Opening Doors

photo(62)“The geranium on the windowsill died but teacher you went right on…..”
Albert Callum

The Empire of Mali is a third grade Standard of Learning: Virginia Social Studies 3.2. Mali has a magnificent past.  When the light of learning in Europe dimmed for a time in the Middle Ages, it was burning more brightly than ever in Mali.  The university in Timbuktu provided safe haven for the Latin and Greek texts of fallen Rome. Griots sang epic poetic songs of history and tradition.

Over the years I have developed an integrated unit about Mali that is rich in folktales, history, geography, art, and music.  Many of our American traditions, like the banjo, can be traced back to this part of West Africa.

I teach about Mali every year, but this year it has been hard. Mali is in the headlines.  Mornings begin with a cup of coffee and horrific stories of drought, violence, famine, and fear.  As my children dance to the traditional music of Mali, I think back to an article in the morning’s paper: Mali’s musicians have been silenced and are fleeing for their lives.

As we talk about Griots and their traditional tales of triumph, I can’t help but think of the newly orphaned children whose life stories have been interrupted by loss.  Can I, should I, teach the glorious past of Mali, in the shadow of the current suffering of its people–Without even mentioning it?

How do I open my students’ eyes to the suffering in Mali, and at the same time protect their tender hearts and shield their joy in time of wonder?  My steps on the path of truth-telling must be gentle steps. I lead with the story of The Magic Gourd by Baba Wague Diakite.  The story opens with Brother Rabbit (Dogo Zan) looking for food in a time of drought.  As he searches, he sings a song of hope.  Luck does come his way, but he takes only what he needs and shares it with many.

We’ve learned that drought leads to famine; famine leads to hunger; hunger often leads to a scramble for power; a scramble for power often leads to violence; and violence leads to loss.

When confronted with suffering, children need to know that they are safe.   And then they need to know that they can help.   I have assured them that they are safe and that we can help.  I suggested a bake sale to support a project that would help children in Mali.  They loved the idea and we got right to work.

On Tuesday, just before the P.T.A. meeting, we will have a bake sale to support the Zorkoro Project in Mali. This is a project to expand an orphanage that has a sustainable farm.  You can read more about this project (and even donate) at

I began this journey with a folk tale.  Once again, a story is our doorway to truth.  And truth is a doorway to change.

About Annie Campbell

Annie Campbell is a National Board Certified teacher and loves her work. After a forty year career in the classroom, she continues to support teachers. Annie enjoys cooking for family and friends; she likes to lose herself in a good book; she loves discovering new ideas, restaurants, perfect picnic places, and movies with her husband, Ben.
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4 Responses to Opening Doors

  1. Lorna says:

    Amazing. Beautiful and such a thoughtful interpretation of the standards of learning. And so well written!

  2. Sounds like you were already doing the STANDARDS before they were the standards; however, now you look at your study through the lens of deep reflection on a region of the world whose people are in “crisis” and whose “tale” is a sad one. Thanks for this reflective look at the standards in practice – they really are about how we LOOK at what we DO.

  3. Tara says:

    “When confronted with suffering, children need to know that they are safe. And then they need to know that they can help.” So true…children should feel empowered to help, and you’ve taught them this lesson. Thanks for the link, too.

  4. I think you explained the trajectory from hunger to power struggles, was the perfect way to go to help your third graders understand at the level for them to understand without making them live in fear. Great work Annie!

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