In a sign of these strange times, my kindergartner had his first math class via Zoom recently. This was the first formal lesson since schools closed and families were eager to make the most of it. Parents hovered behind their children across our screen, talking over one another (and ultimately the teacher) as they implored their children to focus. Despite our good intentions, parental anxiety got the best of us. My son came away with little more than a headache.
For many families during COVID-19, having children out of school and needing to catch up on education is a new, stressful feeling. For millions around the world, being out of school or denied an education is a tragic, multi-generation reality.
I’m the mother of two young children and leader of the Luminos Fund, a non-profit that has educated more than 130,000 children who had been kept out of school by conflict and poverty.
To paraphrase Michele Caracappa of New Leaders: everything has changed due to COVID-19, except children’s capacity to learn.
Here are lessons from my work that I hope will give some peace of mind to fellow parents during these challenging, unprecedented times.
1. When this is over, kids can catch up. Children have a remarkable capacity to absorb new information from the world around them, and to progress quickly through curricula when the learning conditions are right. In Liberia, many Luminos students have no prior schooling and come from illiterate families. It’s estimated that one third of all Liberian children are stunted. Yet, despite these heartbreaking challenges, these girls and boys cover three years of school in just ten months — successfully. It’s alright if you haven’t transformed into a homeschooling pro. It will be challenging, but your children can catch up later.
2. Becoming a self-directed learner is a precious life skill. It’s also accompanied by growing pains. For children and adults alike, learning something new or achieving a goal on one’s own (and not because a teacher or coach is making you), is hard and takes initiative. Remind your kids of the long-term reward that comes from pushing through. It may be messy, but some degree of struggle and frustration for both parents and kids is part of the process. At Luminos, we call this “learning how to learn,” and consider it essential to boost a child’s future ability to thrive. Graduates of our program go on to complete primary school at nearly twice the rate of their peers.
3. Creative arts are important, especially in times of crisis. The weeks ahead will bring a great deal of anxiety for parents and children, and mourning in some families. Creative expression is a valuable, accessible way to help children process grief. Indeed, psycho-social support, like art and music therapy, is a central element of our program for Syrian refugee children in Lebanon, helping them to process the trauma they have experienced. I’m repeatedly amazed by the creativity — sometimes simple and sometimes heart-rending — that children pour onto paper. Create space for creativity.
4. It’s OK to revisit concepts that children have learned already. Reinforcing learning is as essential as covering new materials. At least for children in early grades, it’s not necessary to introduce new concepts while children are at home. At Luminos, we present each concept in multiple ways to help it take root firmly in children’s minds: linking what they learn in class to what they know of life beyond the classroom.
Our work teaches me that children have a remarkable capacity to catch up when given a second chance. It also teaches me that children outside of a privileged bubble don’t bounce back without support.
The reality is, the lives of my kids, and kids who are similarly privileged to my own, will ultimately return to normal. And they will be surrounded by the love and resources to bounce back from this disruption in their learning. My work with children halfway around the world with a fraction of the material support around them proves to me that this is so.
The long term challenge of this crisis then, is not for my family, but for families in parts of Africa and the Middle East whom Luminos is privileged to serve.
There’s an opportunity, and indeed an imperative, for parents living in a similar state of privilege to my own, to use the anxiety, frustration and uncertainty of this moment not just to build a protective wall for our own families, but to cherish the firsthand insight and empathy we now share with parents in the poor majority.
We never thought we’d find ourselves in a situation where these ideas are needed so much closer to home, in this time of solemn uncertainty and pandemic. But I find solace in knowing we’ll try to make the best of it for our children, families, and communities – just like millions of people in other parts of the world have done, and continue to do, every day.
Mubuso Zamchiya is Managing Director of the Luminos Fund
The Luminos Fund has discovered something special in “joyful learning.” That is the name we have given to our pedagogy – our approach to teaching and learning. At the core of joyful learning is the mission to help children acquire foundational literacy and numeracy skills. Especially marginalized children, who have missed out on an education because of poverty, crisis, or discrimination. But the magic of joyful learning lies in how skills acquisition actually takes place. It’s all in the relationship.
You see, the joyful learning journey is not primarily about
amassing facts and details. It is instead a process of discovery that occurs
through holistic connections. By connections, I mean that joyful learning is
far from an abstract exercise. It truly invites children to engage. They engage
with their own hearts and minds, with their peers and learning facilitators,
with their families and communities, and with the broader environment and world
By holistic, I mean that joyful learning invites children to
muster, master, and mobilize all their faculties as they connect and engage. They
bring their consciousness, their physical presence, their attributes, and their
strengths. They marshal their emotional intelligence and they harness their cognitive
competencies. They draw upon their social acumen and they share the fruit of
their creative flair.
