Tag Archives: africa

GPS at the Rowhouse

GPS is Global Perspective Studies. My business partner at Simplify, Jill Harper, named it and I’m a little bit over the moon at how clever this name is. It’s the high school history and literature core that Jill and I planned and I wrote. The first year, or “Core” is being released soon and we’re running a contest for a free copy. You still have time to enter!

Some of the inspiration for this program comes from my own school experiences, where I took an interdisciplinary course in literature and history for my first two years of high school. In fact, vintage copies of the textbook I had in school, Prentice Hall’s World Masterpieces, is included and heavily used in GPS. The first year program focuses on Africa and Asia, so it includes things like short stories by Najib Mahfouz, Rabindranath Tagore, and Lu Xun and poetry by writers like Rumi, Hafiz, and Shu Ting. It also gives us excerpts from classical texts like The Rig Veda, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Bible. I get a little verklempt when I talk about the joys of this textbook.

Mushroom and BalletBoy have been my product testers. I don’t know if they’d say they love it as they’re not the literature lovers that I am. However, they’re in the midst of reading Siddhartha right now and BalletBoy sang its praises as one of the best books he’s read in awhile, so that’s a relief to hear. However, I feel good about how much they’re learning and how they’re advancing through it.

It’s not always an easy program for them. It pushes them in a variety of ways. One of my goals this year was to up our work level across the board. I wanted them to be writing more, reading more, and just doing more at a high school level. Having students who are really engaged with high level work is an important educational value for me in high school.

Most weeks have short answer history questions. They have to pull out a textbook or read a history book about the place and time period and answer complex, multi-part questions in a paragraph. BalletBoy has a tendency to wax grandiose about topics with no facts. Ancient civilizations in Africa were “the greatest” and had “many innovations” and “eventually led to other civilizations.” Um, way to tell us nothing. Mushroom likes to procrastinate and go over and over these repeatedly. “But what was the cause again? Where is it in the book?” Over time, they’ve been improving. BalletBoy wrote me a lovely explanation of why Aurangzeb’s leadership weakened the Mughal Empire last week. They’ve finally learned to rely more on the textbook and stop trying to furtively check Wikipedia for everything.

Mushroom has turned in a few great assignments for GPS. For his graphic memoir, he had to write about a time he misunderstood something as a young child. He wrote and drew a lovely comic about being a preschooler on a merry-go-round and then thinking that the bed was really, actually still spinning when he went to sleep at night afterward. He also made a hilarious video explaining all the Hindu gods.

I wrote the program to the student, but it’s definitely been a hands on teaching experience for me. Sometimes the kids do the work and I check that it happened and we let it go. Other times, they get stuck and I step in. One of my best moments was carefully dissecting a Hafiz poem with BalletBoy. We read through it, then read it again, and then again. We talked about the meaning of every line and discussed each metaphor and theme. After that, he was able to do the reading questions about it.

We’re currently wrapping up the unit on the Indian subcontinent. The history book we’re reading, The Ocean of Churn, focuses on the Indian Ocean, which has been interesting. Soon, we’ll move on to China and Japan to wrap up the year. I’m worried that we may not quite finish it all. But that’s okay. I packed it full. I know that I often tell people that if they finish more than 80% of a program, that it’s okay to call it done. I’ll definitely be laughing at myself if we have to skip a final reading, but it might happen.

I constantly second guess myself about things like this. Was everything culturally sensitive enough? Did I include enough guidance for students and parents? Could I have done more to touch on history topics I had to gloss over? Should I have chosen different books? But overall, I’m proud of this program. I’m proud to say my kids are doing it.

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Amazing Africa Picture Books (and a few other resources)

We ended up having our Africa unit based mostly around picture books.  However, in the end, I feel like I found a nice variety of resources.  I still lament that there are other resources that don’t seem to exist.  I can think of a lot of African figures whose lives could make great picture book biographies, for example!  But alas.  I’m not unhappy with what I found.

In addition to the resources I’m listing below, which don’t represent every book I read, just the best ones, I found the book Amazing Africa Projects You Can Build Yourself by Carla Mooney to be a perfect resource.  The projects suggested are just okay.  However, the text of the chapters that go with it is actually what turned out to be the best part.  It gives a nice overview of everything you can imagine – geography, ancient and recent history, animals, houses, music, dance, art and a number of other topics.  It’s all very readable and accessible.  Honestly, it turned out to be the best survey of Africa for children that I found.

