Classroom Activities: “I am Africa” Part I (Teaching Narrative Structure)

UNESCO has once again provided a wonderful resource for teaching about language and language variation in the classroom. On Tuesday, March 1, they will launch their I am Africa project. As they explain:

“The youth StoryTellers will receive free multimedia Internet training on how to produce digital stories on YouTube. Training will be available online and through African cyber cafes, schools and NGOs. The stories must be encouraging and show how African youth are improving their lives in positive ways: through education, microeconomics apprenticeships and simply hard work. There will also be a music video award for a three-minute YouTube with original or cultural music.”

The first entry is by Jacob Atem, one of the “Lost Boys” of the Sudan, who has gone on to get his MA in Public Health from Michigan State University. Jacob speaks about his efforts to bring health care to those who need it in his version of “I am Africa.” Jacob’s story is touching. While the graphics that accompany it might be hard for small children to watch, his is certainly a story that should be told in our K-12 system (for historical and humanitarian reasons, if not for linguistic ones).

Linguistically, the project promises amazing array of opportunities, but today’s activity highlights the opportunity to teach about the craft of story-telling. Specifically, you can use these videos to teach about the structure of narratives.

Watch as the project unfolds to see if these story-tellers present the different elements of the narrative in the same order each time. What kinds of things do they talk about that are common across each story? How do they structure their introductions? Do they tell their story in chronological order? What do they say during the conclusion? At what point during each story (the very beginning, the middle, the end) do they use the phrase, I am Africa? How much planning do your students think went into each presentation? (If they don’t think very much was planned, you should direct them to the technical training and guidelines forums for the project ) Questions like these will help your students to raise their metalinguistic awareness. As they pay attention to what other story tellers do, they will begin to learn how to plan their own speaking and writing.

In tandem with exercises about the structure of these narratives, you can ask your students about their own story telling strategies. What do your students do when they tell a story? Do all of them prefer things to be given in chronological order? Do they think that their story-telling strategies change when they go from speaking to writing? What changes do they deliberately make? What changes do they make without thinking about them first? What happens to them as a reader/listener when a chronological order is mixed up? Do they have any favorite books or movies that surprise them by changing the chronology? These questions allow you to bridge the gap between “real life” and fiction by forcing students to confront the fact that we are all story-tellers, even if we’re basing our narrative off of personal experience.

As a bonus, by teaching your students about the kind of planning that goes into these videos, you can sneak in a little bit of media literacy. How much practice went into these projects? How much practice would the students need to produce their own videos? How do they think this might compare to reality TV shows? If you’re lucky enough to have access to recording devices, you might even let them try to do their own “I am Norfolk/Viriginia/America” videos so that they get first hand experience with the process. How do the videos compare to their real-life experience during the filming?

The link for this wonderful oral history project is here:  UNESCO sponsored I am Africa Campaign


About LingEducator

Dr. Jaclyn Ocumpaugh received a PhD for her dissertation on regional variation in the acoustics of Mexican American English (Michigan State University, East Lansing). Before that, she received an MA in English/Linguistics from North Carolina State University for her work on the acoustics of /r/--a sound which is highly variable in the English language. Her passion, however, has always been to understand the social implications of language variation. In addition to her work in acoustic sociophonetics, she has worked with rape trial analysis, developed cognitive methods for understanding discourse level variation between men and women, and created sophisticated tools for teaching future educators about the kinds of dialect variation they will find in the classroom. She has taught classes in English, Linguistics, and Education at Old Dominion University, William & Mary, the University of Mary Washington, and Virginia Wesleyan College. She is currently a Post Doctoral Fellow of Learning Sciences and Technologies at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where she is helping to develop models of student engagement in the classroom. She also consults in the private sector.
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