Teaching to the Top

“Ed team, let’s roll!”

It is 8:55 am, and we have just finished a breakfast that most likely consisted of bananas and oochi that was enjoyed over good conversation, reflection, and a reading of the previous day’s blog. We gather our backpacks that are filled with children’s books, our students’ name tags and notebooks, chalk, and other materials we will need for our lesson. Andrew, Elly, Emily, and I pile into the back of the Jeep and pray that it starts. After about three or four tries, it finally does and we’re on our way.


We pull up to Chilena Primary School at 9:05, right on time for our 9:00 class. (We’re on Zambia time.) Andrew and Elly split off for their grade 7 class, and Emily and I walk into ours. We are greeted by our 26 students, and we begin singing our good morning song.

Chimene mwane, chimene mwane!

Some people say chimene mwane!

Hello, good morning! Hello, good morning!

Some people say hello good morning!

Then, we begin our lesson. Emily reads a story to the class, and we have the students open up their notebooks for their writing assignment: “Write three sentences about your morning routine”. This was part of the lesson that Emily and I taught on our second day at Chilena. I remember walking over to the right side of the classroom and reading a student’s work:

“The first thing I do in the morning is I wake up. I go outside and I get some water. I wash my face and brush my teeth, and I eat breakfast with sweet potatoes. Then, I go to school…”

Kelvin goes on to describe not only his morning routine, but his routine throughout the entire day. With the exception of a few spelling errors, his writing is nearly perfect, and he well exceeds the three-sentence requirement.

Great, I thought. Our curriculum is going to be too easy for these students.

 I made my way over to the left side of the classroom to continue looking over my students’ work. I knelt down beside Vera, and she looked up at me with wide eyes. All she had written down on her paper was the prompt that she copied down from the chalkboard.

“Vera, what is the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?”

“Yes,” she replies.

After several more failed attempts of rephrasing the question into words Vera might understand, another student sitting in front of Vera turns around to speak to me.

“Madame, this girl does not speak any English.”

Throughout the past two weeks, I have learned that it is true; along with several of her classmates, Vera does not speak English. She knows how to read English, but struggles to comprehend what she is reading. With one-on-one work, either Emily or I are typically able to help Vera and the students that sit by her to write at least one sentence in their notebooks. We have found ourselves spending a lot of time with the students that sit on the left side of the classroom.

The left side of the classroom is where the students who struggle with English Literacy sit. On the right side of the classroom sit students like Kelvin, who are considered “high achievers”. The layout of the classroom segregates ‘high’ and ‘low’ achieving students. It’s a practice that’s common throughout Zambia, one that’s a standard taught in training programs for primary school teachers – the concept of teaching to the top.

Teaching to the top means that classes are designed to help “high achieving” students succeed. The level of difficulty of coursework helps them flourish while leaving behind the students who are not at the same level of literacy.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Jessy, the amazing woman who is the regular teacher for my grade 6 class. In an interview with Jessy, I asked her which students in her class she thought could realistically attend university after they finish secondary school. She listed off three names.

Just three students. Only three students that walk to school every morning to sit in the dusty classroom with no electricity, trying to soak in as much knowledge as possible. Just three of 29; a little less than 10% of the class.

“They are smart enough for university, but the problem is money. Those students will most likely not be able to afford university. I’m not sure if any of them will go.”

When I asked Jessy how this affected her teaching, she explained to me that she gives remedial work for students who need it. She is one of the only teachers who differentiates for students.

This concept of teaching to the top has left me discouraged, heartbroken, and furious. It has caused me to question my role as a temporary teacher at Chilena: How am I going to help these students in just three weeks? It has also caused me to question my role as a future educator, as well as the education system as a whole: How will I help my future students grow to their potential while helping students of all abilities? Why is it that the education system allows so many students to fall through the gap and to not reach their full potential? What does this mean for the education system in the United States?

Teaching to the top has also caused me to reflect more upon concepts that we have been discussing often during our nightly reflections at the convent: accompaniment and kinship. We have often discussed our purpose here in Zambezi. I believe one of our purposes here is to get to know the community and to walk alongside them. I want to learn from the beautiful people that live in Zambezi; to learn about their stories, their families, their lives, and their culture. There is no “top” in this village; there should be no “top” in life. In life, we are not organized like my classroom at Chilena, with “low achieving individuals” seated to the left and “high achieving individuals” seated to the right. Rather, we walk among each other, learning from one another every day.

