November 21, 2002

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Bi-Okoto member Bao Ku Moses dancing with Mills Lawn students this month during the group’s residency at the school.

Students learn to dance to a new drum

“How am I different from and similar to others in my community and across the world?”

Last week, Mills Lawn students received very specific answers to that question, as artists-in-residence from the African drum and dance school Bi-Okoto shared details about an African child’s day, including breakfast food and the games played after school.

“Captain Crunch,” called out one second-grader, when Kwame Pongo of Ghana asked the children what they eat for breakfast. But in Africa, he said, children most often find tea and porridge on their breakfast table.

African children walk to school rather than riding a bus, Pongo said, and when they arrive, the first thing they do is find a broom.

“You grab a broom and sweep the hallway,” he said. “In African schools we do our own cleaning.”

Kids squirmed and furrowed their foreheads — sweep the school? It seemed a bit hard to grasp, like the part about African children having to pay respect to their elders each morning, or clean the house after school.

But the children found similarities, too.

“Hide and seek! We also play that in Africa,” said Pongo after a response to a question about what games Mills Lawn students play after school. But when a boy offered “Star Wars” as his afterschool activity, Pongo shook his head.

“Woo! We don’t play that one,” he said.

Such sharing of the details of daily life expands a child’s awareness both of the world and of their place in the world, said Mills Lawn teachers.

“This enriches their lives,” said Mills Lawn second-grade teacher Dorothy Poortinga. “The kids are building global awareness. It opens them up to knowing about different people.”

Providing children opportunities to learn about themselves as well as about those different from themselves was exactly what Mills Lawn teachers had in mind last year when they created “Looking Out, Looking In — Our Place in the World,” a three-year school-wide program that was partially funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Yellow Springs Endowment for Education and the Ohio Arts Council. The program’s centerpiece, which began in September and will extend throughout the school year, is a series of visits by artists-in-residence who will use drama, art and dance to help children explore the topic of diversity.

While most of the artists-in-residence will visit the school for a few weeks or a month, Bi-Okoto will have a yearlong relationship with Mills Lawn, involving two-day visits with all students each month. Such an ongoing relationship means that the students and Bi-Okoto members get to know each other on an individual basis, and that the African customs the group teaches become more a part of students’ daily lives, said kindergarten teacher Becky Brunsman, one of the project’s organizers.

For instance, Brunsman said, each day the “MLS News,” the school’s daily radio program, begins with an African greeting. And teachers throughout the school are finding ways to incorporate African culture into their studies, such as art teacher Amy Minehart teaching students to create musical instruments from gourds.

Overall, said Brunsman, the “children are beginning to look out at a whole new place in the world. It’s opening their horizons.”

To keep everyone focused on the goals of “Looking Out, Looking In,” teachers display in their classrooms the program’s three questions: How does engagement in the arts develop us as sensitive and appreciative members of a global community? How am I different from and similar to others in my community and across the world? Which is more important, our differences or our similarities?

While children from Africa and Yellow Springs may differ in what they eat for breakfast or play after school, they seem to have found one strong similarity — what happens at the end of each Bi-Okoto session, when Kwame Pongo sits behind an African drum and Bao Ku Moses’s long limbs begin dancing.

“When those drums start,” said Brunsman, “the kids are up and moving.”

—Diane Chiddister