Barr teachers going to Cameroon

Harold Reutter, The Grand Island Independent

Denise Pedersen, a Barr Middle School sixth-grade social studies instructor who teaches word geography, can remember how excited a Laotian student was after she had taken a trip to Cambodia and Thailand and it was time to teach the unit on Southeast Asia.

Pedersen, though, knew that she did not learn everything about Southeast Asia during her visit.

“I told the student, ‘You correct me if I make any mistakes,’” Pedersen said.

However, the student surprised Pedersen by saying she did not know that much about Laos. Evidently, the student was either very young when the family left Laos or perhaps the student was even born in the United States, after her family left Laos.

Barr Middle School teachers (from left) Kari Ekberg, Geri Pagel and Denise Pedersen are all traveling to Cameroon in July as part of the Fund for Teachers Program. (Independent/Barrett Stinson)

That same phenomenon can happen with young people at Barr who were born in Latin American countries such as Mexico and Honduras, or African countries, such as Sudan and Somalia.

“The kids from Latin America get really excited when you start teaching about Latin America and the kids from Sudan and Somalia get really excited when you start teaching about Africa,” Pedersen noted.

But just like the Laotian student, the level of personal knowledge Barr kids have about their home countries depends on how young they were when their families came to the United States.

Pedersen said sixth-graders’ knowledge about their ancestral country also will depend on how much their parents brought with them from their native land and how much they talk about their native land.

In any case, knowledge about other countries is a necessity for any young person in a world that many people now describe as a global village because of the relative ease of international air travel, almost instant connections made possible by communications satellites orbiting the earth, and of course, the Internet.

But there still is no substitute for firsthand experience.

That’s why Pedersen approached sixth-grade language arts teacher Geri Pagel and sixth-grade math teacher Kari Ekberg about joining with her in a grant application to the Malaika Foundation and Fund For Teachers to travel to Cameroon this summer.

The original idea was for Pedersen, Pagel and Ekberg to teach an interdisciplinary unit on Cameroon to sixth-graders during the 2011-12 school year. However, those plans have been disrupted because of the shortfall in state aid that is causing the school district to reduce its budget.

Budget reductions will mean that the district must operate with a leaner staff, which resulted in a number of teachers getting new assignments. Pagel will be teaching eighth grade this fall, while Ekberg will be teaching Top 20, a character education program.

However, folk tales are part of both sixth-grade and eighth-grade language arts, so Pagel should be able to work out some joint lessons that could be used by sixth-graders. And when it comes to Ekberg’s new teaching duties, the topic of culture can easily be included in character education lessons.

In addition, student lessons have already begun in the form of a weblog with a dozen entries on the Barr Middle School website.

The first entry begins with the news that the teachers’ grant proposal was accepted by the Malaika Foundation and Fund For Teachers. The weblog continues with the booking of the tickets; meeting with Ann Masters, executive director of the Malaika Foundation; getting vaccinations to protect against yellow fever, Hepatitis A and tetanus, as well as medications to protect against typhoid and malaria; filling out all the paperwork for passports; and meeting with their Cameroon host family, who are Americans who have worked in the country for nearly two decades.

Pedersen knows the parents in the host family, which is why she wanted Pagel and Ekberg to go to Cameroon. She said the husband is a veterinarian who works with the Fulani tribe on how to better raise cattle. Pedersen said the husband also operates a veterinary clinic, where the wife also works.

As part of the learning process for students on both sides of the Atlantic, the trio of teachers had all Barr sixth-graders fill out postcards so that students in Cameroon can learn about Nebraska. Barr students could tell a little bit about their own interests, describe their favorite foods, and also tell what their parents do for a living.

One student from each sixth-grade class also got to appear on a video where they had an opportunity to ask one question for young people in Cameroon.

“They asked some very good questions,” said Pagel, who noted that students had studied enough about Cameroon to know that it is an oil-producing nation.

“One student asked why Cameroon is a poor country if it produces oil,” Pagel said.

Ideally, the teachers’ weblog will continue uninterrupted while they are in Cameroon. That would allow Barr students to follow their adventures day by day. However, Cameroon is a Third World country, so the teachers are not sure if they will have an Internet connection. In fact, the teachers know they will be fortunate to have electricity. The host family’s home is the only one in the village of 1,000 people to have electricity.

The teachers will spend their mornings in the village teaching students how to speak English, a skill that is highly prized in Cameroon. Although English is a part of the regular school curriculum in Cameroon, that does not mean it is an easy language for young people to learn, especially if their teachers do not have complete mastery of the language.

“If people can speak English (in Cameroon), they can get better jobs,” said Pedersen, explaining why their guest teaching likely will be appreciated.

Afternoons will be spent visiting with villagers in their homes. The trio knows that the villagers will want to be good hosts, so they do not expect short visits. Because their host family has lived and worked in the village for 18 years, they are well accepted by all the residents in the small community. The teachers believe that acceptance will extend to them as well.

Pagel said that gives her hope she will really learn about the culture in Cameroon, not just experience it as a tourist. She noted that earlier in the summer, she will be traveling to Sweden with family members to attend a cousin’s wedding. Because of the short stay, her trip to Sweden will be a tourist visit. In Cameroon, she expects to be immersed in the culture.

“They told me to throw away my watch,” said Pagel, pointing to Pedersen and Ekberg, who have already given her one important cultural tip.

Americans tend to create a daily schedule that they religiously follow, almost down to the minute. Pedersen, on the other hand, said they have been told that people in Cameroon “hope” their morning English classes will start on time.

“Relationships are more important to people (in Cameroon) than time,” Pedersen explained. If a Cameroonian meets a friend on the way to a meeting with another friend, he or she may end up seeing the second friend far later than originally planned. But because relationships are valued more than time, that is not considered bad manners.

That is yet another reason that Pedersen, Pagel and Ekberg do not expect short stays when they are welcomed into a person’s home.

The teachers all plan to get fitted for a traditional Cameroonian dress, which uses yards of fabric. They definitely will wear those dresses in Cameroon, but they also have talked about wearing those dresses for their students at Barr.

The timing of the trip means the teachers will be leaving for Cameroon in late July, then returning home on Aug. 11, which is one day before the first teacher day in the Grand Island Public Schools.

Ekberg said she never considered that traveling to any African country would be among her life’s goals. However, she said the travel itinerary to Cameroon will coincidentally allow her to cross one item off her so-called “bucket list.”

“We have a 24-hour layover in Paris, so I’ll get to see the Eiffel Tower,” she said.