Dr. O’Cheing K’Olewe
Dr. K’Olewe is from Kenya and came to the United States when he was he began college. Dr. O’Chieng lives in Taneytown, MD and teaches at McDaniel College.
INTERVIEWER: I am Callie Boucher and I am here interviewing Dr. O’chieng K’Olewe. Born and grew up in Seme, Kenya. Is that correct?
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: That’s right.
INTERVIEWER: OK. And you came here to the US for the first time when?
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: In 1979.
INTERVIEWER: And you went to what, it was Iowa?
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: I went to Iowa State.
INTERVIEWER: Got your bachelor’s?
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: I got my bachelor’s at Iowa State. Went to Illinois, got my teacher certification, and taught for about 2 and 1/2 years. Then went back and did my doctorate, West Virginia.
INTERVIEWER: At West Virginia, right. And you hold a dual citizenship, right? As both a Kenyan and American?
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: And American, mm-hmm.
INTERVIEWER: And you live in Westminster?
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: I live Taneytown.
INTERVIEWER: K. That’s how far from here? Not too far.
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: Taneytown is about– about 20 minutes from Westminster.
INTERVIEWER: OK. And did you– did you move to Taneytown town because you were accepting a job here at McDaniel, or–
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: Well, I moved to– actually, I moved to Maryland because of a job.
INTERVIEWER: Which job?
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: This job. This teaching job at McDaniel.
INTERVIEWER: And so they originally signed you on as just a teacher?
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: So what happened is after my doctorate, I was looking for something to use my doctorate on. And this job showed up, among other jobs, and actually, I had two interviews. I had this interview and I had another interview, and this came up first. So after I did this, I just decided this is the place I was going to teach at because I had already lived in Maryland for about three years.
INTERVIEWER: Where in Maryland?
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: In Baltimore County.
INTERVIEWER: Interesting. So were you aware of any stereotypes that may have existed in Westminster or Taneytown as compared to living in Baltimore City? Did you live in like an affluent black neighborhood?
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: In Baltimore? No, I lived in the County. I lived out in the Rosedale area. I didn’t really– I wasn’t aware of any stereotypes until I lived– until I moved here. It’s when– when I was aware about it, from my friends who lived in Baltimore City and Baltimore County.
INTERVIEWER: So they’re the ones who told you– kind of–
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: About– yes, you know, for instance, I remember somebody saying that oh, when I told him I was from Carroll County, he said, oh, Carroll County, where? I said Westminster. He said, oh, that is the headquarters of KKK.
INTERVIEWER: True story
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: Well, I didn’t know that. But later on I found out that actually ist wasn’t Westminster but Fairmont, which is in Frederick, I believe.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think would have– had you known that before, do you think that would have swayed your opinions about moving here at all? I mean, obviously, I wouldn’t– I wouldn’t assume that there’s a whole lot of activity– KKK activity now. But you never know.
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: Yeah. Yeah. Well, had I know about it, I don’t know. I probably– I tend to be a curious person. So I probably would have checked it out first. Just to– one of the things about being a minority in the US is you tend to look out– or at least I tend to look out to see if there’s any evidence of other minorities in that particular area. And whenever I see that, I get a sense of comfort. Of comfort, right? Well, you know, if there are– if there are minorities there, then it must mean that, well, it’s OK to be there. So I probably would have– and actually, that’s what we did before we moved here. We came, we looked it up, and realized, no, there’s a small minority population.
INTERVIEWER: Because you had your kids at the time, right? Did you have three kids?
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: At that time we had two kids.
INTERVIEWER: So yeah. So your decision to move would have affected them in so much. So you wouldn’t want to move them into an unsafe area.
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: No. No, no. You know, there was immigrants. I think immigrants tend to take more risks. We tend to take more chances, especially when they are, you know, work, job related. So you would probably– you hedge your bets, but at the same time you can attack that. You can say, well, hopefully things work out. But still with kids, yeah, you think twice.
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: Definitely.
INTERVIEWER: Where you lived in Baltimore, were there are a lot of blacks there too? Or were you one of the few? Or–
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: In Baltimore County at that time– this is about 15 plus years ago– but still the Baltimore County where we lived was sort of a mixed neighborhood. That was a time when I think –it was around that time that more blacks started moving out towards the County. So it was a mixed neighborhood. And even the school that I taught, I’d probably say somewhere around 20, 25% minorities. They mostly African Americans, but there were some Asians. And actually, I can’t remember seeing any Hispanics. They’re mostly African Americans and a few Asians.
