A few days ago, Kelly, my ten-year-old neighbor, asked if I could help her with her science homework.  Usually, the visits we get from kids around the neighborhood are motivated by a love of our pile of scrap paper and (limited) marker assortment, plus the guarantee their artwork will get duck-taped to the wall.  It was a nice surprise when Kelly came knocking, school notebook in hand.  We sat down together at the table, and Kelly flipped to a page where she had copied down her assignment:

Describe the function of the following parts of a flower:

1)    Stigma

2)   Anther

3)   Pollen grain

4)   Style 

On the previous page, she had drawn a loose sketch of a flower and titled it Parts of a Flower.  There were no labels associated with this sketch, and she had no recollection of learning about flowers.  We flipped back through her notebook, looking for clues.  No such luck.  I took a piece of scrap paper off from the famous stack and started to draw an anatomical diagram of a flower.  Kelly could label the stem and the leaves.  She couldn’t remember the word ‘petal,’ but easily recognized this flowery part of the flower.  When I started to draw in the reproductive structures listed in her homework assignment, she was lost.  I ran outside and down the street to the nearest hibiscus tree, picked an excellent specimen (all in the name of science, of course), and returned to Kelly and her notebook.  I rubbed sticky orange pollen on my nose and pointed out the anthers, stigmas, and style. 


[Picture credit to www.aptitudeability.com]

But naming is the easy part.  To understand the function of these structures, it’s necessary to understand the concepts of pollination and reproduction.  I decided to tackle the former first, telling Kelly a short story about a bee with a fat stomach that inadvertently collected the easily dislodged and super sticky pollen grains in the search for sweets (and then I had to explain about nectar rewards…).   We imagined how that greedy bee would visit a new flower, brushing off a few pollen grains onto the awaiting stigma as it plunged toward the sugar at the flower’s center.  I stylized the fertilization process, describing a pollen grain getting sucked down through the style and into the ovary where it would at last meet its partner egg. 

But fertilization was clearly a foreign subject to Kelly.  I groped around for a meaningful way to explain how flower babies are made.  Maybe a human comparison would work?  I tried to stay within the bounds of likely experience: “you know how women bleed once a month…?”  But menstruation was also a foreign subject.  I settled on a watered-down description of gendered flower parts—the stigma and style are the female, the woman.  The anther and pollen grains are male, the man.  When they are put together, they make seeds, and seeds grow into baby plants. 

When I was satisfied that Kelly had a basic understanding of flower anatomy, we returned to her homework assignment.  I had her read the instructions out loud:  “Describe the function of the following parts of a flower.”  Kelly looked up at me expectantly.  “What should I write?”  I asked if she understood the assignment and she shook her head.  As it turned out, she didn’t know what the word function meant.  Finally, we came up with functional descriptions of flower parts 1-4 (although I probably provided way too much of the final wording to deserve any pedagogical praise).   Kelly decided to tuck the partially dissected hibiscus flower into her notebook—I suggested she show her teacher the next day.  I’ll have to ask her if she ever did. 

There’s a comical thread to this anecdote—my bumbling attempt not to give my Cameroonian neighbor the ‘sex talk.’  But ultimately, the challenge Kelly presented me with goes far beyond a simple naiveté about reproduction (human or otherwise).  I doubt Kelly was the only student to struggle through the flower anatomy homework.  I also doubt that the lesson leading up to this assignment included much more than a few written definitions on the chalkboard, and perhaps instructions to stand up and repeat these definitions in unison.  (In fact, the modus operandi in schools here seems to be: teachers are all knowing, teachers write facts on the board, students copy and repeat these facts.  We often see the skill gaps created by this system in our YAN students, especially when an assignment involves writing or critical thinking.)  Science lover that I am, I wish I could say the lack of inspired botany education is the main problem here.  The truth is, the dearth of inspired, consistent, and innovative education in any subject is the problem. 


P.S.  Check out more student descriptions of ‘How things are done in Cameroon’ by visiting the event on the Youth Advocacy Network Facebook page!