While I did love the reviewer who seemed to think my book was a knife (which amazon seems to have finally removed), this person also has a perspective I haven’t seen before.
Category Archives: Africa is My Home
Over the last year important if uncomfortable questions have been raised about how to approach the topic of American chattel slavery with children. I’ve been following the conversations closely and they have informed me greatly as I prepare to begin my own teaching of the topic with my 4th grade students this week. It is a unit I’ve done for many years, always reworking it in response to new learnings, new circumstances, and new thinking.
Part of our year-long study of immigration, the unit is bluntly on the Transatlantic Slave Trade, on those who came here against their will from Africa, unlike any of the others the children have already studied (Europeans coming through Ellis Island circa 1900, Chinese coming through Angel Island at the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and recent immigrants through an oral history project). Since it is the first time our students have encountered this topic formally in school we continually grapple with how best to teach it. Over the years, teachers have approached it somewhat differently depending on personal experiences and background. One colleague began by sharing her own African-American family history. Another did so via her bi-racial background. A focus on social justice has been a third colleague’s framework. And mine is Africa due to my Sierra Leone Peace Corps experience and subsequent education, research, and writing.
In addition to readying the resources, activities, and discussions my students will experience, I’m preparing for their emotional responses. This includes letting parents know what I will be doing, what resources I will be using, and inviting their responses as well as any concerns regarding their children’s emotional reactions. Throughout the unit I will be carefully watching and listening and providing ways for my students to respond. I will do my best to create a safe place for all of them and be ready to shift my plans if necessary, well aware that each will respond differently depending on race, ethnicity, previous knowledge, family history, personality, and more.
And so tomorrow I will begin. First will be the establishment of a safe place. Here is what I’ve written on my internal class blog and will discuss with the children:
To start we want to be sure that all members of the Edinger House community are sensitive and aware that each person comes to this topic with different knowledge and experience. Some of you may know more than others, some of you may be more comfortable than others with this topic, and some of you may not yet know how you will respond to the topic. We need to be sure that everyone feels safe as we begin learning about these difficult truths about America’s past.
Along with this I will read two very different books, Penda Diakité and Baba Wagué Diakité’s I Lost My Tooth in Africa and Jacqueline Woodson’s Show Way. I use the Diakités’ book to give a view of recent West Africa (it is set in Bamako, Mali) through a child’s eyes, one that I can also talk about personally as it is familiar to me from my life there, and Jackie’s because it so powerfully connects the past with the present, establishing a tone and a theme for our work.
Because I feel it is a story of resilience and resistance, the center of the unit has long been the Amistad affair. Now I am able to use my own book, Africa is My Home; A Child of the Amistad, (with Keren Liu’s wonderful lessons) along with Veronica Chambers’ Amistad Rising, some of Elizabeth Alexander’s Amistad poems from American Sublime, and various primary sources (For anyone interested, more materials and resources for using my book are here.)
Many of my lessons are centered around books I read aloud. The following titles, among many more in my collection, are some that I am planning to use this year. I’ve selected them because I feel they are age-appropriate, well researched and created, and work for my particular approach to this topic. That said, which ones I end up using will depend on this year’s students’ expressed and observed interest and emotional responses.
Books set (or partially set) in Africa at the time of the slave trade:
- The Village that Vanished by Ann Grifalconi and Kadir Nelson.
- Never Forgotten by Patricia C. McKissack and Leo and Diane Dillon.
- Circle Unbroken by Margot Theis Raven and E. B. Lewis.
Books set in contemporary Africa (mostly West):
- Boundless Grace by Mary Hoffman and Caroline Binch.
- Deep in the Sahara by Kelly Cunnane and Hoda Hadadi.
- Emmanuel’s Dream by Laurie Ann Thompson and Sean Qualls.
- One Plastic Bag by Miranda Paul and Elizabeth Zunon.
- Anna Hibiscus (various titles) by Atinuke and Lauren Tobia.
Books set in America under slavery:
- Almost to Freedom by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson and Colin Bootman.
- Underground: Finding the Light to Freedom by Shane W. Evans.
- I Lay My Stitches Down: Poems of American Slavery by Cynthia Grady and Michele Wood.
- Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence by Gretchen Woelfle and Alix Delinois.
- The Price of Freedom: How One Town Stood Up to Slavery by Judith Bloom Fradin, Dennis Brindell Fradin, and Eric Velasquez.
- Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad by Ellen Levine and Kadir Nelson.
- Night Boat to Freedom by Margot Theis Raven and E. B. Lewis.
- Way Up and Over Everything by Alice McGill and Jude Daly.
- All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom by Angela Johnson and E.B. Lewis.
- Dave the Potter by Laban Carrik Hill and Bryan Collier.
- Fredrick’s Journey by Doreen Rappaport and London Ladd.
- Brick by Brick by Charles R. Smith Jr. and Floyd Cooper.
- Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton by Don Tate.
- Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford and R. Gregory Christie.
- The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch by Chris Barton and Don Tate.
And so, tomorrow I will begin. Given the passion of this past year’s discussions I am perhaps a bit less confident than other years. Admittedly a bit nervous. But that is okay as this is not about me, but about helping my students begin to know about this henious part of their country’s past.
I just came across the following from a Chicago Tribune round-up of young critic reviews. Avery, I’m very honored!
“Africa Is My Home” is about a little girl and her friends who were taken from their homes and sold into slavery. In this book I learned how it felt to be locked in shackles in a dark, small space, about the slaves fighting their captors and winning on the Amistad, and still being tricked into going to America. I also learned you should never forget your home and where you come from. This is a sad, happy and sometimes scary story. “Africa Is My Home” is an informative and interesting book. I recommend it to kids and adults who like historical fiction.
Avery McDowell, 7, Chicago
I am so honored that RIF (Reading is Fundamental) has selected Africa is My Home for their 2015 Multicultural Book list. For it they’ve done this wonderful guide for parent, families, and teachers for the book. Thank you so so much!
Our 2015 Multicultural Book Collection includes 39 children’s books specially selected to encourage children’s interest and learning in a broad range of topics, from science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEAM) to history and social studies. The Collection also emphasizes multiculturalism and diversity in its books’ content, characters, authors, and illustrators.
Each book is vetted by children’s literacy experts, and comes with accompanying Common Core-aligned learning resources and activities for parents, teachers, and caregivers to deepen students’ engagement with the texts. The Multicultural Book Collection and its companion activities were an integral part of our landmark Read for Success research study and program model. Learn more about how the Collection can help students stop the summer slide and keep learning throughout the year.
Last month I wrote a post about the Blue School’s Keren Lilu’s fabulous unit on Africa is My Home. Inspired, a colleague and I used Keren’s ideas with our own 4th grade students and it went wonderfully well. And so for others who might want to give it a try I’ve put together this page that details her methods so that others can follow them too. Keren also provided this video of the children’s wonderful paintings of Margru’s journey (inspired their study of Jacob Lawrence’s Migration series).
This past fall I received an email from a teacher who was using Africa is My Home (as of today in paperback!) with her 5th graders. She wrote:
My name is Keren Lilu; I am a 5th grade teacher at the Blue School in lower Manhattan. Our big study for the year is the Harlem Renaissance/Civil Rights movement, with the essential questions centered around power: how does power emerge- is it inevitable? Who decides who has power? How do we empower ourselves in the face of injustice? We actually began the year looking at slavery as a historical context to ground the rest of our study in, and we began by reading your book, Africa is My Home. Wow- how this book has captured my students! They absolutely love it and are completely engrossed and immersed in it. It has taken so long to read it- we can barely get through a page or two a day- because each page just sparks so much discussion among the children; they can talk and talk about it! I can’t tell you how much this book has touched them, and how it has really made them think about deep issues of the world. They really have so much to say, and have fallen so in love with Sarah (Magulu). And learning about Sierra Leone and the slave trade and the circumstances of the Amistad is really important to them, especially with our study this year.
I recently visited them and was absolutely blown away by their work. So much so that a colleague and I are currently using Keren’s approach with our own 4th graders. Because it is going so well I asked Keren if I could share it here.
