Written by Dawn Smith, Linda Chang, Kavan Yee, and Michelle Belton
The play-based, emergent curriculum in Pre-Primary encourages the age-appropriate organic engagement of complex topics among our youngest learners. This stage of development, when everything is new and exciting, and their primary understanding of life is through their own needs and wants, is the perfect time to introduce the idea that other people have similar basic needs and the idea of helping each other. Honest and authentic conversations stem from books, personal experiences, and the children’s natural wonder about their world. Engaging conversations during Morning Meeting and Story Time allow a dedicated time for an intentional focus on a few guiding principles, including empathy, love, and kindness.
Our youngest students, the two-year-old Daisies group, started with stories about kindness and bravery. Questions and sharing gave way to more complex issues, and the conversations expanded to include ways to help everyone know that every person matters and how to stand up to someone who does not treat people the same because they are Black or Brown. A favorite story, All Kinds of People, by Shelley Rotner, helped with the children’s understanding of being different yet still the same. Other class favorites included I Am Brave: A Little Book About Martin Luther King, Jr. and I Am Strong: A Little Book About Rosa Parks by Brad Meltzer. The children drew pictures about ways we can help the world be kinder and how we can show kindness to everyone, just like Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream.
Our three-year-old Sunflowers group, bursting with energy and ideas, contributed their own stories about people they knew and ideas of fairness, equality, and peace. The students created a space in the classroom dedicated to Black history and Black inventors, scientists, and change makers. Their love of literacy meant that books were at the center of conversations, as we answered questions about the meaning of the “Black Lives Matter” slogans seen on posters, t-shirts, and flags. What is Black Lives Matter? A Story for Kids, by Salina Harris and Black Lives Matter Song for Kids, encouraged inclusivity amongst kids and taught them to stand up against discrimination. From Mae Jemison’s story, a deep-dive into space missions and rocket ships, including the students creating their own spaceship to take home.
The oldest groups had very strong feelings about kindness, fairness, and inclusion and demonstrated an impressive understanding and vocabulary during classroom conversations. From one classroom’s interest in airplanes emerged books, conversations, and an opportunity to interview one of the Tuskegee Airmen via Zoom. Teachers were impressed by students’ thoughtful questions, and the students were starstruck. After months of discussing, reading about, and building airplanes, this was the perfect culmination of their work. The visit underscored Black people’s contributions and the meaning behind the saying, “Black Lives Matter.”
Conversations about fairness, peace, kindness, and racism gave way to a new term, the “Civil Rights Movement.” Sharing personal knowledge about Black history in America, students focused on the countless contributions Black people have made to our society. They shared stories of African Americans in dance, building, sports, space, and art, and the stories were shared through photos and descriptions on small posters. One of the individuals featured was Trombone Shorty, a musician.,Serena Williams (athlete), Brooklyn Mack (dancer), and Philip Freelon (architect). When the students learned that Trombone Shorty started playing the trombone when he was four years old, a few in the group proudly declared, “I’m four!” As the students and teachers engaged in these conversations, they discussed why everyone needs to have equal rights, regardless of how they look, their language, their clothes, where they come from, etc. Inspired by protest signs, students created their signs with words they feel strongly about, including “Justice for the world,” “Peace,” and “Justice for animals.”
In Primary School, the Black Lives Matter Week of Action was a springboard for incredible work honoring Black voices throughout February. Teachers in each grade found age-appropriate ways to explain to students why the movement is so important and what role they could play in it.
Kindergartners read a variety of books, including One by Kathryn Otashi, to emphasize diversity, courage, and acceptance of others. Students then described their understanding of the movement and what Black Lives Matter means to them in various artwork. These conversations launched into lessons on Black individuals who have contributed to our society, such as famous Black inventors.
First grade discussed the roles that children play in advocacy, zooming in on Ruby Bridges. Teachers facilitated discussions with their students about not only the importance of Black lives but also the ways that children can advocate. The students then wrote letters to Ruby Bridges—one letter to her as a child going to school as the only Black student and another to her as an adult.
