Looking to Learn

IMG_1120The students—sophomores in high school—had just finished a unit on the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. They had seen Hotel Rwanda, completed activities that taught them about the stages of genocide, and visited the recently released United Nations Rwanda commemorative site.

Now it was my turn.

Since I have been to Rwanda several times, their teacher asked me to visit the class as a guest speaker and bring a new perspective: Rwanda after the genocide. The students wanted to know, and she wanted them to learn, how a country recovers from such devastation.

She had another motive, too: A veteran educator, she knew well that student teachers benefit from seeing more than one teacher in action and from developing a repertoire of instructional strategies before they’re released to fly on their own. Her student teacher would be present, would observe the lesson, and would present it herself at the end of the day when I could no longer be there.

I jumped at the opportunity to talk about Rwanda, but I didn’t just want to talk about my experiences. I wanted to try out a strategy that the student teacher—any teacher—could use, not just that afternoon, but for another topic in another time and place.

I had gone to Rwanda in 2006 to study the genocide there, to see if I could discern a pattern in the genocides of the 20th century. Indeed, I did discover a pattern, and that informed my own instruction in the years after that (See my post Night in Rwanda). I have returned twice since then to support a non-profit organization, Every Child is My Child, in its mission to provide secondary school scholarships for students who pass the national exam at the end of 6th grade. (See Educating Every Child). The route to recovery is through education. Although Rwanda now sends 96% of its children to primary school, education that ends at 6th grade does little to lift a country from a culture of subsistence farming to a competitive position in the global community.

So my objective for the lesson was to point the students in that direction: to understanding that education brings opportunity—for the individual student and for their country.

The students were clustered around square tables, four to a group, perfect for the activity I’d devised. For each table I’d put together a folder that contained a fact sheet about Rwanda (facts and statistics culled from the Internet), a map of Africa, a map of Rwanda, and two sets of photographs. Set A contained 10 pictures I’d taken as a tourist, and Set B included 6 photos I’d taken in Rwandan classrooms. I’d carefully chosen them for their power to evoke questions, then copied each one ten times on my printer and laminated the lot so they could be used again. Indeed, three sections of sophomores would be handling those pictures. I wanted them to be intact by the end of the day and useable again another year.

My colleague introduced me, gave the kids a little background on my current role and my visits to Rwanda, then turned the lesson over to me.

Before class, I’d written these seemingly random words on the board: gorillas, subsistence farming, genocide, coffee, telecommunications, and $350. I asked if anyone in the class could explain the connections between and among the words. I knew the students could talk about the genocide, but I wasn’t surprised that no one ventured a guess about the other words and how they might be related to that ominous one.

“So,” I started, “let’s begin by locating Rwanda on the map. The smallest country in Africa (with the densest population) and a poor one, Rwanda is hard to see. “Find Lake Victoria and then slide your finger to the left just a little way.” Found!

The students noticed not only the diminutive size of the country, but that it was landlocked—surrounded, except for its sister country, Burundi—by much larger countries. Then we looked at the companion map, the one of Rwanda itself. Inverted V’s indicated mountains, and someone spotted the volcanic region in the northwest corner. “What’s that all about? Isn’t Africa all desert and savanna?”

I asked them to skim the information on the fact sheet, but as I knew, an array of statistics is not particularly engaging. Stats only make sense when you have something to hook them to. That’s where photographic Set A came in. The students passed the 10 photographs around the table, looking, as I’d directed them to do, for anything that seemed unusual or interesting. After they’d examined the pictures and remarked to each other about what they saw, we began examining the pictures one by one.

IMG_0151The first was of those volcanoes and another was of a gorilla I’d seen. The pictures gave me an opportunity to talk about the movie Gorillas in the Mist and Dian Fossey–some had seen that film or knew of her work–and explain that the gorillas are Rwanda’s major tourist attraction, but that access to them is limited. Only a few people a day can see the gorillas so they don’t become habituated to humans. The country is not going to grow rich through tourism alone.

Another photo was of the countryside–hill after hill, all of the land, every square inch, cultivated: subsistence farming. We talked about what that means, not just in terms of a country’s GDP, but for a family, for the kids, for education. While 90% of Rwandans are involved in agriculture, the country still must import food. In our county here in Indiana, farming is big business, but in the pictures from Rwanda, there were no silos, no tractors, and no cultivators. People use hoes and machetes and pull every weed by hand. Then the students remembered the machetes in Hotel Rwanda and the Hotel Mille Collines–a thousand hills.