We also found some other things very useful.  We’ve had on the Pandora Afro-pop station and have enjoyed grooving to some Miriam Makeba and Zap Mama, among others.  We’ve found several good nature documentaries about African animals, which is probably no surprise.  However, the best video resource I found was the show Africa’s Child, which is available if you have Discovery Streaming.  Each episode is fifteen minutes long and follows a different child (usually a young teen) in a different African country.  A boy in rural Cameroon talks about his love of the rainforest, a girl in Ethiopia talks about her church festival, a girl in Ghana vies to get on a TV youth talent show with her traditional drum and dance troupe.  It’s really a neat little show and very current as it’s only a couple of years old.

Nature and Animals

 African Critters (Hardcover) ~ Robert B. Haas (Author) Cover Art

The Seven Natural Wonders of Africa by Mary and Michael Woods
(entire continent)
This is a nice long picture book with lots of good photos that gives a nice opening survey of the highlights of Africa’s geography.  Each of the seven chapters covers the natural wonder it discusses from different angles, so there’s a lot of history as well as geology and biology in there as well.

African Critters by Michael Haas
(entire continent)
This National Geographic book has an almost conversational narrative style.  I liked the way it delved into different kinds of animals from all over Africa, instead of only focusing on the “big ones.”  The book design is also inviting for kids to browse.  There were a few books about African animals that we found, but this one was both comprehensive and engaging.

Folk Tales

A Story, a Story (Paperback) ~ Gail E. Haley (Author) Cover Art Nelson Mandela's Favorite African Folktales (Paperback) ~ Nelson... Cover Art

A Story A Story by Gail E. Haley
(West Africa)
Sometimes I’m a sucker for an old Caldecott winner and a bunch of woodcuts.  I do love woodcut style illustrations.  No unit on Africa would be complete without reading at least on Anansi tale.  We read this version of the classic tale where Anansi gives people the gift of stories.

Nelson Mandela’s Favorite African Folktales
(entire continent)
This book has stories from all over Africa.  The illustrations are done by various people in different styles.  I like the variety of stories in this book.  It’s a nice storybook to own in general.

Ancient History and Culture

African Beginnings (Hardcover) ~ James Haskins (Author) Cover Art Village That Vanished (Hardcover) ~ Ann Grifalconi (Author) and ... Cover Art Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions (Picture Puffin Books) (Pape... Cover Art

African Beginnings by James Haskins
(entire continent)
This is a great short introduction to African history before colonization which I’m very glad to have found.  I think I found it right as some kind reader suggested it!  It covers several civilizations from ancient times, such as Axum and Meroe to early modern, such as Kongo.  Each civilization has lush illustrations and one or two pages of text.  The final pages describe the slave trade and colonization in short.

The Village that Vanished by Ann Grifalconi
(Malawi?)
I loved the detailed illustrations in this book.  It’s a story from the Yao people, who live primarily in Malawi.  The story shows how a village manages to escape slavers based on their ingenuity and faith in the spirits their tribe believes in.  It’s not specifically a history book, but we used it as a gentle jumping off point to look at how slavery affected the entire African continent.  One needs only to find Malawi, far from the Atlantic coast, to understand how much slavers took from Africa.  The author has several other titles about Africa which I’ve seen suggested more often.  We took them out of the library too, but I thought this one was especially beautiful.

Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions by Margaret Musgrove
(entire continent)
I know I picked on this book a little while back.  It’s not that I don’t like it.  It’s actually a beautiful book, with amazing illustrations.  Each page shows a different African ethnic group and describes a tiny sliver of their traditions.  The groups are in alphabetical order, with one for each letter of the alphabet.  Mushroom and BalletBoy don’t tend to retain much from these sorts of books, but I think this one gives an idea of the vast diversity on the African continent.

Stories of Everyday Life

Bintou's Braids (Paperback) ~ Sylviane A. Diouf (Author) Cover Art The Best Beekeeper of Lalibela: A Tale from Africa (Hardcover) ~... Cover Art My Rows and Piles of Coins (Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor... Cover Art My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken, and Me (Paperback) ~ Maya... Cover Art

Bintou’s Braids by Sylviane Diouf
(Senegal)
This simple story about a girl who wants braids like all her grown-up cousins is very sweet with lively illustrations.  It’s quite short, but it gives a small peak into village life, food, and customs in a way that most kids can relate to.  Don’t they all want to be like the grown-ups sometimes?