INTERVIEWER: Your kids have any problems there?
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: No, no. Because at that time they were very little. And so we stayed home with them.
INTERVIEWER: So then you moved out here. Where did they start going to school?
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: They started going to school at Robert Martin, which I really liked, because in the County and I think still, is still the most the diverse elementary school. So I really liked Robert Martin for that.
INTERVIEWER: And they had no problems there either?
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: No, they didn’t have any problems at Robert Martin.
INTERVIEWER: Because your kids have ethnic names. They have Kenyan first names, and last names, obviously.
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: Yes. Yes. The first– the first-born has a Kenyan name, and second-born has both names African. And then the last two have last name African. So it stands out, And middle names. So that stands out. But no, they didn’t have any problems Robert Martin.
INTERVIEWER: Not at the elementary school. But as when they got older, did they tend to have a little more– like when kids start recognizing differences and being able to pick out those who are, you know, not like them in certain ways–
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: Yeah. Actually, of all the kids there’s only one who’s had a negative experience, and that wasn’t at Robert Martin. That was at a different school. Elementary school. Because we moved from Westminster to Taneytown, which means we had to change schools. And so when we changed school, three of them went to a different elementary school. The other one was already in middle school.
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: And one of them– and this was last year, 2010. Well, in the process of talking, I think the kids were playing or something, and somebody said something negative about her being black, or something like that. And it upset her. And she came back, she came home, and she told us about it. So I figured, well, let me go talk to the principal about it.
So I went to school. I talked to the principal. I found out they had called in that child. And I think, if I’m not mistaken, they probably– they did some kind of a retribution sort of punishment type thing. I only– and I was talking to principal, the one thing I was telling her that I wish they had, instead of doing something like that, probably would have just–that was a teachable moment. Instead of punishing the child for whatever. Because some of those things they hear at home. That would have been a good teachable moment.
But actually, the other thing that we talked about but it never really came through, was maybe– because I know in Robert Martin they had, like, multicultural days. So kids would see people from other cultures. That other school didn’t have something like that. And you know, I suggested why not have things like multicultural days?
INTERVIEWER: Unity days, stuff like that.
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: Yeah. You know, kids see people from other cultures, people from other regions of the world, and all that kind of stuff. So yeah, she did have that experience. And that– that concerned me. But that was that one case.
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: The high school, my kid had an experience which probably– it’s one of those things which as a parent you hope doesn’t happen, but it happened. He got into a fight and Baltimore County has a– oh, sorry, Carroll County has a policy that if you get into a fight, it gets reported down to the Sheriff’s office. And there’s a whole group of them. There was a couple kids are got into a fight. And he was the only one who got arrested. And that just bugged me. I mean, that bothered me.
So I went and talked to the vice principal and we talked, and I told in part of the reason why it concerned me was that he was the only one. And not only that. And the other thing that I was telling him was now, I mean, in their graduating class they probably had, I’d say, maybe five or seven total minority [INAUDIBLE] minorities. Out of something like 200 kids. So he stands out.
So I was saying the one thing that really bothered me was that it reinforces a stereotype. And that, and I also talked to him, you know, and I– I mean, I don’t say– I can’t say he wasn’t responsible for whatever happened. But I also talked to him about being a minority, and how he stands out, and what that means, and all those different things.
INTERVIEWER: But he was the only– he was the only black student amongst those–
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: That group of kids, yeah. There were about– there were about four or five kids.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think that was, like, their decision to just arrest him? Do you think that was racially motivated? Like, it’s hard to say. You can’t know.
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: I don’t think so. I just don’t think they thought about it.
INTERVIEWER: How come the white kids didn’t get arrested? You know what I mean?
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: I know. I know. That’s the thing that– I don’t think they thought about the implication of what they were doing, and how– because when the kid is get– no, because I told them, look, you put the handcuffs in the office, walked him out of the office, walked him in front out of the hallway, walked him all the way out. So all the kids are looking out and what they are seeing is another black kid getting arrested. That’s what they’re seeing. And it reinforces all the negative things that they probably have in their heads.
