Oral Tradition and Memory in African Film

byClaudia Miller


The population of thirteen and fourteen year old students with whom I spend the majority of my waking hours comprises a population which many in town refer to as the "combat zone." Upon reuniting with famous metal worker and her friend from South Africa, Tom Joyce, who works out of the garage studio on his property in Santa Fe, my daughter Kim returned from lunch repeating Tom's words, "Your mom is very brave." So be it. I love these kids. Last year, a survey of students showed that 97% of students at Alameda Middle School have at least one family member in prison. I won't belabor the point here. Remember how we hated for our weekends to end when we were growing up? My students are exhausted and relieved on Monday morning to return to Alameda, the one really safe haven in their lives, though they balk at the boundaries and standards which we "impose" upon them, which they subconsciously crave from their parent/s/guardian. There is great promise in them, and I believe that my tutelage and empathy, long talks, and humor, plus a handshake with every student as he/she arrives for class each day, make a difference. The promise, in fact, blossoms in many.

This unit is designed to imbue seventh and eighth grade middle school students with a deepening awareness of African storytelling through African produced film. Students will find cultural relevance in films heretofore unavailable to them; indeed, teachers know that students who make personal connections and attach meaning to their lessons tend to be more engaged and more receptive to the learning experience. The two films which will be viewed in depth were produced in Africa, and they are dynamic. Elements of African storytelling will be studied with the role of the African griot as the messenger in a boy's rite of passage. Indeed, the griot will come alive through the viewing of Keita:The Heritage of the Griot, a classic film about the change in a boy's life when the griot comes to his comfortable contemporary home to tell the story of his origin and thus his destiny. A second African film, Wend Kuuni, wields its magic in the story of a mute village boy deeply connected to his hidden past. Herein, creative innovative film artists teach us on the screen how community needs, historical pressures, and cultural interactions affect traditional African storytelling. Students will be led to examine their own family's oral traditions in order to see themselves as special youngsters connected to a unique past.

All necessary background for the teacher will be included in this unit. In order to glean and fully appreciate the filmmaker's task, a study of cinematic conventions will help students not only to understand the essentials of filmmaking but also to dissect them and then to critically review how the sound, lighting, music, dialogue, character placement and camera movement develop two unforgettable films centered on African orality. Teaching strategies will speak to skilled differentiated instruction methods followed by well-developed lesson plans which correlate to the Language Arts content standards of most states. Lastly, assessment techniques will be included for teacher perusal as a measurable means of student success. Resources for this unit were generously made available to me at Yale University's Sterling Library, Film Study Center, and seminars under the tutelage of Dr. Dudley Andrew.


The ability to teach the stories of Africa through the medium of film is an exciting challenge for me, and it satisfies the need I have to make this amazing culture come alive in the minds of my young adolescent students. I traveled to Cape Town, South Africa, in June, (winter) of 1999, to visit my daughter and her husband, who were graduate students at the University of Wisconsin, teaching and doing research. Kim drove me to Crossroads Township, where thousands of black migrant workers from Transkei, in the Eastern Cape, had been displaced under apartheid. She mastered the Xhosa language, and here I was honored to listen to velvet voices tell their stories of abuse. I traveled to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela's story came alive. This was when I fell in love with Africa. The long trip back to Santa Fe allowed me much time to ponder how I would pass this experience on to my students in the fall. Indeed, that September, I tried, but retelling a foreign person's special story is an arduous task, and I had little response from my students. Seeking a methodology by which my eighth graders would carry these stories in their hearts and minds as I do became my quest.


The opportunity to attend a seminar on Stories around the World in Film at the Yale National Teachers' Institute provided the resources, expertise, and collegiality I needed to research African storytelling through films produced in Africa. My goal was to successfully create a comprehensive unit which would change the way film has customarily been used in most classrooms and offer it as an exciting new pedagogy. My excitement for the subjects of African storytelling and film, plus the knowledge that much help would be available, led my pursuit and hard work. The end result is an innovative unit on oral traditions in African film which my colleagues will find easy to incorporate into any middle school classroom, depending on their teaching style, teaching goals, and course content.

Perhaps it is essential to picture my classroom in one's mind. Alameda Middle School is a Title One, 100% free breakfast, free lunch school, located in a multicultural, multigenerational barrio within walking distance of one of the richest art scenes in the world. The school's population is 90% Hispanic, both native and immigrant, 4% Native American, and 6% Anglo. I started teaching at Alameda in 1990, and I am very dedicated to this population. It did not take me long to realize that my students' realm of existence is very much limited to an approximate 100 mile radius of Santa Fe and that they are generally content with the most cursory knowledge of other cultures. My fellow teachers lament this fact and address it in various ways, none of which seems to light a spark in our students. New Mexico Language Arts Content Standard Three states that the students will use literature and the media to develop an understanding of society and the self. My knowledge of film media and foreign film, in particular, were poor. I used film in my classroom primarily as a reward at the end of a unit, such as when we read Hamlet this year. Do the studying and written work, and then we'll see the movie. Bill Walsh argues in his "Brief history of Media Education" that, until recently, "Education completely ignored all forms of media other than the printed word (and even some of the printed forms, for example, newspapers). Then, after dismissing most non-print media, education came to see popular forms such as films as interest-catching tools or follow-up rewards for students."1

Given the resources of the Yale seminar on Stories around the World in Film, I felt most confident to comprise a unit which I knew would be very unique not only to Santa Fe but also to most school districts across the country. Middle school students would master African storytelling traditions through the realism of film with the desired result of holding these traditions in their memories. A wonderful friend of mine imparted the following message over lunch at the Santa Fe Opera last month. "Claudia, we expose our children to the best, most sound theories and discoveries in all other disciplines. . .We do not limit those theories and discoveries to use the masters either. We discuss and explore contemporary findings. Why, therefore, would we not expose children to contemporary film masters as well? Ultimately, in our quest to develop critical thinking skills in our children we take what is known, what is excellent, and we use this standard to question the veracity of a new theory, a new interpretation, a new way of thinking. This last bit of questioning in the end is an individual pursuit. Human expression is individual. Artist and audience meet at personal relevance and resonance."2 Exactly.