A picture of coffee plants and a woman harvesting beans: “Yes,” I was able to tell them. “Coffee is cultivated in Rwanda—and tea—and their coffee is delicious. Starbucks sometimes features it. But look at those great big countries around Rwanda: Kenya, Tanzania, and farther north, Ethiopia. Coffee grows there, too.”

“Oh. Rwanda can’t compete at that level.”

IMG_1123They were beginning to make connections. I continued to build a portrait of the country one photograph at a time by answering the students’ questions about what they saw. A market scene. A child on the road toting water. A parade of people on either side of a paved road, all of them walking in one direction or the other, all of them headed somewhere—on foot. A man hauling an enormous bunch of bananas to market on a bicycle–a bunch so big it threatened to tip the bike at any moment. It took all the man’s energy to guide his bicycle and keep it upright.

Then a picture taken in the city from the front seat of a car. It looked like I was trying to capture the billboard–an advertisement for tomato sauce–but “No,” I told the students. “Look at what’s behind it: a cell phone tower.” Rwanda is a telecommunications leader in Africa.

“Smart leaders,” I said. “They looked around after the genocide and realized there’s no land left to expand into, and even encouraging commercial farming wouldn’t be enough to transform the country from a subsistence culture. Even if they could revolutionize farming methods, it wouldn’t be enough.” After the genocide, the leaders puzzled out the problem and realized “We can’t expand our territory, but we can develop our human capital and become leaders in telecommunications.”

And so recovery began.

Foreign aid made it possible. However, for a country to fully recover, it is going to take an educated populace. And that’s where Set B, the pictures taken inside Rwandan classrooms, and the $350 came in. The pictures revealed a stark environment: no textbooks, no bulletin boards, and no alphabet pictures arrayed on the walls. The students shared desks, numbered at least 40 in that room, and had written everything that was on the board in their copybooks. Those were their 06.2011 Rwanda 086texts. What my students rapidly discerned, though, from a picture of the problems on the blackboard, was that the kids in this 6th grade classroom were not so far behind 6th graders here in our district. Those were multi-step arithmetic problems on the board.

So what was the $350?

The cost of a year of secondary school.

Rwandan families–and children in Burundi and so many other countries in Africa and around the world–can’t afford $350. “Look at the fact sheet. The average income for an individual is about $560. Even if two people brought in that much money apiece, it wouldn’t stretch far enough to send a child to school.”

Rwanda is ahead of other developing countries by mandating that children attend school through 9th grade, but village schools only accommodate students that far. After that, students must attend boarding schools and pay that $350 for tuition, books, mattresses, and transportation.

Until Rwanda is financially stable enough to provide a free public education through high school, only a small number of students can continue every year. Only a few of them are lucky enough to be supported by organizations like Every Child is My Child. Until village schools are built for secondary students, few families will be able to do without the very real help their children provide. Secondary education for everyone is coming, but it’s going to take time and the continued support of the international community.

The high school students understood: Education is the path to recovery. Developing countries need people with the know-how to work not just in telecommunications, but in health care and commercial agriculture, and as entrepreneurs, developers, specialists in tourism, road builders, retail store owners, teachers…

Rwandans are looking to learn.

As for the lesson I was modeling, it worked well and the student teacher was able to replicate it on her own at the end of the day. The strategy of guest “lecturing” through looking at photographs and answering questions generated by the students themselves would work for any country whether the teacher had been there or not. Images abound on the Internet. For visual learners, seeing is understanding, and for the kinesthetic learners, actually handling the photos made a big difference. Projected images would have been bigger, but something about examining a photo up close makes the content personal.

Judging from the exit cards the students filled out, the objective was more than met. They were thoughtful in their comments about what they had learned, and I discovered that the lesson had worked in ways I had not anticipated.

I hadn’t said it, not once, but one girl wrote: “I learned that we should be grateful for what we have.”

I was gratified she’d learned that on her own.


A Song for Every Child

Two sisters, just beginning their singing career.

Three hundred secondary school students, just beginning to fulfill their dreams of an education.

The sisters live in a small town in North Dakota. The 300 live in Rwanda and Burundi, the smallest countries in Africa.

A pair of amazing teachers and a dedicated mother-daughter team marshaled the energies and the enthusiasm of students at Horizon Middle School in Bismarck, North Dakota, to bring the two sisters and the three hundred students together.

Here’s what happened in Bismarck on April 19. image Tigirlily

The two sisters—Kendra and Krista Slaubaugh—sing together under the name Tigirlily. They have a Facebook page, a YouTube following, and a burgeoning repertoire.  The Bismarck Tribune carried a feature story about the girls and their music ambitions, and that sparked an idea for middle school teacher Fran Joersz.

