Shanna Howell

Understanding the Global Village: Connecting with Entrepreneurs via Microfinance

Shanna Howell was searching for ways to open the “global eyes” of her ninth grade social studies students. Howell, a teacher at Marlboro High School in Marlboro, New Jersey, was seeking an approach to teaching world issues to students that was more interactive and hands-on than traditional textbook lessons. In discovering the online micro-lending website Kiva, Mrs. Howell came across a platform that would quite literally allow her students to invest in their learning.

Launched in 2005, Kiva ( is a person-to-person lending website that allows users to lend to unique entrepreneurs around the world, primarily in developing nations. Individual investments are usually relatively small – often in the amount of twenty-five dollars – and are eventually repaid by the borrower. Since the average loan request by an entrepreneur on Kiva is less than $1,000 – the high value of the US Dollar means that these business people have relatively low start-up costs in their home countries – donations of twenty-five dollars are substantial and add up quickly.  

Mrs. Howell and fellow Marlboro High School social studies teacher Alexander DePalma were attracted to the idea of having their students create investment portfolios through Kiva because it not only provided insight into the globalized nature of contemporary commerce, but because it also let students directly contribute to the lives of others throughout the globe. Using a portion of a $5,000 Student Achievement Grant awarded by the NEA Foundation, Mrs. Howell and Mr. DePalma let 20 teams of students each invest in two different businesses. Students’ lending was dependant on a profile assigned to them by their teachers designating a country. After students completed comprehensive research on the political, social, economic, and cultural aspects of the countries designated to them, they were encourage to lend to entrepreneurs in their respective countries. 

In addition to assisting their students in providing loans to businesses in far-away countries, Mrs. Howell and Mr. DePalma took advantage of teachable moments in their own backyard that allowed students to discover the aspects of international trade and the global economy. Students completed a demographic profile of their clothing and personal products, which included an inventory of selected items from their households, in which they identified where the product was manufactured, and whether or not it was possible for foreign-made products to have been made in the United States. The findings were then used to begin a study of the various trading partners of the US. 

One of the highlights of the project was a trip to the United Nations in New York City, where 90 students were able to experience an interactive tour and a Humanitarian Aid Briefing. This once in a lifetime opportunity also enabled students to meet with the head of the briefing, a UN official from Somalia. After the trip, students who attended relayed their experiences at the school’s Model United Nations, which was comprised of all Marlboro ninth grade students and several upperclassmen who served in advisory roles. 

As the school year progressed, students were able to track their investments and understand the difference they were making as lenders.

“One of the most successful aspects of this project was that it enabled students to participate in the micro-lending process and truly understand the functions of an interdependent society through an authentic experience,” remarked Mrs. Howell. 

Proof of this understanding comes in the form of the myriad entrepreneurs to whom Marlboro students decided to lend. Student investors provided financial backing to business people in all corners of the globe, among them a grocer in Peru, a weaving collective in Cambodia, a veterinary supply sales team in Tanzania, and a cattle farmer in Azerbaijan. Although the business designs and geographic locales differed from one loan recipient to the next, students understood that the gratitude expressed by each was universal. According to Mrs. Howell, “the lending substantially altered student awareness of the international community and their understanding as world citizens.”

In the coming years, Mrs. Howell and Mr. DePalma look to continue linking social studies lessons with student-led micro-lending. A “Kiva Club” for raising investment funds has been discussed, as has an annual department-wide micro-lending project. The program’s impact on student learning has led all educators involved to realize the importance of its long-term implementation. In addition to significantly strengthening the