Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Let's Have a Famine! Connecting Means and Ends in Teaching to Big Ideas: The Teachers at a High School in Canada Had the Right Idea When They Tried to Create a Learning Experience for Their Students That Would Affect Them More Than Reading a Textbook. Where They Got off Track, Ms. Wassermann Finds, Was in Not Thinking through Precisely What They Wanted the Experience to Teach

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Let's Have a Famine! Connecting Means and Ends in Teaching to Big Ideas: The Teachers at a High School in Canada Had the Right Idea When They Tried to Create a Learning Experience for Their Students That Would Affect Them More Than Reading a Textbook. Where They Got off Track, Ms. Wassermann Finds, Was in Not Thinking through Precisely What They Wanted the Experience to Teach

Article excerpt

IT WAS the day before the "famine" when I visited North Fork Senior Secondary School (a pseudonym). Signs were posted on the walls of the main corridors exhorting students to participate in the event that was intended to give them a taste (bad metaphor?) of what it is like to experience a famine. The social studies teachers had organized the activity to raise students' levels of awareness of the tragic events taking place in Darfur.

The North Fork "famine" would last from Friday afternoon at 3:00 until Saturday at noon. Students would be allowed to have water, but no food. At the end of the session, the participating students would be honored at an assembly. It was a voluntary activity, but clearly many students thought of it as an adventure and were preparing to bring their sleeping bags, toothbrushes, cell phones, iPods, and CD players to entertain them through the long, hungry night.

The students were abuzz with anticipation, and the teachers who had organized the event flew from office to gymnasium, in a flurry of last-minute preparations. A visit from the Queen of England would hardly have generated more excitement. Although my own visit was about other business, I couldn't refrain from poking my nose into what the kids thought about all of this.

"What is this all about?" I asked a group of 11th-graders who had volunteered for the famine. They were, as one teacher remarked, "chuffed."

"It's about learning how it feels when your country has a famine," one lad eagerly volunteered.

"So we can know how the people in Darfur feel," another added.

"It teaches us how poor people feel when they have no food."

"It helps us to appreciate what we have in Canada." I bit my cynical tongue. Yeah, I thought. Having my cell phone, my iPod, my CD player, my affluent friends around me, and the assurance that I could look forward to a huge buffet breakfast at noon on Saturday would certainly help me to appreciate what we have in Canada. But what would the experience teach me about tragedy on a cosmic scale? To equate the "famine" at North Fork with what was happening in Darfur seemed to me to reduce human suffering on an unimaginable scale to the level of a sleepover at school, with the promise of a party as a reward for having endured the "suffering." What's wrong with this picture?

I should have known better than to ask the teachers. Although my questions about the purpose of the exercise were nonconfrontational, the few teachers I asked quickly became defensive, and the answers they gave did not stray far from what the students told me: to help our students to appreciate deprivation and understand the plight of people in Darfur. Darfur was much in the news, and the social studies teachers, with the best of intentions, were looking for ways to bring the scope and depth of what was happening in that forsaken country "home" to their students.

To raise levels of awareness through experience is surely a good thing in teaching, but not every contrived experience teaches what we intend. How would teachers in post-famine classes be able to link the students' 21-hour fast with the famine in the Sudan? What would these students have learned about genocide? What would they have learned about how warring factions have murdered thousands and brought the country to economic ruin? To trivialize famine in such a way seemed to me a disconnect between means and ends. Surely there were better ways to create teaching/learning experiences that would deepen students' understanding about events that were too large in scope to comprehend through reading textbook chapters.

THE NATURE OF EXPERIENCE

The old saw "we learn through experience" has been worn out through overuse, but that doesn't make it less valid. Teachers know that real experience teaches more than textbook exercises, that experience has the power to deepen learning on both emotional and intellectual planes. …

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