Dr. Maida (Mary) McKenna
(Interviews by Lisa C. Taylor)
Dr. Maida McKenna was trained as a teacher of English and Gaelic in Ireland, working in the inner-city North Strand, grades 6-12 on the edge of Dublin. She went on to get her PhD in Educational Psychology at University of Michigan. She is the founder and Director of NEST-USA and Director of Instructional Support for the pilot schools. Most recently, Mary has spent five years co-teaching with teachers in urban centers in Nepal. There, she learned how to effectively adapt teacher training and materials for teachers who have limited English language skills and very limited teacher preparation. This is a summary of my interview with her.
Mary McKenna was edging toward retirement and thinking about taking her literacy skills to Africa when she got a call from Bank Street College of Education in New York City. They asked if she’d consider Nepal instead of Africa, bringing the sort of teacher training we take for granted in the United States to an impoverished Nepali village. Although initially there was some funding, the recession of 2008-10 lessened that possibility and she moved forward using her own funds, and what she could raise through charitable donations. It was necessary to separate herself from what locals refer to as Charity Millionaires, volunteers who drive large cars and have a lifestyle unfathomable to the local population. Depending on small donations and grants, and living with families quickly helped her acceptance by the local community. In Nepal, looking American can be detrimental, and being an older woman leads to an assumption of wealth.
Nepal is surrounded by a ring of mountains and air pollution is a serious issue. Kathmandu is a city that was laid out in the 1700s and there is no infrastructure. Mary’s time in Nepal (and she’s headed there again in January) is spent providing support and professional development to teachers. Like many early Colonial countries, students are taught in English. Mary works both in Kathmandu and Hetauda, a city in the Makwanpur district of southern Nepal. Both areas are economically devastated, comprised primarily of migrants from the rural countryside who were impacted by the Maoist Civil War that raged from 1996-2006, causing massive damage to both the structures and the economy.
Word Scientists opened Innovative schools (more diverse and willing to enroll inter-caste students) in a place where the caste system and arranged marriages still impact the daily lives of the people. These economically progressive schools have the mission to reduce social barriers through education. Boys and girls are treated the same though some middle grades are segregated by gender. Parents know these schools get results and the results are social as well as economic. The last two years of school (our grades 11-12) are content streamed and specialized. Word Scientists was started by Mary with little to no support. A local charity (Hands in Outreach) offers some support of materials and professional development. There is internet and cell phone service so all the materials are online. Intel donates and assists with technology but it is not enough. They currently use a USB stick to copy online materials they create and they print them on a cheap copier for students to use in lieu of actual books.
The overarching reason for this organization is literacy. Illiteracy in South Asia is shocking. A majority of children get to fourth grade without any ability to read. This organization bypasses bureaucracy and gives the materials directly to teachers. Anyone can download and use the Word Scientists materials. Data shows (through a test of early grade reading acquisition) that over three years, Word Scientist students outperform students who attend a good comparison school. Students who become literate rarely marry early or drop out of school. Another benefit is the English-speaking skills the mothers of these children also acquire.
Dr. Mary McKenna is bringing literacy to a part of the world where food insecurity and a lack of infrastructure are daily challenges. The ripple effects of this kind of work makes her impact that much greater. For those of us who believe in the power of language, we know that this is no small effort. The impact of the teachers trained will be evident in generations to come.
The organization offers free curriculum and also sells books and services to remain solvent. For more information, go to http://www.wordscientists.org
Kevin Stuart Brodie
Kevin Stuart Brodie is a produced playwright, optioned screenwriter, as well as a published poet and screenwriter. He has won thirteen screenwriting contests and festivals, and been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize for poetry. By day a high school teacher, Mr. Brodie has earned a Fulbright Scholarship and was named District Teacher of the Year. He is currently working on a play about American Indian boarding schools, and his Shoshone grandfather.
Kevin’s screenplay Seasons of Mists, a story about honor killings in Turkey, came from his interest in religion. In college, he majored in philosophy and religion but he grew up without any religion. He read an article in the New York Times about honor killings which led him to research, reading widely writers like Orhan Pamuk, O.Z. Livanelli, Kamilla Shamsie, Anita Rau Badami, and Ella Shafek before writing the screenplay.
Here are his answers to my questions:
LT: Viewed in a social justice context, are there plays/movies/books that influenced you?
KB: Wendell Berry has his hand in so many things. His Life is a Miracle essay had a strong impact on me. Orion Magazine features a lot of his work. The movie The Killing Fields also impacted me. Based on the Khmer Rouge occupation and genocide in Cambodia in the seventies, the film follows two journalists, one American and one Cambodian. Warner Brothers in the 1930s and 1940s was the studio of social justice. Viewing films such as Casablanca and Black Legion today may seem archaic but their subject matter was groundbreaking then.
LT: Does your own challenge with Parkinson’s Disease impact your writing? If so, how?
