Alumni Highlight: Jennifer Gagner

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Salama, Bonjour, Hello from Madagascar!

My name is Jennifer Gagner and I am an alumna from the first graduating class of the Online Master’s program.  I received my Master’s of Education in Curriculum and Instruction and at the time, I had no idea that it would take me to Africa!  After teaching in various urban and suburban schools in North Carolina, New Jersey, and New York City, my spouse, who is also a teacher, and I decided to make the leap into the world of International Teaching.  The process involved a long application, a chaotic job fair, and lots of interviews with schools around the world before we accepted the post at the American School of Antananarivo, Madagascar.  My degree was instrumental in securing this post as it gave me the experience and confidence to join this team as a teacher of English Language and Literature, the secondary school representative for the Blended Learning Committee, and the chair for Assessment in our accreditation process.

Making The Leap

Both being avid travelers and having taught for 12 years, my spouse for 18 years, we sold our house and cars, put our keepsakes into storage, and shipped 15 boxes of curricular items, cooking supplies, and clothes, and prepared ourselves for the near 24 hours of travel. When we arrived it was winter here, although it never really dropped below 65 degrees. I have never been to a developing country, so what I saw was both enlightening and heartbreaking. There is a great deal of poverty. Hardly any English is spoken outside of the ex-pat community, which has made communication difficult. There are restaurants, but due to the lack of clean water and having to shock our vegetables and fruits with bleach, we rarely eat out. Produce is very inexpensive and is not genetically modified, so we love cooking at home. We have water filters at home and at school to protect us from water-borne illness. We settled in quickly, and have been able to take some trips around the island on our breaks to see Madagascar’s indigenous flora and fauna, including the majestic, yet wily, lemurs.

My Community in Madagascar

The school is quite different from any in which I have taught. They moved into a beautiful new campus this year with lots of outdoor space.  Students had much more freedom to move around campus, and the cafeteria prepared meals that were nutritious and delicious –quite a change from pizza and french fries everyday. What struck me the most, however, was the kindness and international-mindedness of the students and staff.  The school is truly diverse with a mix of students from around the world.  Their caring and open-mindedness is unlike anything I have seen. They are curious about the world, think deeply, and have an insatiable curiosity.  This is an American school, so we follow the CCSS, but also received International Baccalaureate certification.  Next year, I will teach the IB Language and Literature program, which is considerably different from most American programs as it gives a great deal of autonomy to both students and teachers and facilitates a curriculum with many ways to show knowledge and understanding.  My courses and focus in Critical Media Literacy, Youth and Digital Media, and Participatory Learning have prepared me to make this instructional shift.

Key Takeaways

Despite the challenges with the language, food and water safety, and traffic, I have grown so much, both personally and professionally.  To sum it up:

  • I have experienced being the minority and not having the skills to communicate in French.
  • I have seen children with tattered clothing and no shoes digging through trash piles for food.
  • I have felt the fear of a city when the plague struck, knowing that people died because of lack of health care.
  • I have spoken with strangers on the street, if only with a smile.
  • I have realized the value of cooking all of our own meals.
  • I have learned that although I thought I had diverse experiences in both my professional and personal life, this move has taught me more than I have learned at home.
  • I am still learning to drive a stick shift, and my French is coming along.
  • I have more gratitude and know that this is the first stop on my journey, and what a journey it is!

Below are a few photos from my time in Madagascar:

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