“Julie!” “Thejane!” Our voices filled the lobby of the hotel as we enthusiastically greeted each other in a most unlikely place. Me, a Seattle area resident, and Thejane, a Lesotho native 10,000 miles away from home, were meeting in Phoenix, Arizona where he is staying for six weeks as part of the Mandela Washington Leadership training program. To be truthful, we have never met in our own neighborhoods.
I first met Thejane Malakane in November 2012 at the Microsoft Global Forum in Prague, Czech Republic, I was impressed by his drive and passion for making his classroom the best it could be for his students. Like me, Thejane was selected to represent his country for using technology with innovation and purpose.
However, while I had a classroom set of computers my students could use for their projects in my suburban school library, Thejane’s situation was vastly different. In his rural classroom outside of Maseru in the tiny, landlocked country of Lesotho, Thejane was teaching in his classroom of over 40 students with only a phone. As an innovator and leader, he knew that it’s often not how many devices you have that matters, it’s how you use them to maximize their effectiveness and bring the world into the classroom.
In those few days of the forum we quickly learned that we could help each other across the miles through technology and books. Thejane was our first classroom teacher to participate in the Books to Africa Partnership, or BTA for short. The BTA club is a volunteer club where my elementary students raise money to pay for the postage to send boxes of new or gently used books overseas to our Africa reading partners.
The next time we met was in 2015 when I was in South Africa. Thejane, drove from his rural mountain village in Lesotho to see me at a shopping mall near Johannesburg. We smiled at the improvement in the number of devices he could use with his students. Now he had a phone AND a personal laptop. He was able to send my students short videos of his students interacting with the books we sent him.
Now in Phoenix, we talked about his use of technology in the classroom. With the addition of an iPad, he has three devices for students to use, but still NO internet. To get internet, the students must walk to a shop in his town where Thejane sets up a wireless router and hopes he can get a connection. This is how we Skype together. My students come to school early, and his students come to town after school is over. After five years of doing this, his students now think of me as Teacher Julie, their American teacher. We laugh and share likes about music, school, sports, etc.
We smile as we try to understand each other. Yes, we are all speaking English, but with very different accents. Our American English, sounds nothing like their African English. Then there are the clothes. They wonder why we don’t wear uniforms, and we wonder why they do! Yet, the differences are minor. The excitement of talking to students 10,000 miles apart is infectious. Hanging up after these calls isn’t easy. Thejane shared with me that one boy told him after one call that when he grows up, he is going to be a computer scientist.
It’s because of these stories that we both go out of our way to travel and see each other, no matter where we are. This time, as we exchanged presents in Phoenix of handmade bookmarks, flags, hats, books, we were reminded of how far we have come over the years. Our connection is not about just about books anymore - it's about us as friends, colleagues, educational partners.
We are motivated to find the best ways to move our students forward as learning partners in a rapidly changing world. I shared how using the Lifeliqe app with his students could open up the scientific world for students in a completely new way. His students can access over a 1,000 interactive 3D scientific models using an iPad. They may not be able to use it in class because there's no internet, but he assured me that his students would be highly motived to walk to town for the chance to use virtual and augmented reality on his iPad.
I am Julie Hembree, a teacher librarian in the greater Seattle area. I am passionate about providing children in need with quality reading resources. The opinions expressed in this Blog are strictly those of Julie Hembree and its contributors. They do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of any other entity.