The UNC African Studies Center was recently awarded a $500,000 grant by the Oak Foundation for its proposal on the creation of a digital platform for K-5 students to learn about contemporary Africa.
“We are thrilled to be embarking on a project that will impact so many K-5 students, providing up-to-date resources and curricula for teaching about Africa," Victoria Rovine, co-director of the ASC, said in an email. "Thanks to the Oak Foundation, we can build on the African Studies Center’s impact to reach students in classrooms first in the region, and eventually across the state."
Oak Foundation is a grant-giving organization that provides funding to social justice and sustainability projects around the world.
The ASC will be working with the subject matter and teaching specialists within the University, in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools and at the state level through the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction to ensure that instruction about Africa in K-5 classrooms promotes inclusivity and breaks down cultural misconceptions.
Before embarking on this new digitized project, the ASC supported the teaching of African culture through materials such as learning kits and book sets. These learning kits included items like books on childhood and family life that represent different cultures, as well as information on specific countries in Africa.
Ada Umenwaliri, associate director of the ASC, said that she was working with Senegal-focused kits when she first started at the ASC. But she had concerns that the initial kits perpetuated misconceptions about Africa in the West.
"I felt that continuing to showcase Africa in this way perpetuated that Africa is this part of the world where people are not leading the same lifestyles as the Western world,” Umenwaliri said.
Umenwaliri said her goal is to create a more modern version of these kits to showcase contemporary Africa and encourage globalized learning and inclusivity inside K-5 classrooms.
“As an African, I felt I had a responsibility to complement the historical items with modern Africa, and that's how the project started,” Umenwaliri said.
The first step of the project includes taking the conceptual idea of the original kits and digitizing them into an interactive online platform for K-5 children.
“The main outcomes will be the creation of the digital content with lesson plans, social studies, arts and music, launching the online repository for digital material and securing additional funding for project sustainability," said Millie Brobston, programme officer for the Special Interest Grants Programme of Oak Foundation.
Umenwaliri said she and her colleagues plan to eventually have at least one piece of content from each of the countries in Africa, such as an instrument, food or element of family life, along with educational materials on infrastructure and city life.
After creating the content, Umenwaliri and her team will launch the material online within the first year or two of the project.
“Because we are what is called an NRC center — National Resource Center — for Africa, we are quite networked across the U.S.," Umenwaliri said. "So we have a network where we can publicize the existence of this resource.”
Once the site is up and running, Umenwaliri said she plans to share the information across all the National Resource Centers to be shared with their outreach community, which includes teachers in the K-5 communities across the country.
“For children to feel that they are coming to a space, where who they are, and what they represent is not something that they have to hide when they walk through the classroom is very important,” said English language arts teacher at Northern Granville Middle School, Measha Williams. “Because if all those other barriers have been dismantled, then they're able to just be a student, enjoy their experience, learn, participate and share.”
Williams was also a member of the 2020 Middle East and African Cultures Teacher Fellows Program at the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies.
In the future, Umenwaliri said the ASC will build upon the money received from Oak Foundation funds, and a recent Title VI grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
Umenwaliri said the ASC will reach out to other donors as they begin to scale the project to engage with a larger audience. Throughout the whole process, Umenwaliri said the goal of the project will remain consistent.
“As we begin to be a more culturally aware community, this is a way to advance inclusivity in classrooms and make children feel welcomed,” Umenwaliri said.
She is hopeful that the project will dispel Western stereotypes about Africa and educate children through authentic examples that represent the real culture of contemporary Africa.
“In order for us to be able to effectively teach, we have to first be able to connect,” Williams said.
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