Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Does It Change You if You Never see the Sun and other Philosophical Questions

As part of my cultural residency here in Donetsk, Ukraine, I'm spending some time with high school students at the local lyceum, talking about industrial history.  We had our first meeting yesterday and the students, all with incredibly fluent English,  and I talked about industrial workers.  These are high-achieving kids, headed towards college and university.  Despite the fact that Donetsk is a highly industrialized city, with coal mines and metallurgy plants in the city centre,  only one or two of them had ever visited a factory.  I asked them to make a list of questions they would like to ask industrial workers about their lives and their work.  And the first question was something like, "does it change you if you never see the sun?"   It was followed by a broad swath of questions that got at both the work and its impact on individuals and families including:
  • What did your family think of your work?
  • Did you ever organize for better salaries for conditions?
  • Why did you stay in the job?
  • Were you ever afraid?
We've now asked the students to work in small groups to find workers to interview--and that again evoked great conversations in the groups about who to ask.  Should it be the next door neighbor woman who worked in the mines during World War II?  What about a grandfather who worked at the metallurgy plant?  And one student said, "you know, many people think miners are not smart, but I think they must be smart to do the jobs they do, to survive under there."   In this small conversation, these students took steps to understanding lives far different than their own--and an understanding that museums here (and in many other places) do not convey.

And how would we share what we learned?  For now, just in presentations, but the students' suggestions included posters on trams for older people (only pensioners take the trams because they are slow) and pop-up exhibits outside McDonald's to reach people their own age.

Again and again, no matter where I work, I'm reminded of the immense value of plain old conversation.  Stay tuned for their reports!

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