Lessons from an African Adventure

Published on Tuesday, January 4, 2011

African AdventureNorthern Valley Old Tappan mathematics teacher, April Vella travelled throughout Southern Africa this summer with Global Exploration for Educators Organization (GEEO), an organization founded in 2007 with the mission of making America more outward looking by giving teachers affordable travel opportunities.  Teachers interact with hundreds of students throughout their careers, and experiencing different cultures first hand offers more than traditional educational programs.  Students exposed to stories about international travel are more likely to become curious about the world and desire to travel themselves.

"As a math teacher, I have found several opportunities to discuss my African adventure with my classes," noted Vella.  She explained the economic crisis in Zimbabwe which led to the devaluation of their currency.  People carried grocery bags full of money to the store to purchases groceries, but eventually even the one hundred trillion dollar bill became worthless.  Now, Zimbabwe is using the U.S. dollar as their currency.  Their economy is improving and through the whole ordeal they have managed to keep the crime rate relatively low. 

In Algebra 1, students study conversion ratios and solving proportions. Vella took the opportunity to discuss the exchange rates for the various currencies in the countries she visited.  She explained to the students that exchange rates change daily and showed them the exchange rates from August and how it compared to the exchange rates on the day of the lesson.  Then, she gave them a list of essential items in South Africa and their cost in South African Rand.  The students used the conversion factor to estimate the cost of each item in U.S. dollars.  Ms. Vella also used articles from the Internet which referenced the inflation in Botswana in 2008.  The articles gave prices in Pula, the currency in Botswana.  Again, the students estimated each price in U. S. dollars.  They did a similar activity with information about the August 2010 inflation of wheat prices in Mozambique.  The prices were in meticais, and some had the dollar equivalents in the article.  Students discussed how reporters had to do the conversions to make the article more relevant internationally.

UNICEF in action

African AdventureThe students at Northern Valley recently ran a school wide drive for UNICEF where Ms. Vella witnessed some of the good that UNICEF does in the world. While visiting a school in Zimbabwe, the GEEO participants noticed an abundance of brand new notebooks.  The school told them that UNICEF had been delivering notebooks to needy schools throughout the region.  Coincidentally, the GEEO participants then met the woman who coordinated those efforts for UNICEF while visiting Victoria Falls.  Victoria Falls are immense water falls on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe.  Ms. Vella was one of the fortunate few to experience the falls from both countries giving her the chance to feel the power of the falls from all sides.

Educational tours

Visiting a family farm, schools, a teacher college, an orphanage and church celebration enriched the already amazing trip throughout southern Africa.  GEEO offers teachers more than a tour by including these educational aspects along with the benefit of traveling with other teachers - who appreciate learning along the way.  The participants read the history of each country aloud as they travelled with a guide who offered personal accounts of living through the recent crisis in Zimbabwe.

African AdventureAside from the special treatment given to GEEO participants the traditional tour was unbelievable.  Every day was a safari.  Ms. Vella and her group saw the Big Five: elephant, buffalo, rhinoceros, lion, and leopard, the five most dangerous animals to hunt in Africa in addition to herds of zebras, giraffes, a wide variety of birds, and countless other wildlife.  In Antelope Park, they walked with the lions.  It was a controlled setting, but the park used trainers, not guns to keep the visitors safe.  Throughout the trip, the participants were protected in vehicles and camp grounds, while the animals roamed free.  By the time they got to Botswana, they were walking through the remote wilderness of the Okavango Delta, the world’s largest inland delta.  Seeing the dung and footprints of all sorts of animals confirmed that they were in the wild. 

Back in Johannesburg, Ms. Vella and some of her new teacher friends decided to take a tour of Soweto, Southwestern Township, where Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, two Nobel Peace Prize winners lived on the same block at one time.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu still lives there and was on his way to church.  His car stopped and from just a few feet away he and his family waved to Ms. Vella and her friends.  "It was a highlight of the trip to be acknowledged by such greatness," said Vella.

Shaping global citizens

"Educators in today’s world are teaching students how to become global citizens," said Vella. "Gaining an appreciation of other cultures is a crucial step in this process.  Participating in the GEEO program gave me this chance and validated the need to give students these same opportunities." 

Ms. Vella has been chaperoning the Scottish Cultural Exchange trip since 1998.  She believes that giving students the chance to live with a family abroad and experience daily life broadens their view of the world around them.   As Old Tappan continues to offer these exchanges with Italy, Japan, Scotland and other countries around the world, the students develop an awareness and understanding of the greater society in which they live.  For more information on GEEO and other travel opportunities, please email Ms. Vella at vella@nvnet.org or visit  http://www.geeo.org/.


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