African Storytelling

"I will tell you something about stories. . .They aren't just entertainment. . .They are all we have. . .to fight off illness and death. You don't have anything if you don't have the stories." 3 Despite the attempt to include more information about non-European countries in our children's history texts over the last two decades, many of us, as educators, feel that this information continues to remain highly Eurocentric in focus. Some primary materials by Africans appear in textbooks and the accuracy of information has improved, but, as yet, relatively few school districts have been able to mobilize sufficient support to overcome entrenched structures and introduce African perspectives into curriculum units in order to study Africa from the inside. Stereotyped textbooks, picture books, films, and curriculum guides continue to litter the classroom. African reality is certainly more complex than this, but most of us lack access to a wide range of resources from which to make selections. Very few towns and cities have comprehensive collections of materials on Africa, and fewer still have collections which include materials published in Africa. However, preconceptions and stereotypes disappear with the discovery of resources like those at Yale and the power of African produced films. They are a strong reminder to professionals to be thoughtful in how we teach about this amazing continent.

Traditionally, Africans have revered good stories and storytellers, as have most past and present peoples around the world who are rooted in oral cultures and traditions.

Ancient writing traditions do exist on the African continent, but most Africans today, as in the past, are primarily oral peoples, and their art forms are oral rather than literary. In contrast to written "literature," African "oralture," to use Kenyan novelist and critic Ngugi wa Thiong'o's phrase, is orally composed and transmitted, and is often created to be verbally and communally performed as an integral part of dance and music. The oral arts of Africa are rich and varied, developing with the emergence of African cultures, and they remain living traditions that continue to evolve and flourish today. As has been noted by those who have observed African storytelling firsthand, the full beauty and force of the stories are inevitably diminished when they are written down and divorced from their contexts, from the bodies and voices of the storyteller.

"Storytelling makes a community of us, enabling us to experience ourselves at out best. . .and at our worst. It is an art form that richly remembers and celebrates our finest impulses, as it recalls and commemorates our cruelest proclivities. Storytellers remember the past, and use that past to shape the present and the future. For better or for worse, storytellers forget nothing; they scrutinize our history, they plum the most ancient depths of our human experience. Storytellers remind us that we continue to be motivated by emotions as deep as humanity itself. It is profoundly true that, as far as our emotional lives and histories are concerned, there is nothing new under the sun."4

African proverbs and stories draw upon the collective wisdom of oral peoples, express their structures of meaning, feeling, thought, and serve important social

and ethical purposes. The fact that one sees the universal features of traditional narratives in African stories is comforting to the American student; however, other features may seem very foreign and strange. To more fully understand and appreciate African storytelling traditions, one needs to study them in the context of the particular African culture and orality on which the story draws for their themes and values, structures and plots, rhythms and styles, artistic and ethical tenets. African novelists, like Chinua Achebe, have introduced oral stories, such as narrative proverbs, song-tales, myths, folktales, fairy tales, animal fables, anecdotes, and ballads, into African literature. Chinua Achebe's acclaimed 1958 novel Things Fall Apart includes features of the African Igbo folktale which are representative of common kinds of stories around the world. "Once upon a time,' he begins, all the birds were invited to a feast in the sky.'" To continue, the story explains a cause, origin, or reason for something, as why the tortoise shell is "not smooth." There is a trickster here as well. Is he/she not prevalent in worldwide folktales? Greedy Tortoise, "full of cunning," manages to trick the birds out of all the food at the feast, but for his selfishness he is punished. Tortoise falls from the sky and "His shell broke into pieces." Tortoise, called Nnabe in Igbo cultures, is physically slow but quick witted, lives a long time and has a long memory. He gains a kind of wisdom by studying fellow creatures in society. But like the trickster figures in the folklore of many world cultures, Tortoise misuses his knowledge. He is cunning and malicious and dupes or tricks others for his own greed or selfish gain.

Tortoise is a favorite in Igbo children's stories, for he is a character that children can relate to, as will my students in New Mexico. He is a rogue, but he is a nice kind of rogue. The students may not trust him, but they'll like to hear that he is around because they know he is going to do something unexpected and he will generally be punished too. This is the moral side of it that he can't get away with murder. He does something, he is punished, but he still lives to appear again. Tortoise is mischievous but not irredeemably so. He's just naughty. My students will totally identify and demand to hear more about Tortoise, as all tricksters exist on the peripheries of the social order. Their individualistic, non-conformist behavior creates havoc and disharmony in society and can threaten the survival of the community. Society must keep them in check. In African storytelling, this goal is rehearsed and achieved in communal performances of proverbs and folktales to ensure that his bad anti-social behaviors are punished and that the evil forces unleashed are controlled or defeated. Picture, please, the effect of recounting Tortoise stories in African communities: functioning to reaffirm the priority and wisdom of the community, reassuring its members that balance and harmony can and should be restored, and determining that the community will survive and prevail. African cultures often encourage audience members to feel free to interrupt oral storytelling performances, voicing emotions or opinions. My students can learn much about the African culture by learning its stories, as they glean that what constitutes a good story can differ significantly depending upon what constitutes good storytelling in a particular society and culture.