When discovery is fueled by holistic connections, as
children act and respond to the stimulus of relationship, joy is both
inevitable and automatic. They, of course, appreciate the fun in Luminos’
Second Chance program. But their joy is the product of that special “aha”
moment when they realize that the ability to learn has been inside all along. What
they needed was a little help to unlock the light within them. And that is
precisely what joyful learning does. It helps children make holistic
connections with their intrinsic power to learn.
We see this in so many profound examples of learning and life at Luminos. In my opinion, most resonant among these is the way our classrooms in Lebanon use psycho-social support and art therapy to help Syrian refugee Second Chance students work through the incredible trauma of their dislocation. There is great power in the act of using one’s own creative flair to make connections between the past, the present, and the future; great freedom in finding expression for one’s thoughts and emotions. Our students do so, not only through spoken and written words, but also through the much more communicative dialogue of markers, Crayons, and paint. As a testament to their resilience, artwork by some of our Syrian refugee students was celebrated recently at Christie’s, a pinnacle platform for global art.
Elsewhere recently, there was a different-yet-connected
celebration of the arts. Just this week, global newspapers announced that
certain iconic statues of the Zimbabwe
Bird, which had been stolen during colonialism, are now being returned home.
As a person of Zimbabwean heritage, who, among other things, also writes about
Zimbabwean history, this news was a source of joy for me. There is no deep
comparison between the trauma experienced by Syrian children and the journey of
my early childhood. However, there is some small connection in our stories. I
was born in exile as my parents, members of Africa’s formidable freedom
generation, worked with their peers to bring independence to Zimbabwe. I
therefore have a modicum of experience – not equivalent to our students in
Lebanon, but a modicum nevertheless – of what it feels like to be dislocated.
The joy I have regarding the return of the Zimbabwe Bird
statues is intertwined with my appreciation for the reconciliation the gesture
forges with the past. Their repatriation provides Zimbabweans some degree of
closure on a historical puzzle board that still has many missing pieces. In my
thankfulness, as I absorb the significance of this moment, I find myself
thinking about the eleventh-century artists who chiseled, shaped, and shined
formless slabs of soapstone into these magnificent sculptures. I marvel at what
thoughts, plans, ideas, hopes, and aspirations they might have sought to
reconcile for themselves through the expression of their incredible art. These
sculptures have provided an entire nation a great gift lasting many centuries. It
makes me wonder what sort of education these sculptors would have experienced
as children to make their work so brilliant.
I think that is why I feel so privileged to work at the Luminos Fund. In personal terms, Luminos is a place where I can contribute to the work of reconciling Africa’s past with its future. In broader terms, Luminos is also a platform upon which I can participate in helping children across the world unlock the light of learning in their lives. I derive pride that, in joyful learning, Luminos unashamedly embraces the arts as essential connective fiber in the holistic tapestry of relational discovery. I am also glad that in some small way, Luminos is playing a part in helping our Syrian refugee children build lifelong, stone-strong legacies that – like the Zimbabwe Bird – will similarly stand the test of time.
“We’re reaching children who never went to school before and getting them to a level where they want to keep going. That’s humanitarian. So, when an emergency arises like COVID-19, it’s important that we step up and revise. Providing relief during COVID isn’t strange. It’s what we have to do.”
— Abba Karnga Jr., Luminos Program Manager in Liberia
Updated: May 2020
At this time, the Luminos Fund’s classrooms across Ethiopia, Lebanon, and Liberia are on hold due to COVID-19. To help keep our communities and team safe and to mitigate the spread of the virus, all Luminos staff are working remotely and in-country teams are limiting travel to the field (where it is still permitted).
During this challenging time, we are working to support our students and provide relief to families where possible. For example, in Liberia, we are distributing learning materials for students to work on at home, as well as rice, soap, and drums to store water for families. Our team is managing resources closely to leave room to respond in new ways as the crisis evolves: we want to both respond now and plan ahead for the long term.
Luminos is in dialogue with our funders and other education providers on the latest and to share best practices. Where possible, we are working with governments and partners to coordinate our response on the ground.