Second grade examined the role of art in the Black Lives Matter movement. Using their DC social studies unit to build background knowledge, teachers worked with students to understand how art in the District was created with Black Lives Matter in mind. Students explored the Black Lives Matter mural project in DC and learned how Go-go music had been used as a tool for resistance. As a final project, students worked on designing their own murals.
In third grade, after introducing the Black Lives Matter concepts and discussing the purpose behind the movement, students researched prominent Black Americans. Each student created a mini-biography on a person of their choosing. They also identified meaningful quotes, which are now displayed on their classroom doors.
Fourth grade also spent time researching and learning about change-makers in Black American history. Students used their research to write articles and are now working with Charmaine to create an oration highlighting the individuals about whom they learned. The students also took a deep dive into Black culture, specifically the role of food. Students explored the work of Micheal W. Twitty—which provides a powerful lesson on the intersection between race, culture, and cuisine—and learned the rich and deep history of food among Black Americans.
Finally, fifth grade teachers demonstrated the connection between students’ early social studies curriculum and present-day forms of advocacy. This comparison gave the students an understanding of the continual fight for freedom Black people face. They explored the Black Lives Matter movement’s history and 13 guiding principles. They spent time critically examining the role of student voice and looking at the influence of social media and young people’s part in using that platform to advocate change. Ultimately, students began a project-based learning unit that allows each cohort to work collaboratively to brainstorm, strategize, plan, and execute a final project that amplified their voices connected to the movement.
The National Black Lives Matter Week in Schools uses the 13 principles of the Black Lives Matter Movement as its anchor. Each of the principles can be used to build conversations of what justice, fairness, and empathy should be for all people, but highlighting the awareness that, for Black people, this has been an uphill battle from the beginning and continues to be an ongoing freedom struggle. This summer, many students saw the tragic deaths unfold over social media and news outlets and saw the outrage of many that took to the streets in protest and solidarity. It is important that they are in proximity to see collective action’s power to bring awareness and change.
Middle School starts with the 13 principles to help students see the long-lasting goals for this movement. The ultimate goal is to empower these young people to be agents of change, able to have discussions about race, white supremacy, and acknowledge racial inequities and work towards a more just and respectful world.
Throughout February, ∆Groups discussed the history behind the BLM movement and curated a list of questions that students continue to have beyond what they’ve learned. Questions focused around systemic racism and “allyship vs. co-conspiring.” Students also looked at a gallery of street art in DC inspired by the movement and created their own digital art to represent their questions. At our most recent Gathering, the Climate Club gave a presentation on all of the African American scientists who have contributed to the research and advocacy of climate change solutions.
In their TECH classes, sixth graders researched a variety of individuals who have made an impact on the movement. Students designed coins to recognize these agents of change and commemorate their work. The digital designs shared symbols, artifacts, and quotes that either stood out or generated inspiration. The coins were then 3D printed and displayed in the main lobby of Parkside.
In seventh grade social studies, students have been digging into the book “Stamped,” a young adult version of Ibram Kendi’s work, written by Jason Reynolds. The book focuses on the history of racism and anti-racism–key terms that have such significance today. The text gives students ample opportunities to make connections to the present, specifically the devaluing of Black lives throughout history. To make connections to society today, the students began with a quote from Will Smith, “Racism isn’t getting worse, it’s getting filmed.” They then explored the 14th and 15th amendments and the meaning of democracy, reinforcing the Black Lives Matter movement’s importance.
In math, eighth graders learned about the history of wage inequality for Black Americans. Students were able to analyze and extrapolate trends from data acquired over the last 20 years while incorporating their algebraic skills learned in class: generating equations to create scatter plots in order to understand rates of change over time. After comparing the average of Black wages to white wages, one student shared: “I don’t know how I should feel about what I’m seeing right now. This is just wrong.”
Students in all grades were asked to respond to the question: “What does Black Lives Matter mean to you?” Their responses included:
- “It means accepting black people who are in our community and respecting them like anyone would respect anyone else. Treating them no differently.”
- “It means fighting for black people's rights, taking a stand, learning and educating about the black community and what they go through, and making a change.”
- “When I hear of black lives matter, I think my life matters and MY life should matter just as much as a privileged persons.”
- “It means a lot to me knowing that people were killed because of their skin color and I can do something about it.”