In folktales, worlds are different, and such wicked characters as Tortoise are often restored and/or reintegrated back into society. In this case, a great medicine-man in the

neighborhood patches Tortoise's shell together again. If told by an African storyteller with intonations, song, and possibly dance, this would certainly elicit an audience response. Despite these universal features of folktales, however, the particular narrative styles of storytelling around the world differ; some may feel very foreign and strange to U.S. students. Consider the challenging fact that more than 450 languages are spoken in modern Nigeria and picture just one region in which the Igbo peoples are concentrated. Chinua Achebe explains that the Igbo language exists in numerous dialects, differing from village to village. There is no standardized formal written or oral Igbo language that all Igbo accept and use. The complexities of literal translation and subtitles for African cinema are enormous.

In many African cultures, the storytellers are professionalized, the most accomplished being the griots, who have mastered many complex verbal, musical, and memory skills and possess the strong spiritual and ethical dimension required to control the special powers believed to be released by their spoken word. It is their inheritance to provide continuity between the generations, to maintain and keep alive the essential images of African humanity as they provide explanations for life's great rites of passage. They do not memorize stories; they always remember them, always extemporize. The basis of the griot's orality is an ancient, often symbolic image around which the patterns of the story are constructed. The listener responds emotionally as the images are built and repeated, as they bond the past to the present, the real to the fantastic. The sense of the special powers of the spoken word, as expressed in the following Bambara praise poem-has largely been lost in literate-based societies of the West:

Praise of the Word

  • The word is total:
  • It cuts, excoriates
  • forms, modulates
  • perturbs, maddens
  • cures or directly kills
  • amplifies or reduces
  • According to intention
  • It excites or calms souls.
  • —Praise song of a griot of the Bambara Komo society5

This unit will center upon the storytelling traditions of the griot, normally trained by his father or by an older brother, and his representation in African film.

Film Essentials

The use of film in the classroom enhances the learning process in ways unavailable in other media; as a means of communication, this medium is an uncommonly powerful resource for teachers at all levels. For middle school purposes, this unit will address the essentials that will enable seventh and eighth grade students to critically view and appreciate the skills of the filmmaker. Film characteristics which include lens techniques, camera movements, camera angles, framing of shots, and film editing can create astonishing views not found in reality. Close-up shots allow a director to show the viewer dramatic emotions that might go unnoticed with ordinary vision, and long shots place the image and its behavior within a larger context. Looking at shots is a logical place for students to begin their work, moving next to the focus of the shot, the point in the image which the camera most clearly defines.

As the camera moves, slowly or at a varying pace, the audience peruses the landscape, gleaning how the culture works, as they are transported to an unaccustomed place and time. Rerunning the scenes allows the teacher to ask students to analyze what they see, with the theories and concepts discussed. Sounds, foreign languages, dialogue and music enhance the visual image and increase a film's effects on the viewer. The tempo and loudness of the film's music foreshadow coming events, emphasize a specific scene, or heighten the viewer's emotional response. Viewers should not simply be passive observers of images on a screen. Students will have many different responses to the numerous facets of cinematography, and that is an essential part of the film experience. As commented by Professor Dudley Andrew, "A novel is a world cut out of a story. A film starts with a world which then builds a story."7

African Film

The existence of African film dates back to 1924 when the short film La Fille de Carthage, by Tunisian filmmaker, Chemana Chikly, was produced. Following de-colonization, after the 1960's, it developed significantly, notably thanks to the world festival of Black arts in Dakar, 1966. This is not to say that Africans during the colonial era were not involved in film. Perhaps they were not the filmmaker, nor the cameraman, nor the screenwriter, but, as technicians, cashiers, ushers, and assistants, they indeed played the essential roles necessary to the distribution in Africa of films produced by Europeans and Americans. For example, the projectionist's job was, literally speaking, to project images onto the screen in order to entertain an enthusiastic indigenous audience. In reality, however, he acted as a conduit or illusionist to convey the politics and social and moral behaviors of cultural outsiders. Today, distancing from Euro-American cinema paradigms, African film de-colonizes the mind, entwines the political and the imaginative, and faithfully transmits a country's heritage to its audience. It is the duty of the African cinematographer to tap into the audience's consciousness: memory, ideology and cultural meaning. The past must be preserved.

African filmmaker, Dani Kouyate, produced Keita, The Heritage of the Griot, in 1994. The film is based on the epic tale of Sundiata Keita, emperor of Mali. Produced in Burkina Faso, it uses the West African storytelling griot to link the present, main story, to the past. It is fascinating to view the griot's style of narration. Keita, a very simple story about the education of children in contemporary Africa, takes on an epic dimension when the director connects the life of the protagonist to that of Sunjata Keita, the founding father and emperor of old Mali in the thirteenth century. 'Griotism' in African storytelling ties everyone's fate to everyone else's, and to history. Does it not feel, for a moment, that our lives, as well as the protagonist's, depend on the outcome of the film?

Keita opens with an old griot, Djeliba, who appears in a far-off village, set to leave home to venture alone on a long walking journey to the city of Ouagadougou to the modern home of the Keita family and their young son, Mabo. It is his mission to initiate the young Mabo into the history of his ancestors and thus the meaning of his family name, Keita. The mission is explicitly immediate. This family of griots has served the Keita lineage as advisers and praise-singers since the thirteenth century, when Sundiata Keita founded the empire of Mali. It is the epic of Sundiata that Djeliba seeks to relate to Mabo. His presence soon divides the household into opposing factions; Mabo's mother becomes concerned that the griot's stories are distracting her son from school work, as, in opposition, his father insists on the importance of passing on the Keita heritage. The boy's modern education, with its strict calendar schedule, clashes with his thirst to be educated by the griot about both his origin and his future.