For six years, Fran and her colleague Peggy Hoge, both Communications teachers, have mobilized students at Horizon Middle School to raise money for Every Child is My Child, a non-profit organization that provides secondary school scholarships to children in Rwanda and Burundi.  The Horizon students have made pencil cases, jewelry, and tie-dye t-shirts—but this year they went big. They engaged Kendra and Krista in their mission and, together, staged a benefit for Every Child is My Child.

Tickets were $10 each. The Horizon Huskie Singers—the school’s show choir—opened the show, and Tigirlily performed solo renditions and musical duets for an hour and a half on the middle school stage.

Internal publicity was handled by two of the Horizon students, Halle Schereck and Taylor Pederson, who have worked on raising money for Every Child scholarships for three years now. These two 9th graders created a PowerPoint presentation about the Every Child scholars in Rwanda and Burundi and showed it to fellow students throughout the school.  The message the girls delivered to their peers was simple: You can make a difference in a child’s life by giving the gift of education.

Artist Michelle Lindblom-Eggert (http://www.mick-art.com) and her daughter, McKenzie, designed both the tickets for the concert and the posters that students hung in the school and throughout the community.  McKenzie also served as the official photographer for the event.  When McKenzie was in middle school, Michelle spearheaded the tie-dye t-shirt project, and the mother-daughter team has remained dedicated to the Every Child mission ever since.

Ticket sales to parents of the choir members were brisk—parents always want to see their children perform.  That the proceeds went for a good cause only increased the buy-in.

On the night of the performance, people flooded the school auditorium to listen first to the show choir and then to the lilting harmonies of the two sisters. When the concert was over, middle schoolers clustered excitedly around the two performers, who are only a few years older than they are, eager to pose for pictures with the duo and to take home autographed Tigirlily t-shirts. In the end, Horizon Middle School raised over $2000: enough to split with Tigirlily and still send 10 students to school for another year.

So what does it take to give the gift of education?  A brilliant idea, a few dedicated adults, the energy of youth, and music—sweet, sweet music.

To learn more about Every Child is My Child, visit these sites:



The Gift of Hope

Last week I wrote about Amani, a Rwandan girl who wants to become a doctor. She is on the way to fulfilling her dream because Every Child is My Child, a non-profit organization that funds secondary school scholarships for students in Rwanda and Burundi, is sending her to high school. I said in last week’s post (“Educating Every Child”) that I would write this week about what my students here in Indiana have done to raise money for Every Child so that Amani and children like her can go to secondary school.

If you haven’t read last week’s post, here’s the short version of the need: In rural Rwanda, the scene of genocide in 1994, families in poor communities struggle to educate their children. For most of the children, secondary education (grades 7-12) is out of the question because the school fees are too steep. In Burundi, the scene of a terrible civil war in 1994, the circumstances are as dire if not worse. Secondary school students in these countries need to pay tuition to attend boarding schools. They must buy uniforms, purchase books, and bring their own mattresses with them to their distant schools. A year of secondary school in Rwanda is about $300—a small amount compared to the cost of education in America. In Burundi, a year of secondary school is only $100. Every Child is My Child promises a high school education to the 6th graders in their partner schools if they study hard and pass the entrance exams—and the children are eager to learn.

sm Ngenda schoolroomIn the elementary classrooms in Rwanda—which I have visited—there are no posters on the walls, no books, and few visual aids —just a teacher, a blackboard, copy books and pencils. The students write everything they hear from their teachers and everything they see on the board in their copy books—and they study what they have written.  Against all odds, they are on grade level with 6th graders in the United States.  And they are hungry to learn more.

Two years ago, my students made posters—alphabet art—for the walls of these primary schools. Last year they made flags.

But the most important gift my students have given to the children of Rwanda and Burundi is the gift of a high school education: Each year they have raised a substantial amount of money for scholarships for children like Amani.

sm Senior Send-offsMy students have worked the concessions at football and basketball games. They have sold garbage bags to adults and “candygrams” (lollipops with a note attached are delivered to fellow students in their classes just before holidays) to their peers. At the end of the school year, they have served as scribes and couriers, delivering last minute “Farewell and Congratulations!” notes from underclassmen to graduating seniors. They have conducted fund drives by selling snacks in the cafeteria at lunch.

They are not alone in their devotion to the Every Child scholars. In Bismarck, 4 kids jewelryNorth Dakota, students at Horizon Middle School–with the help of two dedicated teachers and a parent volunteer–are also raising money for Every Child. For several years, these middle schoolers sold tie-dyed t-shirts  and socks to their peers and to community members. They created pencil packs out of duct tape and supplied just about everyone in their middle school with these colorful carrying cases. Now they are selling handmade jewelry–bracelets, necklaces, earrings–and sending the proceeds to Every Child.