The Best Beekeeper of Lalibela by Cristina Kessler
(Ethiopia)
This story is about a girl who is determined to become a beekeeper, despite being mocked by the men of the village for her ambitions.  She has to be inventive and persistent.  I’ll admit that I’m not in love with the illustrations, but the story is wonderful.

My Rows and Piles of Coins by Tololwa Mollel
(Tanzania)
This was easily Mushroom and BalletBoy’s favorite of the stories we’ve read.  It’s about a boy who saves up his money to buy a bicycle to help his family.  He doesn’t save quite enough, but there’s a happy ending.

My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken and Me by Maya Angelou
(South Africa)
This book by the famous American poet is poetically written in first person and illustrated by bright photographs and bold typography that echoes the art that the narrator’s mother paints on her house.  This book inspired the best activity in our house, as we painted an enormous mural in the Ndebele style shown in the book.

Recent History

The Day Gogo Went to Vote (Paperback) ~ Elinor Sisulu (Author) Cover Art Seeds of Change: Wangari's Gift to the World (Hardcover) ~ Jen C... Cover Art Nelson Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (Hardcover) ~ Chris Van Wyk... Cover Art

The Day Gogo Went to Vote by Elinor Sisulu
(South Africa)
This is a lovely picture book about an older woman who is able, not only to vote for the first time after the end of Apartheid, but also to go out of her own home in freedom.  It’s told from the point of view of her granddaughter and captures a sense of hope.

Seeds of Change by Jen Cullerton Johnson
(Kenya)
There are a lot of picture book biographies of Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize.  They all look good, but I ended up getting this one, with bright, batik-like illustrations.  That’s right, I chose by the illustrations!  However, the text is well done too, and has the inspirational feel that you would expect about a woman who overcame that much adversity and planted that many trees.

Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
(South Africa)
I’ve recently run into several picture book formats of longer adult memoirs and nonfiction and I think it’s a really neat trend.  There are many picture book biographies of Mandela out there, but I liked this condensed “in his own words” version.  The illustrations are simple but add a lot to the book.

Chapter Books for Africa

Well, we got moving with some Africa related books.  I thought I’d do two posts and write about the resources I’m finding most useful.  First up, chapter books and middle grades books about Africa.

Anna Hibiscus series by Atinuke
I found these many months ago but decided to hold on to them for a little while.  For a long time, they weren’t widely available in the US, but they’ve finally seemed to get a wider distribution and more people seem to know about them.  This is an easy chapter book series about a girl, Anna Hibiscus, living in “amazing Africa.”  The language, while simple and accessible for early readers, is lovely.  Simple drawings of Anna and her family are on most pages.  Each book in the series has a series of chapters that are essentially short stories.  Anna’s adventures are easy for kids to connect with as she wants to see snow, is afraid to go off to school for the first time, gets performance anxiety and finds her little brothers annoying.  However, they’re also uniquely African as Anna gives kids a peek into a world of extended families under one roof, African hairstyles, and African foods and customs.  Anna’s family is clearly middle class and planted in the modern world, with texting, cars and tall buildings, not to mention international family members.  These four little books give kids a window into African life.  By the way, Atinuke has another series about rural Africa called The No. 1 Car Spotter, which is just as excellent.

Akimbo and the Lions (Akimbo)Akimbo series by Alexander McCall Smith
This series recently went out of print, which is a shame, since there are so few books like them.  These are also a series of short chapter books, but with fewer illustrations and a slightly harder reading level.  While BalletBoy could read these, he would have read them slowly, so we just read them aloud.  The series follows Akimbo, a young boy in southern Africa.  His father works on a reserve, which gives Akimbo ample time to interact with animals and protect them from poachers.  Reading these (as well as the author’s other series for children), it struck me that while they’re all good, the storytelling and the language doesn’t quite reach the lovely level that his adult books manage.  It’s always interesting to see how writers adapt their work for different ages.  Parents should know that the books have a good dose of danger for books intended for young readers.  The poachers and some of the animal threats felt very real and scary for Mushroom as we read aloud.

