New Curriculum Helps Local Teachers Cover Africa Beyond Textbook Stereotypes

Apr 20, 2018

For a month last summer, U.S. teachers worked alongside their Ethiopian counterparts to create lesson plans, PowerPoints and videos to give students in the U.S. a more nuanced understanding of the people and customs of Ethiopia.

That curriculum, called Teach Africa, is now being piloted in classrooms across the region.

Teachers spent a month in Sodo, a mid-size city south of the Ethiopian capital, living with families and learning about how Ethiopians have contributed to the world.  

American and Ethiopia participants in the Fullbright-funded project.
Credit Submitted Photo

Maureen Porter, the project’s director and professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education said at first, the Ethiopian teachers were skeptical. That response she said was the product of decades of intrusive training from outsiders.

“It took a while of really working together and brainstorming to find themes and priorities and topics together for them to shift away from this idea of they were Ethiopians who needed to be trained, to they were full partners who we appreciated and respected and they had something to give us that we needed,” she said.

That new understanding became the foundation for a curriculum that centered on bringing Ethiopia to life for K-12 students in the U.S.

Porter worked with Pitt’s African Studies program to lead the U.S. teachers on a Fulbright-funded month-long trip to Ethiopia. Many of those teachers said Africa is often taught in their classrooms in broad terms that generalize the continent rather than as individual countries and distinct cultures. According to Porter, those units might include ancient civilizations like Egypt, the history of colonial networks, including slavery, and the present-day refugee crisis.

“And beyond those three themes there really was the vacuum of information much less really culturally nuanced modern information about what it's like to live in modern Africa today,” she said.  

South Hills Middle School geography teacher Fabricio Ortiz de Montellano has been using the materials in his classroom while teaching migration, economics and politics.

“My students should first know there are other countries out there with their own values, traditions and way of life," he said. "They should be asking themselves how things are similar or different, being able to describe African lives. Study the push and pull factors for Africans to migrate or stay, and their adaptation to nature. These themes are very important for understanding our world."

The Sodo Market in Sodo, Ethiopia.
Credit Ryan Devlin / Submitted Photo

Africa is covered in two of the eight units he teaches his sixth graders in a year. One unit is dedicated to geography, taking note of the physical features, climate and vegetation of the continent. The second unit focuses on archeology and early civilizations of Africa. He also devotes a mini-unit during the year to the Ethiopian famine in the 1980s.

The Teach Africa curriculum from the University of Pittsburgh includes videos on everyday objects and customs. Ortiz de Montellano said his students have been fascinated by the objects including a natural toothbrush made out of bristles from a plant. They’ve also danced to traditional music included in videos.

“I would like my students to learn how things are different in other parts of the world, but that does not make them less or worse, just different,” he said.

Fabricio Ortiz de Montellano shows a scarf made in Ethiopia to his sixth grade geography class in South Hills Middle School.
Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA

Porter said the group very intentionally wrote the materials in a way to counteract stereotypes that make people in other parts of the world seem unusual.

“We really emphasize moving from a lens of being exotic to a lens of honoring folklife. And so you go from this stereotype of they're strange they're an other, they're stuck in the past, they're different from me, into a lens of a very human personalized dynamic description of what kinds of things people are doing today,” she said.

Anna-Maria Karnes said that comes across in the materials, because teachers focused on building relationships. She’s the advisor for Pitt’s African Studies program and helped build the curriculum. She agrees with Porter who said classrooms would be better served with this type of humanized content.

“I think that what we've produced are really engaging videos that focus on individuals and real people actual women who are making pots actual men who are working in a welding lab building wheelchairs,” Porter said.

The full curriculum can be found here.