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Finding Hope in History

Finding Hope in History
Finding Hope in History
Ali Gogarty

Red Oaks Students Look to the Past and Future in Recognition of Black History Month

February marks Black History Month, providing an opportunity to reflect on, discuss and commemorate the experience of people of color in our country, and at Red Oaks, the month's designation also provided an opportunity for a deep and multifaceted learning experience.

As many students across the country will have done, Red Oaks middle schoolers viewed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, but that was only the tip of the iceberg. Building upon a unit on slavery they completed last year, students studied the work of interdisciplinary artist Sanford Biggers, whose "Lotus" portrays the Buddhist symbol of enlightenment with diagrams of how human bodies were packed into a slave ship's cargo hold. Taking a deeper dive into slavery, students studied the practice not only from a human rights perspective, but as a worldwide economic system that has been in place throughout human history, from Roman conquerors taking slaves as spoils of war, to the organization of the Portuguese enslavement of African tribes for sale in the Americas, to modern day forced immigration.

Bringing the focus back to the black experience in the US, students looked at segregation and civil rights activism, viewing the film "The Children's March." The documentary examines the 1963 story of the young African Americans of Birmingham, Alabama gathering to protest segregation and their harsh treatment by the local police. The national attention this drew led directly President Kennedy taking action against segregation. Finally, students viewed a Ted Talk on the Humanae Project by Angelica Dass, which seeks to create a 'colossal global mosaic' displaying every shade of human skin in the format of the PANTONE® Guide. The goal is to challenge the role skin color plays in judgements and biases, as well as the impression that certain colors are more important than others.

"These topics and our examination of them can be intense," explains Middle School Language and Literature teacher Spring Kristiansen Corotan. "But being able to take the time to have meaningful discussions and look at things from multiple perspectives ultimately leaves students with the knowledge that they are capable independent thinkers who then feel empowered to affect change in the future because they truly understand the past." At the completion of the unit, students and faculty joined together to sing "We Shall Overcome," capping off an interdisciplinary experience that included a historical speech, an award-winning documentary, photography and sculpture with a key anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.

In the spirit of the International Baccalaureate program they follow, the educational exploration was followed by reflection, with students discussing their reactions to what they viewed and the inspiration they drew from the lessons. Each child wrote their impressions on a thought bubble, which will be displayed on their Town Hall bulletin board to commemorate what they've learned. "When we teach these topics, we are obligated to do them justice - for our students and for the people who lived through the events," said Associate Head of School Nely Miguel. "We have to honor the people affected by these practices by creating meaningful experiences and in doing so, we provide our students opportunities to practice critical thinking." As one student's reflection read: "Watching "The Children's March" showed me that anyone can make a difference and makes me believe that if those children could do what they did, then I can do anything."