So as an educator, you have to be sensitive to some of those things. And not only that. If you are going to make sure that everybody gets equal punishment, so to speak, then those other kids also have to be arrested. Or if you’re not going to do it, then don’t do it for everybody. Otherwise you’re not sending the right message. So that bothered me. That bothered me. It’s just that maybe as a minority and as an African or a black person, I’m sensitive to that. But I don’t think if you’re in the majority, you probably just take it for granted.
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: So those are the two experiences, probably, with the school system which kinda bugged me.
INTERVIEWER: Do you –are you active, is there like a community, a specific, like, African American community you’re– what’s the word I’m looking for, like, active in? Like do you do stuff on the weekends, or–
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: Well, the irony– and I think, I don’t know if it’s irony. When I was in Westminster, I was activate in the NAACP. Yeah, when I was Westminster. But after I moved to Taneytown, you know, the meeting times just didn’t work out and all that.
But I’m active, actually, in a Kenyan, as opposed to– as opposed to an African American group. Yeah. So we meet or do things. So both Kenyans and African. Because sometimes we have African friends or things. So we do things along those lines. More than us in an African American. And I think part of it has to do with as an immigrant. Or rather, not as an immigrant.
Well, for someone like me, you live in three worlds. You live in– you’re an American. So you do those American things, whatever those things are. You’re an immigrant. So you do those immigrant things, whatever they are. At the same time, you are specific group within that immigrants. So like for me, being Kenyan. And actually, I can even say one more group, being a minority. So you are all these different– so you have to be able to negotiate that world.
So sometimes you find yourself doing things within a larger community. Sometimes you find yourself doing things as part of an immigrant, like in an African immigrant community. Sometimes you find yourself doing things within a Kenyan community. And you even go even narrower. You do things along ethnic group. So you negotiate that world, and you can be– you can be five different people within a span of a day.
INTERVIEWER: We know that’s true.
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: So you can negotiate all. And you have to be able to switch from one to the other and one to the other one. So here, so far I’ve done– I mean, I was part of an African American, in terms of NAACP. I’ve been part of discussion groups as a minority, which were sponsored, I think, through the school– I think Board of Education, I’m not mistaken.
But in terms of my life outside, mostly been as, you know, a Kenyan groups and things like that.
INTERVIEWER: There was a question. Oh. How do you think your experience is different, since you’re actually a Kenyan, versus being like an African American, like second or third generation. You know what I mean? Do people– like, do you experience the same sort of racial discrimination just because of your skin color? Or like how have your experiences been, you think, different than what you would imagine an American, African American, growing up would be like?
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: That’s a good question. because sometimes I think there’s an assumption just because of skin color there’s a common experience. And the reality is that it tends to be more cultural than it is skin color. And so for instance as an African, and particularly as a Kenyan, my grounding is in the Kenyan culture. My identity is formed there. Who I am and what I am, and all is from within that Kenyan culture. It’s grounded there.
Consequently, coming out of that, I find that there is a stronger sense of confidence in what I do. So that when I do something and, let’s say, somebody acted or reacted in different ways or negatively, what have you, I don’t necessarily consider that to be because of my skin color, or what have you. Could be other reasons. Not to say that I’ve not experienced cases where I thought that there was no racism which was being directed at me.
INTERVIEWER: Which you have had experiences like that.
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: Which I’ve had experiences of, you know. And sometimes it’s because ah, you know, an immigrant. Or you know, so, somebody probably doesn’t think about it, or something they think oh no, it’s a black person, you know? So there are those experiences. You know, but not in Carroll County. I’ve not had experiences. But I think par of it is because somebody sees you, and when you start talking they realize your accent is different. Consequently, you know, I get treated differently because I’m not one of them. I’m different.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, you don’t have the dialogue. The dialect.
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: Yes. I don’t have that. I’m different. So I can’t– I’m not one of them. So I’m safe, so to speak, you know? So it’s kind of like that safe black person.
INTERVIEWER: And then you get into the sub-grouping.
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: Yes. Yes. So you know, I’ve probably had– I mean, whatever negative experiences I’ve had, where I’ve been outside the County, as opposed to being within the County, personally. And I think part of it is just because, you know, are the same. Maybe there’s that sense that not being part of, you know, not one of them, that’s– Oh, there’s a safe person to talk to. There’s a safe person to, you know, whatever, to confide in or whatever it is. So that’s different.