BuluBulu: The African Wonder Dog by Dick Houston
This is a middle grades nonfiction book about a dog in Zambia.  It’s a variety of book which I wish there were more of and which I’m excited to connect with more – popular nonfiction books for middle grades readers.  I know of a few, but not many.  This is our current read aloud.  I skimmed ahead a ways in, but I haven’t quite finished it yet, I’ll admit.  The story follows Bulu and his owners, Anna and Steve, who move from the UK to the Zambian bush to connect with the wildlife and build a nature center for children.  Bulu helps them rescue animals and warn them of poachers and dangers.  Pet dogs apparently aren’t common in the bush because of the dangers to a small animal, but Bulu defies the odds in his adventurous life.  The story is told much like a fiction book and I’m enjoying the real life feel to everything that happens.

Journey to Jo’berg by Beverly Naidoo
After reading this short middle grades novel, I decided it was probably too much for my boys, but I think it could be perfect in a couple years.  Naidoo wrote this book near the end of the era of Apartheid, about a brother and sister who have lived a relatively sheltered, if impoverished life, in a rural village.  When their baby sister becomes sick, Naledi and Tiro decide to walk, take buses, cars and trains and find help from strangers as they make their way to Jo’berg to find their mother, who works as a maid to a white family there.  The story is firmly a children’s story told from a child’s perspective, but Naledi and Tiro spend the book learning about complicated injustices on their journey.  They see the police beat people and witness a baby die.  They learn to pay attention to the signs that separate whites and blacks as well as to question the rules.  Another character, Grace, tells them a story about riots in Soweto, which contains even more violence than the children themselves witness.  The book is beautifully written with an ending that is tinged with hope, but I felt like the content needed to wait for a couple of years.  I would say it’s for ages nine and up.

The Ear, The Eye and the Arm by Nancy Farmer
This was another book that I thought was too much and too complicated for Mushroom and BalletBoy, but it’s a book I really love that I think gives an unusual insight into Africa.  The story takes place in the future in Zimbabwe.  Three siblings are kidnapped, escape, then must have a set of harrowing adventures, including a trip to a sort of otherworldly African village, before they can make their way home.  Farmer sets up an imaginative world and raises questions about technology, traditions, gender and poverty in this coming of age science fiction story.  It’s an interesting book that really defies categorization.

Africa Unit Planning Frustrations

I’m in the midst of doing the planning for our Africa unit, which will last us for January and February.  In case you don’t know, we’re headed for a trip to southern Africa for most of March, so this is in educational preparation.  We’ll ditch our U.S. history studies for that time and pick them back up again once we’ve recovered in April.

I’ve found some wonderful books, especially some wonderful picture books.  The lists here and here were both very helpful to me.  Hooray for other homeschool bloggers sharing good information!  I’ll post up all the lovely children’s books we’re planning to use sometime in the next few weeks.  I even managed to find a nice projects book.

Mostly though, I’m still in the frustrations period.  Too many of the books I’m finding are like the one you see there, Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions A to Z.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s a lovely book and one we’ll definitely read.  It’s a Caldecott winner, in fact.  And the information in it, not to mention the illustrations, are wonderful.

But…  But…  But…

When we start American history, we can use something similar.  Something like Lynne Cheney’s America: A Primer.  But then we can move to that and read lots other books – biographies, history books, folk tales, fiction stories in picture book and chapter book form.  Or when we start studying animals, we could begin by reading Bert Kitchen’s crisp and lovely Animal Alphabet.  But from there, we would move to big animal encyclopedias and animal stories and beautiful photo books about animals.

But with Africa, there’s nowhere to go in many cases.  When all the library has about Africa is books like Ashanti to Zulu, Count Your Way Through Kenya and a few Enchantment of the World books, then it’s crushingly limited.  And it makes the efforts in a fine book like Ashanti to Zulu feel less like the beginning of a path and more like a dead end filled with random, untethered facts.

Here’s what I have found.  There are African folktales enough.  There are African animals and biomes books enough.  There are some African picture books, though there should be more.  There are a scant few chapter books about Africa but not enough for a decent selection.  There are almost no decent books about African history and culture and almost no biographies of use either.  And there are no big, fat, overall geography books that are worth the time.  The few I found were outdated or dull or outdated and dull.

I’m so used to working off a spine for a unit, but this unit can have no spine.  There isn’t one worth using.