Last weekend our group took a trip to Chitokoloki. During the hour long drive, the students in my car took turns reading out loud the article that was given to us for reflection that night, The Voice of Those Who Sing, by Gregory Boyle. In this article, Boyle explores the concepts of accompaniment and kinship.

“Of course, there’s no ‘us’ and ‘them’- just us. I suspect that Jesus was executed, in the end, for suggesting this very thing… no one is left behind. There is no hierarchy of value, no pecking order of worth. No one’s presence among us is a waste.”

This article was the perfect article to precede our trip to Chitokoloki. It was during this trip that I met Misula, a 24 year old single mother that I struck up a conversation with because of her involvement in the church choir. Misula and I talked for about an hour and a half. In the beginning of our conversation, we exchanged stories about our families, shared songs from our respective countries, and talked a little bit about what it was like to live in Chitokoloki. After some time, we began talking about topics that were beyond surface level. There is one answer that Misula gave me that I will never forget.

I asked her how it would be perceived if a chindele, such as myself, were to move to her village. Would I be accepted into her culture?

“Why wouldn’t you be accepted?” She asked. “You are a human being just like me. You are no better or worse than me because you are white. You have come to learn from us just as much as you have come to teach us.”

I was almost brought to tears. In one response, Misula perfectly answered so many questions that I didn’t even know I had. There is no top. There is no ‘us’, and there is no ‘them’. On this earth, we are all human beings; we are all one.

Each morning as I stand in front of my students at Chilena, I can’t help but wonder how the classroom would be different if there was no teaching to the top. Now, I can’t help but wonder how the world would be different if there was no “teaching to the top”. How would the world look different if we all stood as one, instead of being separated into ‘us’ and ‘them’?

“For Jesus only sees a circle of compassion and wants no one outside of it… Everybody belongs. No kinship, no justice. We begin here.” –Gregory Boyle

Kisu Mwane,

Katie Kenkel

Class of 2017


P.S. Mom, Dad, Mary, Kevin, Emily, Alex, and Joey: I miss you so much and I can’t wait to be with you all soon. Keep cheering on the Cubbies for me… (Even you, Kevin). I’m doing so too, even from half way around the world. I love you guys more than you know.

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15 Responses to Teaching to the Top

  1. Lindsey Hand says:

    KATIE KENKEL!!!! The day has finally come for your post! Wow, what an incredible post. I love seeing your passion for education and for human rights. You are gentle and soft, but nonetheless a power house for fighting and advocating for the kids in your classroom in chilenga and in whatever classroom or other place you end up in the future. You constantly inspire me with how hardworking you are, how committed you are to what you believe, and how you show every person you meet that they are worthy from the way you interact with them. I hope the challenge has been one that frustrates you to action rather than to hopelessness. I can’t wait to see ya back in Spokane and hear how this trip has impacted your hopes for post-grad life (that sounds so weird saying that…we can’t be this old!). You’re one cool lady, Katie kenkel! I’m so happy and thankful I know you. Love you lots, friend!

    Davis, glad to see you’re growing, learning, and holding closely to what grounds you. Youre engineering team is quite an impressive crew (Yay Zac and t Hamke), but you are very worthy of the team and have so much to offer by being you.

    love always,

  2. Kim Wilcox says:


    I just loved your reflection. Fr. Boyle is number 1 to me!! Two weeks ago I did a talk at a local church about the food bank (where I work) and the title was “Serving the Poor in kinship and compassion”. I referenced Fr. Boyle through out my talk. How cool to read your reflection and know that on the other side of the world, you all are seeing that “kinship is not serving the other, but being ONE with the other.” We are all part of a common ancestry in God’s family!

    God bless you, Katie. Love, Hayley’s mom

  3. Pat Kenkel says:

    Katie Kenks –
    Love, Dad

  4. Pat Kenkel says:

    Katie –
    This reflection – as well as all those previously only posted – shows maturity and wisdom beyond your 20 something youthfulness. I am “wow’d” by your insight, and ‘other centeredness.’ May God bless you forever with the knowledge and wisdom he is giving you in Zambia. May he also answer the questions you will bring back with you when you come home.
    I am extremely proud of you Darlin.

