It was a tough job for a seventh-grade teacher, but somebody had
to do it. And Maryanne Kalin Miller is just the person.
Miller, who has been teaching at Francis W. Parker in Chicago
for 40 years, is the school's point person on a cultural exchange
program with a couple of schools in Niamey, Niger - a landlocked
country smack dab in the middle of northern Africa, on the southern
end of the Sahara Desert.
About 10 high school age kids from Niamey are learning how to
collect data and do research on animals. About 72 seventh-graders
from Chicago are learning the same thing. And they're learning a
lot about each other in the process. They're talking to each other
via Skype (see video) and studying each others' countries. And when
a representative from the school had to go to Niger to help make
sure they were all on the same page, well, Miller thought it was
her duty to go.
Not that she had fun or anything.
"It was very exciting," said Miller, in a telephone interview
after she came back to Chicago. "I knew very little about Niger
before I went." She was impressed, she said, by the quality of the
two schools they're working with and students, who were all fluent
in at least three languages: English, French and a local
In fact, Miller and the three representatives from the Lincoln
Park Zoo who accompanied her on the trip rapidly found out upon
meeting the students that they had to change their
"I realized how quickly these students learned and we added a
lot of things" that most kids usually study in college. "They can
handle it," Miller said.
This pleased Rachel Bergren, vice president of education at the
Lincoln Park Zoo. This cultural and learning exchange program was
spearheaded by the zoo, which is located across the street from
Parker. The zoo received a $93,000, one-year grant from the
American Association of Museums, which suggested they work with the
National Museum of Niger on the project.
Bergren accompanied Miller on the trip to Niger, whose main
purpose "was to work with the educators, the museum professionals
and the students to support them in doing authentic research and
sharing the curriculum we've developed at Lincoln Park Zoo."
But Bergren had a secondary reason for going. A great deal of
money had been sent to the museum in Niamey to set up a computer
lab and camera traps (which record wildlife when people aren't
around), and to supply basic tools like binoculars. She also wanted
to make sure the students and teachers were following the
scientific process the zoo researchers had laid out for them.
"It was important," Bergren said, "for us to see our museum
partners delivering on what they said they were going to do."
She was not let down. But she also saw the hurdles that
students, teachers and museum professionals have to overcome. A
recent Skype call between the students of both countries almost
didn't happen, because that section of Niamey had experienced a
brownout just hours before. The country, according to Miller and
Bergren, simply can't afford electricity all the time, so they have
rolling brownouts to conserve.
"The students were so patient, which really indicated to me that
this is a way of life," said Bergren.
The pair also saw that a dedication to culture is also a way of
life in Niamey. Their hosts were eager to show them around the
country, and pointed out things like a music museum, built with the
help of the government of Spain, whose mission is to record modes
of music that many of Niamey's elders know, but that have not been
passed down to younger generations. Miller, in particular, said she
was struck by the beauty of music that is hundreds of years
The American guests were also taken to a giraffe sanctuary,
located at a part of the Niger River where the countries of Niger,
Burkina Fasso and Mali intersect. All three countries administer
the sanctuary, and for Bergren, this was an example of how
dedicated North African countries are to preserving wildlife.
Miller sees the sanctuary as an opportunity for the future, to
get out of the zoo (which, in Niamey, is very primitive) and set up
inquiries where animals live.
"There's so much more going on that's natural and genuine and
organic when you see animals in the wild," Miller said. She wants
to see Niamey's students venture out to these natural resources,
and perhaps work with some of Parker's older students to study the
giraffes and jackals and hippos in depth.
She also has another goal. She wants to go back. And next time,
she wants to take some students with her.
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