Education as Advocacy: Exploring Black History Outside of Our Textbooks

By: Sarabeth Weszely, Senior Writer
February 25, 2021

“Black History Month – which my 86-year old-grandmother celebrated as Black History Week – is something Black Americans have been fighting for for a very long time,” begins Middle School Drama teacher, Ms. Porter. “And that is simply for Black history to be considered American history.”

It has been our mission as a school to foster meaningful conversations about race amongst our students and staff, not only in February, but year-round. Earlier this year, we launched an internal committee to oversee our school’s advocacy goals and initiatives, which had previously been scattered throughout our classes and departments. The Diversity & Inclusion Committee meets weekly to examine our current practices and brainstorm future directions with justice and equity at the forefront of their minds.

From February through June, members of the committee are creating monthly cause-focused lesson plans for teachers to use during student Advisory periods. This month’s lessons supported the many ways our teachers observed Black History Month in class by creating unique ways for us to recognize Black contributions around us everyday. 

Creating a school-wide challenge to go 24 hours without using an invention made by a Black person, committee member/drama teacher Ms. Porter compiled a list of Black inventions, relying exclusively on patents and other trusted historical documents.

As you can imagine, the sheer magnitude of Black contributions (not limited to those listed) made our challenge an impossible one. For this reason, we posed an alternate challenge to students: complete your regular household chores (we see you, parents) and keep track of how many Black inventions you use in the process.“A lot of slaves invented tools to make their jobs easier, and then their masters were credited for their inventions. So there are many stolen inventions we just can’t prove.” The inventions Ms. Porter was able to verify, though, are enough to drive the point home on their own.

“Potato chips? You’re welcome from Black people!”

While continuing to place focus on Black Americans and their distinct culture, we also wanted our students to explore the many contributions that have come from Black individuals in other parts of the African diaspora. We specifically focused on Afro-Latinx contributions, as this is how many of our students identify themselves. 

Together, Advisory classes looked at Afro-Latinos who contributed to American culture in areas like music, food, politics, science, sports, visual arts, fashion and literature. Some key figures were: José Celso Barbosa (1857-1921), Arturo Schomburg (1874-1938), Celia Cruz (1925-2003), Roberto Clemente (1934–1972), Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988), Elizabeth Acevedo (1988-Present). Students were then prompted to complete their own independent research and share more Afro-Latinx contributions in later Advisory sessions. If you don’t know these names (and many of us don’t), we encourage you to look them up now!

Taking a different approach to research, our high school video journalism class interviewed their peers, teachers, and local assembly women Carmen De La Rosa to hear more perspectives on Black History Month and advocacy. They turned footage from those interviews into a short documentary which you can watch here:

The Long-Term Work

These lessons are designed to help our students understand themselves and others more, to see similarities while understanding and appreciating differences, and to identify what voices are heard and not heard.”

– Valerie Hoekstra, Middle School Principal

One of the goals our school was founded on (from our three C’s) is community-engaged leadership. Our job is to prepare students to thrive in the world outside our doors, in full knowledge that the world is not always just or good. In order to holistically succeed post-graduation, our students will need to be able to advocate for both themselves and others when they recognize wrongdoing. 

This work begins (but does not end) with building awareness, which is what we are prioritizing for the remainder of the school-year. We know we still have much to learn, and we are grateful to have staff and structures that will hold us accountable as we move beyond awareness and into action. Stay plugged into our blog and social media channels as we continue to share this process with our larger community.

“Although we’re not perfect, I’m happy to work with a school that is willing to have these conversations in a way where everyone has the opportunity to be heard. Ultimately, our students are going to be the ones to change this world so that we don’t have to keep repeating the same conversations.”
– Ms. Rivera, High School Psychology teacher
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