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