Oakland teacher brings African experience back to classroom

Elizabeth Skow
Oakland Tribune Correspondent

When she awoke each day in Mali, Oakland teacher Kathryn Parman took a bucket to the neighborhood spigot to fetch water for her shower. Then she sat with the community women and helped prepare food, an all-day affair in Mali.

Evenings, Parman, 31, tagged along with her host family’s son as he performed his duties as a Griot, a traditional Malian musician and oral historian, at celebrations and parties.

Parman, who teaches Humanities to seventh- and eighth-graders at Oakland’s Lighthouse Community Charter School, traveled to Mali and Ghana on a 2008 fellowship from Fund for Teachers, a nonprofit that sends teachers on self-designed summer sabbaticals around the globe.

“It was interesting to be in Africa,” Parman said. “I was surprised at how comfortable I was there. I felt at home right away.”

In March, Parman’s students will study Africa, focusing in particular on the history of West African music and its influence on American music. They will study traditional African music through spirituals, blues, jazz and hip-hop, and learn how it came from Africa to Oakland.

Parman has been interested in African-American history since she was a college student at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study and always dreamed of traveling to Africa. She heard about the FFT fellowship from Lighthouse science and math teachers Megan Jensen and Robert Feldstein, who won a fellowship in 2007. They traveled to the Galapagos Islands to study science and urged Parman to apply last year.

Parman knew Africa was her destination.

She had a friend from Mali and his family invited her to visit with them in Bamako. The family has passed down traditional Griot music and storytelling skills for many generations. Parman said living with them gave her a firsthand look at traditional Malian life.

“There is a real sense of community and it’s organic and it’s natural and it’s necessary,” Parman said. “It’s really inspiring to see a different way of structuring your society that values community.”

She noted that “coming from a very individualistic society and going to a place like Mali where people are 100 percent dependent on one another (one notices) they have very tight-knit communities and everybody knows everybody.”

Creating a safe, tight-knit community is also a focus at Lighthouse Community Charter School, where about 80 percent of the students come from families that have severe financial challenges and 73 percent are English language learners.

In addition to academics, the students participate in an advisory “crew,” a group of 12 to 14 students plus an adviser, to practice community- and character-building skills and work on their guiding principles.

“Nothing will happen until we look at what makes people successful in groups. These kids are coming from Oakland, and that has its challenges. Some kids lack a stable, safe environment. So we need to create that safe environment here before we can do academic work,” Parman said.

Along with the broader study of Africa, Parman’s students also will study the African slave trade and look at people’s historic resistance to slavery.

Fund for Teachers enables teachers like Parman to enhance their teaching skills through the sabbatical program.

“Most good teachers become administrators eventually,” said Karen Kovach, executive director of FFT. “Our goal is to help good teachers stay inspired. We want to keep these teachers in the classroom.” She said FFT is trying to bridge the disconnect between the people with the money and those who need it, and going local is the only way to make that happen.

FFT fellows are chosen with help from local partners, in this case Oakland’s Marcus A. Foster Education Institute.

Leo Lamanna of MAFEI said that one-third of the selection panel is made up of former fellows, with the remainder being school administrators, community members and MAFEI donors. He said Fund for Teachers awarded 18 fellowships to Oakland teachers in 2008.

“Teaching can be a pretty thankless thing,” Parman said, “and if someone wants to give money to teachers, I am willing to take that money. If I go and have this experience and bring it to my students, that’s pretty powerful.”

The hardest thing about her job, said Parman, is keeping her life balanced. She helps create the curriculum for her classes as well as teaching, often putting in 60 to 70 hour weeks. She knows she can’t keep it up forever, so she hopes to create a system that is easier to follow when she’s no longer there.

To Parman, the most rewarding thing about being a teacher is “those ‘aha!’ moments, where they get something they didn’t get before. It’s great to see them gain confidence and buy into the possibilities that they have in life.”