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.



6 thoughts on “Looking to Learn

  1. Your article was so touching. The world’s certainly a brighter place with teachers like you. I was in Kenya at that time when madness had taken over Rwanda and reading and watching the news made one give up hope on humans. You are absolutely right – education is such a must. Along with everything else to be taught, perhaps there is also need at a very young age to be instilled the idea of love and respect towards other humans, and how collaboration leads to win-win for all.


  2. Being a kinesthetic learner, I always enjoy seeing lessons that include all the modalities. Keeping students engaged is always a challenge, however, your effective preplanning really paid out for you, the students, and the student teacher.


    1. I so agree, Dorothy, that it’s important to include all the modalities. I learn best, too, when I can manipulate the materials. Using pictures, not just verbal descriptions, was important for the visual learners in the room as well.


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