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Invisible children, STOP KONY and a great moment for PBL, digital literacy, and interdisciplinary studies

March 9, 2012

Update: One teacher put together this awesome set of resources for teaching about KONY and plans to devote a full day to discussing the topic.

Update 2: NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof, wrote this very interesting column that makes a good case for giving the the filmmakers a “bravo” for their work and avoiding the need to nit-pick and over-compelxify humanitarian issues to the point of inaction.
You’ve seen it—it’s flashing all around twitter, KONY 2012, the massive social medial campaign by Invisible Children to bring this Ugandan war criminal to justice.

The campaign starts with an slickly produced 30 minute video that in 3 days time has now picked up 40 million views on YouTube.

One of the great things I love about teaching in high school is that it exposes me to more causes and opportunities to help the world than I can imagine. Students care—they want to make a difference, and they’re going to find ways to do so that you’ve never heard of. I heard about Greg Mortenson when Three Cups of Tea was in its first print run. Students at a former school started a campaign to raise awareness about modern day slavery and sex-trafficing around the world back in 2008, and my school read Mountains Beyond Mountains, learning about Paul Farmer’s incredible work in Haiti back in 2006.

But somewhere along the way, I also learned that many of these issues are more complex that I previously imagined, and often, the narrative of the great (often white) foreign savior coming from on high to cure a place of all its ills often overlooks unintended consequences, forgets history and marginalizes the incredible work of many local people working to build a better future.

Perhaps the best example of this complexity was Greg Mortenson, whom I actually got to see speak in person at a former school. He regaled our audience with stories of his adventures and struggles building schools in the most remote corners of Pakistan and Afghanistan. However, a few months later, 60 Minutes raised serious questions about the effectiveness of his charity, the Central Asia Institute, and Mortenson’s own mismanagement of its finances. Before this story, Three Cups of Tea, and the pennies for peace fundraising campaign where elementary students collect change for CAI, were staples of many schools looking for ways to expose their students to ways to make a difference in far off regions of the world. But what should we do now? The cause for building schools in Afghanastan and Pakistan still seems valid, but is Mortenson the best choice to help this? Is there a better alternative? What can we learn from this example?

Soon thereafter, I discovered so many resources to think about these issues more deeply. The Planet Money podcast the incredible blog, Good Intentions are Not Enough, which seeks to make readers more thoughtful about charity and non-profit aid, disaster relief and how they select which organizations to support (see the excellent series on volunteering overseas, Jeffry Sachs and William Easterly, Poor Economics. The internet is teeming with resources to explore topics like these further.

Which brings me to two questions:

  • How do we help students seek out and embrace complexity in moments like KONY 2012 and every other moment in their lives?
  • At the same time, how do we help students avoid paralysis, and take action to make the world a better place?

A possible interdisciplinary PBL on KONY 2012

Here’s how the KONY 2012 Campaign might be a great opportunity for a PBL. Imagine a student brings in this video and wants to discuss it in class. How can we explore it as a class? Be forewarned—what follows are the musings of a physics teacher stepping well out of his area of expertise.

Let’s start with Uganada–it didn’t take long for reddit to offer the first question—where is it?

Take a deep dive in to the history of this country, its government and the history of its conflict with the LRA. This might lead to studying the history of colonialism, and some of the history and events of neighboring countries—like the newly independent South Sudan. What about the history of bringing warlords and dictators to justice? What the options for US intervention? What have been the outcomes from past US interventions? What are war crimes? How does the International Criminal Court work?

Or we could explore economics, where so many questions emerge. There are large differences between the GDP per capita of Uganda and it’s six neighbors (Rwanda, South Sudan, Kenya, The Democratic Republic of Congo, and Tanzania). What explains these differences, and what are the trends for the future? What about microlending in Ugnada and the pitfalls? And let’s not overlook Africa’s Amazing Rise.

Can we learn more about child soldiers? Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone would be an excellent start.

What organizations are working in Uganda? What are the principal problems that that these organizations are working to address? How are they utilizing local knowledge? How do you read 990 tax disclosure forms for a charity? How can you determine if a charity is worth donating to?

There’s a lot of room to study some math, particularly statistics here. How big is Kony’s army—the film says 30,000, but many other sources say less than a few hundred. So how do you get accurate counts of a warlord’s army? My guess is they don’t submit to a census.

We could study the KONY campaign itself. We could read a response to the campaign from Foreign Policy, or we could find out what Africans make of this campaign. We could start here, but once we’ve done enough homework, why not set up some conversations via skype to learn more about this issue? How has this campaign managed to gather so much attention so quickly? How effective was the response to the critiques by Invisible Children?

Or we could study the film. What are the principle storytelling techniques of the film? What parts of the film are most/least compelling? What documentaries and films have influenced this production?

Through all of this, I imagine we’d also have to have many thoughtful and open conversations about race. Why are we so typically ignorant of the geography, history and events of Africa? What role does the race of the filmmakers play in the perceptions of the Invisible Children Campaign?

