Lincoln students learn West African culture through afterschool program

LINCOLN — The sounds of drumming echoed through the halls of Lincoln Community School one afternoon last week. In a classroom, Guinean-born Simbo Camara led seven students through a West African dance accompanied by a drumbeat.
“Listen for the beat!” he shouted with infectious energy.
The two children playing the drums had a tendency to speed up, as if racing each other, so Camara kept the beat on the drum he straddled while he directed the dancers through their moves.
“Almost, now let’s do it again,” he called out encouragingly as the students slowly got the hang of it.
The class was part of an afterschool initiative, called the Expanded Learning Program, run by the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union in four of its five elementary schools.
Program Co-director Mandy Chesley-Park explained that the program aims to supplement existing afterschool curricula.
“What we try to do is infuse existing afterschool programs with enrichment opportunities for our students,” she said. “We’re bringing culture to our students, and more opportunity for math, science, engineering and literacy.”
The Expanded Learning Program hosts six sessions each year, from mid-October to mid-May. About 160 students, or a quarter of each student body, participate at Bristol Elementary, Beeman Elementary, Robinson Elementary and the Lincoln Community School. Monkton Central School is not currently involved, but Chesley-Park said that will change in the future.
Chesley-Park said she and fellow program coordinator Maureen Hill seek class proposals from teachers and professionals in the community. About 80 percent of the classes are run by school district staff.
Other classes in the program include hip-hop dancing, yoga, cooking, origami, Spanish, chess and geometry. An associate professor from Middlebury College teaches a Chinese language class at Bristol Elementary.
As part of an afterschool program, Chesley-Park said each class needs to capture the attention and imagination of students at the end of a long academic day.
“It has to look different, it has to be movement based and it has to be hands on,” she said.
LINCOLN COMMUNITY SCHOOL students, left to right, Jahlani Jackson, Iris Wyatt, Jonah Howell and Anna Stilwell learn a West African dance in an afterschool program run by the district. Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Classes are capped at 12 with an ideal size of eight students, and each group works toward a particular goal or project. At the end of each five-week session, teachers invite the community to a performance or demonstration of what the class has been working on.
Looking forward, Chesley-Park said she hopes to expand the program district-wide.
“We’re moving in the direction of the high school, middle school and all five elementary schools in the next five years,” she said.
Right now, the program is funded through a grant from the 21st-century Community Learning Centers, a program of the federal Department of Education, and also district funds. It is free to students.
“It’s available to all students, not just students who have the resources,” Chesley Park said.
The five-year federal grant expires this year, so the ANeSU is in the process of reapplying for it. In the event that the district is not re-awarded the grant, Chesley-Park said the afterschool programs will remain intact.
For example, Chesley-Park said, the district was unable to secure funding for the Starksboro program last year.
“Our commitment to this program is such that we went to the district and got the money we needed,” she said.
In the future, she said the district will likely implement a fee-based structure for students whose parents are able to pay. But no student will ever be turned away for his or her inability to pay.
Chesley-Park said studies have proven that afterschool programs such as this improve students in a litany of ways.
“What we’re seeing is students who participate in our program attend more school days in the year, and we see gains in their standardized test scores on the whole,” she said. “We’re seeing a movement in the right direction every year.”
It may also succeed where the traditional classroom setting can’t.
“This is one way to look at ways for students to grow, to add really strong curriculum-based, academic-based programming after school,” she said. “Kids that may not be reached during the school day are reached in another way after school.”
In a classroom Wednesday afternoon, Camara and his students polished their drum and dance ahead of a final performance on Friday.
Camara, with his booming, French-accented voice and barely contained enthusiasm walked the students through dance moves while absent-mindedly keeping the beat on a djembe, a West African drum. Some of the younger students had trouble with the rhythm Camara devised, but the older ones had it down pat.
Camara, who performed in both of Guinea’s national dance companies, now lives in Bristol. The 41-year-old teaches West African culture in schools.
Camara said he tries to foster a connection with the students to get them excited about the music and dance.
“I want to teach them to know the music, to not be scared and understand the music and the rhythm,” Camara said. “It’s not easy. You need to listen and pay attention.”
He said the program engages students in a different kind of learning, as they learn a new vocabulary through the different terms involved in the dancing and drumming. Asked if the students were prepared for their final performance, Camara was quick to answer.
“Yes! You want to see them on Friday,” he exclaimed. “You’re going to say ‘wow.’”

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