Putting my Education Where My Mouth Is

Also called, Getting my Grade 6 project on.


I am working on a post about my own privilege and the challenges of not simply accepting my good fortune, but calling it for what it is, when my son stands in front of me with a homework assignment in his hand, on the verge of tears. “It’s due on Friday.” “How long have you had this?” “Um, oh, uh… two weeks?” “And what is it?” The tears start. I reach out and take the papers from him.

He’s supposed to have spent two weeks writing an imaginary journal about a trip to a country he’s already done a presentation on. “What country?” “Zimbabwe.”

Zimbabwe? Why Zimbabwe?

“Because I didn’t know anything about it.”

I am scrabbling around in the back of my mind. Something… something… Zimbabwe? Zambia? Mozambique? Oh, this is not good. He doesn’t know anything about it, and the last time I knew something was about ten years ago when I used to listen to Radio Free Africa on CBC Overnight. Zimbabwe? As in Robert Mugabe, land-reform, please-don’t-travel there because we can’t promise to get you out if something goes wrong, Zimbabwe?

I don’t say any of this.

Instead, I do what every good student does when facing unknown expectations. I look at the assignment. I think it has something to do with packing, but the outcomes are a journal with descriptions of what you do, who you meet, activities, meals. The sorts of things that you would do on a vacation. It is apparent to me that he doesn’t know that Zimbabwe might not be the best place to go on vacation. I’m not sure what the current situation is there, although I had heard that it might involve cholera, continuing battles over land, and an unstable electrical grid. Not to mention the whole racism, post-colonial component that doesn’t tend to come up in grade six imaginary vacation projects. So I took a deep breath, reminded myself that we aren’t actually going to send him to Zimbabwe, so the ethical issues are in interpretation, not action.

Meanwhile, (this internal monologue reflecting my own panic only takes about 10 seconds) he’s standing in front of me in full panic, OMG I’ve got a project, help help mode. I suggested screaming and running in circles to get it out of his system while I brought myself up to speed on the political situation and figured out what was possible. (In case you were going to try this strategy, it didn’t work. Even when we both did it.)

Now, let me be very clear: I don’t do my kids’ projects for them. I help corral resources and give guidance, but they tend to look a little rough around the edges. Their decorated and carved hallowe’en pumpkins look nothing like the Martha Stewart-esque projects that their classmates turn up with. But I’m unwilling to turn a kid loose on the internet on a task as difficult as finding current travel information for a country whose government websites are turning up 404 not found messages. I gave him significant amounts of help on this one, but he produced the final story. And the story looked like this:

Zimbabwe is a spectacularly beautiful country that includes 4 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the only example of 11-13th Century city ruins south of the Sahara. The national park that he chose to highlight (because we could find current information about how to get there, and operating accommodations) is 14,600 square km. The world famous Victoria Falls lie on the Zambezi river on the northern border with Zambia. There is a 5 star hotel next to this waterfall that is still operating. Harare is a modern city with a population over 2 million, that has skyscrapers, suburbs, and a lovely central urban park that would not look out of place in Toronto. The cholera epidemic which recently plagued the country has subsided, although there are still cholera warning signs up, even in urban locations.

This brought us to the more difficult portion of the conversation. I helped him draft a decent itinerary, showed him websites that provided images of museums, parks, minibuses, and the landscape. And while we found those pictures, and I developed a deep desire to see this country, and for it to be free from the machinations of the powerful, I talked to my son about money and poverty and inequality and race and colonialism.

Rooms in the hotel at the edge of the falls start from $220 per night. The safari resort where we sent him for his imaginary trip to Hwange National Park costs $800 for three nights (pounds, really, but I don’t know how to display that.) This is in a country where the average income is $340 per year. The beautiful modern city in the pictures we found has no street lights at night (as reported by a visitor as recently as last summer) and cannot count on clean water. (I didn’t tell him that the life expectancy has dropped from 61 in 1990 to 44 today because there is only so much he can take at once. We didn’t talk about HIV, we only briefly touched on land, and farming. I didn’t even know where to start with Mugabe, because there is only so much that I can take at once.) We talked about cholera and what it would be like to live somewhere that clean water didn’t come out of the tap – not just visit with lots of money so that you can afford to purchase clean water, but to live there all the time without that option. And he drew the connection – that’s why we made our Christmas donation to water projects. That’s why he stood up at the front of the school assembly and challenged the other kids to do the same.

So I stopped talking and let him finish his project. I gave him back the space to glory in his imaginary chance to see zebras and hippos and lions and giraffes. He flew to Harare and arrived during a rainstorm in the wet season, climbed the rock stairs to the top of the ruins in Great Zimbabwe, slept in the luxury of a tent with carpets and a bed, and a desk. He repeated the experience of a blogger that we read, who was left at a bus stop halfway through a trip between cities because his driver got a better offer. He wrote a wonderful story that was completely appropriate for a kid in grade six, who will have lots of time in the future to get his head around just how unfair the world is. Because right now, he still needs to get his head around just how wondrous the world is.

Victoria Falls
Harare Park
Great Zimbabwe Ruins

One response to “Putting my Education Where My Mouth Is”

  1. Loved all aspects of this – I have always done the same thing re projects, i.e. let them do the work themselves. And they don’t look like Martha Stewart did the artwork and a university prof did the research – because they didn’t: my kid did. They can be proud of their projects not because they are perfect but because they are THEIRS. Granted, I do make suggestions, find resources, etc. But the assembly is always the student’s task.

    Also do the same thing re bringing attention to social justice issues, etc. – a project is supposed to be about independent learning, after all.

    Thanks for the validation, even though my children are much older than yours!

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