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CASEY KOSCHMEDER An education student gets his first classroom experience in Kenya—and brings home plenty of lessons himself.

A couple of weeks into his first teaching experience, Casey Koschmeder asked his class of 13- and 14-year olds a simple yet bold question: “Are you guys learning anything?”

They offered a similarly straightforward answer. “No.”

Like many novice teachers, Koschmeder, a University of Iowa senior and elementary education major, was learning to translate theory into practice. But he faced other hurdles, too—more than 8,000 miles from home, he was trying to connect with a group of students whose backgrounds couldn’t have been more different than his own.

Koschmeder spent much of summer 2008 in Kenya, teaching students from the Kawangware slum outside Nairobi. Just a few months earlier, clashes between Kenyan political and ethnic groups had captured world headlines, forced formation of a new coalition government, and profoundly shaken his students’ lives.

“A lot of the kids I taught were left either orphaned or homeless,” Koschmeder says. “Most of them hadn’t had much of an education.”

Intent on earning practical experience and exploring, Koschmeder had arranged the trip through International Volunteer Headquarters, which places travelers in schools, orphanages, clinics, and other sites around the world. He wound up in a private academy founded by a Pentecostal church, teaching English, mathematics, and Christian religion.

“I took over two suitcases—one full of clothes and one full of teaching stuff,” Koschmeder says. “I had all my methods notes, plans for activities, and supplies, and I thought it would be similar to education in the United States. It was pretty much the opposite.”

Koschmeder found a school making do with scarce resources and an emphasis on rote memorization. When his students made clear their boredom, he decided to try something new—buying a stack of children’s books at the local market, turning lessons into games, asking the kids to write daily journals.

Originally from Williamsburg, Iowa, Koschmeder was drawn to opportunities at the UI College of Education. Here he co-founded a Colleges Against Cancer chapter, helped organize Relay for Life events that have raised more than $100,000 to date, served in UI Student Government, and became a resident assistant at Parklawn Hall.

He’s also sought any chance to travel. “My sister and I are in a race to see who can reach every continent first,” he says. (They’ve given each other a pass on Antarctica—for now.)

The Kenya trip was unlike anything he’d experienced before. Suddenly he stood out, a very visible representative of a very small minority. Everyone from shopkeepers to bus drivers assumed he was rich, often adjusting their prices accordingly.

The cultural divide initially separated him from his students, too—he’d hear them muttering mzungu, or “white person” in Kiswahili. “Then they realized I was serious about doing my job, and could help them with their English,” Koschemeder says. “They’d go home and brag to their parents, ‘Mzungu is teaching us English!’”

His classroom innovations also captured their attention, as did a field trip he organized to the national library. Up until then, only about 10 of the school’s 60-plus seventh- and eighth-graders had ever set foot in a library. So, they all piled in a matatu—a minibus Koschmeder describes as “about the most dangerous thing on the road”—and made the short trip.

“They thought that was the greatest thing,” he recalls. “It’s funny—I figured they would gravitate to storybooks, but instead they sought out the textbooks.”

Koschmeder hopes to keep blending his interests in education and travel, perhaps student teaching in Australia. But he says his months in Kenya have affected him in a way no other trip will match.

“I love experiencing new worlds for myself, and coming home changed,” he says. “I don’t know when I’ll go back to Kenya, but I know that each time will be an entirely different experience.”

Story by Lin Larson; Portrait by Tim Schoon

Sept. 8, 2008