Dr. David Childs, D.D., Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University
Original Publication on February 28, 2022 (This is a revised version).
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 theater production and film The Whiz. “Man I cain’t wait to go to Miss Jameson’ class, It’s gonna be “bad” man 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 school, 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. Frankly, they were rendered in a very unattractive manner. 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.
Nat Love – aka – Deadwood Dick is a painting by Harvie Brown.
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?
We are open to feedback and discussion. If you see any typos or grammatical errors please feel free to email the author and editor at the address below:
Dr. David Childs
I, along with Dr. Childs, did not see myself represented in the books and curriculum provided to my peers and I growing up through school. I am from a small rural town where I was the only African American girl in my elementary. While I tried to push down the feelings of not belonging, it still really affected me in my everyday life. Something that Dr. Childs stated in this article that really stood out to me was when he referred to viewing the children’s books in the library and stated, “…it seemed like another world outside of my reach.” I relate to this statement, and it is a feeling that I never want other children to have. I am a mother of two bi-racial daughters and my heart burdens at the thought of them having this same experience. Because of this I am even more invested and determined to ensure that as a future educator I am doing everything in my power to create a diverse curriculum. Thanks to Dr. Childs and this article for some phenomenal resources on how to do this.
Thank you for your wonderful insight and being so candid about your experiences in school as an African American young lady. You have an important story to tell that will empower others. I am grateful you are already thinking about ways to support your own children. Great thoughts and reflection here. I am glad you found the article useful. Thanks.
This article gave me a different perspective on the many struggles black people face that aren’t very widely discussed. It’s important for all children to be seen for who they are and where they come from. No child should grow up feeling as if they are different or less than others. I like the resources and lesson plans included for educators to use, especially for those who do not know where to begin with multicultural curriculum integration. I grew up in an area that was predominantly white. There was little to no diversity. I grew up not knowing or understanding how privileged I am. It almost felt as if I lived in a bubble with no real concept of the world around me. As I continue to grow as a person, and an educator, I am determined that students today do not grow up as sheltered and unaware as I did.
Being a future middle grades educator, I think this is one of the most important things that a school can focus on. Students DESERVE to come to class everyday and get the opportunity to learn about something meaningful and relevant to them. Stereotypes and plain content will have no place in my class. I want it to be filled with sound, diverse, and fun curriculum that gets students excited, no matter where they come from or what they look like. I think that it is important for students of all ages to be exposed to this, but especially middle school. When they are going through fundamental changed physically, mentally, social-emotionally, and morally.
I was born in quite the diverse city of Louisville and in school, there was a huge diversity. However, I moved shortly into a town where about 95% of students were white, and I found myself rarely ever seeing a representation of my culture and race in the curriculum. Even when there was an Asian character in a book, it was one that was briefed through, and very overgeneralized, and so I grew up simply not seeing myself “represented in the material in a meaningful way.”; this is why having a diverse curriculum in my classroom is so important to me. Students should deserve to hear about a multitude of cultures, whether it represents them or not, but to see oneself in a book or material means a lot to a child.
When I was in elementary school, I went to a small rural school in southern Indiana, so there was not much diversity. I would say that when I was there 95% of the students were white. Because of this, we were not introduced to different cultures very often. It took me until high school to finally understand how I was privileged, because I was finally able to expand my knowledge on diversity through literature, as well as entertainment. Even in elementary schools like the one I went to, a multicultural curriculum is so important so that students know what it is actually like in the world, so that they are not in a privileged bubble their whole lives. All students should be educated about the people around them, & be introduced to role models from all types of backgrounds. Thankfully I was privileged enough to have many role models that looked the same as me, but that 5% of students from my school did not have as many options. When I am a teacher I will make sure to maintain a multicultural curriculum so that all students feel seen, and feel like they can do anything because they have seen someone from their own background succeed.
Good discussion here about the importance of a multicultural curriculum, no matter what the racial dynamics are. I like what you said here here “Even in elementary schools like the one I went to, a multicultural curriculum is so important so that students know what it is actually like in the world, so that they are not in a privileged bubble their whole lives.”