In the end, I think students would find that rather than being a morass of confusion, the internet can be a really powerful tool in getting past the simple narrative we are presented with and uncovering the deeper, more complex story. Less than 24 hours after the KONY 2012 video swept over my twitter stream, an very strong wave of follow up articles, blog posts, reactions and memes have followed to fill in details and ask questions that were missing from the first narrative. Even a google search for stop kony now turns up more articles questioning the campaign than links to the campaign itslef.

But the real question is where would students go with this? How would they use this information not only to complexify their understanding of the world, but also to take action to make it a better place—after all this work, would they simply donate to invisible children? Or would they find Child-soldiers International a better charity? Will they actually take the time to write a representative? Will they make a film to highlight a problem they care deeply about? Perhaps the greatest action would be to realize that simple actions probably aren’t enough.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. March 9, 2012 9:37 pm

    Reading a post like this John, I’m truly stunned! Really. It’s honestly difficult for me to even begin to fathom the gulf that exists between the type of educator that you strive to be, and the type educator that I strive to be – astonishing! I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, sometimes I wonder if I am doing the same job as some others in the same profession.

  2. Anna Moore permalink
    March 10, 2012 9:50 am

    Wow John. This is so thought provoking. I really enjoy the idea of taking current, in the moment events and using them to teach key concepts we want our students to master. I think the idea of becoming a critical (meaning thoughtful in this case, not attacking) consumer of information is mandatory, especially in an age of information overload. The psychologist in me dares to add one more facet to your study: the psychology of the process as it impacts the children, the nation, the world. There are rich layers here in terms of loss of freedoms, choices, manipulation, abuse etc. thanks for the post.

    • March 10, 2012 7:58 pm

      This is why I think I’m operating in a parallel universe to you and John.

      • Anna Moore permalink
        March 11, 2012 6:32 am

        Our universes may be parallel, but I do not see that as a bad thing. I learn a lot from those folks with whom I am philosophically aligned. And, I receive a lot of encouragement and buoyancy from them, too. Ours is a demanding job, so the philosophical alignment is critical for me. I think those factors are reasons why folks spend so much time on mission statements and identification of goals: a common mission matters. But, I learn a lot from, and have deep respect for, different points of view, too. As I reflect on the factors that shaped my professional universe, I cannot disentangle them from some key facets of who I am as a person. I love my content area… It fascinates me. I believe it is important for students to know some key aspects of my content area. But, mitochondria, phospholipids, the krebs cycle… These are not why I teach. I know there are some who teach because the circulatory sysytem really does motivate them to teach. And, that is awesome, because when I am exposed to those folks, it makes me want to get that excited about the pure content, too. That helps me grow a a teacher. But, I teach because I love kids. I teach because I loved, and still love, learning. I teach because it is hard and constant work, and I love that challenge. I teach because I like the kind of people who tend to claim teaching as their life’s work. They are more than great colleagues, many of them also are great friends. So, maybe looking at the origins of our universes explains some of our differences… It does not make one universe better than another, it just illuminates a foundation that means we see things differently . In addition to having different points of origin, our universes may define success differently. I do not teach a class with any kind of standardized national exam; I don’t have a clear quantifiable metric I use to reflect success. As you saw above, my motivations to teach are based, largely, in relationship(s). My understanding of success is based in that, too. I want to see my students develop a positive relationship with science. I want my students to see and apprciate science around them every day. I want them to feel empowered as students and as people. I teach with the conviction that the greatest thing I teach a child may have nothIng to do with biology, and everything to do with becoming self-actualized, with learning to love learning, with finding one’s calling, with developing one’s voice. I do think that it is possible to accomplish my goals through a variety of means; I’d never claim to have it “all figured out”… Far from it actually. Part of me knows that I love my work because , for me, “the answer” always will be as unique as every child I am lucky enough to teach… And all the hundreds of universes each of them represents. Since our students are multi-faceted, how great they can have muti-faceted teachers from whom to learn.

        • March 11, 2012 7:23 pm

          Anna, I *think* you are saying that you see an array of differences in ideology, philosophy and approach, and at the same time as you recognizing exactly where you personally stand, you also still manage to find a certain empathy with those ‘on the other side’ (so to speak).

          I on the other hand, have only ever managed to master half of that equation. I don’t claim to have a monopoly on the right way to do things, nor do I think that I have nothing left to learn, but as far as feeling empathy with such a different point of view, or claiming to understand a more holistic approach to educating high school kids, I’m just nowhere even close. I just don’t see it.

  3. March 15, 2012 9:13 pm

    A little aside for those who are interested:

    Greg Mortenson (having survived open-heart surgery and extensive rehab) has now extended his efforts beyond Pakistan and Afghanistan into Tajikistan. There he works with the village elders and imams just as he has for so long, listening to their needs and discussing how Central Asia Institute can assist in meeting them. The villages always provide at least 50% of needed resources, most often through labor and sometimes through donation of land or materials.

    To keep up with CAI’s progress, check out their Master List of projects at (It’s also wonderful to see the photos and read the essays or reports on their blog.)

    Susan Hale Whitmore
    Silver Spring, Maryland


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