Saturday, January 12, 2013

Broadening horizons

During second quarter, our focus for social studies was Africa.

How did I know this?

I had a nifty piece of paper tell me so.

The textbook had exactly two chapters on ancient Africa, which included a total of six completely unrelated lessons covering the entire continent.

Basically, for 10 weeks worth of class I had about enough (ineffectual) work to last maybe three weeks.

So, I took a step back and asked my kids the most important thing:

What do you already know about Africa?

After much deliberation, my incredibly bright and curious kids were able to list three things:

That was all it took for me to decide that it was useless to study ancient Africa unless they had some concept of modern day Africa. Thus we embarked on a 10 week journey during which we studied each and every country on the continent. We viewed pictures and videos, we read articles and statistics, we wrote research papers and created image maps.

We looked at the continent in a balanced way, looking at both its problems and steps forward. We tried to wrap our brains around how large and diverse it is.

Here are some of their image maps.

The students were to choose 1-2 images per region (five all together: northern, western, eastern, southern, and central) that represent their new knowledge and on the back of these maps they had to explain what their images meant.

A lot of the maps have some repetitive themes: Arab Spring, blood diamonds and child soldiers, unique and threatened wildlife, racism and apartheid, inflation and austerity, AIDS and drought, piracy and conflict between Arab Muslims and African Christians, failed states like the Central African Republic and Somalia, etc.

I thought it was important to look at what is going wrong, because solutions are only found from recognizing problems and understanding them.

However, I also tried to balance the overall "lost continent" image with good, every day news. Students kept tabs on the Web site "Africa: The Good News" and analyzed why so many prominent news stories never make it on CNN or Fox News.

Then, to get ready for next quarter's argumentative writing I posed a question and made them create a well thought out skeleton for a debate.

Is Africa a continent of hope?

We had done a lot of reading about the western world's lack of knowledge regarding this continent, about how the average American, Canadian, Australian, Brit, etc, had about as much understanding of the continent as they did at the very beginning, and how that was harming Africa's chance to become the stable continent it could be.

We talked about how the general public has the conception that Africa is hopeless, mostly due to how it is covered in the media, so I wanted to pose the question to my educated, well informed students to see what they thought after two months of looking at this continent from many angles.

Here is both sides of the story:

I told them there was no right and wrong answer; we had just spent 10 weeks trying to gain a holistic understanding of the continent so now they had to look at the big picture and make a choice.

Answers varied, which is what I was expecting and were overall very well thought out.

Now, time will only tell who was right and who was wrong. 


  1. Wow, your kids are artists! Do they do commission?

  2. Also: Kate wuz here.


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