Madagascar in My Heart

An educator used to having more makes do with much less — and learns an unforgettable lesson.

FEATURE | by Victor Rivero

When Deb Sewell won Appleby’s Teaching Excellence Award last year, she decided to use the prize money to go to Toliara, Madagascar for a few weeks to teach technology to K-12 African children with the Madagascar in My Heart program, and wound up learning from her students in ways she’d never imagined. She and Lisa Gustinelli, a teacher who had already travelled to Madagascar the previous year with the I Want to Learn English program, left in late July armed with laptops and Livescribe smartpens, prepared to expose the students to new technology. Deb and Lisa communicated with their students through a translator who spoke the students’ native language of Malagasy. “I left for the airport both nervous and excited anticipating the unknown challenges ahead,” says Deb. Upon arriving in Toliara, she found the village to be even more impoverished than she anticipated, and the children’s access to education and technology far more limited than she had imagined.

Victor: What were some of the challenges you faced in teaching students with such limited access to technology? By the time you left, were the children able to use the laptops and smartpens? What was their response to the technology?

Deb: Although these students had limited access to technology, they embraced the opportunity to try to work on the computers with no hesitation. They were engaged, motivated and bright. The challenge that I faced was the fact that I had expectations and ideas of what we would do and accomplish that needed to change very quickly once we started to teach. The students jumped on the computers and just started to try- made errors -but were not restricted by their errors. Unlike the reservation that adults have with using technology, the students were fully engaged and eager to learn more through their mistakes. That was refreshing.

I was thrilled to be bringing Livescribe smartpen technology to Madagascar as I use it in my classroom at Appleby and my students love the smartpens. I was thinking in my mind how excited the students would be there if they could use such incredible technology. I was truly heartbroken when I realized that the students in Madagascar would not be able to use them on a daily basis. These students do not have electricity, no laptops, no Internet… they have nothing. So imposing the smartpens and my love of my the smartpens felt unfair since they wouldn’t be able to use them at home. Instead we left the smartpens to the missionaries, who have consistent access to electricity. My hope is that I will be able to see the missionaries use them with enjoyment.

Another challenge was no Internet. I live in a world of Internet. I am connected no matter where I am all day long. I had limited dial up, slower than slow Internet that I had to pay for. In the teaching classroom, no Internet but we did have electricity. These are challenges for an Internet addict and a switch in mentality in terms of what you need to teach others. I kept thinking that if I could only get onto the Internet I could show them so much more. This challenge frustrated me. By the time we left I felt that the students had a taste and were eager to get more. We were able to mentor three people to continue the lab in our absence. Our hope is that the other students who feel so inclined can go to the lab and work at teaching themselves more about the programs.

Victor: What skills were you able to teach the students?

Deb: We taught them keyboarding, mouse skills, Excel, graphing, Draw, PowerPoint and Movie maker. All of these programs were exposed to each student and they made a presentation at the end of the session showing what they had created. They were proud to share their creative work and we were able to instill in them the sense of sharing knowledge and new concepts with each other. We were aware that we would be leaving in two weeks, so we wanted them to know that they could continue to teach each other as they made their way through the programs. We were able to teach them that they are bright, creative, and that there is a technological world out there just waiting for them.

Victor: Did you experience culture shock while on your trip? What was it like encountering such poverty?

Deb: Yes, there was tremendous culture shock. I knew they were poor, I just was not expecting them to be so poor. There is no running water, limited food, poor shelters, no medical assistance, and some children do not even have clothes. They have so little in infrastructure compared to first-world countries. It was shocking to see it and to feel it. There were so many issues that perplexed me. They all cook in aluminum pots. I remember in Canada when we were told to get rid of those pots as they release minerals that are toxic and lead to diseases. It bothered me to see them all using these pots. Most children’s teeth are rotten. The kids suck on sugar cane as a “candy,” and there didn’t have toothbrushes or water to brush their teeth. I was shocked by so much – it made me feel grateful for what I have and angry that we waste so much here and they have so little. Poverty feels awful; it is unfair and limits a person’s ability to function well in life. It did make me question why I was so lucky- why I was born where I was born? The contrast is enormous. I help in my local community where I can with a number of organizations, but this kind of poverty is different. Average life expectancy is 61. They have a hard life.

