Curriculum Uncovering History

Teaching East Africa and the Indian Ocean with Swahili

Practicing the historical thinking skill of corroboration

I have been doing some action research with the resources that I have compiled for using the Swahili language as a historical resource.  The material could be sliced and arranged to teach a variety of topics. I have been using some of the material to introduce my 11th grade, regular level World History class to the role of East Africa in the Indian Ocean trade.  We are also practicing the historical thinking skill of corroboration. The key resources are a table of Swahili loan words from the Indian Ocean on pages two and three of this student handout and Ibn Battuta’s memories of his travels in East Africa.  I organized the lessons with a short presentation. My goal is to focus students’ work onto analysis and critical reading.  Here are the classroom steps, with reflections:

    1. I curated a Spotify playlist with Swahili music and played some of the hip hop as students entered class.  Some seemed interested, others appeared not to notice.  I play a wide variety of music at the beginning of class, so this was not especially unusual.
    2. After a brief, two slide, introduction to Swahili, we started our exploration by saying some words in Swahili, using a Youtube tutorial.  Participation was high, and many students found this amusing or at least interesting. A big tip for pronunciation of Swahili words is telling students that syllables always end in vowels. This helps with the pronunciation of other Bantu languages, too, such as Igbo.

      Photograph of a road side shop
      “The *duka* is an archive.” This photo from John Mugane’s *The Story of Swahili* shows a roadside shop, or *duka*, in northeastern Tanzania.
    3. Students explored the concept of loan words with “The duka is an archive”, John Mugane’s long list of items in asmall shop in East Africa pictured at right. The list is on this slide and the student handout.  After reading and sounding out these Swahili words, students guess which might have originated in English.  I need to continue to work on my own, very novice, pronunciation to keep this flowing.  Students made some guesses, but next time I will more purposefully elicit student responses.  Some students never quite grasped the idea of loan words, so I need to focus more attention on this in the opening.
    4. After noting the importance of the Indian Ocean as a network of exchange, we examined some of the loan words in Swahili from the Indian Ocean rim (pp 2-3 student handout). Students should focus on the third column of the table, the English meanings of words, so they can organize the words into categories.  Students were not confident in reading the table.  Interpreting the table is a different kind of reading, and even 11th graders need some support and/or modeling.  Next time I will make the focus on meanings explicit, and I will explain why some of the boxes are blank.  My goal is for students to quickly move to critical thinking by categorizing the items. The sticking point for some students is a desire to simply find information to copy.  My students found these categories: nautical, religion, commerce, and food.  Critically, students then need to discuss what it might mean that Swahili shares the words with other languages.  Again, students treating this as just a worksheet will miss out on this thinking step.  This is an example of my challenge to move students past focusing on completion for points to learning.
    5. Students corroborated their loan word categories with Ibn Battuta’s remembrances of his travels in East Africa. I encouraged students to annotate the reading, looking for topics similar to the word categories.  Again, the key is for students to consider what Ibn Battuta’s observations might mean.  Students needed prompting to think about what generalizations they could support with Ibn Battuta’s memories.
    6. The final step was for students to corroborate in writing.  Because of the newness and higher level of the task, I presented sentence frames (last slide) for students to use to construct their claims.  Students found this difficult, but most could fill in the sentence frames.

A teacher could cut this off after step 4, and use discussion to clarify the cultural exchanges from trade.  This would save enough time to fit the work into one class period.  I do like using Ibn Battuta, however.  He is an interesting source because of the issues of bias and reliability.  I also appreciate how he describes the advanced state of Swahili cities.  Unfortunately, many students need this information to counter their preconceived notions of Africa.  This lesson aligns with my goals for my world history classes.  I am continuing to make them more global and to encourage more historical thinking.  I am looking forward to working with these materials in a couple of weeks in my AP World History classes.

UPDATE: Since posting this entry I have repeated the Swahili and the Indian Ocean lesson with AP World History students and I presented the idea as a poster at the NCSS conference in San Francisco.  Based on my experience teaching it again and in preparation for the conference, I created a page with Indian Ocean lesson above scripted as a lesson plan.

By Eric Beckman

I am a veteran high school history teacher interested in decolonizing history curricula, anti-racist pedagogy, and e-learning.

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