These American teenagers are making a difference in the lives of children in Africa by helping them achieve what is taken for granted in our country: a high school education.  The money they raise is a gift of hope for a better life for the children there and a better world for all of us.

If you are a teacher and have an idea for an Every Child service project you’d like to do with your students, I’d be glad to talk particulars with you. Just contact me by responding in the comment section to this blog. Consider changing the world with us.

To learn more about Every Child is My Child, visit these sites:



Educating Every Child

I’m going to depart from my usual format and include some pictures in this post. I want you to see Amani. She wants to be a doctor when she grows up.

sm AmaniHer ambition is not unusual—at least it wouldn’t be for American girl. What is unusual is that Amani is enrolled in high school in the tiny African country of Rwanda—and she’s well on the way to achieving her dream.

In Rwanda, it’s unusual for children to be in high school at all. In this tiny country in west central Africa, elementary education (grades 1-6) is mandated; in fact, 98% of the boys and 96% of the girls attend village elementary schools. But that’s where education ends for most.

The reason is money: A year of secondary school costs at least $300.

In a country where, according to the World Bank figures for 2011, the per capita GDP averages $570 a year, sending your child to secondary school—and you may have three, four, five, six children—is impossible. Amani is lucky: She attended a elementary school that partners with Every Child is My Child, an American non-profit that provides scholarships for any child in the school who passes the national exam to qualify for secondary school.

Every Child is My Child has been partnering with Nyacyonga, Amani’s village school, for five years. Children at Nyacyonga have a reason now to stay in school and study hard: Secondary school has become a possibility.

In sheer economic terms, attending secondary is meaningful because, again according to the World Bank, every additional year of school means a 10% increase in earning power. Amani is a junior, so she’s already added 50% to her potential as a wage earner. In human terms, think what an education means for her: She will have choices about the path she follows in life.

Think what Amani can do for her country.

Rwanda is not only the smallest country in Africa; it is the most densely populated. Most people in the rural areas are subsistence farmers, growing bananas and sorghum and coffee. In fact, Rwanda’s chief export is coffee, but the country is so small it can’t compete globally with Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania—much larger countries with far larger harvests.

Rwanda has one major tourist attraction: the endangered mountain gorillas made famous in a film about Dian Fossey’s life and work, Gorillas in the Mist.  Expensive as it is to trek into the mountainous jungle region to see the gorillas—a permit costs the equivalent of an average Rwandan’s yearly income—a limited number of tourists per day are allowed to see the gorillas (the length of a visit is a strict one hour) so that the animals don’t completely habituate to humans.

On top of that, Rwanda is still recovering from the devastating genocide of 1994 when 800,000 people were slaughtered, mostly by machete, in a mere 90 days—a story told to the world in the film Hotel Rwanda. Education is the route to development and economic independence, and ultimately, the key to peace and progress.

So Amani—her name means “Peace” in Swahili—and her fellow classmates will be the ones to lift Rwanda from poverty and bring stability to the lives of their countrymen. She and her classmates will make, in fact, a global impact because an education is a sustainable resource.

In Rwanda, secondary schools are boarding schools. Students are assigned to schools all over the country according to their interests, their test scores, and the space available, so a class of graduating 6th graders may not stay together. Amani’s is a specialized high school. The curriculum is science-based—what  we might call in this country a “magnet school.”  She travels by bus—sometimes the ride can be 10 hours—and comes home infrequently. Transportation is expensive, and it is the parents’ responsibility to pay for or make the travel arrangements, their demonstration of commitment to their children’s education. Not one parent at Nyacyonga whose child has passed the qualifying exam has turned down this opportunity for their child. The $300 a year scholarship from Every Child is for tuition, books, school supplies, a uniform, and a roll-up mattress.

Two summers ago, I visited a secondary school with Every Child is My sm EyeChild’s founder and director (who happens to be my daughter) and some of its donors. The school I saw is in a secluded spot in northeastern Rwanda at the end of a shaded red earth road that cuts through cultivated fields. The grounds are neat, trimmed, tidy. The classroom buildings are sparsely accoutered: blackboards, desks, and only occasionally, a wall poster. The most colorful—and unique—aspect of the school is outside the classroom: Murals depicting body systems and organs have been painted on the exterior of the buildings—the eye, the respiratory system, the ear, for example.

sm Respiratory SystemWe took Amani and four other Every Child scholars from this school or from boarding schools within a few hours bus ride to lunch at a restaurant on Lake Muhazi, located not far from the school. Charming teenagers, all of them: Amani with her megawatt smile; Mary Louise, who—as is common—is the first in her family to go to secondary school; Grace, who also wants to be a doctor; and two boys, Ananies and Jean-Paul.  John-Paul was the spokesperson for the group. On the bus that morning, he’d prepared a speech which he read to us before we ate. He thanked Every Child for the opportunity to go to school, of course, and said that the students’ motto was this: “Upward Ever; Downward, Never.”

