In 1856, Germany began invading a very small kingdom in East Africa called Burundi.
They started a century of pillaging the land, harsh violence, political upheaval, and outright stealing of Burundi’s natural resources.
The Europeans finally left this once rich and beautiful kingdom, and today it’s locked in civil unrest and a constant state of poverty. It’s called imperialism, and it’s in the state standards for high school World History.
I asked a woman in my community named Trace who spent the past several years working in Burundi to come and speak to my students about what she did there. She worked for a bank called Turami that gives micro loans to citizens of Burundi.
Microloans are where groups of up to 30 people who wouldn’t have the credit to take out a business loan by themselves- come together to take out a loan as a group- say 15,000 dollars, and the money is divided equally among the group, each person receiving 500 dollars a piece.
But the kicker is, they pay back the loan corporately rather than individually. This money is used to start small businesses: goat farming, brick making, clothing companies. And here’s the best part- 90 percent of the loans are paid back in full.
This means their businesses are working! This isn’t a band aid for the poverty in Burundi, this could be what heals the wound caused by imperialism.
And when my students heard Trace’s story, they wanted to be a part of it. And so when Trace left that morning, the class did some brainstorming. And my principal loaned me 300 dollars.
My students got into groups. And I loaned each group 10 dollars a piece. Their goal was to multiply that money into as much money as possible. And at the end of the unit, they would pay the loan back, and we would take the profits and using this really cool organization, invest it in an actual group of villagers in Burundi applying for a micro loan.
So the students formed companies, and for the next month we had a lot of bake sales in the hallways,
and one group bought chocolate and sold it on the weekends at a local bowling alley, and then used their profits to buy more chocolate to sell it the next weekend.
I had one group that took their 10 dollars and bought a bag of paintballs, and went door to door in their neighborhoods telling neighbors that for 5 bucks they could shoot them with a paintball gun.
This group made 50 bucks!
At the end of the unit, the whole class paid back the loan in full, and we had a profit of over 700 dollars. And we loaned that money to an actual group of people in Burundi. And when it gets paid back, we are going to loan it to another group of people. And then another group, and another group.
This is history class. Are you with me?
My students also wrote historical fiction narratives for this project
it is still school
And their stories took place in imperialized countries, and they had to have perfect punctuation and put them in MLA format.
And they invested the same excellence into writing these essays that they put into serving people in Burundi.
This is called project based learning. It’s big. It’s memorable. It’s epic.
It’s not the type of learning that’ll get kids ready for the real world.
It’s the kind that puts them in it.
It takes the student who got A’s their whole life by playing the education game really well, and makes her think critically, and communicate, and collaborate and all of these skills that don’t come with sitting in rows and taking notes.
And it takes that C student- D student- the one school has labeled a failure, and gives him real and authentic reasons to want to learn, engage, and create.
When I tell people about the projects my students do, I often hear them say, “Man, I wish they did that kind of thing when I was in school”
Yeah me too. And so do millions of kids in our education system. So let’s change it up. Shift the paradigm. We can still have tests and teach Shakespeare, but let’s do it with our hands, and paintballs, and make students use more than one side of their brains.
Let’s make school authentic.
Let’s make learning epic.