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Fieldwork in West Africa promotes cultural ties

Aug. 7, 2009

KALAMAZOO--A local contingent of educators, professors, graduate students and others will be headed to West Africa thanks to an initiative being coordinated by two professors at Western Michigan University and with the help of a $70,468 grant.

The Fulbright Hays Group Projects Abroad grant will fund Cultural Connections: A Transnational Curriculum Development Project, which is a trans-disciplinary initiative spearheaded by Dr. W.F. Santiago-Valles, associate professor of Africana studies, and Dr. Yvette D. Hyter, associate professor of speech pathology and audiology. The effort is aimed at developing a transnational curriculum designed to spark critical thinking about the consequences of globalization and global citizenship.

Visit the Cultural Connections travel blog

"We're looking at globalization in a comprehensive sense," Santiago-Valles says. "We want people to learn about the comparative impact of globalization on countries in West Africa and several states in the Midwest. We're trying to bring the various perspectives--of researchers, educators and community organizations addressing the consequences of globalization--into a transnational conversation."

During the fieldwork phase of the comparative research program, participants will travel to Mali and Senegal. Travel is open to applicants who are classroom teachers, principals, special education personnel such as speech-language pathologists, WMU faculty and graduate students in the humanities, social sciences, health and human services, area studies and foreign languages.

To be considered for the travel stage to West Africa, candidates must have completed a pre-departure workshop focused on West Africa and the Midwestern United States, the consequences of globalization, field research methods and teamwork. This workshop begins Sept. 10 and continues every Thursday afternoon for 15 weeks. Candidates also must be heavily involved in curriculum development as part of their job or university studies.

Food security and policy is one issue that will be looked at closely, Santiago-Valles and Hyter say. Though hunger is more of a problem in West Africa than the Midwestern United States, the existence of food deserts in large urban areas and food distribution are problems in both regions of the world. A problem both in West Africa and in the United States Midwest is the inability to buy fresh foods from local growers at neighborhood markets, rather than from supermarkets that import food products from long distances away. According to Mari Gallagher in "Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Detroit" in 2007, more than a half million of that city's residents live in areas where food is not available for purchase every day.

"Food security is an issue of relevance," Santiago-Valles says. "It connects economic policy, planning and development, the environment, distribution, many different issues. We want to create a cultural exchange of ideas to improve food security for both regions of the world, as an indicator of economic and cultural sovereignty."

Hyter, whose background is in language development and use, wants to take a close look at language policy and how it impacts education. Mali, for instance, has some 13 local languages considered of national usage, but in many ways educators there do a better job bridging language barriers than their counterparts in U.S. classrooms.

"We will be working with our counterparts to learn how they include all languages of national usage in instruction regardless of how many people speak the language," she says. "When children are not educated in their first language, they frequently struggle academically."

Hyter says West Africa has the upper hand when it comes to native language use in the classroom. In Mali, for instance, the Ministry of Education has a whole department, headed by one of the project's research colleagues, that focuses on teaching using local languages.

Cultural Connections is producing a two-way exchange of information and ideas and will continue to do so with the field trip. In the end, the professors hope to produce curriculum that can be used both in the U.S. Midwest and in West Africa to improve everything from the teaching of language to instruction about alternatives to credit-based economic development in both regions of the world. The collection of teaching units produced will be housed in a central location accessible to educators in the region. The five curriculum boxes that have already been produced, in keeping with the Michigan standards, are currently housed at the Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency for use by educators across the region.

The pre-departure meetings that begin in the fall will result in the selection of 12 participants from three U.S. regions for the fieldwork phase. Santiago-Valles and Hyter hope participants will learn ways to more effectively incorporate diverse cultural and intellectual traditions and perspectives into the classroom to better meet the needs of an increasingly multi-ethnic student population.

"We want the participants in the fieldwork to verify those ideas while abroad and then apply back here the ones that work best on both sides of the Atlantic," Santiago-Valles says.

But this bridging of cultures project is not limited to just those people who participate in the fieldwork phase. The two professors also want to create an information and documentation center that will assemble an inventory of written materials that have examined the impact of globalization since World War II, but whose work has been excluded from school curriculums. These written materials and "intellectual traditions" will then be published on the Cultural Connections Web site.

For more information or to apply for the project, contact Dr. W. F. Santiago-Valles at (269) 388-3809 or Dr. Yvette D. Hyter at yvette.hyter@wmich.edu. Visit the program's travel blog at http://ciwara.blogspot.com.

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, (269) 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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