Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Our Presentatioin

Our presentation was scheduled for Wednesday, July 7, 2010. It was the final English language session of the conference, titled “Zheng He’s Voyages: Historic Traces and Research”. The Chair of our panel was Dr. Dato’Hj. Sidek Bin Jami, of the National Archives of Malaysia. Our panel included Dr. Tan Ta Sen of the Cheng Ho (Zheng He) Cultural Museum and President of the International Zheng He Society, and Mr. Choirul Mahfud, from Surabaya Indonesia.

We thought because we were on the last panel of the conference, there would be the least amount of people attending, because usually by the end of a long conference, people go out and sightsee and shop. However, that was not the case. We arrived in the room early and hardly anyone was there, but soon, the room was full with over 200 conference participants.

We then thought that the room was full because our panel included Dr. Tan, the chairman of the whole conference. We were later told by one Mr. Clifford Pereira of the Royal Geographic Society of England (one of the participants) that he had heard people talking and that they were in fact anxiously waiting to hear our presentation. Many people were eager to hear about our research and what we had to say as teachers, and learn about our students’ work.

We presented a power point and spoke about Malindi’s Journey, the children’s book we have written that highlights the contact between East Africa, China, and the role of Islam in the ancient trade routes that were thriving along the east coast of Africa for centuries before the arrival of the Europeans. We spoke about the giraffe, which is still used today by the Chinese government as a symbol of cooperation between China and African countries. We said that as teachers, we believe it is important to link research to actual classroom practice. Alicia showed examples of how to web out curriculum for a culturally grounded thematic unit in early childhood/elementary classrooms. Lucy showed how a theme can be developed across content areas for high school. In both cases, we spoke about the importance of engaging students in the content while meeting state and national standards.

We showed slides of students and their work from Alicia’s former classroom at The Young Achievers Math and Science School. We showed pictures of students building a boat, doing observational drawings of a Swahili mtepe, engaging in hands-on geography, math and literacy projects. Lucy showed slides of her students from Odyssey High School examining artifacts and learning about evidence.

Finally, we spoke about the modern connections between Africa and China, and how Kenya and China are collaborating to investigate cultural links in the Lamu Archipelago. The National Museum of China, the Beijing University School of Archeology, and the Kenya National Museum are now engaged in a joint venture to excavate sunken ships from Zheng He’s treasure fleet. In fact, some of the members of that research team were at the conference and listening to our presentation!

We closed our presentation by talking about the importance of collaboration between teachers and researchers. During the question and answer period, we were asked many different questions about our work. They asked when the book will be published, how we have the time to do all this work and still do all our work in the classroom, more about the curriculum. Several times during our presentation and the question and answer period, people stood up and applauded because of things we said about teachers being the vehicle to bring knowledge and stories of Zheng He and his connections with Africa and Islam into the classroom in ways that impact student achievement and their global understanding.

On another note, we feel it’s important to mention how well we were received, as Boston Public School teachers. We were the only school teachers from any country to make a presentation at this conference, and people were very interested in what we had to say.

We were given first-class treatment by the conference organizers; we were picked up at the airport and given a nice hotel room. At the Zheng He (Cheng Ho) Cultural Museum, we were treated like visiting scholars and dignitaries. We spent a full day there after the conference doing research, and were given access to all the parts of the museum. The museum director was very interested in our ideas for developing learning activities that could be incorporated into the exhibits to make the museum more engaging for school children. We exchanged contact information; and promised to send pictures of our students’ work on Zheng He and Afro-Asian connections so that it can be displayed in the museum.

On a personal note from Alicia:
I was the only presenter, and in fact, the only conference participant of African descent. I’ve been wearing my hair in braids for this trip, and from the time I arrived, when I realized there were no other participants from the African Diaspora, I made it a point to wear my African beads, my cowrie shell necklaces, and the clothing I purchased in East Africa. People were very happy to see me there. Participants kept approaching me and asking me which African country I was from. I felt a sense of pride to actually be one of the conference presenters, and that I could represent the voice of the African Diaspora at a conference that was focused on the Afro-Asian World. I felt it was important that I was there. I was happy later that several Chinese scholars raised the issue that there needed to be more African voices at the conference, since the theme was of China looking outside of itself.


Carrie Pillsbury, FFT said...

Congratulations! You continue to make Fund for Teachers proud!

Julie said...

Hi Alicia,
Thanks for inviting me to your blog. I started on the journey and plan to revisit and continue to the end. This was truly an amazing trip!