In Mabo's school, French and English are emphasized at the expense of African languages and cultures. The boy's parents, a bourgeois couple, speak French, while the griot speaks a local African language to him. In fact, Mabo is perfectly bilingual, comfortable and adept in both languages. A rigid structure in Mabo's classroom contrasts with the intimate relationship Djeliba develops with him. Mr. Fofana, Mabo's schoolteacher, visits the home and comes into direct conflict with the griot, demanding that Djeliba's mission wait for school vacation. Tradition conflicts with modernity. Sitting in a tree with two friends, Mabo narrates the griot's teachings. As the family crisis deepens, Djeliba decides to return to his village without completing his mission. The young Mabo is now trapped between two worlds.

The second African storytelling film in this unit is Gaston Kabore's Wend Kuuni, meaning gift of God, 1982. In pastoral, calm scenes, there is a balance among humans, animals, and the land. At the beginning of the film, a woman in a hut sobs over her half-asleep son, distraught at being forced to remarry because of the extended absence of her husband. She plans to escape and thereupon unveils this plan to her son. The following sequence shows the child in the bush taken in by a merchant who shortly afterwards entrusts him to the care of a family in a distant village. Sheltered, then adopted, this young boy, who has become mute, bears the name Wend Kuuni, signifying gift of God. The movie then portrays Wend Kuuni's daily life among the members of his new family within his new traditional village. His life continues until an important flashback in the film where a connection is made between the mother's scene in the hut and Wend Kuuni, abandoned in the African bush.

The domestic scenes of the village family comprise the daily life of individual members of Wend Kuuni's foster family: the father weaving, the mother taking care of the household chores (sweeping, preparing butter and bread cakes), the daughter Pongnere assisting her mother (in preparing the fire, setting up the millet, getting water, and delivering orders), and Wend Kuuni tending to the watering and pasturing of the goats, as well as helping his foster father in his chores as a weaver. The film shows the daily repetition of activities within the family group. Different from the domestic life is the scene at the market in which there are negotiations between men and women. Wend Kuuni bargains with a young woman in order to sell his father's piece of cloth. A young woman, Timpoko, bargains less honorably where she rejects her husband, whom she judges to be too old and impotent.

Although Wend Kuuni really has no one to confide in and must bear his grief alone, he finally tells his story to Pongnere when she disobeys her mother's orders and runs into the bush to talk to her foster brother. Skillful film techniques account for the young boy's wanderings until he recovers his speech. The absence of human discourse in the bush scenes allows the viewer to focus on the beauty of the landscape and the sounds. This will be a lesson in and of itself for my students who live in a T.V. centered existence, in apartments with family members. Silence is golden. Two film shots relate to Wend Kuuni's past, one that shows a bow behind a tree, representing his father, as well as the recollection of his mother during the flashback. The first shot symbolizes his control of speaking, as he is the only one able to recover and bring back the image of the father, and the other shot shows his mother under a tree. This second shot actually suggests that the mother as she dies recollects the absent husband so that when the young boy can recover the image of his mother, who holds the image of his father, he has regained a sense of his parentage and can thereafter speak again and tell his story.


There are three content standards for Language Arts in the state of New Mexico, and they are as follows: students will apply strategies and skills to comprehend information that is read, heard, and viewed. Students will communicate effectively through speaking and writing. Students will use literature and the media to develop an understanding of people, society, and the self. My Yale unit attends to each of these in detail, the third standard pre-eminent, as exhibited in my lesson plans. The study of media, especially film, is generally lacking in most Language Arts classrooms across the country. Professional development in the area of cinema is virtually non-existent in Santa Fe for my colleagues at the secondary level. I propose to change that by introducing this unit. It focuses on African film and storytelling, but the pedagogy relates to every genre of cinema. My lesson plans will include extensive writing, viewing, and listening activities. My forte is grammar, and I insist on my students' mastering sentence diagramming each year. This, plus vocabulary, journal and essay writing, editing, and presenting, will be highly applicable to the African film unit.

Alameda Middle School adopted a full-inclusion program last year; all special education students remain in the mainstream classes. This has been an amazing challenge and learning experience. This year, I taught the following student conditions within my core classes: autism, epilepsy, ADD, ADHD, emotionally disturbed, and a myriad of learning disabilities which preclude the student's performance at grade level. I also teach many students for whom English is their second language. All of the above have achieved success in levels of improvement beyond my fondest dreams. Differentiation of instruction is the key here, and it is time-consuming to plan. Working in small, flexible groups, one on one, or as a class, the teacher much seek out the appropriate learning materials which will enhance self-esteem and, of course, test scores. As the full-inclusion model is spreading across the country, it will be addressed in my lesson plans. As well, the over-achievers need challenge, and this is where pre-AP classes play an essential role.

I do believe that I know my classroom best, and that my empowerment can come from a superior professional development experience such as the Yale Teachers' Initiative. It has done that for me, and it emphasizes a point which I have considered as very important in my classroom but only for the last couple of years. That is the arts. I have brought into my class art objects and art transparencies which we have discussed and written about. Now there is the exciting addition of film which espouses a new approach in delivering the established curriculum. As I adapt to the state standards, I recognize that all students can learn and show achievement through this medium. Now, the elements of a classical education can be combined with an artistic experience, such as the use of figurative language and the exercise of imagination. Correlating to the third New Mexico state standard for Language Arts as previously outlined, my unit on the oral traditions of Africa through film embody and share the rich diversity of human experience. As a middle school team leader, I must originate four interdisciplinary units per year which my team will teach as a whole. I envision my Yale unit as a prolific starting point for cross-disciplinary study. Students' positive academic performance as assessed by standardized tests has already showed an increase for those students who included the arts in their school work throughout high school. This unit will serve as a jump-start for those entering high school next year. It can easily incorporate the core subjects of science, social studies, and mathematics.