Victor: What are some of the observations you made about teaching in a high-tech classroom vs. teaching in a low-tech classroom? What are some of the pros and cons of each?

Deb: This is a full question and a challenge as an educator who believes in technology and the benefits. Basically there is no Internet, no technology there- so really the comparison is hard to make. All I can say is that the students were at ease with the new technologies that they were exposed to and embraced the ideas in front of them. It was amazing to watch. No hesitation- just a “let me at it” kind of attitude. Most students had a cell phone and were able to connect to Facebook though satellites. This opened a new way of thinking for me. I just keep wondering if they can access Internet through the satellites, then how can I show them how to get work and to make some money through their phones? I want to help them break the cycle of poverty for themselves.

High tech classrooms offer a connection to the global world and the ability to connect with people all over our world. A low tech classroom limits this connection, creates isolation and people become insular. I am a believer of the use of technology within classrooms to open up the communities that we all live in and to allow opportunity for people to connect.

Victor: Did you work with the teachers there and train them on how to use the technology? Did you leave the laptops/smartpens behind? If so, what do you anticipate the students and teachers doing with them?

Deb: There were no “officially” trained teachers there. Instead we had three students who were able to speak Malagasy, French and English. These three people we mentored as we were teaching the other 50 students, and in turn they will run the lab while we are away. We left the laptops and the smartpens in Toliara. We anticipated that the students would mentor each other and we hope that they would go to the lab often seeking to learn on their own and by helping each other. We are able to remotely access the computers from home should there be any issues with the machines. We know that the students want to learn more. We left an enrollment book and asked that they track who is attending. My hope is that they go as often as possible to teach themselves and learn. If we had Internet we could Skype lessons to them and do pen pal connections with my students here in Canada. I long to get them Internet.

Victor: How has the trip changed you as an educator, particularly in returning to such a high-tech institution? Did you learn anything from the trip that you want to share with your students at home?

Deb: I shared my blog with my students. I will share my photos and more importantly my stories. Through these stories I will try to expose the students to the concepts of gratefulness, wastefulness, helping others, knowing privilege and responsibilities, poverty, responsible government, and the importance to continue to learn and to help others who are less fortunate. I want to show my students that even at my age, I am still learning. My students will be the lucky ones in the future as they run big corporations, so, I hope that part of their fabric as a person will be an appreciation of who we are in life and what we have been given is a blessing and pure chance.

Victor: What were the goals of your trip? Did you accomplish them? Did your outlook on education change in any way as a result of this trip?

Deb: Appleby College in Oakville Ontario, Canada, where I work, prides itself on the community service projects of helping others in need. We send our students abroad to assist those who need help. I wanted to also do the “walk” not just the talk. I wanted to go to a place where I was valued for the knowledge that I have earned throughout my life and to share that knowledge with others. My goal was to take myself to a place where I was out of my comfort zone in order to learn. I wanted to challenge myself and that I did. My outlook totally changed in terms of teaching and of being who I am. I want to do more- I want to go back. I want to help them and encourage them towards a healthier life. There is so much to do there.

Victor: Anything else you care to add or emphasize about this experience and/or about education and technology in general? Did your outlook on education change in any way as a result of this trip?

Deb: The experience certainly ingrained in my mind the value of continually educating oneself and the value of education to every person. Lack of education produces people who are lost. I probably could go on and on with this answer. My outlook has been reinforced and I look forward to returning to Madagascar with more ways to teach the people there to assist them in getting out of their cycle of poverty.

I have learned to appreciate my situation and my life. I am very fortunate and have so much at my fingertips. I have had a life changing experience bringing technology to Madagascar and looking back on my own life have learned to give back more- and more- to those who have less.


Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. To enter the EdTech Digest Awards Recognition Program, write to:


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