Spring Hill Elementary teacher uses art as a window into life in Africa

Spring Hill Elementary fifth-grader Madison Skiles, 10, right, colors an African mask in Denise Ferranto’s art class while classmate Anessa Delvalle, 11, looks on.
Spring Hill Elementary fifth-grader Madison Skiles, 10, right, colors an African mask in Denise Ferranto’s art class while classmate Anessa Delvalle, 11, looks on.
Published March 2, 2016

SPRING HILL — Spring Hill Elementary School art teacher Denise Ferranto has a smooth, dark wood African mask depicting an elephant in her classroom, borrowed from fifth-grade teacher Amanda Venn, who has traveled to the continent.

She also has three pieces of deeply colored African art, given to her by her son, who currently is working in Kenya. Ferranto has an active interest in Africa, and she is passing it on to her students.

Art class for Ferranto is different than it was decades ago.

"Nowadays, we can't just color a picture," she said. "(Art) is incorporating a whole curriculum — history, geography, science, math, language arts, music."

She currently has the children reading and writing about Africa. They watched a video about African dancing. They look at maps and pictures of Africa, and they are creating African-style art.

Ferranto sees all of the school's students once a week. Emmanuel La Rosa, 10, is one of her fifth-graders, and he explained some of what his class has been doing.

"We've been learning about how Africa's been suffering, and we've been trying to raise awareness and support so they can eat every day, so the adults can have a job to feed their kids and so they can accomplish something when they get older," he said.

Another fifth-grader, Johniqua Williams, 12, remembered how the unit began.

"We started working on masks," she said. "We spent a whole art class talking about Africa. We talk while we work."

Ferranto agreed. "We discuss a lot," she said.

And beyond the masks, said Nicole Lin, 10, also a fifth-grader, "we wrote letters."

Her classmate, Leslie Owens, 10, chimed in: "(To) the Kenyan orphans. We're telling them what it's like in America, and we asked them some questions and hopefully, we'll hear back."

Ferranto provided the children with a list of the African children's common words — jambo (hello), shule (school) and chakula (food). "We learned some of their language," said fifth-grader Amiya Jones, 11.

Ferranto has a contact, Father Emmanuel Nwogwugwu, who is based in Nigeria, to distribute the children's letters.

"He will make sure the letters get to Kenya," she said.

Immersing the children in an African country is a priority for Ferranto because she feels it is important to her students.

"This is something that affects them" she said.

She gave elephants as an example.

"We're losing elephants. They're part of the circle of life."

Studying other places, Ferranto said, "opens up a whole world" to her students. "Most kids don't know where they are in the world."

Nicole shared a bit about what they have been covering.

"We learned that Africa is the second-largest continent, and last week we read a story about a little boy. They sleep on the floor," she said.

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Besides writing and reading and drawing and coloring masks, the students are also learning to weave. Ferranto took plastic cups and made several even slits around them. Using yarn, the children wove it over and under the slit pieces, colorfully connecting them again. These will be embellished and can be used as pencil or pen holders.

Ferranto and her students plan to raise money with these creations at their Spring Fling and use the funds to support some kind of need in Africa.

The students are very aware of what Ferranto is doing for them concerning Africa, and why.

"We think it's a good thing to learn about them because of all the suffering disease and illness that's going on," Emmanuel said. "We want to help them. We want to send them supplies. We want to send them currency. We want them to be aware that we are learning and we do care for them."

Added Johniqua: "She taught us how they think we're rich and we don't give a lot of money to them. But we're actually not rich, but we're not poor. We're kind of in the middle. And they have to pay for school, and we don't. It seems like we don't give a lot to them. I guess she taught us this so when we get older we can help them and we won't give up on them."

"We don't want them to feel left out or that we don't care about them, because we really care," said Amiya.

In Leslie's opinion, "It's a good thing that we're learning about it, so we can have awareness, and when we grow up we can make a change."

For Ferranto, the lessons are going so well and the students are so engrossed, she hopes to move on to other continents and countries. Perhaps India will be next.

"This is the best way I could get them interested in art and learn everything else," she said, "and learn where they are in the world."