Does any of us remember who taught us in first grade? Or how we learned to read? I don’t, but when reeling back to my earliest years, I see myself as if in a scene from a movie, standing in a line in front of my first-grade classroom, saying the pledge of allegiance, hand over heart, then marching into the classroom single file with my classmates with motivational music blaring from an outdoor loudspeaker. I remember lunchtimes, when I would run to my lunch pail and open it, the accumulated smells of years’ worth of sardine sandwiches, potato chips, carrots and apples wafting forth, mixed with the odor of milk brought in the Thermos clipped into the top of the pail.
Some teachers stood out. In fourth grade, Mrs. Woods introduced us to new words and useful expressions in Spanish like “el vino vino” (the wine came). I remember loving learning these new words and phrases and wishing I could keep learning them when I got home. Some assignments also stood out. Sometimes, teachers would ask us to do a project at home, like build a medieval castle out of cardboard (everyone always seemed to cover these in Necco wafers) or “paint” a picture with grains of rice, each dyed a different color and glued to a piece of paper.
I can’t say my elementary education was stellar. To my recollection, teachers didn’t seem overly concerned about “learning styles,” and I have no recollection of working with other students in groups. Yet looking back, I remember feeling safe at school, that school was always orderly and predictable, and that we were expected to learn. And though learning was largely rote, it occasionally veered into the creative. And both teachers and parents had my back, from making sure I had something to eat to encouraging me to learn new words and imagine different worlds.
Maybe that’s why I chafed later in life when I worked on a team conducting a survey of things children needed to learn in Grades 1-4 in post-apartheid Namibia. When the list grew to nine “inputs” like teacher training, instructional materials, and parental involvement, we were told that the supporting all nine inputs would be too expensive and that something had to go. So parental involvement didn’t make that cut. This seemed to me like a doctor informing a patient that resources were limited, so they had to make a choice: either they keep their head or their heart.
After Namibia, I had an opportunity to work with teachers in Guinea, West Africa. While visiting schools there, I observed conditions similar to my childhood, with students sitting in rows, responding to canned questions. Yet at break time, they left the school yard to relieve themselves in the bushes because there were no toilets. At 10 a.m., they often left the school altogether with their teachers in search of water to drink.
Namibia and Guinea led me to ask the question: if we want children to learn, don’t we need to make sure they’re taken care of at school and at home? It’s not only about effective practices in the classroom like quality teaching and materials. Important as those are, it’s also about making sure schools are safe, orderly, and health-promoting. And that teachers, parents, and communities support kids so they can do well in school.
This is the impetus for the Whole Child Model – a 3-pronged approach that combines education, health, and engagement to ensure children are not only educated, but also nurtured. We started experimenting with this model in Guinea in 2002 and found that children who received support in all three areas learned more. Since 2019, we’ve been adapting the model in Tanzania, training teachers in literacy and numeracy instruction and positive discipline, providing girls with training and sanitary pads so they can come to school during their periods, and strengthening parent-teacher communication to track student absenteeism. In 2023, we’re going to test this 3-pronged approach in several schools to show the impact it can have not only on children’s learning, but on their lives.