Celebrating Africa

By Marcus Kraneburg, August 2013

Geography in class 7 deals with foreign continents. The pupils are 13 years old on average and the time of inner awakening starts. The middle of childhood has been passed. The phase of the greatest absence of any cares which life has prepared for us has come to an end. The curriculum of the Waldorf school takes account of that and seeks to find the correspondence to the inner developmental situation of the child. In geography that means: setting out for new horizons!

We want to leave home, shed what is hereditary and familiar to us. A major step. So we do not take a little trip to a neighbouring country but we set sail for a whole new continent. Off to Africa! In preparing the main lesson, I particularly pondered the question how beyond the geographical descriptions and facts I could communicate something of African culture and particularly the African sense of life.

A multi-dimensional learning concept

Our learning culture is still frequently dominated today by a one-dimensional learning concept. The teacher is “in control” of the whole learning process. Accordingly all pupils proceed along the same path. The result is precisely defined to ensure comparability. The themes in the individual subjects are separated and there is little connection between them. We have advanced one step further in the Waldorf school. There our understanding of the nature of the human being provides bridges which unite the different content. That connection is, nevertheless, mostly not obvious for the pupils. So we make a movable toy here and practice algebra there, rehearse a eurythmy form here and sing a gospel song there, train a handstand here and ...

How can social, cultural, technical and artistic learning take place simultaneously in one learning content? How can a common idea act as a guide while still going our own path?

The idea: celebrate a festival

I let myself be guided by a simple core idea: on the Friday evening of the last week of the main lesson there would be an African festival. Pupils, parents and teachers of my class would celebrate together. We would sit in clans on colourful blankets on the floor of our hall, would eat African dishes we had cooked ourselves with our hands, enjoy African dances we had learned, admire African masks we had created, learn something about the background to their use, play the Wari game with beans and ... and ... and ... The main lesson thus took shape almost by itself. I created thematic  blocks of which the pupils were allowed to choose two. That choice itself seemed important to me. We connect differently with a content if we are allowed to make the choice ourselves. Although everyone could not do everything, they could watch out of the corner of their eye what was going on elsewhere. The project work of this four-week period only occupied a part of the total period. In the “normal” part of the main lesson we dealt with the particular features of the landscape, the climate and climate zones, the life of the people and animals and plants, etc. We only started with the project in the second week. On Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays the pupils were given 60 minutes of the main lesson to work on their themes largely on their own. In the last week they were also given the Friday, the day of our festival so that 10 units in total were available. Certain groups changed their subject after five units so that the diversity increased. Two parents had promised to help with sewing and cooking.

The practical part

Sew an African boubou: Only children could choose this group who were already able use a sewing machine. The pupils in this working group were given 2.7 metres of wonderful African fabric and sewing instructions. A handwork teacher was on hand in case help was needed. The pupils did all the sewing themselves. They presented a show of their wonderful boubous at our festival.

Cooking African dishes: Our school possesses a beautiful demonstration kitchen. This group learned to cook African dishes with the help of recipes and a mother of a pupil: banana bread (Ghana), chicken in peanut sauce (Ghana), Ethiopian lentil stew, tabbouleh (North African couscous), injera (Ethiopian flat bread), falafel, zigni beef (Ethiopia). The group changed after five units. At the end of the lesson we always ate with a beautiful blanket on the floor and of course using our hands. Both groups were responsible for the cooking on the festival Friday.

African dance: Music, song and dance play a major role in all areas of life of the people of Africa. Dance in particular is the most important form of expression at important events. A group of ten pupils prepared an African dance by themselves using a video (laptop) and the corresponding music (recording). They had a room of their own for that purpose. The dance itself tells an extensive story.

It shows people cultivating a field of millet. They hoe, sow, fetch water for irrigation, weed, cut the millet and harvest it. Then the millet it threshed, ground and cooked and finally it is eaten with, of course, a celebration!

African board game: Wari has been played for thousands of years as long ago as in ancient Egypt, where play boards have been found carved into the stones of the Cheops pyramid and the Temple of Karnak.

It was the task of this group to familiarise themselves so well with the rules by means of a set of instructions that the pupils would later be able to explain the game to all the other festival participants. A total of 30 Wari games were to be made. We used egg cartons. First they were cut to the correct shape, then they were given a white foundation coat of paint after which they were painted with African patterns. Beans were used for the pieces.

Story teller: The story teller was to prepare an African story to tell at our festival in his or her own lively words.

Painting: This group was given African motifs which the pupils painted themselves in water colour.

Building a hut/African villages: A 2 x 2 metre board was prepared for this group. Using willow frames and clay, a small African village was created here. The pupils brought their own materials and tools. The finished model was exhibited at the festival.

African masks: There are many peoples in Africa who use masks for various events. These events can be happy, like a harvest festival; sad, like a funeral; threatening, like a drought; or dangerous, like defence against witches. This project group was given five units of time to make an African mask. It was given a book in which very beautiful masks were illustrated. There was a free choice of materials and the group was to consider and organise them independently.

Africa relief: A final group made a topographical map of Africa on a 2 x 2 metre wooden board. They transferred the outline to scale and used papier-mâché to create the topography. The pupils were already familiar with the method from a previous project. Deserts and tropical zones were then coloured in.

In conclusion, the festival

Then we held our festival. Everything came together and it was wonderful: food, dance, game, masks, clothes, stories, pictures and models. An impressive panorama of pupil activity and enthusiasm arose in front of the parents and teachers. It was clear to us that the diversity of Africa could not fundamentally be represented. But we could sense a little something of African cultures. And the most important thing: it aroused curiosity for more!

It was a very satisfying main lesson for the pupils and for me, too, the approach of multi-dimensional learning processes was an attractive one.

About the author: Marcus Kraneburg is a class teacher at the Freie Waldorfschule am Kräherwald in Stuttgart and founder of the Waldorf Ideas Pool. Link: www.waldorf-ideen-pool.de


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