Films lend their unique qualities to the full- inclusion classroom which most print materials fail to do. I picture students in small heterogeneous groups analyzing film scenes using some general knowledge of problem solving, individual decision making, and group decision making, to arrive at a conclusion that they can present to the class. Film scenes will be used before and after discussing the African film's themes, and they will be repeated for more emphasis. Showing certain African film scenes before discussion will give my students a visual image to which they can compare the topics under discussion. This approach allows students of all levels to quickly reference the examples they've viewed, setting a tone and frame of reference for cultural concepts. Vigorous discussions will ensue. I will be anxious to repeat scenes; this presents a new methodology by which all students can gain an understanding of complex topics in his or her particular way.

Community resources play an essential role when planning strategies for a unit such as the Oral Traditions and Memory in African Film unit. The unit encompasses such breadth and depth, dealing with Africa's ancient traditions and its modernity, fitting the essential layers of African storytelling into the relatively new medium of cinema. The two films which are studied, Keita, and Wend Kuuni, are challenging to find for classroom use in a small city such as mine. Obviously, as they are both in my possession for classroom use now, this is not impossible. I would suggest that the teacher look early for these two films; they can be found in eclectic video shops, in the film libraries of universities, through Amazon.com or California Newsreel.com. It may require some creative financing, but we have been used to that since the first day we entered a classroom. Both the African and African American people living in our cities and small towns provide a resource which may be untapped until you talk with them. Santa Fe has a handful of African/African American residents. One is a drummer of ancient stories from Nigeria. True, I found him through my daughter, but these links are everywhere; we must seek them out and pay them well to inspire our students. My district, perhaps like yours, has no funding for such special guests; we therefore must seek funds through grants, gifts from community foundations, etc. We must find a way. Look to your museums. At the moment, they may not be featuring African arts, but they can certainly link you to traveling exhibits and presenters who may travel to your school. Outreach is paramount to the majority of American museums and universities. I find that making a few phone calls sets up amazing experiences for students, and they are cognitively very important.

Lastly, it aids immensely to have a local filmmaker, or a college teacher of filmmaking, visit your classroom. Having a film crew member or actor attend the class for an informal question and answer session can greatly aid student attention and, therefore, learning. The visitor would love viewing Keita and Wend Kuuni, as they and the students call out all the film techniques they see being used.

Lesson Plans

Lesson1. Introduction to Africa


The following essential questions will be highlighted on the chalkboard for the duration of the teaching of the unit: What do we know about Africa? Second, what are our common stereotypes about Africa? Third, what is modern Africa really like? Our middle school students cannot address storytelling traditions and African film without answering these essential questions.

Teacher Materials

Copy of the film, What do we Know About Africa?

Washable colored markers


Student Materials

2" Three-ring white binder

Three dividers

Three packages of college-ruled paper

Four #2 pencils

Set of colored pencils

2 Blue or black pens

2 highlighters of different colors

Glue stick


Seeing all 110 seventh-graders walking into my classroom with the required 2" white binder for the first day of this unit would be a miracle and one which won't occur, but the binder is essential. Supplies are items which must be planned for weeks in advance of the scheduled unit when one works in an impoverished setting. Therefore, I put a purchase order in for these in the late summer, as school is about to begin and hope for the best. If the district will not pay, I look to local grants. My students treat items such as these with care and realize that a gift has been given to them.

As the unit is divided into the three lessons, each one will begin with the students' making several graphic organizers out of their first two pages of their binders, adding more as necessary. On the front side of each page, the student will make two columns with the following headings: Ideas and Questions, and Class Notes. The back side will have two additional columns with the following headings: My Responses, and Vocabulary. I shall model what this should look like and shall encourage the students to strive for excellence in succinctly putting down their thoughts; legibility becomes extremely important this year. I tell them if I can't read the handwriting, it's wrong. Students are also encouraged to use their artistic talent to graphically annotate their notes and responses with small visuals in the columns, highlighting key concepts, and thusly making this binder interactive, visual, and extremely personal. As this organizer is an essential component of the entire portfolio, I shall go into some detail about my expectations for the four columns.

The Ideas and Questions column consists of items either prompted by the teacher or written by the students when they want to express an idea or ask a question about the subject matter on their own. Teacher prompts are open-ended, enabling the students to react individually to new concepts which they can write about. The right column, Class Notes, concerns key ideas from lectures and class discussions, guest presentations and interviews, and readings. I carefully model this column, as organizing ideas in a coherent fashion is an arduous task for beginning writers. Students will highlight main points, using different colors for main points and sub-topics. On the back side of the paper, the My Responses column will give students a chance to react emotionally to any aspect of the material presented in class. There is no right or wrong answer here. The fourth column is Vocabulary, and this is by self-selection, but students are required to list all words that are new to them within the concepts of each of the three sections of the unit. Examples of vocabulary activities might be to use the words in a meaningful way and then associate the new words with their own experiences. A common word wall will be composed by the class and me; students will be tested for the spelling and definitions of these words at the end of each of the three lessons.

