BLOOMINGTON, Ill. (AP) — This year’s Black History Month was about more than making posters and studying the Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in school. Against the backdrop of a pandemic that is disproportionately affecting people of color and in the aftermath of national “Black Lives Matter” protests last summer, students and educators are taking the opportunity to dig deeper.
“Sometimes we think 12 is too young to have these deep conversations with them, but I do think they’re hearing things from adults in their lives or from the news,” said Lydia Wilson, a seventh-grade teacher at Bloomington Junior High School.
“I feel like part of our jobs as educators is to help guide and instruct and teach them how to navigate the world. … I think as we have these conversations, students want to be a part of that. They want to know what’s going on. They want to start forming opinions,” she said.
Even elementary-age children see what’s going on around them.
Cameo Williams, a third-grade teacher at Grove Elementary in McLean County Unit 5, said as her students learn more about Black movements through history, they’re also noticing how those events relate to more recent ones.
“They’re still trying to learn, they’re still trying to piece all this out,” she said. “Some of them can correlate, like, ‘Wait, I did see something like this on TV — are we talking about today or are we talking about back in the 1960s?’”
“My students are very aware. We’ve had some great conversations,” said Allyssa Svob, a fourth-grade teacher at District 87’s Stevenson Elementary School.
This is the sixth year she has had students research prominent figures in Black history and culture and create posters about them.
“This year was even more meaningful than in years past,” she said. “We had current events to relate things to.”
Wilson is part of a team of seventh-grade teachers at BJHS that has been teaching a unit about personal identity this school year as well as topics related to Black history.
“We read some diary entries from the Freedom Riders and … turned that into writing a journal entry about an event in their life that they felt represented who they were,” said Wilson.
Students also are reading “Dear Martin,” a book by Nic Stone with teenage characters dealing with issues of race, class and police.
“There are a lot of different characters in the book, a lot of perspectives,” said seventh-grade teacher Suzie Hutton.
She said students “having their minds open and discussing this has been really good.”
Allison Isom, a student teacher at BJHS, said, “A lot of the kids are seeing themselves in this novel and relating that to the summer, feeling those feelings. … There’s a lot of reality rooted in the book even though it is a work of fiction.”
Hutton used mirrors and windows as an analogy, saying both are present in the book.
“Mirrors allow kids to see themselves regardless of their identity, whereas windows and sliding glass doors gives them a view into someone else’s world,” said Hutton.
Williams said her Grove students have done various projects on identity as well, with a focus on affirming who they are.
“Not only that, but really making sure that they know that they are visible to me in my eyes and really talking about the diversity of our classroom and making sure that everybody understands that different doesn’t mean better, and that we can honor and appreciate each other’s diversity,” she said.
Michelle Chon, another BJHS seventh-grade teacher, said, “Some students mentioned the first time they really thought about race was this last summer and the Black Lives Matter movement. … Now they talk about what they can do within their own communities to promote equality and to have equal rights for everybody.”
Despite their young age, Williams said having conversations about justice with her students hasn’t been difficult.
“It starts from the very beginning,” she said. “We want our classrooms to always feel like a safe space for kids where they can share about anything, but we also want to create that space for them where they’re brave and they can ask questions.”
Black History Month gave her and her students an opportunity to dive deeper and discuss “justice and really recognizing unfairness and really analyzing that, but in the same sense, the kids are learning how so many people have been able to overcome and we’re still trying to overcome,” Williams said.
Learning Black history doesn’t begin or end with February, though, because “it’s important that the kids know that Black history is American history and that’s something that should be taught throughout the year across the curriculum, which we’ve done that even during the remote learning,” Williams said.
Williams’ class at Grove created a mural — resembling a hand-drawn and colored mosaic — of notable Black history-makers, including King, Harriet Tubman, Ruby Bridges and Thurgood Marshall.
“Each kid got a piece of the puzzle and what it really symbolizes is that we need all of us together and that when one of the pieces is missing, the masterpiece doesn’t look as good,” Williams said. “Each person is an important piece of our puzzle and when we’re all together and we’re all creating something together and we all feel valued, it can be something as beautiful as what shows in our classroom.”
In her lessons, Williams said she wants to show her students not only the struggles of Black ancestors, but their resilience, courage and creativity.
“There have been so many changes through the year, from kids just going to hybrid and then back to remote and now we’re back in five days a week, and you know, I really wanted them to understand there are other people in this world who also have the same resilience, who also have the same courage, who are also very creative people,” she said. “As soon as you walk in our classroom, this is what my students see every day and I wanted them to see the bravery of the people that the mural represents, the courage and that they could be leaders even through … everything that they’re going through.”
As a Black educator who’s been at Grove since 2007, Williams said her students’ mural carries strong message not only for them, but for herself as well.
“It’s a constant reminder for me that when I’m walking into that classroom, I’m standing on the shoulders of giants — people that came before me, people that created ways for me to be here in this space as an African American educator. It gives me courage, it gives me bravery and it just motivates me to create an authentic space for my students where they feel like they can be themselves,” she said.
Sixth-graders at Bloomington Junior High School analyzed King’s speech at the March on Washington and wrote their own poetry using words found in his speech. Sixth-grade teacher Emily Jozefik said the students were inspired by watching 23-year-old Amanda Gorman read her poem at the inauguration of President Joe Biden.
“COVID has magnified the transitional period that is junior high. Not only did these sixth-graders have to adapt to a new school, they had to adapt to doing it in a hybrid format,” said Jozefik. “Developmentally, self-expression is important and poetry allows them to be expressive.”
Wilson said she tells her students, “My goal is for you to understand how history connects and how history is our present and how history is our future.” By knowing the past, they can learn how to be part of changing the future, she said.
At Normal Community West High School, the Black Student Union celebrated February with a Black History Month Spirit Week, which brought participation from students and staff alike. The union students also decorated the atrium with the colors of the Pan-African flag, because of its centralized location, said Jasmyn Jordan, founder and president of the student group.
Jordan said when she started at West, “Black History Month was scarcely celebrated,” outside the library. But since starting the Black Student Union last school year, they hosted their second spirit week and expanded their efforts.
“I wanted the Normal West Black Student Union’s celebration of Black History Month to encompass and involve the entire school … because Black history is American history and deserves to be acknowledged throughout the entire school year,” Jordan said. “We need to learn and experience an enriching and diverse history that includes varying perspectives and has all the true, unbiased facts. When students of all races learn how African Americans have beneficially contributed to art, medicine, entertainment, science, law and education, they will have more of an appreciation for the African Americans that live in the United States. This appreciation will lead to a better nation.”
The West students also marked the occasion with Black history trivia on the morning announcements and sharing weekly “Black Facts” on social media and in partnership with WGLT on air and online.
The Black Student Union also invited Bre Lamkin from the Equal Justice Initiative to speak with students, staff and community members. Jordan said Lamkin discussed the purpose and work done by the nonprofit and encouraged students to participate in social justice efforts.
“By offering a variety of festivities during Black History Month, my hope is that Black students remember the resilience and royalty that they come from. Teaching Black history benefits all students not just during Black History Month, but all year long,” Jordan said.
Source: The (Bloomington) Pantagraph, https://bit.ly/3bEar7c
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