ARLINGTON SCHOOLS

Students Learn to Seal the Deal, African Style

Liberian-born storyteller Vera Oye Yaa-Anna selects Isahy Castillo and Carolyn Jean Harvey, both 8, to help her demonstrate in the Claremont Immersion Elementary School classroom how people in West Africa eat communally.
Liberian-born storyteller Vera Oye Yaa-Anna selects Isahy Castillo and Carolyn Jean Harvey, both 8, to help her demonstrate in the Claremont Immersion Elementary School classroom how people in West Africa eat communally. (By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)
By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 25, 2007

If you spot Arlington County kids trying to persuade cashiers at Whole Foods or 7-Eleven to knock 50 cents off a soda or chocolate bar, don't blame them. They might just be honing new skills learned at school.

Students at several county elementary schools in recent weeks have received unusual instruction in the art of bargaining. They've learned how it works in less-developed countries where farmers and fishermen sell their wares in open markets, with a special focus on economic customs of the West African nation of Mali.

That is how Holly Darnell, 9, came to be standing one day before a row of her Claremont Immersion Elementary School classmates selling toy produce in baskets. She picked up a fistful of greens.

"How much for this delicious-looking parsley?" she said.

The answer: 75 cents.

"Say 50," prompted Vera Oye Yaa-Anna, a woman swathed in the bright yellow and red patterns of her native continent. "Auntie Oye," a professional storyteller from Liberia, goes from school to school, lining classrooms with bold African cloths, animal-hide drums, straw fans, large stuffed jungle animals and an orangey, 12-foot-long python skin.

She teaches students a little about Liberia and its founding in the 1800s by freed slaves from the United States but mostly about Mali, a country of 12 million people that is the size of Texas and California combined. There, she tells them, mud is an ingredient in cloth-making, people shop for food every day because they don't have refrigerators and life centers on communal activities.

"I teach them how to deal with people who may not be like us," she said. "Your individuality in Africa doesn't work because we work together as a community."

Yaa-Anna said she is motivated to teach kids about Africa in part because of prejudice she has encountered in the United States. For example, she said, people here sometimes assume that because she is from Africa, she must be hungry.

"If these [students] can cultivate a love for Africa, then that's my job," she said. "So that when they become adults, they won't stereotype like I've been stereotyped."

Mary Eckstein, a humanities project coordinator for Arlington public schools, said Yaa-Anna's work dovetails with a state-required curriculum segment on Mali, part of the third grade's study of ancient cultures. Yaa-Anna's visits to six Arlington schools this year are part of a pilot project, funded by a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to a unit of the county Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources.

Teachers chose from a list of artists for classroom presentations on folk art from around the world.


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