SCHOOLED. I visited Mountain View Elementary School in Colorado Springs to talk to their 3rd and 4th graders. Their curriculum for the year had put a specific emphasis on learning about different people and places. I was told that the school was ordering a big map and they were trying to educate the kids about each continent. I was asked to talk to the kids about "Africa" and set them up with pen pals.
Africa is a big place. I had to figure out how to limit my explanations of the complexities and make the past, present and future of "Africa" accessible and interesting to little people. To be honest I was nervous. What if they don't understand? What if they're bored? What if they don't ask questions?
I started out with five words - my favorite game to get peoples' opinions of Africa. I asked the kids to give me five words that come to mind when they think of Africa. What I found was that they were at the same level as most of the highly-educated adults who I've asked the same thing - but with one caveat. Their five words were positive and hopeful.
I continued by bringing up stereotypes or generalizations, and walked them through an average day in the life of their pen pals in Meru, Kenya. Wake up, eat, chores, get to school, school, sport, get back home, work, homework, eat, spend time with their families, sleep. While different from their lives in Colorado Springs, it is much more similar than they had previously imagined. Sometimes, I think normalizing the foreign makes people, places and things more accessible.
I ended with a slideshow of my life and travels throughout Africa. It showed people, landscapes, experiences and wildlife. This was their favorite part. I learned the obvious; if you want a kid's attention, show them pictures and tell a story. They saw things that seemed foreign, but everything became more familiar when I associated places or animals there to what we have here in the States.
The best part of the experience was the Q & A at the end. I definitely shouldn't have worried about them asking questions. Kids have an amazing capacity for curiosity as well as rarely hesitate to ask something they don't know. Hands shot up and questions ranged from wildlife to what I do for work to tales about a family member who had traveled to Ethiopia or what they had seen in The Big Cat Diary. More than anything, I was amazed at how smart these kids were. My favorite question of the day was from a cute boy with a buzz cut and specs. He asked, "Ms. Johnson, where do I find the books on Africa in the library?"
What more could I ask for? More than anything, I want people to educate themselves on Africa. Read more, find out more and of course travel and experience more. This is just the beginning for the 3rd and 4th graders at Mountain View Elementary. Here is one of their pen pal letters; their responses are en route. Enjoy.