  5. Pat Kenkel says:

    ps Katie –
    3 in 29 is slightly over 10%. The engineer in me can’t let that one slide.

    Love the Cubs fans photo.


  6. Matt Ryan says:

    Awesome post Katie. Great insights, and such a great experience as a future teacher, as I’m sure some of the principles you are discovering will come into play in the coming years. I would love to talk with you after the trip about how you’ve dealt with differentiation and students who are struggling with English, as that is one area I feel like the Gonzaga ed program does not prepare us enough for. Also, the picture with the Cubs hats made me super happy

  7. Kay Antonelli says:

    Katie, Katie, Katie,
    I am so inspired with your ” no us or them” comment. ( Translated: no black or white”, ” no gay or straight ” , ” no democrat or republican” . )We are all one body and one spirit and should lead our lives as such.
    As to teaching to the top, it seems like everyone wants to be in the top, sending their kids to take AP classes, taking college courses while in high school, everyone trying to be the best at school. What happens to those kids who are not academic – the left side of the classroom kids – ?? Let’s not leave those kids behind. Let them be mechanics, or plumbers, or boiler makers or dishwasher repair people. We need them too. Everyone has a place. Everyone is part of one body!

  8. robin Albright says:

    Love reading this Katie. Zambia is where Hands of Hope does a lot of work. That is an organization I have volunteered with for 12 years. Keep sharing your gifts, and allow them to teach you. Be blessed. Robin Albright

  9. Jordan Horner says:

    To the beautiful Katie Kenkel,

    I feel lucky to have just read such a wonderful post, and especially lucky to call such a devoted and inspiring person my friend. I am so happy to hear the wonderful insight you have gained and the way you have grown, and will continue to grow. I quietly read most of these blog posts and am struck by the incredible things you are all doing, the lives you are touching, and the beautiful hearts you all have. Katie, I cannot even begin to tell you how happy it makes me to know that you are doing well. You have a heart of gold, a heart that pours out the love of Christ and a heart that is truly for others. I can only imagine the impact you have on your students and the way your infectious laugh lights up your classroom, even if you cannot see it some days. Side note, I am so happy you and Handy are working together, two of my favs!! Also, I loved what you wrote about the young woman you met, Misula, and how you talked for hours about church choir—wow it made me miss you and Teresa dancing and singing in the apartment so much… I am tearing up right now just thinking about that! I hope you have been able to share your gifted voice with those there in Zambia! Lastly, I want you to know that I am proud of you. On the days when you feel the weakest and the most discouraged, have hope and know that you are doing wonderful, God-glorifying, and impactful things—you are a lighthouse to all that you encounter. Katie Kenkel, I love you and am praying for you and I cannot wait to hear all about it when you get back to the US!

    To some amazing Zags,

    Wow, you are all pretty amazing. Many of your posts have actually been so heartfelt and touching that I need to read them a few times because they’re that good. Handy, Katie B, Katie P, Davieeee, Elly, Moira, and everyone else, you are some of the most beautiful, selfless, and committed people I have ever had the privilege of knowing. Keep doing remarkable things and know that I am sending all my love, thoughts, and prayers from Colorado.


  10. Pat & Christina Kenkel says:

    Good morning, Zags in Zambezi! As I write, I can picture y’all sitting at the long table in the sunny yellow kitchen sharing breakfast together as you read yesterday’s blog and the responses from loved ones back home. It is thanks to your vivid descriptions and insightful posts that I am able to imagine in any small way what your world looks like in this moment.

    Justin- From the obvious sincerity in your reflection, it is clear the you will definitely be leaving more than footprints. Your post was beautiful.

    Molly- What a welcome reminder of how essential it is to take time to slow down and breathe. Your words gave us reason to stop and ponder what is really important in life.

    Moira- What a gift you are to these young women to help them to not only tolerate who they are, but to embrace their womanhood and celebrate their connection to one another. Just think of the lasting impact your quiet confidence brought to them: Life-changing.

    Davis- Congratulations: you are the second person to make me cry with your well-written and thoughtful post. I didn’t expect it- talk of cement doesn’t usually tug at my heartstrings. Pretty sure it started with the passage from Luke, and then I saw the stargazing photo…amazing.

