanvg, not my full name. I recommend using one’s full name – people are more likely to find those positive footprints that way. I know with students we have to be careful about revealing too much, but in revealing too little, we are impeding them from developing a positive online presence.

If students think they have no digital identity, share this video, Digital Dossier. As parents, too, we have to think about what we are posting about our children.

And you? Google your name (Don’t forget to put your name in quotes e.g. “Susan van Gelder” ).  What did you find? Do you need to start over? This article will help you with ideas to clean up your past mis-steps The ideas won’t make it all go away, but they will make it harder to find the items you feel less than proud about.

I know I have left many tracks, but I am not afraid of what anyone will find: Susan van Gelder aka susanvg .