Journey to Africa in Class 7/8

by Mark Schofield, Class 7/8 Teacher

In the Waldorf Curriculum, a different continent is covered each year. Usually the teacher starts with North America in fifth grade and finishes with Africa in the eighth. Things get more complicated with combined grades. And if you are mathematically inclined, you already have realized that if there are seven continents, and you start in fifth grade, a teacher will run out of years before you run out of continents.

Are there seven continents? We tackled that question last year in preparation for our study of Europe. We found that there is significant disagreement about the number of continents. Some say seven; some say five; some say three. You see, continents are one of those things that seem simple and obvious, but when you examine them are devilishly difficult to define.

I am inclined to go with the traditional seven, inspired by a beautiful essay written by a student last year who argued that there were seven continents because seven is the perfect number and the world created by God must be perfect.

So we are on our journey to Africa and we are finding that large gaps in our knowledge are going to be filled. We are remembering and deepening our knowledge of animals and biomes covered in fourth and fifth grade. We are also recalling even earlier knowledge from third and fifth grade of plants and agriculture. We are remembering things about shelter, clothing and people.

I like to think of eighth grade as the final movement of a symphony that started years ago in first grade. Africa is truly worthy of symphonic treatment. It is the oldest of all the continents, the heart of the ancient continent of Pangea, from the time when all the continents of earth were united in one landmass. It is the first home of all human beings and many animal species. If there is a literal Garden of Eden it is in Africa.

In seventh and eighth grade we can still enjoy the wonder of things, but we are also thirsty for the reality of things. The realities of contemporary Africa were brought to us by Mrs. Green, our gardening teacher, who spoke to us and shared photographs from her extensive travels in Sub Saharan Africa. Mrs. Green also brought African clothing, instruments and music, making her visit informative and a celebration. We have also had the opportunity to view documentaries about the hunter-gatherers of the African rainforests and the wildebeest migration of the savannah. The visit and the films have helped us to bring our conceptual knowledge to life.

In the remaining week and a half we will focus on the sometimes glorious, but oftentimes sad, history of the continent. To start, we will look at the grandeur of the medieval kingdoms of West Africa. We will continue through the harshness of slavery and the colonial period. We will look at the hope of countries gaining independence tempered with an understanding of the political turmoil that accompanies it.

During our journey we will hold an African song in our heart. Regardless of the sorrow it describes, African music expresses the joy and spirit of African lives. Hopefully we will be able to carry this song with us as we continue through our academic year.