Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University
Walking to School
My best friend Shawn and I walked with my brothers to our predominantly black school near the local housing projects every morning. This particular day we were very excited to go to Ms. Jamison’s music class. She was one of our favorite teachers. We were getting ready for our annual Spring Show, where we rehearsed gospel songs and some songs by our favorite artists Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Stevie Wonder, music that helped us embrace our African American heritage unabashedly. Our favorite part of the Spring Show was the production of the play modeled after the 1980’s Black film The Whiz. “Man I cain’t wait to go to Miss Jameson’ class, It’s gonna be tight when we finish this play!” Said Shawn excitedly, I smiled widely, nodding in agreement.
Then there was Mr. Divers, our art teacher, he was our absolute favorite and our role model. As poor inner city kids in elementary, we thought he could draw, paint or sculpt anything. He was our very own Pablo Picasso or Robert Duncanson. Our arguments often ended with the statement “Cain’t nobody draw better than Mr. Divers!”
But Levi (My next door neighbor) was presently going on and on about recess and gym. Mr. Jones was our gym teacher, who was an African American role model for us and taught us to believe in ourselves. He taught us how to enjoy simple games like double dutch, bamboo sticks, hand games, kick ball and hopscotch. In those days, they somehow merged recess and gym together to our absolute joy!
I chimed in. “I cain’t wait to go to Ms. Brooks’ class. She be havin’ us read all them books. And I heard she take people to McDonalds every year!” We always seemed to be hungry. When we arrived at our all black elementary school that day we had a wonderful time as usual. My friends and I were greeted by teachers and schoolmates that were an extended family for us. When we made it Ms. Jameson’s music class by midday, she did not disappoint. Our afternoon was filled with singing, dancing and laughter. Our elementary school was a much needed escape from the harsh reality of urban poverty.
In Search of a More Diverse Curriculum
The primary thing that was missing at our school was a diverse and multicultural curriculum where we and other people of color were represented in the material in a meaningful way. My elementary school had a decent library for a curious and precocious child like myself. I remember it being one of my favorite places in the entire school. In those days they had the Magic Media Talking book series where one could read the book along with a tape recording. But the books I remember reading the most were the basal readers that featured the characters Dick and Jane written by William S. Gray and Zerna Sharp. The books portrayed a mostly white world, with the children having the time of their lives. It seemed like another world outside of my reach. The Dick and Jane series also portrayed subtle racism, often depicting black characters in stereotypical roles and promoting segregation. As I sat in my elementary classes reading, I often noticed how the black characters in the books were depicted. They were illustrated so terribly with no skin variation that it did not seem real. As a poor Black child in a predominantly African American school I was embarrassed.
I was not exposed to any real opportunities to read literature reflecting diversity until seventh grade when to my delight my teacher had given me some books on Black cowboys. Stories about people of color always resonated with me, they built my self-esteem. I remember the light bulb that went off when that world was opened up to me.
Fast forward to my life as an educator today who teaches courses in social studies education, diversity and African American history; I am what I am today because of my exposure to diverse literature. Through seeking out the material on my own accord I am now aware of a growing number of resources available that offer a more multicultural curriculum. We have mentioned in previous articles the importance of meaningful multicultural curriculum integration. There is no excuse today for educators to not diversify their curriculum.
Sweet Blackberry and African American History Resources
A great example of classroom resources for multicultural education is a series of short animated films and books on African American history by Karyn Parsons’ (Hillary from the Fresh Prince of Bel Air) production company known as Sweet Blackberry. Sweet Blackberry’s stated Mission “is to bring little known stories of African American achievement to children everywhere.” Parsons hopes to tell the “triumphant stories of individuals” who overcame “the odds” and made “invaluable contributions to our society” offering “inspirational and empowering” stories. Sweet Blackberry’s website states that “these stories illustrate for our children the concept that tremendous obstacles are actually opportunities for greatness! Children of all races and ethnicities feel a sense of shared history when they learn about the real people whose lives and work impact their everyday lives.” In the latter part of this essay we will give examples of how the resources from Sweet Blackberry can be integrated into elementary and middle grades classrooms in a meaningful way that are aligned with national social studies, language arts, math and science standards.
Lesson Plan Ideas for Teachers using Sweet Blackberry Resources
Lessons/Units using the book Flying Free: How Bessie Coleman’s Dreams Took Flight. Flying Free is a children’s story about the first African American woman to earn a pilot’s license.
Subjects: Social Studies, Language Arts, Science, Theater and Fine Arts
Teachers can spend some time offering some developmentally appropriate background knowledge of Bessie Coleman using other resources such as non-fiction reading materials, a short lecture, cartoons, short films, writing exercises or handouts. Educators can also offer some background on the history of flying and the science behind flight, integrating the subjects of history, geography, economics, math and science.
Act it Out
Short Activity (Grades PK-4).
After the teacher has shared “Flying Free” students can be divided into small groups of 3-4 and act out key parts of the story with the teacher’s guidance. The teacher can provide materials such as construction paper, scissors, crayons, markers, glue and cardboard boxes so that students can make props for their skits.
Long Activity (Grades 2-4).