KB: My play Invincible Summer chronicles some of my own struggles. Time is precious and sometimes my body won’t cooperate. I hope that my candidness will help others facing physical challenges. Families are often pulled apart when a member has a chronic illness and people with chronic diseases can feel isolated and depressed. It is my hope that my work might help them feel less alone.
LT: In this fraught political climate, what can writers do (if anything) to foster understanding around the world?
KB: This is always a challenge. 2019 and the upcoming 2020 are times when artists become even more important. Entertainment takes into consideration the world around us and participating in art can be very cathartic. Seeing a story can move people forward. I encourage people not to become paralyzed. Stay the course. Artists and writers have always done that. In the film Official Secrets, the roles of Bush/Blair moving toward war are exposed. We depend on whistleblowers and truth tellers. What we are going through isn’t unique and knowing that can give us perspective. Stories remind us of the value of courage. They can also provide escapism.
When you think about how autocrats and dictators arrest artists, musicians, and writers, only sparing those who glorify them, it highlights how powerful art can be. Clearly it gets people fired up. Roosevelt wanted art that made the British and Russians look good. He understood the power of cinema to disseminate propaganda. He actually went to Warner Brothers. Art can influence public opinion. The roles for Arab actors have changed over the years and the portrayal of LGBTQ people has also changed so that they are fully dimensional. Media has a responsibility to create fully dimensional characters.
LT: You teach history. How do you help your students sift through the deluge of falsehoods, fallacies, and fake news so they can find the truth?
KB: A lot of public-school teaching is based on accountability and testing so it is hard. Students must have high test scores, something conservatives are focused upon. It is an oversimplified measure of teaching but it’s also tied to teacher accountability and thus a teacher’s evaluation, income, and job security. Also, parents have diverse opinions. In a time when we should be focusing more on critical thinking, it often goes by the wayside. There is also a need to avoid controversy because parents are diverse. I’ve found that one way to teach is to show students both sides and let them evaluate for themselves what is true and what is not. It’s a bigger challenge to teach them to do research but it is necessary. With students all possessing smartphones (and my current students haven’t really known a time without them), their ability to focus is diminished. I teach about false flags by showing examples and having them come to their own conclusions.
LT: Viewed in the context of history, do our current times worry you less or more? Explain.
KB: I’m more worried. Most of what we’re going through is similar to other times in history with one marked difference: climate change. This crisis is not being addressed the way it needs to be, and that outweighs the rise of fascism, income inequality, and the increase of hate crimes. Noam Chomsky calls the Republican Party the most dangerous in history. A lot needs to happen to address climate change and it isn’t happening because the leaders refuse to address it. The fact that they acknowledge it exists but refuse to do anything about it is unprecedented. Why Greta Thunberg and not the scientists? The very first paper on the carbon effect was published in 1914. Our current government has made it clear that they do not intend to address this and thus public policy won’t change until we have a government that makes this a priority.
LT: The behavior of men in your screenplay Seasons of Mists ranges from sympathetic to senselessly cruel. As a man, did you find it difficult to characterize the atrocities men commit in some of these places? How did you reconcile this?
KB: I didn’t find it difficult. Unfortunately, there is a lot of cruelty in the world. Because men have been the ones in power, it isn’t difficult to find examples of male cruelty. I am not challenged by it. I find it important. You cannot write all of your characters in a certain way. All bad people can’t be a certain race but the extremes are important to show. They are a part of life. The challenge is to make sure a cruel character isn’t cruel in every scene. A brutal character may be kind to his dog. In the movie, Slumdog Millionaire, the slumlord gangster Javed Khan is less dimensional because he is angry and cruel throughout the movie. With a little work, he could have become more interesting. That is the challenge in writing; creating characters who are cruel but also have other dimensions. Schindler’s List does this well with the character of Amon Goet, one of the most evil men on the screen yet he is written with great dimension.
LT: Are there things you’ve learned about your work that surprised you?
KB: I have found it difficult to write about my own tribe, the Shoshone. The Western Shoshone has had to fight for their land. They tried to prevent the storage of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, a place sacred to the tribe. They opposed the project on cultural and scientific grounds and as an example of environmental racism. I was fifty before I wrote about my grandfather and my time on the reservation. I’ve lectured about it but sitting down to write it has been difficult.
LT: When writing about lives and places unlike your own, how do you remain sensitive to cultural appropriation?
KB: Because of my own background, I know it is important not to describe American Indians as one culture. There are over five hundred different tribes, each with their own culture and traditions. In my screenplay, I read widely, talked to writers from different parts of the world and I’ve used the playwriters’ lab in NYC. I use women readers when I have a female protagonist in my work. I also ask non-writers to read my writing because they are my audience.
Thank you to both Dr. Maida McKenna and Kevin Stuart Brodie for sharing their efforts to raise awareness of different cultures through literacy and art.