Lunch was barbecued chicken and fresh fish and orange soda. The teenagers, accustomed to beans and maize for lunch and dinner day after day after day, picked the platter clean. The soda bottles emptied quickly. “They don’t serve Fanta in the school cafeteria?” we asked, knowing full well they didn’t.

“It would be a miracle!” Amani laughed.

We asked the students about their families, their ambitions, their favorite subjects, and among other things, what they like to do in their spare time. Amani’s not so different than American kids—she likes to relax with her friends. Someone mentioned the upcoming end-of-term exams, though, and she responded, with her characteristic grin, “I guess I’ll have to reduce my relax!”

Every Child is My Child takes a unique approach to educating children in Rwanda and in Burundi, its neighbor. First of all, the scholarships are for secondary school. That’s unusual in the developing world, but clearly, the gap between elementary enrollment and 7th grade clarifies that there is where the need is—and where the greatest impact could be. The incentive for the elementary students—that is, the possibility of continuing on to secondary school—has worked.

And even if a student doesn’t pass the national exam to go on, he or she has lasted through 6th grade at least. That’s going to increase that student’s earning power and insure a degree of literacy. Likely there will be long-term impacts on early marriages and child labor expectations, on earning power and family stability. Education has the potential to break the cycle of poverty—so every year in school helps, and every child is part of the solution.

Every Child is My Child’s model is unique, too, because every child in the partner schools is offered the same opportunity. Some scholarship programs serve individual students—say, the top scholar in a school—or provide support just for girls—or just boys. These programs are important. But Every Child, by educating whole classes of students, aspires to lift entire communities. What can happen when every child in a village is literate, when every child has a high school education? In how many ways will the village itself be transformed? The country? These are big questions. The answers reside in the  future these children create for themselves and their families.

Right now, Every Child sponsors about 300 students from two elementary schools in Rwanda (Nyacyonga and Ngenda) and one in Burundi (Mageyo), an even poorer country, where the school fees for secondary grades add up to only $100 a year. The first graduates—kids who have been supported for a full six years—will receive their diplomas in 2014. There are plans to expand the Every Child model, but in the meantime, more students begin 7th grade each year, so the need to expand the base of reliable funders is also growing. This is an organization that depends 100% on volunteers—there are no salaries for anyone—and right now, the organization relies largely on individual donations.

Some American schools have helped, though–and that’s the connection to my American classroom. In my next post, I’ll describe what the International Club at my high school has done to support Every Child is My Child and what another teacher in North Dakota is doing with her middle school students. You can help, too, if you’re a teacher looking for a service project. In the meantime, you can learn more about Every Child by visiting the organization on Facebook (www.facebook.com/EveryChildisMyChild) or by viewing this YouTube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jeAW9IKHJok

And murakoze. That’s “thank you” in Kinyarwandan. Thank you for reading this blog. Thank you for caring about every child.

Teach Me How

Once, in Rwanda, I was working with the English teachers in a secondary school in Kigali on the rules for punctuating compound sentences. I had handouts, visual aids, and even a graphic that illustrated a fairly clever way to remember the rules. But, I had run out of practice sentences. We were in the school library at the time—a room with very few books but many long tables and benches to accommodate the 50-60 students in a class. As I pondered how to produce more practice sentences quickly—without the aid of a blackboard—I glanced at the shelves and saw, to my surprise, a familiar text—Writer’s Choice—a book I had used in my own high school in Indiana some years before. In fact, a whole class set—two class sets—were neatly arranged on the shelves. I got up from my seat at the table and retrieved a copy for myself and one for each teacher.

The texts had been sent from a school in Florida to this school in Kigali as a charitable donation. A gracious one, indeed—but the books had never been used. They’d been on the shelves since they had arrived. The English Department Chair shrugged when I asked her why.

I didn’t belabor the point. I just turned to the index and searched for the page numbers that corresponded with compound sentences. We all turned to the appropriate page, and I resumed my lesson.