For younger grades teachers can read to the class and for older grades students can read the book for themselves. When the story has been read students can create a 4-5 act play centered on the content from the book and the history they learned about Bessie Coleman and aviation history. The class can be divided in half to have two groups both working on their own play. Small classes can remain in one big group. Teachers can determine how much time is needed for students to develop solid plays that they can perform at a later date. One example is for teachers to spend 10-20 minutes a day throughout the entire year designated to working on the project. As the time gets closer to the performance teachers can have after school dress rehearsals. Teachers can collaborate with the art and music teachers as well as the school librarian to supplement the play with music, props, stage setting and costumes. A culminating experience can include a performance for the entire grade or a school wide performance where family and friends can attend. The art teacher can collaborate with the main instructor to also create a program featuring all of the actors and actresses.
Lesson/Unit Using the film Garrett’s Gift. Garrett’s Gift is a story about African American inventor Garrett Morgan, the creator of the traffic light.
Subjects: Social Studies, Language Arts, Science, Theater and Fine Arts
Teachers can spend some time offering some background on Garrett Morgan using other resources, as mentioned earlier. Educators can also offer some background on African American inventors and the science behind the various inventions, integrating the subjects of history, geography, economics, math and science.
After the film “Garrett’s Gift” has been viewed students can write their own autobiographies about their lives. Teachers can help students identify vocabulary words from the film to incorporate into their writing. Students can develop edited versions of their autobiographies to publish in their very own student anthology at the end of the semester with their teacher’s assistance. In order to incorporate fine arts into the project students can also create illustrations to supplement their writing.
After the film “Garrett’s Gift” has been viewed students can write their own biographies of a black inventor or a noteworthy African American from history or the present. Teachers can help students identify vocabulary words from the film to incorporate into their writing. This project can also culminate in a printed final version of all of their writings published together in a book with accompanying illustrations.
Elementary Students Can Create Their Own Films or Podcasts
After the film “Garrett’s Gift” has been viewed teachers can work with a technology person to help students create their own short film on YouTube or develop a podcast featuring biographies of a black inventor or a noteworthy African American from history or the present. With the invention of Smartphones, projects like these have become much easier. Teachers can create a film festival setting or atmosphere as a culminating experience where the films can be shown to the entire school at an assembly.
Lesson/Unit Using the film The Journey of Henry Box Brown. The book is about the formerly enslaved African American Henry Box Brown who successfully escaped slavery by mailing himself to a free state.
Subjects: Social Studies, Language Arts, Science and Math
Teachers can spend some time offering some historical background on Henry Box Brown through supplemental materials, as noted earlier. Educators can also offer some background on African American slavery and freedom in antebellum times.
How Big Was Henry Brown’s box?
After reading the book, students should take turns trying to fit into a large cardboard box. Afterwards, students will conduct an experiment to figure how big of a box is needed to fit a child or adult into that can be mailed from Virginia to Pennsylvania, as Henry Brown was. The supplies students would need include tape measures, cardboard boxes and a pencil and paper. The grade level will determine the number of days needed to complete all activities.
Mailing a Box Out of Town during the 1850’s
Students will conduct research with resources provided by the teacher to study what the mailing system was like in the 1850’s. They will also study a map to trace the path Henry Brown’s box travelled. This will give students an idea of how difficult it would have been for Henry “Box” Brown to be mailed across the country.
Writing Their Own Picture Book (Grades PK-4)
Students will choose a historic African American woman or man to be the subject of their own picture book. Teachers can devote the appropriate amount of time for students to create a well crafted book that can be then published by a local copy shop or printing company that would donate resources. Students in grades PK-1 that have not sufficiently learned to write can use mostly pictures and simple words along with the teacher’s guidance to create their books. Older students can type the final drafts of their books with teacher guidance.
Lesson/Unit Using the book How High the Moon. How High the Moon is a story about a young African American girl in the twentieth century American south. The story highlights the challenges of being Black in the Jim Crow south and the problem of colorism in the Black community.
Subjects: Social Studies and Language Arts
Journal Reflection and Discussion
Students in upper elementary and middle grades can use the text to discuss important social studies topics such as diversity and racial discrimination. Students can write weekly journal responses and reflections on the book and what they are learning from the text. Students can write about times where they felt discriminated against. When students have finished journaling they can do a Think, Pair, Share and discuss their ideas with a partner.
Creating a Timeline
Social studies teachers can collaborate with language arts instructors to supply other reading materials and mini lectures, providing students with a historical background of early to mid twentieth century America. As students take notes on the lectures and readings and complete quizzes and assignments they can create a timeline of important events in Black history that were taking place during the setting of the book.
Select National Standards Met
Social Studies -D2.His.10.K-2. Explain how historical sources can be used to study the past (C3 Framework).
Language Arts– CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.2.2 Recount stories, including fables and folktales from diverse cultures, and determine their central message, lesson, or moral (Common Core Standards).
Math– CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.3.MD.B.4 Generate measurement data by measuring lengths using rulers marked with halves and fourths of an inch. Show the data by making a line plot, where the horizontal scale is marked off in appropriate units— whole numbers, halves, or quarters (Common Core Standards).
Science– 3-5-ETS1-2 Engineering Design Generate and compare multiple possible solutions to a problem based on how well each is likely to meet the criteria and constraints of the problem. Performance Expectation Grade: 3-5 3 4 5 (Next generation Science Standards).
1. Reflect upon the author’s experiences growing up in elementary school and having a lack of multicultural resources. What was your K-12 experience like, to what extent were you exposed to a diverse curriculum?
2. Why do you think it is important that students of all ages are exposed to a more diverse curriculum?
3. What are other ways you can incorporate the resources from Sweet Blackberry into your curriculum?