Black History Month in My Classroom

Monday, February 1, 2010

Black History Month: A Poem
By Adrienne Ross
February, 2008

Black History Month is a chance to discover
The accomplishments and struggles of our “sistuhs” and “brothuhs,”
The ones who have fought to give us our rights,
Who weathered the storm, persevered through the fight.

It’s a time to reflect, to learn, and to grow.
There’s so much about Blacks that people don’t know.
There is Malcolm X, Emmitt Till, Benjamin Banneker, too.
Did you know Jan Matzeliger invented a new kind of shoe?

Madam C.J. Walker made products for Black hair
And became the first Black female millionaire.
And Dr. Daniel Hale Williams made history
When he performed the first successful open heart surgery.

There were athletes, you know, who helped pave the way
For the many pro athletes making history today.
Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, Althea Gibson, as well
Had to prove they could compete. Oh the stories they could tell!
Heartache, rejection, and shame they went through.
So if they managed to do it, why can’t you do it, too?

House slaves and field slaves divided by color,
Children ripped from the arms of their fathers and mothers.
Freedom fighters, politicians, poets, and preachers,
Mary McLeod Bethune, an advisor and teacher.

Our history is rich. More than one month can say.
Black history deserves your attention each day.
For there’s a pride that develops when I’m able to see
The accomplishments of others who look just like me.

I wrote the above poem two years ago for our school newspaper. It briefly expresses the fact that there is so much history to be learned--too much to confine to just one month.

Black History Month always leads to interesting times with my students. We start the month by discussing whether or not they feel it should be celebrated and why. During the month, they learn that it's celebrated in February in honor of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, they share what they already know, and they discover accomplishments they never knew anything about.

Once or twice in my years of teaching, I offered an extra credit activity, where student volunteers go a weekend without the use or benefit of various inventions/improvements by Blacks. This exercise is extremely difficult, but eye-opening for the participants, and requires parental assistance. I trust the parents to help me keep the kids honest and to grade their own children. In this project, students attempt to go a couple days without the use of certain things, such as a brush, comb, elevator, refrigerator, clothes dryer, etc. Of course, there are items they are more than willing to avoid, like the mop and dustpan! One would think that parents would go easy on their kids. Not so! They are even harder than I would be and readily write down the areas where their children skimped, as well as where they excelled. When it's all said and done, my students have a better understanding of the impact that Blacks have had on our American culture, something that is not always shared in our schools, but is so vital.

My favorite part of Black History Month is the poetry we do during this time. I love exposing them to some of my favorite poems, which usually become some of their favorite poems.

Two such poems are "Phenomenal Woman" and "Still I Rise." Combining these poems with background information about the life of the author, Maya Angelou, leaves the kids inspired, and they are able to take the life-lessons found therein and apply them to their own lives and struggles. Two years ago, Angelou came to the area, and we took the students to see her one evening. After learning so much about her life and embracing her poetry, they were excited to get a chance to see her in person.

Another poem, which may very well be my favorite, is "Mother to Son" by Langston Hughes. The poem's message is timeless and reminds us that we have no excuse for giving up. No, those who have come before us weathered more storms than we, and life was "no crystal stair" for them.

As I am a bit of a ham, so my co-worker tells me, more than anything I love reciting the poems to the kids. Whenever I read anything, I take on the accent and demeanor of the speaker. My students usually stare at me, mouths ajar, and then applaud. (Well, actually after hearing poetry, we snap instead of clap.) Until the age of about 19, I wanted to be an actress. Being a teacher has afforded me that same opportunity to perform--and I take full advantage of it!

America is the greatest country on earth, and part of the reason is that while we celebrate our oneness, we are not afraid to also celebrate our uniqueness. I have never been of the mind that we have to give up or deny our cultural differences, most precious to us, and pretend they don't exist. I have students who are Hispanic, Bengali, Italian, etc. How wonderful it is to acknowledge and celebrate each. Being an American is not about fear of our uniqueness, but a celebration of how such varied backgrounds can come together under the wonderful umbrella of being American.

E pluribus unum: Out of many, one. I love it!


Tom Lemery,  February 2, 2010 at 6:16 PM  

Hey Adrienne---

Nothing wrong being a ham. It's more powerful and has more meaning when you recite it through the eyes of the author. In our classroom, we are reading about Langston Hughes, (which I didn't know his first name was James) and using his poems,"Dreams" and "Mother to Son."

"Still I Rise" is great from Maya Angelou.

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