When I was finished, the teachers began asking questions. Did this book teach capital letters? Did it teach spelling? What about other comma rules? Could I show them how I found the sentences I had been looking for? It dawned on me, suddenly, why these books had not been used. These teachers weren’t accustomed to using textbooks in the first place, but more importantly, the books themselves were baffling. They didn’t understand how our thick and elaborate American textbooks are laid out: sequenced chapters with the rules and their exceptions, each rule followed by several dizzying sets of practice sentences and quiz sets; elaborate but confusing color-coding; distracting sidebars; and suggested links to related lessons located half an inch farther into the text. They didn’t know what an index was.

Once I showed them how to use the book, the teachers were absorbed, turning the pages avidly, asking each other questions, discovering with delight the explanations for rules they themselves weren’t sure of. It wasn’t long before the English Department Chair turned to me and said, “I see now that these books are very useful.”

An impromptu lesson in how to use a textbook was more critical—and probably more lasting—than the fancy lesson I’d prepared on compound sentences.

That experience with the Rwandan teachers sticks with me because it reinforced something I’ve known for a long time but sometimes lose sight of: Process is as important as product. Mastery of process yields confidence, an attitude that is, for a young learner, far more important than content knowledge. It is confidence that enables a student to shoot for the stars. Students reach high when they are comfortable with what they’re doing, comfortable with the process. Actually, don’t we all?

It’s intellectually interesting to identify content we want our students to learn; it’s fun to develop the blueprint for a culminating project. But it’s easy for us to overlook the importance of teaching processes. How to use a database. How to run the grammar checker. How to summarize. How to use Turn It In (an online plagiarism prevention site). How to give a speech. How to make a poster aesthetically pleasing. How to write a business letter. How to set up a Works Cited page.

Sometimes the process we need to teach is a basic one. For example, part of the Unsung Heroes project (which I wrote about a few weeks ago) is learning how to write a handwritten letter. My students write thank you notes to their heroes for the time spent interviewing them and invitations to the celebration we hold when the book is published. I insist they do this on stationery, in ink, by hand. Every year I have to teach my students how to address an envelope. I used to have to show them how to find an address in the phone book. Now it’s how to find an address online. But now they know—and they won’t shy away from handwritten notes in the future. In fact, they think they’re pretty cool.

Other times, though, the process is complex. For example, English teachers are charged with teaching research skills so students can produce what used to be called “the term paper.” What we are teaching our students is a very lengthy process: choosing a topic, finding resources, reading and understanding those resources, evaluating them, writing an annotated bibliography, formulating a thesis, combing the readings for evidence to support the thesis, and then writing the paper itself–clearly, coherently, correctly—even elegantly. And finally, that miserable Works Cited page—how to do that systematically so the bibliographical entries match the internal documentation. It’s an enormous process, and at my school, we lead the students through it at least once each year. Their papers often reveal that they don’t quite understand their topic. They may treat it superficially or focus on something trivial. But really, these fledgling scholars are to be congratulated at the end: they’ve gained experience with a difficult and lengthy process that will be second nature to them when they get to college—where the content will really matter.

Sometimes we forget how important it is to teach the “how-to” part. We have a way, in our eagerness to share our own excitement about a topic or an idea, to presume in our students skills they don’t have, just as the people who sent the textbooks to Rwanda presumed the teachers there would know how to use them. We sometimes assume familiarity, make assignments our kids don’t know how to approach, or confuse them with complexity. In our enthusiasm, we don’t break a process down—or we skip teaching it altogether—and leave our students puzzled rather than confident. I’ve done it myself too many times—but I’m learning. Teaching well is a process, too.

Night in Rwanda

2009.04.15 Honors 9 Pattern of Genocide 016I have taught Holocaust literature—Night, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Children of Willesden Lane—for many years. But I cannot teach these books in the way I usually teach literary works of art. Granted, these books are not fiction, so I am spared having to chart the plot line. I know there are motifs and images and definitely themes—but my point has never been, in teaching any of these accounts, to reveal the writer’s technique. Putting such a text under the microscope of literary analysis would distance the students from the story, and I want them to hold close the visceral response they all have when they read, say, Night. Discussing Wiesel’s imagery as if he had sat down deliberately to craft a work of art instead of to tell his horrifying story to an unconscious world would be—to my mind—a sacrilege. As story, his journey through hell penetrates our unconsciousness and sears our souls. Ironically, what I could do would destroy its impact, and that I cannot do.

But the Holocaust must be taught. Genocide must be admitted and discussed. Here is what I do instead.

Most students, when they first learn about the Holocaust, do not immediately see the connection between the tragic events of WWII and their own lives in the 21st century. They think that genocide is a distant horror. But we, the adults, the teachers in the room, know about Darfur, where genocide is so fresh. We know about Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and other places that in recent history have served as the stage for mass murder.

