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Bermudian teacher helps students thrive in Kenya

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The desks weren't ready and there weren't any books, but the school was a dream come true for Joanne Ball Burgess.

She and her husband Quincy Burgess struggled to find the perfect way to educate their two sons when the family moved to Nairobi, Kenya in 2011.

A year ago they opened Creative Cottage, a micro-school based on a plan Mrs Ball Burgess had hoped to put into practice here.

“Myself and a couple of educators and artists had the idea to start a creative arts school at the middle-school level in Bermuda but the idea didn't get off the ground,” she said. “A year-and-a-half later, we moved to Kenya where it's very vast what's available — from super expensive all the way down to 80 children in a classroom with a dirt floor. We struggled to find a school and so we decided to homeschool for a year, even though I'm not your typical homeschool mom. I prefer a school.”

The challenge was providing a complete curriculum. Mrs Ball Burgess had a master's degree in education however maths and science weren't her strong points. She and her husband hired a second teacher to balance things out.

It worked even better than they expected. Friends, and friends of friends, saw how much the Burgess children loved what they were learning.

Before she knew it, Mrs Ball Burgess had agreed to take on additional students.

“I said, ‘I don't have [enough] books, I don't have [enough] computers'. They said, ‘How can we help?' I said if they were willing to be patient I would start the process.”

It took about two months before Creative Cottage could open its doors. Aside from organising the school, Mrs Ball Burgess was occupied with her work as the head dance judge and choreographer on the East African hit television show, Sakata Mashariki. She's also known throughout the region as a singer. Chiziqa, her first music video, was nominated for a Bingwa Award last year.

Bermudians might recognise her as the author of The Lizard and the Rock and The Priceless Hog Penny.

“As much as I do I'm also still an educator,” she said. “But when you're teaching school here in Kenya you have to be very creative. I got out my notes from six years ago for the school in Bermuda and I started calling friends — anyone who could bring in items. Basically it was a year of me not only doing everything else I was doing but also training [the teacher we'd hired] as he was teaching the kids. After that year I had neighbourhood friends who were joining in and coming to the house.”

The Burgesses opened Creative Cottage in September, 2104 with Mrs Ball Burgess as principal. It wasn't a great start.

“The desks weren't built, most of our books hadn't arrived in the mail; we live 45 minutes outside Nairobi, one parent got lost and called us two hours away from our house,” she said. “Another student's sister got in a horrible accident the day before and had to be flown to South Africa for burn treatment. She was only about two or three and [her sibling] came to school sad. So we started the first day of school on our couch with three students.”

Order came a month later.

“By then we had six students and I was looking at different systems I'd used in the past, blending the arts with learning,” said Mrs Ball Burgess, who is pregnant with her third child. “Basically, the classes are games-oriented, with a lot of singing and movement and dance that also builds on the task at hand. If we're teaching adjectives, multiplications, there's movement, recitation and art.”

As art products are expensive in Nairobi, recycling is a big part of the curriculum.

“Kids get merit points for bringing in milk and egg cartons,” she said. “They're also feeding animals, cleaning cages and tending to gardens half-an-hour before class starts. After that, they're running, doing yoga. I really believe kids should be in touch with the earth. They should know where oranges come from, where eggs come from. In our school you won't hear that oranges come from MarketPlace — which is something I often heard in Bermuda.”

At the core of it all is the STEAM philosophy. Learning centres around science, technology, engineering and math but also includes art and design. The movement has been adopted by institutions around the world that insist it's of great benefit to students.

“What we also find is the students have more fun,” Mrs Ball Burgess said. “One student last week was saying, ‘Mrs Ball Burgess most of our lessons feel like games'. We have this idea of learning that it should be harsh and stressful, but who says learning can't be fun. I try to blend the challenging with the fun.”

It's impressed Kenyan parents. Creative Cottage now has 12 pupils ranging in age from four to 12.

Providing a consistent internet connection has proved to be a challenge.

“We try to integrate online learning. Sometimes our internet works, sometimes it doesn't — things I really wouldn't need to think about if I was in Bermuda.”

The fees were set so “middle-class Kenyans” could afford to attend, she added.

“There are some really lovely schools in Bermuda but for our kids to go through them my husband and I would have to do two jobs, our families would have to pitch in. We're in another country and we want to give back. I know what it was like looking on the outside as a parent who wants the best for my kids.”

Hip hop, sketching, drawing, tae qwon do, poetry and free art classes are offered once the school day is complete.

“Eventually, what I would love to do is have every class paired with an artist and a teacher, but we're not there yet,” she said. The family moved to Kenya after Mr Burgess was offered a job in agriculture.

“I wasn't so excited about it but we were looking to move,” Mrs Ball Burgess said.

“Bermuda, I felt, was getting small. I had lived in Jerusalem and different parts of the US and Canada and prices were going up.

“My thought was that we would live here for one year. It's been four years now. We stayed because things were really going well. At the one-year mark was when I was contracted for the TV show; Quincy was doing well in agriculture and business.

“It started from wanting something different for our kids. My idea was never really a homeschool, it was a regular-sized school but small enough to give individualised attention.”

Educator Joanne Ball Burgess is the head of Creative Cottage, a micro-school she opened in Kenya last year (Photograph supplied)
Joanne Ball Burgess is the principal of Creative Cottage, a school with an arts-based curriculum she founded last year with her husband, Quincy Burgess (Photograph supplied)
Students at Creative Cottage follow the STEAM philosophy - science, technology, engineering, art and design and maths (Photograph supplied)
Students at Creative Cottage follow the STEAM philosophy - science, technology, engineering, art and design and maths (Photograph supplied)
Students at Creative Cottage follow the STEAM philosophy - science, technology, engineering, art and design and maths (Photograph supplied)

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Published December 16, 2015 at 8:00 am (Updated December 16, 2015 at 10:22 am)

Bermudian teacher helps students thrive in Kenya

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