Why we hate it and what to do about it.Read More
We did a new project this year in my World History/ELA class.
And it was glorious.
But first a little background.
In 1856, the country of 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. They took over this land with overwhelming force, and caused enemy tribes who had very clear boundaries with each other to share space.
It’s called imperialism, and it’s in my state standards for high school World History.
When Europeans finally left this once rich and beautiful kingdom, it looked very much as it does today: locked in civil war and in a constant state of poverty. A direct result of imperialism.
This happened all over Africa, and it is a contributing factor as to why many African nations are impoverished. And when nations like the United States sends money, food, and unpurchased clothing from thrift stores- a small Band Aid is applied to a large gash.
As a teacher in a project based learning school, I wanted to find a way for my students to learn this history content in a way that is more real and authentic than me telling this story or having them read it on Wikipedia.
I had a woman named Trace, who spent the past several years working in Burundi, come and speak to my class about what she did there. She worked for a bank called Turami that gives micro loans to citizens of Burundi. Groups of up to 30 people come together asking for a loan, 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 together rather than individually. If someone is short one month, the rest of the group pitches in and helps with the payment.
This money is used to start small businesses: goat farming, brick making, clothing companies, etc.. And 90 percent of the loans are paid back in full. This is not 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 ended up loaning me 300 dollars. My students got into groups of four, and I loaned each group 10 dollars. 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 invest it in an actual group of villagers in Burundi applying for a micro loan through this really cool website called KIVA.ORG.
After signing and notarizing loan agreements (by an actual notary public), the students formed companies, and began holding bake sales, selling soda and lattes in the hallway, making bracelets, knitting scarves, buying chocolate and selling it on the weekends at local bowling alleys, and they spent a portion of their earnings on more supplies to generate more income.
I had one group that took their 10 dollars and bought a bag of paintballs. This group went door to door in their neighborhoods telling neighbors that they could shoot them with the paintball gun for every 5 dollars they donated.
They made 50 bucks! You can’t make this stuff up!
At the end of the unit, the whole group (the class) paid back the loan in full, and we had a profit of over 700 dollars.
700 dollars made by 14 year old freshmen. This is history class, are you with me?
And using KIVA, we loaned that money to a group in Burundi. And when it gets paid back, we are going to loan it to another group of people.
My students are thinking outside themselves. They weren't sacrificing their break times in between classes, or their evenings and weekends so they could earn a grade. I actually didn't grade this at all. They worked hard because they wanted to be a part of Burundi. They had a deeper understanding of imperialism than most textbooks can give, and they wanted to do something with this knowledge. This project gave them an opportunity to empathize and act.
That is part of the beauty of project based learning. The subject content is still there, but it is absorbed rather than reflected. It's felt rather than just heard.
Oh, and it's a lot of fun.
I'm going to write my next few posts, dare I call it a series, on some things that never change in education.
No, not those types of things. This will not be a rant.
I want to explore some of the ideas, practices, and motivations that are constant; perpetual.
Ed-technology is great. I love Google Docs, and when my SmartBoard works, it's fantastic. And I also love many of the innovative ways that are being used to teach. Project based learning, Genius Hour, and Flipped Classrooms are wonderful and sometimes very effective. They are changing and developing to fit each new generation. And that is good.
But I want to look at the parts of teaching that seem to be molded to its bedrock; a part of the foundation that holds everything else up. Truths young teachers like myself learned to emulate from masters, and no matter how many technologies are introduced or practices developed, these things remain constant.
So let's start with a story.
My parents divorced each other when I was in 6th grade. I was too busy playing in the woods, jumping on the trampoline, and hanging out with friends to notice that they did not love each other, and that my dad was sleeping on the couch a lot.
So when they said they were splitting up, I was devastated. The fact that there was a high number of divorces among my generation did nothing to soften the blow of a family being ripped apart. Pain usually came from getting stung by wasps or fighting with my brothers. But this pain hurt in a much more severe way, and it was suffocating and more than a little boy should have to handle.
Top that off that it was my first year of middle/public school.
I remember one of those overwhelming, lonely days in sixth grade when I stared into space in Geography class trying not to think about what was going on at home, and I realized class was over and I was by myself in my desk.
"Trevor, are you alright?" Mr. Peters asked me. He was about 30 years old, loved basketball, and once said the word damn in front of the class, so he was cool to me.
I told him I was fine and started packing up my books. He sat down in the desk next to me and said again, "Trevor, are you alright?"
I looked at his eyes for a second and then looked back to the floor. After a moment, I looked back up and Mr. Peters was still looking at me. I tried again to tell him I was fine, but my voice choked up and my 11 year-old eyes filled with tears and I couldn't say anything.
Whether it was some magical intuition or that my mom called him, I don't know, but Mr. Peters said, "Are your parents divorced?" I nodded yes, and he said,"My wife and I are getting a divorce right now, and my little girl is having a really tough time with it. Can you tell me about it?"
And he spent his 1 hour prep period talking to me, and wrote me a pass to skip math class. And I talked to him everyday the rest of that year. And he hardly said a word.
He just listened.
There was nothing constant about my home-life in middle school. It was sometimes good, and sometimes very painful. But Mr. Peters would listen to me everyday. And now that I'm a teacher, I know that he did not have time to listen to me everyday.
But he did.
And it saved me.
I have many, many students who are struggling. Whether it's divorce, depression, or abuse, most of their stories are much harsher and more painful than mine. And I cannot relate to all of them or offer sage wisdom and advice.
But I can listen.
And there is a chance that listening might save someone.
Because listening is one of those powerful things that never changes.