I have been to Rwanda. My first trip there, in 2006, was undertaken specifically to study the genocide of 1994. I wanted to understand the causes and the chronology of the Rwandan genocide to see how it compared with the unfolding of the Holocaust. I learned very quickly that genocide doesn’t just happen. In fact, it follows a pattern, one that I have taught to my students ever since. (I am indebted to Gregory Stanton at Genocide Watch for his work in revealing this pattern, though I simplify it somewhat for 9th graders.)

Genocide always begins with prejudice. A power group, for a variety of reasons, marginalizes, discriminates against, isolates, and ultimately demonizes a minority. The climax is the killing, followed by a strange denouement, denial.

My students read Night first. They read it without a lot of preface, and they are full of questions during the three short days it takes them to finish the book. By the end, they want to know more, and it is then that I send them on a research mission. The students work collaboratively to construct poster essays that will reveal the pattern of genocide. They draw straws to form groups, and I give each group a title for the poster—the name of a stage in the pattern—and a few keywords to get them started. For the next several days, my room resembles an art studio—construction paper, scissors, rubber cement, watercolors, and magic markers dominate the landscape. Kids cluster around the tables, lie on the floor. They labor over their posters, placing pictures precisely and writing captions that capture the essence of the photographs they’ve downloaded. They know that what they are researching and presenting in their posters is too important to treat superficially, and their posters powerfully illustrate the progress from prejudice to mass murder. Pattern of Genocide 002 2009.04.15 Honors 9 Pattern of Genocide 020 Pattern of Genocide 004

We put the posters on the board and discuss the order in which they should be hung: Prejudice, Legal Discrimination, Separation and Isolation, Preparation for Killing, and Extermination—and the one that could be hung anywhere and everywhere along the continuum: Propaganda.

Then, after a brief introduction, I instruct them to repeat the research—this time researching Rwanda. They create, again, poster essays that depict the progress of the genocide there—from the identity cards issued by the Belgians when Rwanda was still a colony to the hate radio broadcasts that mobilized the Interahamwe.

Pattern of Genocide 012They hang the posters side-by-side on the whiteboards in my classroom: the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide. I am not interested in discussions of scale—it’s not that kind of comparison. I am interested in the pattern.

By studying the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide side-by-side, my students come to see that neither was an aberration of history. By studying the pattern, they realize that genocide has its roots in attitudes that show up in day-to-day interactions, the kinds of discriminatory behaviors they themselves encounter not just in the evening news, but in the lunchroom, on the playground, in the halls, in gym class. Sometimes we call it bullying.

My students come face-to-face with the pernicious effects of prejudice in their study of these two genocides, and they understand the importance of speaking out against ethnic jokes in the lunchroom, bullying in the halls, discriminatory laws in their state and country, and unfolding events in places like Sudan. They understand the moral imperative to be inclusive rather than exclusive, to accept rather than reject.

My students see that they can work to prevent genocide by voicing opposition to the prejudice they encounter and by engaging in activities that promote peace and understanding—both locally and globally. Sometimes it is as simple as writing letters to their Congressional representatives, to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, to the President. We live in a democracy where it is our right and our duty to let our voices be heard, to be “upstanders” for justice, not voiceless bystanders in the face of evil—and this responsibility becomes real for them.

This past week, at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Elie Wiesel and President Obama spoke about genocide prevention. In fact, on the very day my students and I were having a discussion about what they could do personally to combat the forces of prejudice and discrimination, these two men were discussing what the nation could do. I watched the video that night at home: My students had said many of the very same things these compelling leaders had said. I showed the video the very next day.

Genocide survivors tell their stories—in books, films, and essays—not to create works of art that will make them famous, but with the hope that the lessons of their nightmares will not be forgotten, that people of conscience will work to stop incipient genocides before they occur and to speak out against ongoing tragedies. Teaching our children what they can do to combat evil in the world is work that teachers can do, must do.

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Do not eliminate hunger in this world. Do not. Hunger motivates.

I am not talking, of course, about literal food. I am talking about that burning in the brain that propels a person forward in the relentless pursuit of whatever he or she wants to achieve. That kind of hunger—or drive, if you will—is indispensible in the quest for knowledge.

