Using Stories to Teach Life Lessons in the Classroom

By Asiye Demir, Lauren Hunt, Priscila Costa and Julia López-Robertson, University of South Carolina

Buried Beneath the Baobab TreeBuried Beneath the Baobab Tree by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani (2018) tells the story of a girl who was kidnapped and forced to marry one of the militants of Boko Haram in Nigeria. Through the storyline of the novel, we witness their living standards, culture and religious practices. Last week we talked about our responses to this novel and since we are a diverse group of people, our responses were varied and had different aspects. Our group is made up of four teachers who have profound experiences with English language learners and other diverse student populations and as such this week we will approach our blog from the perspective of classroom applications.

The chapters in the novel are short but poignant, and the text can lead into powerful discussions about culture, politics, bias and corruption around the world. Moreover, we believe that this novel is beneficial not only for teachers, but also parents who want to widen their children’s world views. Too often, we think adults try to shield children from the troubles of the world, but Hart (2017) believes “all children deserve opportunities to participate in decisions that directly influence their lives” (p. 139). One way we can be sensitive to the innocence of children yet still help our students to become critical thinkers is by exposing them to current events in a way that is geared toward children.

To support the use of Nwaubani’s (2018) novel both in classroom and home reading, and to provide teachers and parents with a tool box of activities, we have listed some ideas:

If you decide to use this book with your students, pre-reading activities will activate their knowledge and prepare them for what they will read. Here are some suggestions for pre-reading activities:

• Author’s study: one pre-reading option is to research information about the authors. The author, Adaobi Nwaubani, is from Nigeria and Viviana Mazza, who writes the afterword, is an Italian journalist. Both worked together to collect data for this historical fiction novel. Reading the afterword, where Viviana Mazza describes their writing process, is an essential part of reading Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree.

• Setting study: the story takes place in Nigeria, in the state of Borno. The protagonist dreams about going to study at the capital city, Maiduguri, but she is kidnapped and taken to the Sambisa Forest. A Google search will show the location of the city as well as the forest. We recommend caution with Google images, though, because they may show only one aspect of the city life – the conflict with the Boko Haram. Instead of image search that mislead you, using this google map satellite view gives you an unbiased perspective of the territory.

During the reading
During the reading, students may be led into checking news outlets for more information about the historical events described in the book. With a multidisciplinary approach, teachers in Social Studies and in English Language Arts can collaborate in planning lessons that will address the events in the story. The links below are some examples of news outlets that provide information about Nigeria, Boko Haram, and the kidnap of the schoolgirls:

BBC Hausa: Boko Haram ta kashe mutum 11 a Maiduguri (Boko Haram ta kashe mutum 11 a Maiduguri, 2019). This radio station is the voice in Papa’s radio. Although this page is written in Hausa, which might be unfamiliar to most students in American schools, it is easy to identify key words such as the date of publication, the names of the city and the state, and the name of the insurgent group.

The Guardian: Eyewitness: the women and girls rescued from Boko Haram in Nigeria (Birukila, 2015). This article brings the stories of some of the girls rescued from the oppression of Boko Haram

The New York Times: Boko Haram strapped suicide bombs to them. Somehow these teenage girls survived (Searcey, 2017). This is an interactive display of testimonies of Nigerian victims used by Boko Haram to carry suicide bombs. The images and the accounts are powerful.

The New York Times: Explaining Boko Haram, Nigeria’s Islamist Insurgency (The New York Times, 2018). This link leads into a 4-minute video about the origins of the insurgent group Boko Haram.

• Although news agencies provide a wealth of information about the events taking place in Nigeria, it is important to read them critically. We suggest a classroom discussion about bias and about the political agendas of each news outlet. To improve students’ critical thinking, along with the news, you may choose to pair the reading of this novel with an article about Boko Haram on the Newsela website. Newsela is a website that adapts current events from various newspapers for classroom use by adjusting the reading levels and making the content more student-friendly. For instance, Newsela has promising articles about the kidnapped girls rejoining their families (Akinwotu & McVeigh, 2017) which may soften the gloomy and saddening tone of that story in your reading instruction.