I did it as a read aloud with the kids following along. I think it honors it [the story] more that way and really created a reading community around it. We often could only get through a few pages at a time because of all of the discussion it generated. I actually, at the beginning, used it to teach discussion skills as well, because I found the kids were becoming so passionate with the book they all would start talking at the same time!
At points along the way:
I had the children choose ten words or phrases from the text to capture that part of the story. We did it after the part where Margru is pawned, after the section of her trial and freedom, and after returning home. These kind of turned into “found” poems too and were incredible, and the children actually wound up really loving this!
At the end she had them create Point of View poems.
The poems we did after we finished reading the book, as a writing piece and response. They wrote one, and then we did a revision for these following points:-what is the larger story you are trying to tell across the whole poem? Think through the different “I am’s.”-make sure each line is unique (replace ideas that repeat and say in a different way)-expand each line with more vivid and emotional details
I knew I wanted them to really connect with the emotions and the journey of Margru, and I remembered this format of poetry that Pat [Lynch, her administrator] introduced to me a long time ago when I was teaching the travelers of the Silk Road. I remembered those Silk Road traveler poems were so emotional and thoughtful, so I tried it with this book, and I couldn’t have been more thrilled. I was debating having the children choose any character’s perspective (father, Cinque, etc.), but I decided at the end to focus just on Margru, since it was really her journey we were following.
Additionally, Keren teamed with the art teacher who had the children study Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and then create their own series of paintings of Margru’s journey. These were absolutely extraordinary.
Reflecting on the unit, Keren wrote:
What I would have loved to do that I didn’t think of until after was have the kids keep a journal from Margru’s perspective during the story and her journey, and have them write entries as reading responses during the unit. I wish I did this. I guess next time!
My visit with Keren’s students reinforced what she had written. The children were so involved in the story — their questions and comments were thoughtful, informative, and passionate. It was absolutely thrilling to see a master teacher use my book this way. I can’t thank the Blue School, Pat Lynch, and Keren Lilu enough for this.
Pat Lynch, myself (holding a signed collection of the poetry and a palm tree a couple of the children made for me), and Keren Lilu standing in front of a display of the children’s poetry (with illustrations).
During my time in DC for the Children’s Africana Book Award I was honored with an invitation to speak to the Capitol City Public Charter School fourth graders about Africa is My Home by An Open Book Foundation, a fabulous organization that describes themselves thus:
Founded by Dara La Porte and Heidi Powell, An Open Book Children’s Literacy Foundation was created to promote literacy among disadvantaged children and teens in the greater Washington, D.C. area by giving schools and students book and access to authors and illustrators. We excite children and teachers about reading and send every child home with a signed book.
I was so impressed and moved by the experience. Being a fourth grade teacher myself, it was delightful to speak about my book to a different group and population from my own students. As I wrote in my earlier post about the weekend:
It was a really wonderful experience. The children were eager, interested, and had wonderful questions. I was most moved by two children from El Salvador. I sign my books “Never forget your home” and one of these two children spoke with tremendous excitement of returning soon to her home of El Salvador while the other came around to tell me privately that he would not be returning to his home of El Salvador because “bad things had happened there.” I told him that his home should be wherever he felt safe and happy. It was an important reminder to me — someone who has, for different reasons, no childhood place to call home — that home is not necessarily where you originated.
I enjoyed too meeting and working with Janet Zwick of An Open Book Foundation who guided the children to read and discuss the book during my visit and generally (along with another wonderful person from the foundation and the school’s librarian) saw that the whole event went off without a hitch. (Even the fire drill didn’t cause a problem, believe it or not!) . Afterwards Janet treated me to a tasty pho lunch with some really wonderful conversation. Here are photos Janet took of the event. My great thanks to everyone involved in making this a special event for me. (The photos are courtesy of An Open Book Foundation.)
Monica Edinger, author of “Africa is My Home, A Child of the Amistad,” is a former Peace Corps volunteer who began writing children’s books during Sierra Leone’s Civil War. “Sierra Leone and its people were being represented in the media in this really horrendous way,” Edinger said.
She felt it was important to share stories that showed there was more to Sierra Leone than conflict. “Real stories, about real people, make a big difference. But unfortunately that isn’t the standard narrative in children’s books.”
From this article celebrating the Children’s Africana Book Awards.