Fund for Teachers Spotlight: Erin Thesing Searches for Alternative Narratives of Maasai Childhood
Erin Thesing, Capital City Public Charter School teacher and 2015 Fund for Teacher's grantee, offers insight into the ideation, implementation, and impact of her 2015 FFT project in Tanzania and Kenya. Learn more about the FFT program and apply here.
This experience was transformative. I set out to find alternative narratives of Maasai childhood to support our second grade expedition on how people meet their needs. After studying how they meet their own needs for food, shelter, clothing, and play as second graders in Washington, D.C., my students conduct a six- week case study on the Maasai and how they meet their needs.
This expedition is our students’ first school-based experience learning about any African country. One goal is to disrupt their assumptions about the continent. Books and videos about the Maasai that are accessible to children often strip the Masai them of their agency and leaving little nuance. Previously, this expedition did little to disrupt our students’ assumptions; instead, it confirmed their single story of Africa.
I would not have found alternative stories of childhood had I not traveled to Tanzania and Kenya to live with two Maasai families. Based in bomas (Maasai villages) and rural primary schools, I interviewed teachers and school leaders, observed classes, and interacted with children in the schoolyard. I met with wives and children, ate meals, and exchanged stories.
I learned the most from my Tanzanian Maasai host family. While their cousins live in mud huts in bomas found throughout the region, they live in a stone house a small town. They immersed me in their daily life and challenged my assumptions about childhood and Maasai life. And now, I grapple with how to share this with my students—how to tell their stories with nuance. I know that I will continue to think about presenting information to my students in ways that allow for multiple perspectives and openness to other interpretations.
"Living among and interacting with Maasai children and teachers challenged my understandings of and values around childhood and transformed the course of my curriculum and teaching career."Capital City Public Charter School teacher and 2015 Fund for Teachers grantee
My research resulted in the rewriting of a six-week section of our fall expedition. Rather than focusing on Maasai culture as a whole, students will now explore the guiding question, “How do Maasai children meet their needs?” This will allow them to fuse meaningful connections between the expedition’s first case study, in which they write and think about how they meet their own needs as second graders in Washington, D.C., and the second case study, in which they will learn about how seven-and-eight-year-old Maasai children meet their needs in Kenya and Tanzania. This work will be strengthened by exchanges with students and school leaders at two Tanzanian schools that I visited.
A second shift will be a move from focusing on just Maasai boma life to life in villages, towns, and cities. This will allow students a more nuanced understanding of contemporary Maasai life, challenging their standing belief that people in the continent live in mud huts in villages among animals.
The success of this expedition rests on the engagement of our students’ families. They will play a large role in the first case study as students create a book inspired by UNICEF’s Children Just Like Me based on interviews with their families. Parents will also lend their expertise in building a mud hut, cooking, beading, and dying fabric.
Erin and her Masai host family in Tanzania
This experience kept me in the classroom this year. I used to think that I would teach for a few years before returning to graduate school to become a cultural anthropologist. Still, last year I began to wonder whether I was pursuing all of my interests. Writing and refining this curriculum had fueled my previous two years of teaching. Teaching it a third time left me wanting more.
Designing this project motivated me throughout the last year as I reached out to anthropologists and friends who live and work in East Africa, studied Swahili, and read books about relativist approaches toward my work. During my four-week project, I learned so much. Not only did I leave with notebooks filled with field notes and stories to share with my students, but also I left feeling more sure of and confident in myself. I returned from the trip eager to rewrite my curriculum and to continue this work in the classroom. These types of projects are essential for sustaining and retaining teachers.
Learning new games in Tanzania