Sixth graders at the The Academy @ Shawnee, a middle school in Louisville, Kentucky, are diligently drafting a business plan to sell jewelry made by students at Johnson Nkosi Primary School in Uganda. The classroom excitement is palpable, as students work in teams to make decisions ranging from shipping methods to marketing strategy. In less than a month, they will present their plan to local business owner of Heine Brothers Coffee, Mike Mays. This cross-cultural project, which ties directly to state mandated social studies curriculum, is the brainchild of Shawnee second-year educator and Teach Kentucky program participant, Sara Torkelson.
Torkelson struggled in her first year of teaching to make other countries and cultures more “real’ for her students. She observed that they did not fully comprehend the lives of others who did not reside in their neighborhood or their city, Louisville. Occasionally, Sara discovered that some students possessed negative, pre-conceived notions about different parts of the world. Entering into her second year, Torkelson was determined to find a new and creative way to not only engage her sixth graders in world cultures, but also instill in them compassion for the circumstances of people living in other countries.

Forging an international partnership

Inspired by a summer professional development course, Torkelson sought out a school partner in another part of the world. She was introduced to the Johnson Nkosi Primary School in Mukono District, Uganda. A partner of Komo Learning Centres (KLC), the Nkosi School serves 350 children ages 3- 17 years old, many of whom have been orphaned and were born infected with HIV. Working with a Nkosi school representative, Sara learned that most of its students make and sell jewelry, an activity deeply embedded in their culture and also connected to raising more funds for the school. An idea was born to somehow involve her students in the sale of this jewelry in the United States.

Nkosi Primary School students in Mukono District, Uganda, creating their wares.

Working with the local community

Sara found an enthusiastic partner in Louisville business owner Mike Mays. If Sara’s sixth graders could develop and present a business proposition for selling the Nkosi students’ jewelry in Mays’ Heine Brothers coffee shops, he would happily sign on to the new product. His only requirement is that Torkelson’s students continue their involvement in the project once the product is placed in his shops.

Nkosi students show off their homemade jewelry.

Connecting Uganda to Louisville

Today, Torkelson’s class is abuzz with activity. The project is teaching students to thrive in an atmosphere of constant collaboration. One group of students is in charge of determining the financial details of the business proposition. They are calculating costs, profit, and the logistics involved with receiving, distributing, and selling the jewelry. Another group is responsible for crafting the story of the school and its students. They have decided that the most effective way to do this is to make a video, and are learning elements of production. The third and final group is focused on marketing the product. A website and logo are underway. The project has recently become even more real for the students – last week they received their first shipment of jewelry made by the Nkosi School students.

The Academy @ Shawnee students working their a business plan presentation.

Developing real-world skills

Torkelson is proud of the real-world skills her students are learning and practicing daily, many of which emphasize the ability to self-manage a project.  She says, “My students are developing critical thinking skills and becoming creative problem solvers. Through this project, I am also pushing students to ask important questions and then find answers to them on their own — for example, rather than asking me (as the teacher) for the shipping costs from Uganda to Louisville, my students had to do some international shipping research to generate an estimate.”

A Shawnee student weighs a Nkosi bracelet in order to calculate shipping costs from Uganda to Louisville.

For Torkelson, this project has provoked a mixture of motivation and anxiety. She is extremely proud of the work her students are undertaking, as well as the gusto with which they are approaching it. Occasionally, her nerves get to her, as she worries that they will not finish by the March 23rd deadline due to the other curriculum requirements over the next few weeks. Despite this, she is inspired and invigorated to extend the project into next year, building upon it and enhancing it as she goes. Currently, she is mulling ways to keep this year’s sixth grade students connected to the project when they enter seventh grade next fall.

No matter what, Torkelson intends to build an enduring partnership with the Nkosi School students and her Shawnee Middle School students. She will visit the school in June of this year, and plans to bring a suitcase of items from the United States that she can exchange with the Nkosi students for jewelry. As for her class, she has already started to witness them viewing the Nkosi students not as some abstract idea represented by the shape of a country on her classroom’s map, but rather as real, live human beings with needs, emotions, and hobbies.

Torkelson says, “This entire project is centered around the question: “Why is it important to care about the lives of people in other countries?” I think this question fits into so many of the political debates and international conflicts that our students are hearing about, but no adult has answered that question for them. My hope is that by the end of this year, my students can answer that question for themselves within the context of our partnership with the Nkosi school.”

We hope to provide updates on Torkelson and her students’ work after their presentation in March. If you would like to learn more, please contact Sara at sara.m.torkelson@gmail.com .

Author: Rebecca Barnwell

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