This year, Troy’s Carroll Hill Elementary School students in the Reading and Recreation After-school Club are raising money to visit landmarks in Harlem, to compliment their studies of the Harlem Renaissance for Black History Month. Last year, they learned about the Negro Basketball League and went to Cooperstown as part of that lesson.
Next year, students might have to sell a lot more T-shirts and bake a lot more cookies to raise money to keep up the tradition: The Smithsonian Institute is opening the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2015 on the last available space on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Now, that would be a field trip.
In the meantime, the group has been checking out its own backyard to search for ways to explore Black History Month, which is celebrated every February in the United States. This week, they hosted a panel of African-American professionals who spoke to the entire student body, telling them about their careers in finance, administration, photography, psychology, music and entrepreneurship.
“As a child, when I was growing up, we didn’t have any black history, ” said Tenika Wilcox, second-grade teacher and member of the Troy Teachers Association who helped organize the event. “My goal was that it would start with me.”
Each year in February, Wilcox invites leaders in education, health care, business and the arts so that the eager young students sitting on the gymnasium floor can see ahead of them the success that can be theirs. This week, she held the microphone as students came forward with questions for the panelists.
“This day is an affirmation for the children,” said third -grade teacher Susan Himes. “This is an eclectic, diverse building. It’s important that children see people who hold positions they aspire to.”
“Many of us experienced failure, and we will continue to experience failure,” said panelist Hank Shuford, associate director of admissions for the University at Albany and a member of United University Professions, the higher education union representing SUNY faculty and staff. “You cannot give up on yourself.”
School psychologist Maxine Brisport, a Troy TA member who served on the panel, told the assembled students that they need to really work to achieve success, and they have a personal responsibility over their behavior and thoughts.
When asked by a student what the favorite part of her job is, Brisport said she loves to administer IQ tests because they reveal students’ strengths and weaknesses, and that can help direct them.
“I sometimes look at students the way an artist looks at blank paper,” she said. “I see skills coming out and it makes me feel good and makes the students feel great.”
Brisport told students not to stop at high school, but to continue education at a technical school, community college or four-year school.
Panelist Tiffany Powell, assistant professor at Sage College, told the young students that each of them has a gift and that their goal is to find it.
“It’s okay to be different,” she said. “It’s okay not to fit in with the crowd.”
“You are all great and wonderful stars,” said panelist El-Wise Noisette, photo editor for NYSUT who also worked years as a photographer for the New York Senate. “Listen to your teachers. They care about your education.”
He explained to students how photography is really about science and math.
“If you gain light, you lose depth of field,” he said.
Noisette shared with students some of his role models, including lifelong friend Gordon Parks, a photographer and film director who directed the 1971 movie Shaft, and James Van der Zee, a famous African-American photographer and a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance.
And, with that, the students’ lessons come full circle: back to the Harlem Renaissance.
Teaching assistant and Troy TA member Charles Walker, one of the directors of the Reading and Recreation Club exploring that subject, said the club helped organize the assembly. This year, they are selling t-shirts designed by Wilcox honoring Nelson Mandela to raise money for their trip to Harlem. The club meets twice a week and spends 30 minutes on homework, 30 minutes reading and 30 minutes on team recreation. Each book that they read is one that they get to take home and keep, Walker explained.
“We want to help them build a library,” he said.
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION:
For teacher resources, visit the Smithsonian Institution website on Black History Month to learn about artists, singers, aviators, political leaders, activists, and more.
The Smithsonian’s newest museum – the National Museum of African American History and Culture – has lessons in art, history, science and culture.
– Liza Frenette