Amara Chike stood over classmate after classmate March 25 at Baton Rouge Magnet High School, painting the Nigerian flag on their faces while she explained the role of kola nuts in Nigerian society.
Chike wore a delicate, all-white woven dress with a dramatic white headpiece — traditional formal dress in Nigeria, the country she’s been researching all year as part of GeoJourney 2015.
And she’s not alone. Every freshman in Kim Denson’s freshman geography classes must spend the semester doing an in-depth analysis of one country, either of their choosing or assigned to them.
In addition to a series of research papers on different aspects of their country’s society, landscape, culture and economy, students are required to participate in the GeoJourney Festival, in which students create a display and present information about their country to the students, faculty and parents who stop in.
“They need to be able to answer questions about the country,” Denson said, adding that each student leaves the project with a much greater understanding of the world around them, and that’s increasingly important as technology makes the world a smaller place.
Chike, for example, bought the kola and bitter nut mix on display in her booth at a store in Baton Rouge. “I think they were a dollar a pound,” she said, though she doesn’t like the taste, herself. “My dad loves them, though.”
Her headpiece, however, was handmade in Texas, she said.
“It’s considered party attire. It’s just fashion there,” she said.
She has more than a passing interest in Nigeria, as her parents were both born there, she said. Chike is part of a vibrant and active community of people in Baton Rouge who have close ties with the country. She’s part of a dance team that practices and performs traditional Nigerian dances at events and celebrations within that community.
In fact, at least one classmate who was born in Nigeria, Chisom Osiagwu, a junior at Baton Rouge High, stopped by her booth and got his face painted.
Those factors give Chike’s booth the ring of authenticity, but every booth in the GeoJourney Festival was carefully and thoroughly researched, even the countries few people had heard of.
“Guinea Bissau. I never knew it existed until I got this assignment,” said Kyndle Jones, who researched the tiny country in West Africa with stunning national parks and wildlife. “This is what makes me want to go,” Jones said.
Though her research of the country turned up a lot of negative news stories, she said, she dug deeper to find the positive side to Guinea Bissau.
“My students love it. They look forward to this project,” Denson said.
She’s been doing some version of the GeoJourney for nearly 20 years, though only for a few years at Baton Rouge High. She doesn’t settle for a few photo copies glued to a display board, she said.
“I want them to bring it to life, and they do a great job,” she said.
“I taught at Tara High before that, and started doing GeoJourney there,” she said.
In fact, her students love it so much that a former student, now a teacher at Bernard Terrace Elementary, brought his class to GeoJourney as a field trip, Denson said.
“He did Samoa. It’s one of the boards I kept with me to use as an example of a good display,” she said.