By Carolina Amengual
The trip through East and North Africa and India took 15 Texas educators just about everywhere, from schools that looked like average American institutions to urban and rural settings where students did math on the floor using charcoal and six or more children read from one textbook.
The month-long journey to study Islamic history and culture had two locals onboard: Jeffrey Lash, assistant professor of geography at the University of Houston-Clear Lake and Friendswood Councilwoman Laura Ewing, who has taught world history, politics and economics.
Ewing currently works as part-time curriculum specialist and serves as the president of the Texas Council for Social Studies. The trip was sponsored by the Aga Khan Foundation and coordinated by the University of Texas at Austin.
The foundation is part of the Aga Khan Development Network, a group of nonprofit agencies that work to improve living conditions and opportunities in developing countries and to promote understanding of Islamic issues.
“They make resources available to local groups, organizations and communities, and it’s up to locals to figure out what to do,” Lash said. “They don’t just hand a check and leave. It’s a comprehensive, long-term approach to human development.”
Back home, the delegation will now share the experiences with faculty and students across the state. The first step will be organizing an intensive summer program for social studies teachers.
The long-term goal is to enhance the curriculum used in Texas public schools, with an emphasis on sixth-grade world cultures, ninth-grade world geography and 10th-grade world history.
“It’s not writing a new curriculum,” Lash said. “It’s a matter of taking what’s in place and adding additional content and teaching ideas. I hope to transfer my first-hand experience — food tasted like this, I could see this, these were the smells on the streets. That’s what makes geography come alive. It goes beyond (teaching) the national language, the capital city or how many people live there.”
The repertoire of stories is rich and it is backed up by hundreds of pages of notes, pictures and tapes. “What was exciting was that they (teachers) were using some instructional strategies that we call best practices, such as hands-on activities and discovery lessons, but in many cases, they were doing that with what children could bring to the classroom,” Ewing said.
At a rural school on Zanzibar Island, about 25 miles from the Tanzanian coast, children used coconuts as music instruments and bottle caps, pieces of string and beach shells to count. “Whatever resource was available is what they had,” Lash said. “Many were found or recycled items.”
In Jaipur, India, the group found a community where one-room houses, courtyards, balconies and even flat rooftops served as classrooms.
“After the family ate breakfast, they shoved all the furniture against one wall and half the class would be inside the room and half outside,” Ewing said.
Although touring schools was a priority, the group also visited landmark buildings, health clinics, mosques, pyramids, a shelter for abused women, a spice farm and a 400-year-old landfill in downtown Cairo that is being transformed into a park.
“We have modern technology, but to have people who had a personal experience and can spread the word, adds more meaning,” Ewing said. “A proposal will go back to the Aga Khan (Foundation) and once they approve it, we’ll have a better idea of what they will finance.”
In three weeks, trip participants will gather again in Austin to map out a plan for the rest of the year. Lash said that in line with the philosophy of the foundation, the group would have freedom to choose how to apply the new knowledge to satisfy local needs.
“We have to see what we develop,” he said. “We have a long list of wild ideas that we just have to try to figure out. If we do a good job, there’s the possibility of receiving more funding and involving more teachers and faculty.”