    Katie-girl- Sorry, I didn’t cry while reading your post. Perhaps I was just so excited to finally see your name appear at the bottom of the page. Or maybe I was just so busy bursting with awe and wonder (and a little bit of pride) and wondering “where in the world did she come from?” But maybe that’s not the only question. It’s where you are now (and what you choose to do with these experiences), and where you are going (and how you will share yourself when you get there). We are so SO proud of you and the amazing woman you have become.

    You still have 10 days left in your 32 day adventure. That’s just over (or under?) 30% (that was for the engineers and math majors in the family!) Don’t dread the end- it will come either way. Embrace each day, collect new memories, and do your best to leave a piece of your heart in your new corner of the world.

    Much love and blessings,

    p.s. Dad promises a more detailed Cubs update soon!

  11. Taylor Ridenour says:

    Katie-you have brought me to tears so many times today. my goodness. Currently sitting at the desk hoping no one walks by to the river that has taken over my face. That picture-my heart is overflowing with the love represented by the three of you in that picture-holy coww. So much of me wants to print it out and put it on my wall forever-but i’m not as weird as Sophie so I won’t do that(hehe hi Soph). Kate this reflection, I am still so speechless. Keep asking the questions, keep wondering what the world could be like, keep taking action to make it better, and my friend, as you so beautifully already do-keep opening up that circle of compassion to those our society so often keeps on the outside. You are a light in this world, you are a light in my world. Thank you for this post and for every thing you are. I love you so much.

    Sophie and Dakota-I was struggling with Word a lot today. Goodness-cannot wait to hear about the ups and downs and hick ups and successes of the classroom. Sending tons of love.

    Hi pals! Love you all.

  12. Claire Handy says:

    Katie- thanks for showing a little slice of the Ed team’s day. So awesome to hear about your experiences.
    Ebby- Dad will be home for good in just a couple of hours! That means you are next! You have to come home soon because Laura is baking like crazy. I need you to come help me eat!! Can you say gooey butter cake? Miss you and love you so much.

  13. Morgan Green says:

    KATIE K!

    I’ve been patiently awaiting your post because I had a feeling it would be about education! I am intrigued to hear about the left vs. right dichotomy in the class you are in and how that has made differentiation difficult. Now you have me all fired up about education and I can’t rant about it with you for another week and a half! Also wondering if Anny’s class might be coming in handy with the range of English proficiency?

    Ms. Kenkel, you have the teacher instinct. When you taught mini lessons in 418 I was in awe. Your planning was so thoughtful and your delivery so graceful. You have such a sweet and welcoming presence and I’m incredibly thankful to have gotten to know you this year! While the differentiation in your classroom sounds tough, I know that you are doing the best you can to provide a high challenge-high support classroom for every student to reach their potential! Also, E-Handy as a co-teacher? You lucky duck.

    Katie P- Every time I hear “Love Like This” by Natasha Bedingfield I get a very clear image of you dancing to it? Not really sure why. Maybe you should jam to that next time you do dishes.

    Love, hugs, and prayers for you all,


  14. Venezia says:

    Katie – Your reflection was really profound. I loved it. I’ve been away from Internet for a couple days and getting back to these blogs was so great. It was thoughtful and so honest. You’ve intenified something that I wish more people in the world could see as well. Also Father G is such a homie. Enjoy your last few days of teaching. Even though the time is quick, you are really leaving wonderful marks on the hearts of all your students.

    Davis – Loved your blog. Again, you guys are just killing it with observations and reflections and ideas and just wow so amazed and happy for all of you. I read it during my class break and cried. People just think I cry all the time now. Thanks for being vulnerable and raw about your experience. Back at Gonzaga, I’m always humbled by the kindness you show others and I know you have to be doing the same in Zambia because that’s just who you are. Keep up all your great work be reflection.

    Thinking about you all – Venezia

  15. Bridget Bosch says:

    Katie, I really enjoyed your blog. You truly have a wonderful attitude and an ability to express such a clear picture of your experience in Zambezi. I am certain you will make a great teacher. Thank you, too, for sharing the picture of our Molly Bosch in her Cubs hat!! Take good care and you are all in our prayers. – Bridget (Molly’s mom)

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