Geography, left hanging

When my daughter was a baby, I would say to her when we left the apartment, "Let's go collect some que lindas!"

The Spanish-speaking older ladies in my neighborhood like to stop moms with babies to smile at the baby, hold the baby's hand, and declare the baby beautiful. "Que linda!" they say. ("Que lindo" for little boys.)

The neighborhood ladies taught my babies in my arms that they were born into a diverse world with many different ways to describe it.

As the kids got older, I wanted to cover world geography with them. I wanted to do it in a Charlotte Mason way, but didn't find much help online from the CM sites I haunt. So, I ventured out on my own.

I first started by asking my kids what place they wanted to learn about. "Africa," they decided.

I can
I panicked a bit because I knew essentially nothing about Africa. Then again, that ignorance was exactly what I wanted to remedy in myself and prevent in my kids. So I said, "Great!"

The kids picked Ethiopia as the first African country to study, and my first order of business was to find Ethiopia on the map. Yes, that's how little I knew. All I knew about Ethiopia was memories of photos of starving children I had seen when I was young, but I knew there was more to the country's story than that.

start with a story
I decided to approach the far-away places through folk tales. It was an easy choice since my kids were young at the time, but I discovered that reading folk tales is a great way for adults to approach geography and history, too.

Stories tell much more than the literal meaning, and, of course, stories stay in your memory longer than a straight recitation of facts. The folk tales would connect us to the place and people (and connection is the whole point of learning, right?).

By the research method called Lucky Find, I found an Ethiopian folk tale book on the shelf of our little neighborhood library. And I am lucky to say the book turned out to be my favorite folk tale books of all time.

The book was The Lion's Whiskers by Brent Ashabranner and Russell Davis. I didn't realize until I read this  book that Ethiopia has a Jewish and Christian history, and some of the Ethiopian tales are stories from the Bible. These stories were familiar, yet they were delightfully different. Other stories in the collections were more exotic to us and introduced us to new things.

fall in love
I adored the tales that did not end at the ending, the ones that didn't come to a conclusion. Reading the book on the couch with the kids, I'd swoon on the pillows when we were left hanging at the end of the tale. What a gift from the storyteller to tell a story and leave it up to the reader to decide what the message is. My kids thought I was crazy with my mock swoons, but by reading one story at a time, we started to fall in love with Ethiopia.

eat with fingers
We went through the folk tales, and some non-fiction books and DVDs too. Soon we recognized areas of the country and could place stories there. In our readings and viewings, we kept hearing about injera. Injera is Ethiopian bread...and plate and eating utensil.

We found an Ethiopian restaurant not far from our home. After the waitress gave us hot towels to wash our hands, we ordered a sampling of all sorts of food, all of it served with injera. We loved the food (and I discretely swooned again when tasting the delicious spiced coffee). 

The next stops for us were visits to a couple of museums. We trekked to the Brooklyn Museum to see the African Art exhibit and specifically searched out the Ethiopian items. We visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art to look at their Ethiopian collection.

We took those museum visits a few years ago. Just last month we went to see the Three Faiths exhibit at the New York Public Library. As soon as we walked into the large room full of religious manuscripts from around the world, my kids said, "Look! Ethiopian artwork!" Recognizing the style of artwork amid dozens of other styles in the exhibit was like recognizing a friend in a crowd.

want more
By using the Lucky Find Method again, I found a book by Louis Agassiz Fuertes when looking for something else. The book is about his travels in Ethiopia studying the wildlife. I don't know if I would've been interested in the book before learning about Ethiopia, but I felt a connection to the place and I wanted a stronger one. I wanted to learn more. When I brought the book home, the kids' interests were sparked just by the mention of Ethiopia, too.

And now, what I'm interested in is making myself a cup of spiced coffee from the batch of Ethiopian coffee beans I have in the kitchen.

Images from top to bottom:
Top: Photo of concrete bleachers at a local baseball field (detail). Not being able to tell what the image is reminds me of the lost feeling I have when first studying a new place.
Book cover: The Lion's Whiskers.
Awash Restaurant.
Ethiopian silk at the Met.
Bottom: Book by Louis Agassiz Fuertes 


  1. What a great way to start a geography study!

  2. Leah C, it was indeed fun. We've used the same method with other places, but I think Ethiopia has been a favorite.

  3. We have approached Geography in the same way in the past and my children have reacted in the same manner as your children. Best grading system ever, the children grasped the material. Everyone gets an "A" when incidences like that happen. Great job teacher.

  4. Bravo! I love this journey of learning about Africa...LOVE IT!

  5. Melissa, it was fun, that's for sure. We really have gained great affection for all the countries we have studied - which is fun to experience for all of us.