Because this novel may also be read by older readers (i.e. college students) we recommend reading with a critical lens– we believe that this allows the reader to gain a deeper understanding of the issues discussed in the text. Through the feminist critical lens (Yenika-Agbaw, 2017) we see the oppression and violence against women in the story, as well as the depiction of gender roles in the Nigerian society. Through a Marxist lens (Tyson, 2011), we can analyze the power dynamic in the village, in the camps, and in the country. Through a colonialist lens (Tyson, 2011), we can see the oppression against certain cultural practices, and imposition of practices considered “better”, more “holy”, or more “appropriate” by the oppressing group. Through the lens of childism (Short, 2017), we observe that only children are kidnapped by the extremist group, certainly because children are considered more susceptible than the adults in the village. Through a psychoanalytic lens (Tyson, 2011), we can examine the behavior of the Boko Haram men as well as the behavior of the girls in the story. Finally, the lens of the new critical theory (Tyson, 2011) or of poststructuralism (Dimmett, 2017), we can discuss the author’s intentions and the message she wants to diffuse with her text.

After the reading
Aside from the religious extremism theme, the text is also dense in terms of cultural values, public health, women’s rights, access to education, sexual violence, gender roles and social justice. There is a lot that we take for granted based on Western life style. For instance, we cannot fathom what it feels like to have a menstrual period and not have a pain killer and clean hygiene products. Yet, millions of women around the world deal with it regularly. Girls may miss several days of school every month while they are in their periods because they do not have proper hygiene supplies. We have always heard about the struggles in other countries and the humanitarian services provided by various agencies, but the reading seems to immerse us in the scenario more strongly than pure news or other short accounts.

Below are links to the humanitarian aid agencies mentioned in the book, which can be used in post-reading inquiry projects:
Keep a Girl in School (institutional video)
UNICEF Nigeria
Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders)
Save the Children
Amnesty International
Murtala Muhammed Foundation
National Emergency Management Agency
Christian Association of Nigeria
European Union
Bring Back our Girls

Follow up readings and other responses
We made connections to other books and feel that they would make a great text set: A Long Walk to Water (Park, 2010) and The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (Kamkwamba & Mealer, 2009; Kamkwamba, Mealer, & Zunon, 2012). A unifying theme other than that they are stories of African countries is how much children struggle around the world; reading and talking about these book help children “see that the need is significant” (Short, 2017; p. 144). As educators, we want our students to learn from their world, become advocates for social justice, and therefore be valuable, contributing members of our society.

We would also recommend an inquiry project with pre-reading research about the countries and the cultures. Several during-reading searches to check the facts and discussions so that readers can process the information that might be very helpful. And finally, the reading should culminate in a reflection and response to the texts through writing, oral presentation, or artistic representations. Those suggestions will be explored in next week’s blog post.

Akinwotu, E., & McVeigh, K. (2017, May 12). War & Peace: Families in Nigeria feel “amazing joy” as kidnapped girls are returned [Com]. Retrieved April 15, 2019, from Newsela website:

Birukila, G. (2015, August 4). Eyewitness: the women and girls rescued from Boko Haram in Nigeria. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Boko Haram ta kashe mutum 11 a Maiduguri. (2019, February 16). Retrieved from

Dimmett, D. (2017). A Poststructural Discourse Analysis of a Novel Set in Haiti. In H. Johnson, J. Mathis, & K. G. Short (Eds.), Critical Content Analysis of Childrens’ and Young Adult Literature: Reframing Perspective (pp. 106–121). New York and London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Kamkwamba, W., & Mealer, B. (2009). The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope (1st ed). New York, NY: William Morrow.

Kamkwamba, W., Mealer, B., & Zunon, E. (2012). The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers.

Nwaubani, A. T. (2018). Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree. New York, N.Y.: Katherine Tegen Books.

Park, L. S. (2010). A Long Walk to Water: A Novel. New York: Clarion Books.

Searcey, D. (2017, October 25). Boko Haram strapped suicide bombs to them. Somehow these teenage girls survived. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Short, K. G. (2017). The Right to Participate. In H. Johnson, J. Mathis, & K. G. Short (Eds.), Critical Content Analysis of Childrens’ and Young Adult Literature: Reframing Perspective. New York and London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

The New York Times. (2018, January 19). Explaining Boko Haram, Nigeria’s Islamist Insurgency. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Tyson, L. (2011). Using Critical Theory: How to Read and Write About Literature. Routledge.

Yenika-Agbaw, V. (2017). Re-imagining an Alternative Life after the Darfur War: Writing as Emancipatory Practice. In H. Johnson, J. Mathis, & K. G. Short (Eds.), Critical Content Analysis of Childrens’ and Young Adult Literature: Reframing Perspective (pp. 106–121). New York and London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

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