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Last Bell

Lagos and Teaneck both benefit.


By Dena Florczyk

In Nigeria’s crowded classrooms, Dena Florczyk found students eager to learn—and she’s been able to help.

Photo by Gwendolyn Moore

I grew up in a house with over 10,000 books. My father was a book designer, teacher, and photographer and my mother a librarian. So, in 2004, when a missionary friend invited me to visit schools in Nigeria, I came carrying books—lots of them.

I had raised $5,000 from family and friends. I was amazed at how much those American dollars can buy in Nigeria for schools, and shocked at the conditions under which teachers and students work—often no books or pencils, furniture terribly worn or broken, 80 students squeezed into a room where we would put 30.

When I returned home, I started the Nigerian School Project. I go back every summer for three weeks, mostly to visit the schools and libraries that receive books and materials bought with the money I raise.

Nigeria is a challenging place to live, work, or travel. Oil rich, the country still falls desperately short of meeting the educational needs of its children.

But the kids are so fantastic, so engaged, so curious about my world.

These are 16- and 17-year-olds in the commercial metropolis of Lagos. They have television and even Web access through Internet cafes—they are better off than most in Nigeria or they wouldn’t be in school at that age. They know all about American music. Last summer, students asked me how we were all coping with the death of Michael Jackson.

Photo by Dena Florczyk

Back in Teaneck, New Jersey, my students are also curious about my other world. They want to know how many inoculations I have to get to travel there, what diseases Nigerian children get, what they eat.

I ask my mostly middle-class American students what they want to be—doctor, lawyer, teacher. And I ask, if you work hard, can you become that? All raise their hands. In Nigeria, kids also dream, but hard work isn’t so likely to get them what they want.

As I fill my supply closet with new boxes of colored pencils and markers, I remember presenting pencils to a rural school and hearing the screams of excited schoolchildren. I remember giving a globe to a geography teacher who had never taught with a map before. I remember presenting a university scholarship to a student who told me he was “no longer afraid to dream.”

Many of my New Jersey students have had little opportunity to see beyond the comfort of their own backyards. Looking into another person’s life is a wonderful experience. I try to make it possible with everything from book drives to discussions about my travel photos. I ask students to slip letters of friendship into the books they donate.

Teachers don’t have to go abroad to connect their students with the world outside. Try these suggestions:

As we find ways to link up with the wider world, we enrich our students’ lives, ourselves, and all those we touch.

Dena Florczyk is a sixth-grade special education teacher in Teaneck, New Jersey. Her project Web site.

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