Every day, Ayan Mohamed’s fourth-grade students ask, “Have you gone yet?”
“No,” she answers, laughing. “You would notice if I was gone.”
Whereupon the students add more to the already voluminous list of things they want Mohamed, a bilingual education assistant, and the other three teachers at Anne Sullivan who will visit Somaliland next month to see, do and photograph.
James Kindle’s third- through sixth-grade students, most of whom were born in refugee camps in Ethiopia, want to see pictures of places they’ve never been — places their parents lived and have talked so much about.
Kaitlin Lindsey’s kindergarten and first-grade students want her to find and photograph a particular kind of tree that doesn’t exist here but that plays a special role in their culture. When it gets really hot in East Africa, the community gathers under its branches to tell stories, play games or — sometimes — hold class.
The girls in Laura Byard’s middle-school classes are making sure she knows how to wrap her head scarf properly.
Seeking greater engagement
Nearly two-thirds of Anne Sullivan’s students are Somali and 30 percent are recent refugees. Greater engagement with them was the goal the four teachers had in mind last fall when they applied for a grant from AchieveMPLS to partially fund the trip.
If they understood the role education plays in Somalia, and the knowledge and skills the kids acquired through an experience most Americans assume seeds only deficits, they could better help their students, they believed.
And yet the four were blown away when their kids — many of them enrolled in a special bilingual program for very recent immigrants with limited exposure to formal education — took ownership of the trip.
The kids, for their part, can scarcely believe that their teachers are interested enough in their roots to make the not-so-easy trip, and to blog about it while they are there. Who would want to spend their summer vacation retracing the steps of the displaced?
Last fall the principal at Anne Sullivan encouraged Lindsay to apply for a $750 grant to pay for buses for field trips. On the website of AchieveMPLS, the district’s nonprofit partner, Lindsay noticed that applications for larger grants for teacher projects were being solicited.
“I thought, ‘That’s how we’re gonna go to Somalia like we’ve always wanted,’ ” Lindsey said. The grant is for $10,000; the teachers are a little more than a third of the way toward raising the other $6,000 the trip will cost.
The three nonimmigrant teachers — two of them board certified — already had done a lot to immerse themselves in the culture, from taking Somali-language classes and spending time in students’ homes to taking part in community activities. The Horn of Africa, however, seemed like an impossibility.
Writing the grant turned out to be the easy part. The itinerary was another story.
The majority of their kids came to Minnesota from refugee camps in Ethiopia, across the border from the autonomous region Somaliland. The best and safest plan was to fly first to Djibouti and then into Addis Ababa and travel via rental car across the border. As they go, the teachers will stay with friends and relatives of Mohamed’s and of another MPS bilingual aide.
Their first stop will be Hargeisa, the Somali city where Mohamed’s father is consulting with the United Nations on the region’s schools. There they will visit an elementary school, a college that trains teachers and a dugsi, or Quranic school.
While there they also will visit relatives in a rural area outside the city, in the region’s “college town,” Boorama and, with United Nations permission, a camp for the internally displaced located within Hargeisa’s city limits.
They will also drive just over the Ethiopian border to Kebri Beyah, one of the region’s largest camps and the place where most of their students used to live.
That part of the experience will be entirely new to Mohamed, who left Mogadishu in the wake of the civil war at the age of 10. Until she left, she attended a school that looks more like the Anne Sullivan than some of the programs the four will visit.
In the camps, by contrast, school may take place in a single room or under one of the iconic trees. In the dugsis, it focuses on religious, and not academic, instruction.
“Our trip will enable us to answer the following questions central to our strategic plan for English-language program leadership,” their grant application explained. “What cultural, linguistic and content knowledge assets may students possess by virtue of being Somali or being refugees or displaced persons?
“What misconceptions do we possess about Somali culture? How might we revise our own perspectives and support colleagues in doing the same? What teaching practices can we add to improve the quality of our instruction? What is the role of the school, and the relationship between students and teachers, in Somali culture?”
The four will travel with security, and with a letter explaining their grant. Still, they are hoping to dispel the image of Somalia as one undifferentiated, war-torn place. Somaliland, they note, is friendlier to westerners than other areas. Its autonomous government is touting the region’s beaches to European tourists.
The founder of a lauded program for recently arrived refugees, Kindle is looking forward to coming back with images of positive archetypes to share with students. Many have heard stories about the region from their parents, but never been there.
The trip will last two weeks. Byard is coming straight home to go camping. Kindle is going on to Palestine, where he will spend the rest of the summer teaching. Lindsey is going to visit her mother, who is the assistant principal of an international school in Dubai. And Mohamed is staying on to celebrate Ramadan.