And then, on the other hand, you know, it’s not– even though we tend to think of community, but community is not the same thing. I mean, people don’t– maybe if we interacted more, maybe then I’d have some of those experiences. But there isn’t as much interaction. You know, you go into your house and the other person goes to their house. That’s it.
INTERVIEWER: And you have your friends within the Kenyan community.
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: I mean that’s right. You know? The only one time I remember one of my neighbors one– there’s a person that lived across who I never really– I think I’ve talked to just about every neighbor, at least waved at them. But this guy just never– just– you could be literally standing right next to him but he just didn’t acknowledge you. So later on is when one of the neighbors was– because as a neighbor who can I know– one of the neighbors, the one was saying that oh, you know– no. One of the neighbor’s kid and one of my daughters I guess went to play near that neighbor’s yard. And eventually somehow news came out, or however it came out, that he didn’t want my kid playing over there. Because he didn’t want any of my kind over there.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, gee.
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: So you see, so–
INTERVIEWER: How did you handle that?
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: We don’t do anything, because he told somebody else and not me. So the only thing we do is we made sure we told the kids, don’t go over across the street.
INTERVIEWER: So you didn’t address him directly and say, you have a problem– like, what’s your issue with me? You just kind of avoided the situation? I mean, you live near him. I mean, I’m don’t blame you. You don’t want to stir the pot with the guy who lives next door.
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: Because it came out secondhand. Through somebody else. so he didn’t tell us. Or he didn’t tell our kids.
INTERVIEWER: Were you mad anyway?
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: No. No. You know, because I think that’s his problem. We have our property, the kids can play wherever we are. The kids don’t have to do anything over there to add to their lives.
INTERVIEWER: That’s so different from Kenya. Because in Kenya we’ve got kids from villages five miles away that are hanging out at, you know, so and so’s house. Like there’s none of that. You know, neighborhood and community has a different meaning.
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: Absolutely different meaning.
INTERVIEWER: From here to Kenya.
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: Yeah. Yeah, it’s different.
INTERVIEWER: It’s shocking.
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: It’s different and then other thing is that, like in this case, there are kids involved. Initially, with the kids, people just figure that ah, kids, everybody looks out for kids. Yeah, so not to want kids to play around your property or something like that. That’s probably the only negative. But like I say, it was secondhand. So you can’t really confirm somebody the secondhand information. And it doesn’t take away from the richness of the life of the kid or adds anything to it.
So it was just property lines. Like I don’t want your kid near my property. I’m not saying he or she can’t play with whoever’s kids, it’s just I don’t want any of the kids near my house.
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: You just leave it at that. Yeah. Yeah.
INTERVIEWER: Do your, you know, friends and colleagues, do they express any interest in learning about your culture? Or did they just sort of pass you off as their, you know, token black friend? You know what I mean? Are they interested in where you’re from, or do they just kind of, OK he’s from Kenya, moving on. Or do they want to know more about your culture, your lifestyle, that kind of stuff. Obviously your students–
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: In terms of friends, yeah, because you get to talk to them and you get to meet them, generally speaking, yeah. But like I say, many times we tend to congregate with people who are like-minded. In terms of colleagues, I have to say, to be honest, I don’t think it’s anything specific to this particular college. I think it’s just part of, you know, the American culture, which is this– usually, people ask me, so what is the biggest cultural shock? What’s the thing that was not– to me, the biggest cultural shock– and nowawdays I’ve gotten over it, you know– is how less– how uncurious, if that is a word, American are.
INTERVIEWER: In what terms? As far [INAUDIBLE]?
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: Curious in finding out, just finding out, about other places and other things and other, you know? And it’s even surprising at the professional level. So for instance, I used to, when I first came– and even not when I first came. Let me take that back. Whenever we are talking to somebody and they say, oh, so, where are you from? Where’s your accent from? That’s usually the question. And I’ll say, I’m from Kenya. And then somebody will say something like, oh, now that is– that close to– is that near Nigeria? Or is it near–
Now you’re not talking about an elementary school kid. I’m talking about a professional. You know? And professors. And I think to myself, if I was– if we switched places, surely I would like to know where things are. Where places are. So to answer that question, to an extent, there are some–there’s one or two who are curious about culture and all those different things, and where you’re from and, you know, what have you. But for the most part, no.
