by Halicia Lyttle, AmeriCorps member serving on the Staples, Inc. team with Rogers Middle School
The vision to celebrate Black history was first introduced by Carter G. Woodson who created Negro History Week in Washington D.C. in February 1926. Woodson was the second Black American to receive a PhD in history from Harvard (the first being W.E.B. DuBois). Woodson had ultimately believed that his role was to use black history and culture as a tool in the struggle for racial uplift. He had created Negro History Week to not only expose school children to black history, but also as a way to use history to prove to white America that blacks played a crucial role in the creation of America and thus deserved to be treated equally.
With the understanding of Woodson’s goal, I knew that it was extremely important for our team to celebrate Black History Month and honor the Black men and women who worked and continue to work diligently, dedicating their lives to the struggle for freedom and equality. I envisioned our extended day program as a great space to have students learn about important Black figures that essentially inspired their future. I knew that I would have to get creative in order for students to really engage in this activity and see the relevance, because from my experience it is sometimes hard for students to translate how history has shaped their present and their future.
The theme for my team’s February lesson plans was “synergy,” which was easy to connect to Black History Month, because Black history is all about various contributions made from countless people who knew that, when working together, the outcome will be greater than the sum of individual contributions. When one really thinks about it, Black history defines what it means to serve to a cause greater than self.
I eventually came up with the idea to have students create a Black history paper quilt. I printed out pictures and mini-biographies of 25 influential Black figures from Octavius Catto and Frederick Douglass to Aja Brown and Barack Obama. Students read and discussed the people that they were assigned and then pasted the pictures and biographies onto colored construction paper. Finally, students came together with their assigned people to create the paper quilt. Taking a step back and admiring the whole piece, It was great to see how the students joyfully engaged with the activity and made connections with history.
When debriefing and reflecting on this activity, I asked students to raise their hands if they learned about someone new today. To my joy, a great many hands shot up into the air. I then asked for volunteers to share whom they learned about, and one student excitedly told me that he learned about Nelson Mandela and then went on to explain why Nelson Mandela was important. I smiled, thinking of the words of Malcolm X, “...It is impossible to understand the present or prepare for the future unless we have some knowledge of the past.”