Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
Wheaton College


Letters of Hope

Posted on September 17, 2011

In the summer of 2011, a group of Wheaton College students worked as secondary school English enrichment teachers in Northern Tanzania. In designing the field course "East Africa: Education and Development", Professor Kerner envisioned an experience where American students could work in the service of Tanzanian communities.

Could Wheaton students help?

Secondary school education became mandatory for all students in Tanzania only very recently, and rural communities faced enormous challenges implementing the reforms in terms of staffing and infrastructure. Individual students were also challenged in the transition to secondary school where all the subjects are taught in English. For most, the only preparation they had for an all-English education was taking English as a subject in the last two years of their Swahili-language primary school.

Students as short-term volunteers could make a real impact in this context by providing much needed language instruction. Professor Kerner, in consultation with local schools in Northern Tanzania, came up with a plan to enrich the English teaching program by providing trained volunteers to staff a full-day English language instruction program that would take place during scheduled vacations for 8th (form 2) and 10th (form 4) grade students.

Teaching and Learning

In their first days in the classroom, Tanzanian students and their newly-minted American teachers struggled to understand each other. Yet despite the cultural and linguistic barriers, American college and Tanzanian high school students found common ground in their interest in popular culture and in the Tanzanian fascination with everything American.

The Letters of Hope Project emerged as a teaching tool developed in the field by Wheaton College students as they sought to deepen their engagement with Tanzanian students. They designed an assignment for the Tanzanian students to write a letter to Barack Obama.  What began as a simple device to engage the interest of students taking extra tuition during their holiday break turned into a more serious project when the Wheaton tutors began to read the letters and learned what was on their students’ minds. If their English grammar was less than perfect, this did not prevent them from expressing their views on the development problems facing their country, what they see as America’s role in the world, their hopes and dreams for the future, and their respect and deep admiration for President Obama as a world leader.

Speaking to Power

When the Wheaton tutors began to really look at the letters written by Tanzanian youth they were overwhelmed with the sophistication of the response they received to their classroom assignment. After hours of poring through all the letters, the most representative fragments were chosen to create a composite letter. In four evening workshops the Wheaton students rehearsed and taped their pieces of the letter.  Returning to the U.S. with audio files and images, Professor Kerner worked with Faculty Technology Liaison Patrick Rashleigh to create a digital story as a vehicle through which Tanzanian youth could to speak to power.

The packet of letters and the Letters of Hope digital story were sent to the White House on 9/11, our national day of remembrance. Professor Kerner and her students were deeply honored to deliver the wish of Tanzanian students for President Obama to continue to lead the world in peace as well as love.

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