Why Teaching Children About Africa is Essential and How to Integrate it in Your Elementary School Classroom
When I began my career teaching in Washington, DC, I was excited. My students were dynamic, energetic, and had similar backgrounds to my own, either born in another country or the first in their family to be born in the United States.
Having grown up when schools were not as responsive to the needs of students from immigrant backgrounds, I knew I wanted my classroom to be different. As a first-generation Sierra Leonean-American, it was important for me to support my students in building self-confidence in their cultural identities, as well as awareness and appreciation for diversity.
While learning the skills of literacy, numeracy, ICT, are essential components of elementary school curriculum, so is building cultural competency.
I was excited to integrate these opportunities within my classroom.
However, when I came to set-up my classroom and reviewed the teacher’s guide and set of readers from the classroom library, I noticed there was nothing specific to African heritage.
I found terrific materials about Indigenous Peoples, Hispanic and Latino identities, African American, Asian and Pacific Islanders but the only material related to Africa were informational texts about the continent's geography.
Although more than two million Africans live in the United States today, school leaders struggle with creating culturally responsive learning environments which reflect this growing demographic. When Africa is introduced in many elementary school classrooms, instruction is often focused on Ancient Egypt or the continent’s natural resources and geography. The result many young children have a notion that African countries are underdeveloped and their significant contributions to the world ended over 5000 years ago.
From the earliest age, young children experience and learn about their culture and the world around them. Their interactions with adults, other children, literature and the media can shape their feelings about people similar and different to themselves.
When a child’s cultural identity and heritage is completely missing in the classroom, it can cause them to feel that their heritage and culture is insignificant. This is especially true if other cultural identities are presented and shared.
For me, the consequence of perpetuating this idea was too grave.
While opportunities do not always naturally present themselves, here are some integrated opportunities to teach and learn about Africa in the classroom.
5 Tips for Teaching Africa
Give names. Often, in elementary school classrooms, Africa is taught in a vacuum with little context, “this is an xyz from Africa.” When teaching a unit or lesson, reading books, or sharing cultural items from a specific country, be sure to name the country and pre-teach any important vocabulary words. This gives students the opportunity to learn about Africa in context and makes it more real.
Create opportunities for two-way exchange! At the beginning of the year, learn about the students’ and their parents' backgrounds, heritage, interests and important cultural or religious days. You can create a calendar and encourage students to learn about each other and use this to create opportunities for a two-way exchange. Also, students come to class with a depth of knowledge. You can use a KWL chart before teaching topics related to Africa to find out what your students already know for richer teaching.
Encourage inclusion by integrating culture within your learning activities. When teaching your math or writing lessons, use names of people, place, and items from different African countries. (Instead of apples, try a math word problem with ugali or fufu. Consider author study or biography using a contemporary iconic African figure)
Balance the representation of Africa in your classroom library. Books reflect and teach culture, take a mental inventory of the books in your library to ensure it balances representation of Africa. Seek a balance in the country and region, time (past and present day), socioeconomic backgrounds, and settings (urban, rural, suburban). Most importantly check to ensure the books do not portray and perpetuate stereotypes.
Advocate for professional development that also addresses the needs of African students. Increasingly professional development is becoming culturally responsive. However, if you feel there is a gap in the support and services for your African students, speak to other teachers or school leadership about ways to address that gap.
Do you have other suggestions or examples you would like to share, comment below!