Teachers in African history lesson

Rob Sgobbo
NY Daily News

With the help of a fellowship, two South Bronx high school teachers jetted to Africa—and brought a taste of the continent back to their classrooms.

Catherine Mitchell, 29, and Wendy Eberhart, 32, English teachers at the East Bronx Academy for the Future in East Tremont, were awarded a fellowship grant last year from the Fund for Teachers, a non-profit that offers cash for educators to travel around the world to conduct research of their choosing.

The duo flew to Ghana and Senegal in the summer of 2009 to study the traditional art of storytelling—an experience they’ve brought back to their Bronx students this fall.

“Teaching in a high-stakes testing world, speaking and listening skills get short-shifted,” said Eberhart who teaches ninth-graders.

“Going on this fellowship totally blew up how I teach.”

The fund gave the teachers $7,500 to travel to the West African countries—where they spent three weeks asking locals to share their favorite ancestral tales.

“Everyone we spoke to had something to share and tell us,” said Mitchell, who has her 11th and 12th graders act out traditional African folklore.

Catherine Mitchell, an 11th-and 12th-grade teacher in the South Bronx, uses her experiences from trip to Africa in the classroom.

“This experience taught me how to bring something engaging back to the classroom to help my kids.”

Mitchell and Eberhart said the experience was “life-changing,” and since their trip, the two distilled their experience into a set of lessons to teach storytelling skills, while also breaking down misconceptions their students may have about the faraway continent.

“People talk about Africa like it’s a country,” said Eberhart. “A lot of our students don’t know much about it.”

Mitchell began her lessons last week, using photographs of African landmarks to spark conversation about her travels.

One particular photograph of a Senegalese “slave castle” where African slaves were kept in dungeons beneath a European mansion, particularly hit home with the young Bronxites.

“I was just so surprised,” said Monique, and 18-year old senior in Mitchell’s class. “It makes me want to go there and see this stuff for myself.”

Mitchell also brought in drums, rattles, traditional African garb and statues used in Ghanaian storytelling.

“You only hear about the bad stereotypes about Africa,” said Pablo, a 19-year old senior, who said a lot of students only think of Africa as poor and disease-ridden.

“You just don’t know these things until you learn about it.” But it wasn’t just the kids who benefitted—Mitchell said sharing her experience has changed the way she views teaching. “It keeps things more interesting, and pushes me,” she said. “I’m learning alongside them.”