In 2019, the World Bank introduced the concept of Learning Poverty to measure when children are unable to read or understand a simple text by age 10. In poor countries, the Learning Poverty rate is as high as eighty percent. Often excluded due to poverty, conflict, or discrimination, these children are at risk of being forgotten or ignored as they are assumed to be uneducable. These are children like 13-year-old James in Liberia.
“I used to feel bad when I was out of school and could see
my friends go to school. I cried,” says James, a student in the Luminos Fund’s program.
“Now, my brother and I do homework together.”
“When I grow up, I want to be a journalist because I want to
talk about my country,” he adds.
The Luminos Fund in Liberia
Liberia’s struggles are well known. The country ranked 181
(out of 188) on the UNDP’s Human Development Index for 2018, there is a 64%
poverty rate, and the World Bank estimates that one third of Liberian children
are stunted. And yet, amidst these challenges, Liberian children are learning
to read in Luminos Fund classrooms at one of the highest rates on the continent.
Since 2016, the Luminos Fund has worked in Liberia to scale up Second Chance, an accelerated learning program that supports children like James to become literate and numerate in 10 months. We now operate across four counties. Many students in our Liberia program are first-generation readers and have been out of school, so the opportunity to learn to read is especially meaningful for their families and themselves.
According to Luminos external evaluation results from last year (2018/19), the average Second Chance graduate in Liberia identifies 39 familiar words per minute (wpm). This is up from essentially zero at the beginning of the program. Definitions of functional literacy vary and may include reading comprehension, like the World Bank does. Luminos sets a target of 30 wpm or more. By this measure, Luminos students are achieving functional literacy within our 10-month program. To put this in perspective, merely 21.1% of Grade 3 and 5.8% of Grade 2 students in Liberia can correctly identify this many words per minute (Ref. USAID Early Grade Reading Barometer, Liberia, Familiar words sub-task, 2013. https://earlygradereadingbarometer.org/liberia/results).
Our recipe for success
In Second Chance, Luminos applies the best global knowledge regarding what’s most effective for first-generation readers and reimagines it for the Liberian context. Through a joyful and phonics-centered curriculum, classes capped at 30 students, 8-hour school days, and locally developed reading materials, we enable children to become independent readers. In a Second Chance school day, on average, five hours are spent on literacy. Children see themselves in the texts and reading is presented as an integral part of the world around them.
We use a structured approach to phonics to ensure students
build the requisite skills to read by the end of the program. We try to strike a
balance between direct instruction, which is essential to teach the technical
aspects of reading, and activity-based learning, which is at the core of our
pedagogy. Students practice using Elkonin Sound Boxes and Blending Ladders, as
well as finger tapping as a multi-sensory way to learn spelling and syllables.
We are streamlining the process wherein teachers give students weekly timed
reading assignments and remedial support is provided to the bottom performers.
Our goal is to not leave any child behind as a reader.
We believe a structured approach, supplemented by honest,
regular feedback as well as space for creativity, is key to success. We created
detailed guides for our teachers to provide them with daily guidance on
technical aspects of the curriculum while also providing intervals wherein they
can innovate and design appropriate activities for children. This helps keep
teachers motivated and in charge of the learning happening in their own
Additionally, we provide weekly coaching and supervision in
the classroom, conduct regular teacher training workshops, and are proud to
partner with the Liberian Ministry of Education (MoE). For example, the MoE
provisions some classroom space to Luminos and we train MoE officials on our
Second Chance pedagogy.
More than seven thousand Liberian children have learned to
read through Luminos programs: children who now have a pathway out of learning
poverty. Ninety percent of Luminos students transition to mainstream school at
the end of the program. We have trained 350 teachers and government officials
at the district and regional levels.
Key opportunities and challenges lay ahead as we build our program and experiment with new routes to scale in Liberia, such as working more with overage students (i.e., children in school but years behind their correct grade level). We are immensely proud of our program to-date, but recognize that ongoing, urgent work remains to build our evidence base in Liberia. Our team is eager to expand upon the successful programming and strong relationships we have established to help more Liberian children, like James, realize their dreams of learning – and learning to read – in a joyful classroom environment.
“As Liberia works to provide all children a quality education, we are pleased to have non-government organization partners, like the Luminos Fund. They are working to ensure those who have missed out on an education get a second chance to learn. It is such vital support here in Liberia where for many out-of-school children the second chance to learn is a first chance at an education. Partners like Luminos align well with our national vision for education.” — Professor Ansu Sonii, Minister of Education, Liberia
From February 7-11, 2020, Christie’s New York hosted an innovative exhibition, Educate: A Charity Exhibition, Benefiting the Luminos Fund, that raised over $80,000 for children’s education. Luminos works to ensure children everywhere get a chance to experience joyful learning, especially those denied an education by poverty, conflict, and discrimination. We believe rich “five senses” learning is possible even in the poorest corners of the globe.
