Cradlerock Elementary's Black Wax Museum brings African American History to life

Cradlerock Elementary's Black Wax Museum brings African American History to life

News-worthy issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement, police brutality and anti-immigration ring historical significance in Howard County public schools, where teachers and students are including current events as they reflect on African American history throughout Black History Month.

The school system follows state social studies standards, according to the state Department of Education website, and incorporates African American history into the curriculum for third grade through eighth grade. Current events are not required in classroom instruction, said Mark Stout, coordinator of advancement placement and secondary social studies, but can be incorporated into lesson plans as decided by teachers.

"High school social studies classes deal with controversial topics all the time," Stout said. "We have guidelines we share with our teachers to address those kinds of things in a civil way. … Often times, [controversy] can happen in any classroom. We recognize now that there's a need [for training] just beyond our social studies staff."

Recent teacher training came after a Mount Hebron High School English teacher faced backlash in December when she assigned students to write a "fun" slave song for a lesson about abolitionist Frederick Douglas. Superintendent Renee Foose placed the teacher on administrative leave, labeling the assignment as "outrageous" and "offensive."

Racial tension within the school system has also raised concerns in the community over the last year. Last February, a Mount Hebron High School student's video rant swept social media, showing the student making racist remarks about African Americans and the Black Lives Matter movement. Shortly after the November election, a photo of an Atholton High student went viral that showed her in blackface.

African American history expands beyond the month of February in Howard schools, Stout said, with the social studies curriculum often intertwining with other subjects such as world languages, media and English courses.

Karen Chapman, a social studies teacher at Wilde Lake High School, said she has changed her lesson plans to relate past and current history during her African American studies class. The course usually begins introducing African culture and discussing slavery and current issues later in the year; but recent news may divert a lesson.

"We always tell kids that history repeats itself or that you can understand the present based on events in the past," Chapman said. "When they can see the connection between the history of black people in the United States and where black people are today, it makes more sense to them [and] makes history connect to their lives."

Her class recently started holding community-building circles each week, she said, where students can share their thoughts and concerns in a safe environment.

"Students have brought up some of the changes in the language they see in the news," Chapman said. "Now that we've gotten to Black History Month, it's an opportunity to make [the history] known to other people in the building."

Black Wax

For younger students, Black History Month is a time to learn about leaders in the African-American community and appreciate their accomplishments that have changed history.

Students rushing down the halls of Cradlerock Elementary School stopped to look at three particular students standing on a small circular podium. Rather than greeting their friends, the students stayed perfectly still, each dressed as a historical African-American figure.

In celebration of Black History Month, the school has opened its Black Wax Museum, where teachers and students bring historical figures to life through costume and poses.

Black Student Achievement Program liaison Lezlie Hatcher, the project's leader, said the "living museum" began four years ago to engage student interest in African-American history and the advocates who've shaped it.

On a poster board, one clue is written about the identity of each of the three historical figures. Passersby placed their names and guesses into a paper bag, and the identities of the figures will be revealed next week.

Hatcher, also a professional actress, usually dons costumes herself, but said she wanted teachers and students take the helm.

"I wanted the children to experience it because I thought that it would make more of their peers become interested," Hatcher said. "It's about 20 minutes [and] we try to stay in the mindset of the character at all times."

Throughout the month of February, Cradlerock Elementary teachers engage students in conversations and assignments about famous African American advocates and their history, decorating posters and bulletin boards. Hatcher said a different figure is also discussed during morning announcements.

On Feb. 8, third-grader Phillip Jackson, 9; fourth-grader Xavier Julien, 10; and fifth-grader Ar'janae Boone, 10, dressed in their costumes, given only clues of who they're supposed to be.

Phillip's figure was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his series of plays, "The Pittsburgh Cycle." Xavier's figure left Congress to become president of the NAACP in 1996 and Ar'janae's figure is following the footsteps of her father, who was a nose tackle for the San Francisco 49ers in the late 1980s and early 1990s and won a silver medal in shot put in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Xavier, wearing a full-piece suit, said he hoped he was dressed as former President Barack Obama.

"I think that it's just important to celebrate black history [and] people who help the United States of America," Xavier said.

"I wanted to do it because it seems fun and I wanted to be a black wax person," added Phillip, wearing a sweater vest and a newsboy cap . "The only thing I know is that I'm a famous black author. I think it's really creative."

Ar'janae was sporting a sweat suit with a gold medal around her neck.

Fourth-grade teacher Tynisha Armstead, kindergarten teacher Carrie Selby and school speech pathologist Syreeta Wells kicked off the museum last week, dressing as the African American women mathematicians working at NASA when John Glen was launched into orbit. The women's efforts were recently depicted in the film, "Hidden Figures."

"I like seeing the kids stopping, reading the clues and having to guess," said Armstead, who was portraying engineer Mary Jackson. "It was a good experience."

Hatcher said the light-hearted black wax museum introduces African American history to a younger audience in a fun, informative manner.

"I don't think television always shows African American people in the most positive light; therefore, [these figures] show that if it was done before, it can be done again," Hatcher said. "It gets them interested in researching and becoming proud of their history."

Selby said the fun project serves an important purpose, which is to teach kids that they can do anything.

"With what's going on today with our world and the violence, it's important for these kids to know that they can be somebody," Selby said, holding a laptop for her character, physicist and mathematician Katherine Johnson. "Like 'Hidden Figures,' a lot of people didn't know about it. It's important for [students] to know that, 'Wow, if they did that, I can do that too.'"

Patricia Branner-Pierce, achievement specialist for the school system's Black Student Achievement Program, said teachers must provide an open platform for students to share their feelings about these societal issues.

"The children live in our community, so the community comes into our schools and we can't act like [these issues are] not there," Branner-Pierce said. "We can try to, but that's not effective at all because the children have a life before they enter our building. … Civil unrest is the last thing we want to deal with."

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