For the most, people– you know, I can’t ever remember sitting with, other than, like I say, probably one colleague or so. You know, who sat down and say, OK, now oh, and how do they do that? maybe a couple people. But generally speaking, I’ve found that what’s on campus reflects what’s outside campus, which is very little curiosity.
I mean, the first student I came across, when I first came to this country, the first person I met– or one of the first students I met– who wasn’t an American from Micronesia. I was just– he just blew my mind. Micronesia? Where is Micronesia? I’m went and looked it up in the map. I just– just to find– I mean, it’s just fascinating. Somebody from Micronesia, you know? It’s like you run into somebody from Mars, and you want to know more about him.
So I guess it’s just part of the curiosity that we grow up in. We grow up in a very multicultural community and society. So you pick up a few words from a different language. You pick up a few things, you know. So before you know it, you know a little bit about this group, that group, that group. But maybe because we are more the monolingual society in the US, there isn’t– other than Spanish, there isn’t as much curiosity. So that– I used to be disappointed. Nowadays I think I just figure it’s just part of– the way. It’s just part of– just part of the culture. Yeah. Yeah. That is different.
INTERVIEWER: Let’s see, what else do we have here? Teaching teachers. And you did most of your younger education in the Kenyan school systems. It’s very different, for those who don’t know. I do. So you went from that school system and now you’re teaching teachers. How has your experience in the Kenyan school system influenced how you are teaching us to be? I mean, I have an answer for that, but–
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: Yeah. I think– and I’m not sure whether my background has influenced the way I teach here, or the other way around, that here has influenced the way I teach. But I think the one thing that I have learned over time is that– because that system is very structured. It’s very rigorous. The one thing that I strongly believe in is that students can be held accountable for their learning.
INTERVIEWER: In Kenya?
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: You know, in Kenya we do that. But here, sometimes we don’t do that as well as I think we should. And that really is one of those things that– because I look at my own learning experiences, and how much we had to do on our own and not necessarily count on the teachers being there. You know, the teachers introduce it, then, OK guys, now work on it. Yes. So that means that you have to work hard to be able to get where you are getting at.
INTERVIEWER: And those Kenyan kids do. I mean, they walk– you know, you were telling us they walk the five miles at 3:00 in the morning just to go to a study session which is held by the students. No teachers involved.
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: No teachers.
INTERVIEWER: They do their school work by candlelight sometimes, if they have to. you know, it is very different. I mean–
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: It’s very different.
INTERVIEWER: From what we have here. I think the expectations are much higher.
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: Oh, expectation– I mean, you are expected to do well.
INTERVIEWER: Right. And so that’s something you’re trying to instill in us as teachers is to have that–
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: To hold your students accountable. You have to. You have to– you have to– if there’s nothing else I’ll stress to my teachers-to-be is have high expectations of your students. If you hold them high, if you have high expectations, they’ll reach that level.
And that’s the one thing that I probably got out of that Kenyan system, is the expectations are high. You find parents who literally never went to school, but have high expectations of the kids. And kids hold– have high expectations of themselves. So just like you say, they can study by themselves and not monitor what they’re doing. They can do the study sessions and make sure that the people who are supposed to be there are there. They do the things that they’re supposed to be doing as students.
So when I come here and I see– then I have kids that are going through the school system here. And that’s probably the biggest battle that we have, is I, to me, I don’t think they hold themselves as high as they should. In other words, you have a student who’s just– the kid, the student, actually as very high potential, but they settle for passing.
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: You know, for just making it up close. So that’s the one thing that’s probably I got out of the Kenyan system.
INTERVIEWER: So then how, as a teacher, are we supposed to sort of address this multicultural sort of influx that were happening. You know what I mean? Like if you have a child who’s coming from a different background that have different sort of standards for themselves, how do we as teachers either not single them out, and put them in that the gifted and talented or whatever, but how do we sort of put them on the same– how do you hold a child from another society to the same standards as you would hold a kid that is born and raised here? And the expectations are completely different for each child. How do we make a level playing field for all of our students and be fair to all of our students?
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: Yeah, I don’t think we do a very good job with that. Because we either usually place students in lower level classes, because probably they can’t speak the language yet, or they just can’t really fitting into the culture. Or sometimes, like you say, we stereotype them and put them in really high level classes.