I will teach this unit five periods per day. If I have a pre-AP class this year, which I have strongly requested, they will be addressed in a stricter, more advanced format. I can move them faster as I know their ability level when they enter the room. In all of my classrooms, students will be moving around the class into variegated seating arrangements, some decided by me, most decided by them. Observing this process teaches me a lot, about personalities, learning styles, and ability levels. After looping last year, teaching the same group of students for both seventh and eighth grades, my students were adept at this, tolerant, helpful, and gaining greatly in skills and confidence. Students will have their write binders with them at all times. One might hope that at home that evening to peruse, revise, add visuals, and give thought to the day's learning, but for most, this is just a dream. Reality shows a small crowded apartment or trailer, loud talking and T.V. at the same time; my student may be babysitting while a single parent works a second job. The schoolroom is the true safe refuge. For a few years, many of students stay with me until 5:30 for after school tutoring.

We will begin by thinking about the size of Africa. Students will turn to a page in their binder on which they will draw what they think Africa looks like and then compare it in size to the United States. They will not have access to classroom maps until we complete a short discussion. IEP students are carefully observed during the discussion, as I take specific mental notes on their needs, being skillful at maintaining the comfort level of the group. As this is our first unit of the year, and the students are seventh graders from 14 feeder schools, it is our first impression, a very long-lasting impression, of each other.

Large classroom maps will now be unrolled by the students for both their perusal and their surprise at the relative size of the United States compared to the enormous continent of Africa. I will now hand out markers for the students to enhance the front of their binders with their visual rendition of Africa. We will include the equator and the major topical regions such as savannah, desert, etc. Above the drawing, students will write Oral Tradition and Memory through African film. My goal is for this unit to remain in their memories forever, as it will mine. I will sit with the students in their small groups and move throughout them talking and lecturing on the difference between fact and opinion. They begin discussing what facts and opinions they have about Africa, being certain they know the difference and are showing sensitivity to the African culture. These will be recorded in their binders. Each group will choose a speaker to share responses with the class. Nervousness is apparent with this method at first; it is the first time these students have changed classes, and none of them feels confident. They need to be handled with kid gloves, looking them in the eye, letting them present from a seated or standing position, changing plans tactfully if they are so scared they look like they'll cry. These are the ones, at the end of eighth grade whom you do cry with, as they present their final portfolio to staff and family with grace.

Students will copy the following STOP WORDS onto a column in their binder. They will discuss what these words mean to them and write a phrase about their response to the word on the back page of their organizer. Groups will discuss, and a reporter from each class will bring the ideas to the larger class discussion. I will then have them write a SUBSITUTE column, followed by a MEANING column.

(table available in print form)

Drawing the students into an intellectual, sensitive discussion of tolerance is relevant to their own lives. They will be emotional, totally quiet, or somewhere in between. I will lecture on tolerance issues specific to the African culture, skillfully using the time allotted to move the conversation carefully, as we learn together. At the end of this lesson, students will write reflections in their binders.

The Albuquerque Museum's African Arts Teachers' Institute occurred this summer, 2006; it provided expert teacher training from professors of various universities and was highly competitive. I have been in close contact with the curator, who promises to send one of the trained teachers from the northern New Mexico region to visit my students during the introductory part of the unit. This should fit in well with tolerance issues, as middle school students tend to giggle when embarrassed. They will have an opportunity to view amazing works of African art from various countries and hear a learned lecture. In addition to usual requirements for the binder, students will complete the following requirements during the museum's presentation:

List, with correct spelling, the items that the instructor is sharing.

Describe the items using at least five adjectives per item.

Write a coherent page of several paragraphs about why these African items are significant, not just to Africans, but to us in Santa Fe.

Why is it presently very necessary for us to study both the African culture and others? What might happen in the future if we ignore this type of study?

Students will prepare a list of interview questions before our museum guest arrives. They will each practice one question to ask, to ensure that this is done with confidence and we'll arrange the room for the comfort and viewing of the African art items.

I will be moving around the classroom, looking at students' binders, giving suggestions, asking students to work together and, thus, assessing the quality of their work. I peruse their written work, and I comment in writing. True, grammar is my forte, but I hope these 'comments' don't a ppear with red pen!! Over the years, I have seen this as a basically degrading influence on not only self-esteem, but also the quality of the work to follow. The last thing I want if for them not to write, so I comment on just a few mistakes. I might take this time to teach them a grammatical convention, with a few practice exercises. We teachers can include the grammar conventions in any lesson we prepare. The teacher asks himself/herself the following :

Can they organize their materials?

Do they understand the assignments? Are they complete?

Are they enjoying the experience?

Are they mastering the material covered and can they speak to the topic at hand?

Are they learning their vocabulary words?

I will conference with each student, 1:1, twice during this process.

Student mastery is apparent when he/she can teach this first lesson to their peers. I ask much of them in this respect. Though shy at the beginning, they become adept by the end of the year. The students' white binders, with their drawings of Africa as they originally perceived it at the beginning of the unit, accompany their portfolio presentation at the end of the year placement conference with staff, family, and friends. The portfolio appears to be the tradition in most American schools.

The New Mexico Language Arts Content Standards were included in an earlier paragraph. More important than the curt appearance of the large standards on my classroom wall, however, are the Alameda Middle School Essential Learning Targets for Language Arts. The Language Arts teachers meet monthly to plan scope and sequence, which we hope will allow us strong contact with both the sixth grade teachers and the ninth grade teachers. Two of these meetings included lengthy after-school sessions with our top students, whose help we needed. We also paid them and fed them pizza. The objective was to help the teachers write the standards in student language. What a great success. They are termed essential learning targets. Correlating to this first lesson, the student- written learning targets are:

When faced with real world issues, I can make meaning through my own experience and express that point of view by forming connections to other sources, evaluating the details for relevancy.

In discussions, I can change my words and style of expressing my point of view to suit different groups of people and different motives. I can listen or respond to other points of view in a group discussion.