The lively Educate Opening Reception on Friday, February 7 spanned multiple galleries at Christie’s Rockefeller Plaza location, featuring an exhibition of 38 up-and-coming artists, silent auction, a SPIN ping-pong tournament, and live performances. Student artworks by Syrian refugee children in the Luminos Fund’s Lebanon program were also exhibited and auctioned. Artnet News highlighted the event as “not to miss.”
“All 38 artists in the exhibition generously donated a work
to the silent auction, the full proceeds of which were donated to the Luminos
Fund,” said Celine Cunha of Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Art and
co-Chairman of Employee Initiatives, who spearheaded the exhibition. “I am
humbled to report that over $80,000 USD was raised for Luminos through the
silent auction and ticket donations.”
Celine explained her vision for the event: “As an art lover
and a Contemporary Art Specialist, I’m aware of the transformative power of art
and of the difficulty to be discovered as an artist. It was very important to
me, and to my CSR team, to use the Christie’s space, which has been used to set
so many world records, to give back to the artistic community directly. It was
imperative to me that Educate: A Charity Exhibition serve a charitable
purpose by giving back to the larger disenfranchised global community. The
overarching purpose of Educate was to highlight and support The Luminos
Fund, which provides joyful learning to refugee children in Ethiopia, Lebanon
and Liberia, aiding those denied an education due to poverty, conflict and
A Shared Worldview
The Luminos Fund and Christie’s met one year ago when
Luminos hosted a small exhibit of some of our students’ artwork, thanks to the
generous support of one of our funders. Christie’s employees, including Celine,
graciously volunteered their personal time as docents for that event.
Caitlin Baron, CEO of the Luminos Fund, said, “Connecting
through our students’ artwork, we realized the Christie’s team and Luminos
share an understanding that the drive to create is universal: that the artistic
impulse is as strong in Bushwick, Brooklyn as it is in the Bekaa Valley in
Lebanon. We also share a belief that every child has the right to learn and
grow in safe, creative spaces.”
Educate: A Charity Exhibition was a remarkable expression of this shared vision.
Oh, What a Night
At the Opening Reception, Christie’s broke a record for
number of guests in their galleries. Over the weekend, roughly one thousand
people of all walks of life and ages viewed the exhibition.
“The overwhelmingly positive response to Educate has been heartwarming and inspiring,” Celine said. “We were blessed to work with Luminos, who practices what they preach, providing hands-on work in disaster regions and giving the greatest gift of all to children in need: an education.”
The Luminos Fund team felt similarly fortunate to partner
with Christie’s on such a unique fundraiser. For Luminos colleagues at the
Opening Reception, it was humbling to view the beautiful galleries and artworks,
and to speak with many of the artists and guests.
A Second Chance at Education
The outpouring of generosity from Christie’s New York,
guests, artists, and SPIN will give more than 500 underprivileged children a
second chance at education through Luminos programs — providing learning,
creativity, joy, and opportunity to young people who can use it dearly.
Addressing the audience at the Opening Reception, Caitlin said,
“We are deeply grateful to Christie’s and all the artists and supporters who
have helped make this ambitious exhibition a reality. It is truly incredible
what a small group of dedicated people can achieve.”
The Luminos Fund extends heartfelt thanks to Christie’s,
especially Celine Cunha and Matthew Capasso, for their generosity and creative
vision, and looks forward to continuing this unique collaboration.
Educate: A Charity Exhibition at Christie’s New York Benefiting the Luminos Fund
On Friday, February 7, 2020 at 6:30 p.m. EST, an opening reception will be held at Christie’s New York commencing a charity art exhibition benefiting the Luminos Fund.The Luminos Fund is a philanthropic organization which aims to bring the life-changing opportunity of education to the most disadvantaged children around the world. The night will include live performances, complimentary refreshments, and a SPIN New York sponsored ping-pong tournament open to the public.
The reception will inaugurate a group exhibition of global emerging artists of diverse styles, and mediums. Each artist will donate a single work into a silent auction with proceeds fully benefiting the Luminos Fund. Additional works will be available for purchase directly from the participating artists. The silent auction and artist’s exhibition will remain open to the public until Tuesday, February 11, 2020.