I think part of it is as a teacher, as I say, you have to be sensitive to the student’s background. Not sensitive. It’s probably not the word. You have to know stuff. Which means the teacher has to go out or their way to learn something about the student’s background, you know? Where they come from, or, you know, their cultures, and you the values within their cultures, and things like that.
INTERVIEWER: And that could be a teaching moment, too. We all learn as a class who our new student is and where they’re from and what we should, you know–
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: Yeah, I think you need to know that. I think you need to know the students who you have the classroom. And then, after that, I think you just hold all the students at high expectations.
INTERVIEWER: To the same sort of standards.
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: The same standards, yes. This is what we expect you to achieve. And then we get away from stereotyping kids because they come from a specific background.
INTERVIEWER: Right. I agree.
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: Sometimes you have students who are still just struggling to negotiate a new culture. What you usually attempts to happen, unfortunately I think, many times if you have students who come from different cultures. But because they have to fit in, sometimes they lower their own expectations. Because you have to fit in. And if they stand out, it’s looked as negative. And though some of the places, their parents might have really high expectations of them– but they lower it, just because they want to fit in. So sometimes there’s that challenge.
INTERVIEWER: What about non-native English speakers? How do we address that in our classrooms? Because you would know the child is bright and capable of achieving set standards and goals and everything. It’s just more difficult for them because they’re still figuring out the English language. How should we go about helping them do that?
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: I believe there are two things. One, the teacher has to be an advocate. It’s not just a question of walking in there and teaching. Doing the instruction. You have to be an advocate for your students. That means you have to be able to find out, also, what resources are available within the county or within the school district. But it has to be an advocate.
Secondly, a teacher has to know the family. You have to know– because sometimes you find that, you, know the family doesn’t know that there are resources. You know? Or it could be something just as simple as that. That they just don’t know. So as an advocate, first of all, for your child, find out what’s there. But secondly, make connections with the family in terms of do they know? What’s available in the community Are they comfortable themselves with the school? Are they comfortable to come and talk to you?
I don’t think sometimes we do as good a job of that– probably because there’s so many other things going on. But at the same time, we have to be able to do that, otherwise you find that those children just– they just slip through. Slip through. Because there’s nobody who speaks up for them. The parents don’t know much about what’s in the community, and they don’t come to the school guidance counselors to find out what’s happening, because that’s a good office. At the same time, the teacher is probably overwhelmed with other stuff and does not become the advocate that they should be. Because teaching really is a lot more than just instruction. There are all those other social equity issues which also should be addressed.
INTERVIEWER: I just find it interesting and tough to think about how hard that child is going to have to work to keep up with the other students. And I as a teacher would want to do whatever it is I can to help them it a get to that level quicker and have a little more easier for them, but–
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: Well, you know, what I found out many times, especially with children, once they can handle the language– and language, kids pick up language a lot easier than grownups. Once they handle the language, then they can handle whatever else is there. Because in our times, kids are placed in a Special Ed class because they can’t speak the language. Its not because they can’t do the math or they can’t do– you know? So I think that’s where dealing with the language comes in. And that’s where the teacher has to be able to help find out the resources to help this child to be able to acquire the language.
INTERVIEWER: And to advocate for the child that they’re not special education. They don’t have special needs. They just need to figure out the language, and then they can– you know. So maybe it’s a matter of just having them– maybe the county offers tutoring sessions, or stuff like that they just will help them get that edge on the language.
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: And could be the library has something to do. I mean it’s just finding out the community resources.
INTERVIEWER: But I think that the teacher does share a responsibility in the education, you know, and doing the research for that child and for that family.
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: Well, let me put it this way. When my– when our second-born– no, third-born came to the States– when the third-born came to the States, he came because I re-married, and I had two boys and my wife had two kids, a boy and a girl. And the third one came to the States after completing just about, he was in first grade, just about complete first grade. So when he came here, he came in October.
INTERVIEWER: So he was born in Kenya.
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: Yeah, he was born in Kenya. So our school time in Kenya starts in January. Here it starts in August. So he started in January, so he had done first grade, and came here in September, October. Right? So it’s that odd time. So the decision was do we put in second grade? OK? Because he’s just about to complete first grade. Or do we hold him back and let him kind of repeat first grade?
