StickTogether: A Universal Language

This past summer, I embarked upon the trip of a lifetime, spending five weeks teaching abroad in several secondary schools in rural Tanzania and Kenya while being immersed in the culture of East Africa. This life-changing experience was made possible thanks to a Fulbright-Hays grant scholarship I received through Northern Illinois University; I, along with thirteen other students and three professors, spent months preparing for this trip through culture and language lessons, getting our vaccinations, and acquiring materials to use for our teaching.

As I pondered what I would like to bring to share with the students and staff in East Africa, I turned to what I know best as a school librarian–all of the resources that inspire curiosity and evoked joy for my students, which, of course, included StickTogether. In the middle school library where I work, StickTogether has become a staple in our makerspace area because of the pure magic it brings to our space. I have seen it inspire happiness in students and staff. I have observed friendships blossom while students work together. And I have even witnessed individuals who enter the library feeling anxious and stressed leave with a sense of peace after spending just a few minutes on our community StickTogether poster. 

It really should come as no surprise that I could not wait to share StickTogether with the Tanzanian and Kenyan students I would work with while teaching abroad.

Thanks to so many generous donors, I brought nearly 130 pounds of donated school supplies including Stick Together poster kits.

While in East Africa, I taught in three different secondary schools–a public co-ed school, a private co-ed school, and a private all-girls school. Students who attend the rural public schools often have much fewer resources available to them and learn in an environment without necessities like clean drinking water, a proper lunch to eat, and sanitary products. Also, these students may walk upwards of three miles just to get to school, and this is after they have gotten up early in the morning to walk a mile to fetch water and firewood for their families. On the other hand, students who attend the rural private boarding schools are provided with more amenities like filtered water, food, books (many of which are discards from American schools), uniforms, and sanitary products, but they still have nowhere near the resources we are accustomed to having here in the United States. 

Furthermore, it is important to note that the education system in East Africa is driven by national exams. Both the Tanzanian and Kenyan governments require students in primary and secondary schools to take these exams in order to advance to the next step in their educational path. As a result, there is immense pressure on the teachers and students for strong student performance, so much of the instruction is based around traditional lectures on a chalkboard with students taking meticulous notes. All of this instruction as well as the students’ learning and the demonstration of their knowledge through testing are done in the students’ third language, English. 

In both Tanzania and Kenya, children first learn their mother tongue, a language based on their tribal membership. The second language they learn is Swahili, which was deemed “the language that unites us all” by one of my Swahili teachers in Tanzania since it brings together people in a region who all come from hundreds of different tribes. Finally, those who are fortunate enough to attend school, eventually begin to learn English as well.

In my interactions with all of the students, I was met with varying levels of English language proficiency. However, regardless of whether they could write a paragraph or have a conversation with me, one thing was always certain–they all absolutely loved StickTogether regardless of their English skills. In the classrooms in which I taught, the walls of the classrooms were fairly barren; they were just cement walls with open-air windows and a chalkboard. At most, there might be a class schedule or a map from an issue of National Geographic posted on one of the walls along with a countdown to the next national exam date. There were no inspirational posters or displays of student work I have grown accustomed to seeing in modern American schools. Therefore, when I took out the poster putty to post a big white StickTogether sheet on their classroom walls–a blank sheet so full of possibilities and potential–and showed the students the sticker cubes, their faces lit up. This was something different. This was something exciting. They could not wait to jump in and try it. 

Immediately, the energy in our classrooms–all three classrooms in which I worked–was transformed and elevated. It was truly electric. Each student wanted an opportunity to make his or her way to the poster to put a sheet of sticker squares up on the poster. After all, this was unlike anything else they had ever experienced before in their educational careers, and they could not wait to try it. 

Students in co-ed schools in both Kenya and Tanzania were filled with so much joy while stickering together! 

Over the course of a week, students worked together throughout each class period to complete the poster. East Africans value community and are incredibly selfless, which was evident in the way in which the students worked. I enjoyed observing them chattering about things in various languages, sharing their stickers, smiling, and laughing. It was reminiscent of experiences with my students back home, which at that time, was 8,000 miles away. 

The students took such great care of both each other and even the supplies. In the all-girls school, the Jane Adeny Memorial School (JAMS), one girl appointed herself the keeper of the StickTogether poster. She would carefully take it down each afternoon and stow it away for protection while also making sure it was back on the wall the following day for class. The girls at this school also became very resourceful with every part of the StickTogether kit; they took the letters at the top of the sticker sheets and began creating their names on their desks. 

Chelsea, a student at the all-girls school, uses the leftovers from our Stick Together sticker sheets to create her name on her desk.

In the end, I am so grateful for my teaching experiences in East Africa. A little piece of my heart remains there, and I am forever changed. While I’m back at home and well into the new school year, my work in East Africa is not complete. There is still so much I want to do to support these kind, beautiful, amazing people in Tanzania and Kenya. I’m also incredibly thankful that StickTogether was part of this journey for my students and me. It was through these five weeks that I realized it is StickTogether that is the language that unites us all. It is a universal language built on kindness, care, and community. I felt it in each of those classrooms in Tanzania and Kenya, and I feel it here in my library in the suburbs of Chicago.

If you would like to support the students at the schools where Andrea taught this summer, you may visit the following websites: 

Friends of JAMS:

Tanzania Development Support:

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