"There are stigmas and cultural mores about students with disabilities, that they might not be able to be educated," Blanks said. "But they’re a very politically engaged society. The government just passed a civil rights bill for people with disabilities and last year, in 2012, the Day of the African Child recognized children with disabilities. The work is really timely."
Upon her return to the United States, Blanks realized that there was an opportunity to go beyond helping change attitudes towards special education. She recruited Jones and Winter, experts in their fields of literacy and music therapy respectively, to return and help create a professional development course for Malawian teachers.
The new, expanded project, entitled "Zinthu za za aliyense," which means "Something for everyone" in Malawi’s Chichewa language, was made possible with an internal grant from Radford’s University-Wide Research Award program and support from non-governmental organization The Landirani Trust (now known as African Vision Malawi).
Working with the NGO, the group was able to introduce new books and materials into the schools. For Jones, who has spent her career working to promote and grow literacy, the situation in Malawi presents many unique challeneges.
"In many of these classrooms there might only be one book for ten or fifteen kids but one issue is that when new materials come into the schools there is a hesitancy to use them," Jones said. "The teachers don’t want to mess these books up because they are gifts. One goal was to give them the confidence to use the materials. Like the project’s title suggests, the big emphasis was access for everyone."
A typical public primary school in Malawi might serve 2,000 students in grades one through eight, with a single room for each grade. It is not uncommon for 200 students to pile into a space no larger than an RU classroom. The tin roofs of the schools lack insulation and in the summertime wet season the frequent rains batter so loudly that teachers must halt their instruction and wait for the downpour to cease.
Despite these difficulties, the group was able to introduce the new materials and researched coaching methods into the educational system. Their coaching work with a fairly small number of teachers will eventually impact as many as 20,000 students.
Winter, who recently received her doctorate in music therapy from Temple University, acted as the resident music expert and had the chance to help reconcile Malawi’s artistic and educational cultures. In the classroom, primary school teachers are asked to write songs as part of an expressive arts curriculum. This proved again and again to be a sticking point.
"There were these amazing lessons and wonderful discussion but when we got to the music piece it all stopped," Winter said. "Because it’s a lot to ask someone to write a song. By engaging them in the process and teaching them how to construct a song we were able to offer them tools to help them feel more comfortable with incorporating music.
Although music was a challenge in the classroom, Winter and the others did note that the music was an important part of life in rural Malawi.
"Music is such a part of community functions in Malawi, similar to how it is here in Appalachia," Winter said. "You learn the songs and dances of your culture and they get played over and over again. It’s the thread that binds the fabric of the community together."
The work that Blanks, Jones and Winter undertook in Malawi was locally-focused in a relatively small area, but all three believe it will have a lasting effect on the education of the children affected, both those with and without special needs.
"Radford University has had an impact that is beyond measurable there," Blanks said. "We have 20,000 kids that are going to have a book in their hand this year. We have 60 teachers who now have received professional development using research-based practices in literacy, in music therapy and in special education. It cost a dollar a child."
Blanks won't have to twist her colleagues' arms to get them back to Africa. They plan to apply for more grants that will allow them to continue the work they started in the rural communities of Malawi.
"Next year we'd like to go back, try to narrow our focus and figure out some effective coaching strategies that we can test in the country over time," Blanks said. "It’s one school, one teacher and one kid at a time. One size doesn't fit all in Malawi."
Learn more about Radford University at www.radford.edu.