Lesson2. African Storytelling

Objectives: The following essential questions will be written on the board, following those of the first lesson. They will remain on the board throughout the entire unit, and they are as such: How are African stories told and carried on by an oral tradition? If the oral storytelling tradition is gone, what happens to the essence of the African culture? How might a film save this African storytelling tradition?

Teacher materials:

Sundiata, an epic of old Mali

Sundjata, Lion King of Mali

The African Storyteller

African Novels in the Classroom

5 sets of 9 laminated cards (see below)


Student Materials:

White binders

Mandala symbol

Colored pencils

Glue sticks


This lesson is a good transition from the first, as students have gained an appreciation of the African culture. Without this, they might not want to delve into an African epic such as Sundiata. The students will continue to write in their binders under the same column headings after turning to a new page which they will head African Stories. We are going to start in a large circle discussing the following:

We are looking at a very special story called Sundiata. It was written in a very old African language? How did it get translated into English? Does anything happen to a story when it gets translated?

What happens to a culture if the long stories of the people disappear?

What must the people do to retain their traditions, values, and essence of their own special culture?

What are some of the best stories that have been told to you by family members? Why do you remember them? Can you retell them?

The teacher will lecture while sitting comfortably with the students, and they can take notes if they wish. Some important points would include the fact that in translation, some of the special meaning of African words is often lost, which also signals the slow eradication of a culture. People must remember and retell the stories that have been passed along through the generations. A great African oral storyteller should be able to pierce the minds of the listeners, using voice, movements, and possibly music, to unfold the memories of the culture, which flow back into time and space. The storyteller we'll study is called a griot (bard). The griot's story is continually transformed and innovated each time it is performed. A wonderful Yoruban drummer, Akeem, will be an honored guest during this lesson, after the students are ready to retell their own African stories. Films experiment with the different ways of telling a story, of conveying a history of a people who may have been routinely denied the right to existence on their own terms. We will view a real griot in the movie Keita, in the next lesson.

We will briefly study parts of two books, Sundiata, an epic of old Mali , by D.T. Niane, and Sundiata, Lion King of Mali, a picture book version by David Wisniewshki.

Students of all ages appear to love picture books, especially those students of mine who were never read to. I'll have five copies, and the students will be in circles of five. I have used the following card method many times, with many books, to great results. Five of your best students will head this up the first time around. You will need to meet with group leaders a day or two prior to the class lesson each time this card system is used. Use the laminated teaching cards mentioned above in teacher resources. You need to make these ahead of time, putting one-hole punch in top left of each card and putting them together with a key-type metal ring. You can use them for years. Each group will have a set. They read as follows:

Introductory card:

CONGRATULATIONS!!! You're the TEACHER!! You're responsible for the level of learning in your group for this section of the reading.

  • #1 This section starts at. . .and ends at. . .
  • #2 Prediction. "I predict that. . ." (As the teacher, you must do this).
  • #3 "Does anyone else have a prediction?"
  • #4 Reading. As the teacher, you have 3 choices: read aloud by yourself, have the whole group read aloud in unison, or choose one person to read aloud.
  • #5 Clarify. Ask: "What words did you find difficult to understand? What phrases did you find difficult to understand?"
  • #6 Questions. "Who can ask a question based on the reading?" Remember that the answer must be found in the text. If no one has one, then you, as the teacher, must ask the question.

The student teachers and the teacher will discuss the following objectives with the student groups: their listening ability, attention span, creativity in answering questions, ability to find facts, ability to phrase a question, predict, and find vocabulary. Students will add to their writings in the binder. The teacher must be entirely familiar with the epic tale, being able to add to the student group readings of the picture book. Sundiata an Epic of old Mali is short, exciting to read. A few of the story's essentials include the legendary Malian king Sundiata Keita, known as the Lion King of Mali, liberating his people in the thirteenth-century from an oppressive ruler. Two of the most important Malian ceremonies, the Dama and Suigi, are observed. Animal qualities mimic the personalities of specific characters in the story, and archetypal patterns seen in myths worldwide are apparent. Extensive conversation about the epic should ensure student master of the story. Students will be asked to conceive of ways in which the griot might present this history of the Mali people when we see the film.

The lesson will involve an internet search for African folktales. They will have no other homework for a week other than to read and analyze the stories, finishing an art work project in class. This will be a collage made of magazine pictures and students drawings which signifies the student's favorite character in their African story. It will cover a black piece of white paper in the student's binder and speak to the qualities of the character: strengths, weaknesses, fears, good deeds, appearance, etc. It is open-ended and should show artistic creativity. Students who do not have internet access at home are both invited and encouraged to stay for after school tutoring. If this is impossible due to transportation issues and they're feeling helpless, the teacher must finesse a way for them to work in the computer lab or the teacher's room during lunch period; or, they may borrow the The African Storyteller or African Novels in the Classroom from the teacher. No student should feel a lack of self-esteem due to his/her family's resources. The students will rewrite their stories in their own words and put them into their binder. The student will be ready to hang his/her collage on the board and retell the African tale. Using differentiated instruction, there must be options for this presentation which meet student needs. The presentations will be attended by the African storyteller from Nigeria, mentioned earlier. Akeem is quiet spoken, with a deep rich voice and a love of children. Dressed in Nigerian clothes, he will be an important presence during and after these presentations, as he comments on the African stories and adds his own. Given the time, we may do some cooking together in the home economics room with Akeem and listen to African music. It needs to be memorable, feeling the essence of the African culture. This presentation will be graded according to a class-designed rubric, and students will be taught how to do fair peer evaluations. This will be the first such experience for these students fresh out of elementary school.