And for us, really, it was a no-brainer. We held him back. Not because he didn’t have the skills. But because we thought it would be important for him just to be able to acclimatize culture. To get a sense of the pace. To get a sense of the language. To get a sense– and that one year really helped him just to get used to the school system. So even though in his classroom he was in his seat by himself, in terms of reading, because he was way ahead of the kids– the rest of the group. He was really almost at third-grade level in a first grade class. So he couldn’t read with everybody else. They had to put him aside so that he had, it was like a group of one. We didn’t think that was bad, because in the other subjects and what have, you then he was with everybody else. But doing the reading, he got one on one attention.
So I think it’s picking up the language, picking up the culture, the values, the mores, and all those things. That sometimes is important for this kids. And then it makes it a lot easier for them to move on with the school.
INTERVIEWER: So let me ask you this. How, if you’re advocating for holding a child back to help them acclimatize and to sort of strengthen skills and get a better base sort of ground, what about the students with the whole No Child Left Behind? What about the students that might benefit from that, even though they’re supposed to be moving on? I mean, would you– that’s one of the things I’m sort of struggling with too, is seeing these kids that schools are passing them, but I think that another year– you know? And that’s more of a personal opinion.
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: Yeah, and I think now that I’ve gotten to the point, age-wise, once I think I hit 50, I think I look at life slightly different, you know? Everybody’s in a hurry. And you ask yourself, to do what? To go where? Do you know? Why are we rushing kids? To do what? If they’ve not mastered it. If they’ve not achived– you know, because sometimes the parents want their kids to move on because they have friends.
INTERVIEWER: Sure. The group’s going.
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: The group is going, so why should they? I think that if that child has not reached that level– like, you know, in our case it was slightly different, so the child would have gone to second grade easy. But it was easy, but we wanted the child to be able– he was– academically, he was fit for second grade. Culturally, he was still not there. So we wanted him to be able to at least get the culture first. There is time to catch up with everything else. I mean, you know, the kids he could have been with are probably now in high school. But so what? I mean, you know?
So I think that social promotion– I’m not sure. You know, coming from the Kenyan school system, we just never had social promotion. You had to work to get there. And I just find the whole concept of social promotion where we promote them because they’re of age. It’s one of the things that sometimes, yes, I do struggle with it. I just think that kids should be able to be held accountable. You work with them, you help them achieve.
INTERVIEWER: Well, and then it’s like what you were saying earlier about your son, like what does that say stereotypically if we’re holding certain students back based on the fact that they are new to the school or they don’t speak English very well? Then you’re placing kids in the Special Education classes, which has its own stereotypes, right? And then you’re getting that sort of reinforcement of stereotypes again. So it’s really a very complex and trick–
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: Yeah. Yeah. And it’s not because a child cannot learn. It’s because, like I’ve said many times, they still can’t negotiate the culture.
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: So I think what you do is you help them negotiate the culture, and then–
INTERVIEWER: And how do we do that? How does the teacher do that? Like you can’t hold their hand at lunch, you know?
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: No. The teacher– the teacher– that’s why I’m saying that’s why the teacher needs resources, or rather at least needs the parents help to also, in terms of the resources, of helping this child adjust to the culture. And children adjust really fast. The only thing with school is they are adjusting and they are learning at the same time. And so sometimes when we don’t think that they’re making the progress as fast as they should, we hold them back. Or rather, we don’t necessarily hold them back. We tend to put them– we brand them. We put them in these classes, and in those classes, nothing’s happening.
So I’d rather the child– you know, I mean, it would be great if there was some kind of a– system where children of immigrants and those who don’t speak the language just spent the time just learning the language.
Let me put this way. When I went to Iowa State, we had an Intensive English Program for the non-English speaking students at the college level. And these were students coming to the engineering and computers science, and you name it. Psychology, you name it. But for one semester, all they did was English. And culture. So they did trips. They went to different places. But they just did– and nowadays I realized that many state universities have something like that. Intensive English Program. That’s all they do. Once you’ve completed that program, one semester, those students are speaking English. They could write. Then now they can go into you name it. We don’t do that for our kids at elementary level.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think that’s beneficial, that was a beneficial thing for you?
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I didn’t go through it. I was coming from an English speaking background.
