Last Friday morning, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, Rosa Parks, and Mae Jemison sat at desks in Brooke Workman’s third-grade classroom at Oak Grove Elementary School.
Eight-, 9-, and 10-year-old students donned oversized suit jackets, astronaut helmets, and fake gold medals to bring to life historical black figures of the 19th and 20th centuries for the purpose of educating their peers during Black History Month. Workman assigned pairs of students a person to research, and students prepared skits, posters, and quizzes to present.
“Jesse Owens showed the world that skin color doesn’t matter,” Connor said, speaking to his class while wearing a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform. “People’s personalities and their kindness is what matters.”
Talking about race can be difficult for anyone, much less elementary school students. The presentations created a way for young students to learn about racial divides and discuss them openly.
In Texas, Black History Month is not a part of the required state curriculum. It is up to individual schools and teachers to decide how and whether to teach their students about the contributions of notable black Americans during the month of February.
It’s still an important and relevant topic to teach about, said Brenner Green, assistant principal of instruction at IDEA Ingram Hills, a charter school in Northwest San Antonio.
“We know that here in San Antonio and a lot of places in the country, depending on your ZIP code [it] dictates the opportunities that you have access to for education,” Green said. “That is what Black History Month was all about – people fighting to have access to equal opportunities regardless of their background.”
On Green’s campus, students in kindergarten and first grade learned about not only Rosa Parks but also Ruby Bridges, the first black student to integrate an elementary school in the South. They watched videos that described the contributions to society of each and answered questions from their teachers.
Kindergarten teacher Vania Moreno quizzed her class on where Bridges was born and how at age 6 she coped with hatred and anger for being the first black student to attend an all-white school.
“They wanted to hurt her because they weren’t nice people,” one boy explained to a classmate at his table about the people who protested Bridges’ enrollment.
In the first-grade class next door to Moreno’s room, students worked on worksheets about Bridges.
While coloring in images of Bridges, 6-year-old Madeleine, explained to her deskmate that Bridges was a “brave kid” who people didn’t like because “she was brown all over.”
Southwest of IDEA Ingram Hills, students in Alamo Heights Independent School District typically begin talking about Black History Month after they attend the Martin Luther King Jr. March in mid-January. Alamo Heights sends buses of students and their families and uses the experience as a launching point for discussion that classes will later have in February related to black historical figures.
“Some [students] are very quiet and just taking it all in for the first time, and others have gone with their parents actively marching a number of times,” said Yadira Palacios, Alamo Heights Junior School’s academic dean. “Everyone walks away with a sense of community and that is really important … [because] everything that we are trying to get them to experience is empathy and consideration for others.”
Later in February, Alamo Heights Junior School teachers facilitated discussion around Black History Month during a weekly advisory period time. Students learned about the struggles and contributions of black trailblazers, including Bridges, Jesse Owens, and Claudette Colvin.
The conversation that followed the advisory lesson was aimed at developing empathy for others, Palacios said.
In North East ISD, students in Workman’s Oak Grove elementary classroom walked away with the same idea from their research and presentations.
“And remember, don’t judge people based on how they look,” said 8-year-old Sophia, dressed as Harriet Tubman. “It is more important to look at how they act.”