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Organizers Discuss Program To Educate Teachers About Africa

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In an effort to provide 25 Boston-area teachers with a basic grounding in African studies, Boston University and the Brookline public schools this summer collaborated on an intensive four-week seminar on African history, literature, and culture.

The National Endowment for the Humanities has called the program--one of a handful in the nation for teachers--a model. It was organized by Barbara Brown, the director of the Africa Outreach Program at the university's African Studies Center, and Ann Barysh, a 7th- and 8th-grade history teacher in Brookline.

Ms. Brown and Ms. Barysh discussed their program with Staff Writer Joanna Richardson.

Q.
What was your motivation in starting the institute?

A.
Ms. Brown: None of us, almost without exception, has had an adequate education on Africa.

And, as part of our whole changing curriculum--which is happening nationwide--schools are beginning to realize that there is a larger world outside the United States. They are seeing that we are connected historically and currently, culturally and economically, to Africa.

So [teachers] are now being asked to teach material they're unfamiliar with and that can be racially explosive if it's not taught well.

Ms. Barysh: I think that teachers are often the first wave to notice a changing population or the changing mood of a country. And I think our country is ready to go through an identity crisis as our population changes.

And we're searching for a way to educate our children. One of the ways, of course, is to change the curriculum. The best way to do that is put teachers in a position where they can be as versatile and conversant in the topics that are emerging as possible.

Q.
What kind of material do you cover?

A.
Ms. Brown: Teachers, like other people in society, come to Africa with what's out there in the media. And the two most common things in the media are nature and animal stories, and disasters.

So we all hear a lot about Somalia and starvation there; we hear about difficulties in Liberia with the civil war there. And then we turn to public-broadcasting programs on Africa where nature in particular is highlighted.

But most Africans have never seen wild animals. The game parks are far from where people live.

People need to know what's in Africa besides that. They need to know about the history, the literature, and about current society and problems ... to get a much more complex view of the continent.

What our students have been getting--and it's particularly hurtful to our African-American students--is inaccurate.

Q.
Do you think teaching more about all cultures can diffuse racial tension in the schools?

A.
Ms. Barysh: One of the things that we have heard again and again from teachers is that, in teaching about Africa, they are somehow opened up to being able to teach about other areas of the world.

Also, they get introduced, for example, to a whole new range of literary folks, and so schoolchildren begin to see that there are many voices in literature, in the making of history, in the shaping of decisions.

Q.
Is there a national push to better address African history both in teacher-education programs and in the schools?

A.
Ms. Brown: What I read about most is Afro-centrism, which is not only seen as a reaction to Euro-centrism, but grabbing for Africa all of the glories of the whole world.

In fact, what we are trying to do is to put Africa in terms of what is deservedly African, and leave for Europe what is deservedly European.

And what I worry about with this term Afro-centrism is that [people] are saying it's equally unacceptable [as Euro-centrism], which makes teaching about Africa that much more difficult.

The teaching of Africa is as rigorous as teaching about any other place. People seem to think that if you're going to be multicultural, you're engaged in sloppy, romantic thinking.

Q.
What kind of assistance do you give the teachers when they are reshaping the curriculum?

A.
Ms. Brown: As part of the center, I run a program called Africa in the Schools and Community. We have an instructional-materials library that people locally and nationally draw from in order to teach more creatively.

People are doing a lot of staff development; they're taking material from our program and using it to show other teachers how they can teach no matter what grade level they're working from.

Ms. Barysh: One of our goals ... is to encourage teachers ... to be leaders in education.

We are encouraging teachers to take drafts of their ideas about what should be taught, and submit them to teachers' magazines or professional magazines. So when we are trying to understand what the changes in our country mean for us, teachers feel they can participate.

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