In February and Beyond, Students Explore African-American History

In February and Beyond, Students Explore African-American History

Students and teachers at St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s honored African American History Month in classrooms, the library, through art, and during school-wide celebrations. Students even took the lead, with third grade students hosting a Chapel talk recognizing the contributions of black Americans. “For us,” said one of the student presenters, “Black History is not just about February; it is every day."

In senior kindergarten, students have been participating in an immersive study of a wide variety of historical figures, recognizing not just well known figures like civil rights hero Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, but also including lesser known pioneers such as Dorothy Vaughn, the mathematician who became the first African-American supervisor at NASA, and early civil aviator Bessie Coleman. Teachers have been incorporating these figures into their morning meetings, highlighting their accomplishments, and making sure their bookshelves are filled with pertinent books that reflect their study.

One area of focus for the teachers is being mindful of the way the children perceive themselves and the different ways they express their identities. This approach is based on the Anti-bias Framework.

“Developmentally, early childhood students are not at a stage where they can discuss race in the same ways that second and third grade students are able to,” says Senior Kindergarten Teacher Eboni Washington, who is also a member of the school’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Leadership (DEIL) team. “We have found that by first exploring the idea of skin tone with early childhood students and allowing students to identify in a variety of shades, we give them room to develop a positive sense of self awareness.”

The teachers strive to be intentional in the way they encourage students to portray themselves and mindful of the language they are using to convey their messages. Acknowledging the many varieties of skin tones, teachers encourage students to mix the colors in the crayon box till they get the right one, rather than default to the standard crayons the box provides. 

The teachers encourage students to give a name to their own, unique skin tone. For example, Ms. Washington will say, “I have brown skin, and I often like to say that my skin is light tan with a little bit of yellow. When I draw myself, I love to use the tan crayon.” The students come up with words like, “I am peach” or “I am sand” or “I am chocolate.” Ms. Washington explained that this is a tangible way for students to positively identify themselves.

In the upper division, fifth grade teachers Lauren Cooke and Carolyn Borys helped their students explore the poetry of African American writers, which inspired deeper examination of issues of race. What began as a research project on Langston Hughes evolved into a poetry study and recitation of both Hughes’s and Maya Angelou’s respective poems, “Theme for English B” and “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me.” Many fifth graders were particularly drawn to “Theme for English B,” as it takes place in Harlem, a neighborhood that many students feel personally connected to.

Students participated in meaningful conversations with their teachers and one another on a variety of complex topics, which challenged them to reflect on what racism means, and what fairness means. They debated current events, analyzed photos from the Civil Rights Movement, and dissected the landmark Supreme Court case, “Loving v. Virginia,”  which struck down laws banning interracial marriage.

Four third grade students—Gigi, Marli, Liv, and Zara—volunteered to present in Chapel, an idea that came to fruition when they realized that not all their peers knew the historical figures that were so important to each of them. 

“One day, one of my classmates asked who Harriet Tubman was,” said Gigi, one of the student presenters. “I was surprised to realize that not everyone knows who this great woman was.” 

Her friend Liv added, “Not everyone knows who helped this world be equal. We want to make sure they do.” 

After conferring amongst themselves, the four third graders realized this was a teachable moment and an important learning opportunity for everyone. The girls were thrilled at the prospect of sharing their history with the entirety of the school. 

When choosing who they would present on, the girls knew they did not want to focus on people that they were sure their peers would know about already. Liv explained, “Everyone knows who Martin Luther King Jr. was. There are so many others that are just as important.” The girls chose to speak about important figures including Olympic gymnast Simone Biles; Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman to serve in Congress and to run for President; astronaut Mae C. Jemison; poet Maya Angelou; and musician Louis Armstrong. “Not only is it important to learn about African American history, but each of these people are really interesting!” said Marli.

The girls collaborated for weeks after school, researching, preparing their presentation, and rehearsing. Their Chapel presentation was both timely and informative.

“We felt great and our parents were so proud of us,” said Zara. “For us, Black History is not just about February; it is every day.” 

This foursome agreed that they felt they had honored their history and their ancestors, and that this presentation was just the beginning. They hope to do another Chapel talk in which they talk about the various countries they are descended from, and how each has a unique history and culture.