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: Yeah. In terms of– you know, we use English from first grade all of the way through university. So English is just part of the official language. But for students coming, they say, from China or coming from Iraq or coming from, you name it, you know, those students had to go through that intensive English program. And that really made a difference. So we need something along those lines. We need something along those lines. We tend to just assume kids will pick up the language and, boom, go with it. So that’s the challenge.
INTERVIEWER: OK. So as our closing remark, here, I guess– we’re running a little bit out of time. What advice do you have for your teachers, your crop of teachers that you’re grooming. What advice do you have to them from your background? What advice would you give us on how to help our multicultural students in whatever aspects they may be struggling with? Whether, obviously, English learning. We’ve talked about that. Acclimating to the culture. What about bullying? Sort of those aspects of a student’s life that is required for a teacher to look into and to try and help them with? There’s a lot of bullying going on these days. A lot of kids just being mean and, like, picking on other kids. Stuff like that. How do you ease that, or at least address that as a class to the class? What would you–
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: I think one of the things that I would like, if I was to design the perfect Teacher Ed program– and I don’t think just Teacher Ed program. I just think anybody who goes to college should travel abroad. Should travel abroad. Go outside. See what life is like outside. see Where some of these kids are coming from. See you get a bit of perspective of what’s out there. And just– and actually, for college students I’d probably say do a semester abroad. And ideally, go to a culture which does not reflect your culture. So like what we did when we went to Kenya. I mean, it was totally different. And it’s just the other the side of the world.
And my sense, or my hope is that for those who can, especially those who are teachers, can see that life, and can see what learning means in that particular situation. And then be able to, so when you walk into a classroom, one of the things that you’re able to see is that whatever that class is, that not everybody has it the way you have it. There are people who don’t, but they make the most of it. You know, whatever little they have.
So the first thing I’d probably say, you know, I would suggest if you can’t travel abroad, at least travel– I mean, now there’s so many opportunities to have multicultural experiences. Do that. There are all kind of festivals and fair and places and all kind of stuff that at least you can learn about the different cultures, and the different places, and the different people. If any of you want to leave– even if you do not travel outside, you, know the borders the US of the country you still can experience that. But ideally, I would say, I would love for– especially now that the US has become multicultural– go outside. See the world and see what it’s like. So that’s–
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: Exposure. See that.
Secondly, know your students. Know your students. Because ultimately, teaching really is about personal relationships. Those relationships that you make with your students. That’s why you can still remember, oh, I remember when I was in third grade I had So-and-So. Now the relationship could be positive or negative, but it’s a personal one. But hopefully personal relationships where you get to know your students. And the one thing you realize when you do that is those student are as different as you may have them in there in the classroom. And even they might look alike, but they are not. They have– they come from such different experiences.
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: So I think you need to be able to do that. And for, you know, those students who come from these multicultural backgrounds, we should hold them to the same standard as everybody else. You know? It doesn’t matter where they’re coming from, whether they are refugees coming from Sierra Leone, or they’re just new immigrants who came from Ireland or wherever it is. We hold them to the same standards. Hold them to the same expectation. And so I think that’s one of the– those three things, I think , would help.
And then finally, I think it’s important also to make connections with the parents. If one could make connections with the parents. That helps. Because you realize most parents– I don’t know of– most parents want what’s best for their kids. And immigrant parents and parents from different cultural backgrounds have the same goal for their kids. and They just want the same thing. They want a better life for their kid. And particularly for those who are in this country, who come who are immigrants, because part of the reason, and usually the main reason they are here is because they want a better life. And usually it’s a better life for their kids that they’re bringing up. So get to know– get to know your parents. It will make a big difference in how you deal with it, you know? How you deal with those kids. So that makes a big difference. How you do that.
But go abroad. See what life is like outside. You know, that makes a difference.
INTERVIEWER: Outside of Carroll County?
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: Outside of Carroll County. Outside of what one feels comfortable with.
INTERVIEWER: Yep. Experience it and teach.
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: Yeah.
INTERVIEWER: Well thank you, Dr. O.
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: Yeah.
INTERVIEWER: The official thank you for participating in this Carroll County project.
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: Thank you for asking.
INTERVIEWER: All righty. That concludes our session. So oriti.
O’CHIENG K’OLEWE: Oriti.