Correlating to this second lesson, the student- written learning targets are: I can write a coherent story appropriate to different audiences for different purposes. I can monitor my comprehension when reading by retelling, deciding what is important,connecting, making inferences, and asking questions. I know literary devices and how they help tell a story. I can identify and respond to the message an author is expressing, because I recognize different genres, time periods, and social contexts. This knowledge of context and vocabulary increases my comprehension. I can identify common themes in a work of literature and understand how a person's experience and culture inform their response to these stories.

Lesson 3. African Film

Objectives: The third, last, and longest lesson of this unit refers back to its title, Oral Traditions and Memory through African Film. The essential questions are: How does film portray the ancient griot in a film produced in Africa? What are the basics of filmmaking? How can I pull together the three lessons to reflect on what I've learned?

Teacher Materials:

Film, Keita: the Heritage of the Griot

Film, Wend Kunni

Hole punch




Old manilla folders from last year

Student materials:


Colored pencils

Glue stick


The students are very familiar with Africa and African storytelling; thus they are ready for a first showing of Keita. Ready to take notes and make comments, they should fill out new pages in their binder under the heading, Storytelling in African Films. As in lessons one and two, they are expected to follow the four column format and should not be struggling with it now. Differentiation for IEP students and Pre-AP students is always a must. The teacher must organize the room for the very best viewing of the film. Look for the squinting student, the troublesome student, the hyperactive student, the chatty student. All must be able to give total attention to the film. As with the legend of Sundiata, the teacher must be very knowledgeable about the film. Students should be told to look at the griot and Mabo carefully and to read the subtitles to the best of their ability; most likely, this is their first foreign film. They will be excited at first and may begin to complain, so parameters need to be set before the viewing. The teacher will show the film Keita to the students. I plan to do this by viewing the movie for half of the period, followed by a class discussion, and then time to work in pairs on their binders. Each day of this third lesson, I will give each student a piece of scrap paper five minutes before the class ends to use as an exit card which I'll collect on their way out. The exit cards will have a different prompt each day, asking them what confused them, what they learned, and so forth. As it impossible to read 110 of these each night, the teacher might peruse a few in order to get a feeling for the students' questions and enthusiastic comments about this new topic of study.

The teacher, if a novice at film studies, might spend some time seeking out community resources for help with this part of the unit. I have taken the time to do this and am truly amazed at the amount of response and the quality of the respondents. The local community college has a film department, and with some collaboration, their students can be with me for this entire third lesson, earn college credit, and possibly service learning credit. Many of those students attended Alameda Middle School. Secondly, I found Reel Deal Productions, new and owned by a 19-year old local Hispanic woman with a quest. Maria is an actress, member of the Screen Actors Guild, and she is so anxious to educate. She will do workshop sessions with the students based on film crew job descriptions if we can get our timing right. Neither of these people wants to be paid, and we shall just have to get the timing right for classroom appearances, the most arduous detail. If this can be found in a city of 55,000, it can be found most anywhere, I believe. The teacher must have the zeal to make it happen. Part of my excitement is the visualization of a possible career path for my students, including finding a niche for a close group of "film friends" in high school, an essential factor in preventing drop-outs.

The students will be presented with a few basic conventions of filmmaking, those mentioned earlier in this document: casting, lighting, blocking, scenery, costuming, and the editing of the script. These terms will be essential vocabulary listings in their binders, under the new and last heading, Keita, Wend Kuuni, and Filmmaking. It will be most important for the teacher to allow discussion time for students to voice examples of scenes in movies they've seen as illustrations. The teacher will add to this discussion by talking with the students about the camera, asking them to describe what they know about camera and film, then moving into close-ups, camera angles, and framing of shots. A second viewing of Keita will take place, this time showing short clips or single frames. Students will be asked to describe how and why they think the filmmaker portrayed a scene or clip in a particular way. Higher order thinking is involved here; answers should be considered wrong. It will help students if they are working in groups of three and feel comfortable with responding to or just listening to their peers and writing down what they say. Depending on the student's ability level, this might be termed peer tutoring, not cheating. We will have less time to spend on Wend Kuuni. As the students should be somewhat adept at reading subtitles, we will watch it without interruption. This is a good time for an unannounced quiz, written or oral, where students are to analyze the various aspects of the film

Throughout the weeks that this lesson takes, students will be instructed as to the completion of a special art/writing project which will fit into their white binders. The culminating unit project will be a small book with manila front and back covers and punched holes tied with twine and African beads. Thus, it will be removable from the binder for presentation. The project will take place of homework, and the teacher will hand out a sheet to each student with the following requirements. The title page with illustrations will be the name of either Keita or Wend Kuuni. Page one will be a paragraph about the main characters in the film chosen. It will state their name, the place where they live, their role in the story, and details about their lives. Page two will repeat the names of those characters, explaining how the filmmaker enhanced their emotions, their roles, and their emotions. Page three is a drawing by the student in colored pencil of an African setting that the student visualizes, with his/ her own interpretation. It includes one or two sentences of explanation at the bottom. Page four is an illustrated haiku about Africa, as the student now thinks of it. Page five is a Venn Diagram of the African film Keita, and the Disney production The Lion King. It compares and contrasts. Page six has the heading mise-en-scene. Students write about the unique experience of watching a foreign film with subtitles and how it has affected their view of Africa and their appreciation of African storytelling. What film features contributed to making the mise-en-scene of Keita realistic, in a way which merely reading about the Sundiata epic did not?

Students will carefully assemble their binders for display at the Language Arts Fair and at their final portfolio presentations.

Correlating to this third lesson, the student- written learning targets are: I can correctly apply grammatical conventions when I write and when I want to increase my comprehension. I understand how media affects me. I can engage my audience with precise language and literary devices. I can express myself in a variety of written works which reflect careful choice of words for their meaning and affect with different audiences.

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