For several years some years ago, I took students from my high school, McCutcheon, to Russia. We spent time in a Russian secondary school, even though it was June, because national exams were given across the country at the end of that summer month. We entered the school by mounting crumbling cement steps. Inside, cracked and curling linoleum covered the floor of the lobby; classrooms were equipped with cheap laminate desks, pitted window-sized blackboards, and old rags that served as erasers. The Pskov Humanitarian Lyceum, a top academic school in the region, was characteristic of Soviet-style school construction, and the accoutrements in the classrooms were common across the country. The Russian teenagers who hosted my students on those academic exchanges ten years ago were my students’ age but a year ahead of them in school. They spoke English, which they had been studying since they were seven, fluently; we struggled with the Cyrillic alphabet and elementary phrases like “Good morning” and “Good-bye.” They knew more about American history than we did, and the American students knew no Russian history at all. The Russian students were well acquainted with many American artists, musicians, and writers, but we had never even heard of Pushkin, their beloved, legendary poet.

What did these Russian students want? A better lifestyle than what they were living in Russia then. They had heard about the American standard of living, read about the material possessions that made us seem rich and that made our lives comfortable, and had seen it all for themselves when they finally came to America—and they hungered for it. They knew that education was what they needed to win a place at Russian universities, to complete a course of study and graduate, and to find the kind of work that would being them closer to our kind of comfort and prosperity.

I brought their teachers erasers for the blackboards, and for the students I brought pencils and pens with McCutcheon logos. I could not bring them new and shining schools. I did not need to.

Situated in Isiolo, Kenya, the last outpost before the long stretch of Sahara desert to the north, the Isiolo School for the Deaf is an aggregation of board shacks without windows, set in the middle of an open field: not on a foundation, not on a platform, but on bare ground that becomes mud in the rainy season. Cracks between the boards admit some light to the inside. When I was there, I saw children sitting tall in straight back chairs at wooden desks scarred from years of hard use, children from eight to fourteen, raising their hands excitedly, rapidly finger spelling answers in the air, signing the words they knew. At lunchtime, the students sat on the grass in a set-aside area under a roof to protect themselves, in rain or shine, from sudden downpours and the searing African sun. Their lunch, cooked in a vat, was rice and sometimes beans. There was no electricity at night, only a lucky few had mosquito nets, and the only clothes the children owned, they were wearing. No books, no paper, no pens, but exuberance and pride marked the children’s demeanor.

What were they without? Language. These children were born deaf or had lost their hearing at an early age. They were the lucky ones, deaf children whose parents had brought them from homes all over Kenya to attend this boarding school, to learn some language, to learn some method of communication. Language would bring them some measure of civility in the life of isolation that stretched ahead of them like the long, dry desert to the north.

I brought them alphabet banners for the classroom and a “Spill and Spell” game with hands etched into the sides of the dice to illustrate a, b, c in the manual alphabet. You would think I had brought the moon. Later, students at McCutcheon raised the money to electrify the school. Now the students could sign to each other in the night; they could continue to learn even after the sun went down.

In rural Rwanda, the scene of genocide not so many years ago, families in poor communities struggle to educate their children. For most children, secondary education is out of the question because the school fees are too steep. Secondary school students need to pay tuition to attend boarding schools. They must buy uniforms, purchase books, and sometimes carry mattresses with them to schools in remote locations. But in a few primary schools, an American organization, Every Child is My Child, has promised the elementary students a high school education if they study hard and pass the entrance exams—and they are driven to learn. Their classrooms are brick, not board, but there are no posters on the walls, no books, and few visual aids —just a teacher, a blackboard, copy books and pencils. The students write everything they hear from their teachers and everything they see on the board in their copy books—and they study what they have written. Against all odds, they are on grade level with students in the United States. And they are hungry to learn more. Hands wave in the air, answers fly in French and English and Kinyarwandan , and shy smiles cross the children’s faces when their responses are correct.

What do these students want? An education. I brought paper rulers and protractors—disposable learning aids gathered up after standardized tests—and National Geographic maps of Africa. I could not begin to equip their classrooms, and I could not feed their hunger. Only they could do that.

The hunger of all these children, the burning desire to learn that all of them have felt, has been essential to their achievement. Their desire comes from within—not from buildings equipped with the latest technology, not from the resources of their governments, not even from great teachers, but from within themselves.

We eat because we are hungry; we achieve success for the same reason. We have to do more than just want whatever we dream for ourselves. We have to burn to have it and then put our heads down and drill through the dark to attain it. “Wanting something is not enough. You must hunger for it. Your motivation must be absolutely compelling in order to overcome the obstacles that will invariably come your way,” said Les Brown, an American businessman and motivational speaker. He may have been talking about material success—I have no idea—but his point applies. Drive—the motivating force that makes a person, or a team, or even a country “go the distance”—is a hunger that is fed from within.