What Do You Do With All Those Blackboards? Ellen Livingston Knows

Sandy | October 24, 2010

For the second year in a row, Ellen Livingston took a summer trip to Africa. For three weeks, the TC doctoral student and instructor traveled South Africa and Zimbabwe, specifically Matabeleland South. She explained that the trips operate as a fundraising opportunity for the U.S./Africa Children’s’ Fellowship, with the hope that “some of the people who go on them will get involved. Lots of the people are teachers.” But the trip was “not a feel good project at all,” she says.

Longfield Primary School, Umzingwane District, Matabeleland South, Zimbabwe

She became involved in the organization out of her interest in “trying to take service learning out of the local and make it more global,” she said. The experience has been eye-opening. In the region, there is “an oppressed minority” that is struggling under the recent economic and social difficulties. “What you see there is fascinating, troubling, and very hard to make sense of. I’m still trying to make sense of a lot of it. The kids there live in a level of poverty that most people in this country never experience. And yet, they seem unbelievably warm, and good-natured, and positive, and energetic, and it’s really remarkable.”

Ellen and five colleagues spent a full week in the Umzingwane region. “We all did different things. My husband actually taught them to how to play baseball, with whiffle balls and bats,” she remembered. “A lot of what I did was talking with people, looking at the schools, looking at the libraries that were donated from USACF.”

Ellen originally got involved in the program because it was run by her friend, “a retired New York City math teacher,” who wanted to figure out what to do with all the things that American schools throw away–textbooks, blackboards, and the like. The NGO now collects those items and “finds a way to repurpose all this stuff” in schools throughout Africa.

The teachers in the area were also interested to talk with Ellen about the “American system of schooling, and the differences and similarities” between the two countries’ approaches. Ellen and the other travelers “did different workshops on differentiated learning, multiple intelligences, and things like that, that their teachers haven’t been exposed to in their teacher-training.” In the process, she came to appreciate the universal similarities of children, no matter the context.

The trip was not the only highlight of this summer. When asked what else she did, Ellen perked up: “I passed my comps!”

See more of Ellen’s photographs in her Kodak Gallery.