COVID Delays but Doesn’t Nix Black History Month Lessons

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(Sally Hogarty, Photographer)
Demonstrators at the June march and rally in Orinda to protest the murder of George Floyd and show people of color who live in Lamorinda they are welcome.

    As Orinda’s schools focus on the logistics of how and when to reopen against the backdrop of a pandemic, their plans for observing Black History Month in February also remain up in the air.
    But that doesn’t mean district supporters don’t think it’s important.
    “Oftentimes when American history is covered, the only time black figures are introduced, has to do with civil rights,” said Roxanne Christophe, a parent of two girls, one at Wagner Ranch Elementary and the other at Orinda Intermediate school.
    Christophe helps lead both schools’ community coalitions, a parent-group dedicated to fostering a campus climate that welcomes students of all races, religions and other backgrounds.
    “There are so many black figures that have had an influence on shaping our country beyond civil rights,” she said.
    The tradition of celebrating black history and culture in February dates to 1926 when scholar Carter Godwin Woodson, the son of former slaves and the second black to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University, announced the inception of Negro History Week.
    He chose the second week in February because it encompassed two dates blacks celebrated as part of their history, the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
    Over time, cities around the United States started recognizing Negro History Week with proclamations, and the observance eventually became a month-long tradition on many college campuses.
    Black History Month achieved official national recognition in 1976 when President Gerald Ford affirmed the importance of honoring the achievements of Black Americans.
    Other nations also have adopted the practice: Canada, Ireland, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands all now set aside a time of year to acclaim what Africans and their descendants have contributed to the countries they have settled in around the world.
    The festivities and other activities that typically mark Black History Month in the United States make up a significant part of the curriculum in K-12 classrooms, like those at Orinda’s Sleepy Hollow Elementary, where children are learning about the contributions of blacks in general — and Martin Luther King Jr. in particular. February, fourth graders will spend art classes creating a portrait of the civil rights leader; fifth grade students will listen to one of his speeches and write one of their own in his honor. Discussions on the topic of equality and reading a picture book about black leaders are also planned.
    In addition, music lessons for children in transitional kindergarten through second grade, at all four of Orinda Union School District’s elementary schools, will include an activity in remembrance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day later this month.
    The study of black history and culture “touches every aspect of a child’s education in elementary school, from art and music classes, to their core classroom discussions,” said Shauna Simmonds, Sleepy Hollow’s front office assistant manager.
    Black History Month also has captured the attention of a broad spectrum of American society, from marketing agencies to the military. That includes bookstores and libraries, repositories of culture and history.
    Although COVID-19 will prevent Contra Costa County’s library in Orinda from holding lectures and presentations next month, Branch Manager Michael Beller continues mulling over ways to acquaint readers with books by and about blacks.
    Those who drop by the library to collect or drop-off books might see a display of book covers at the entrance with that theme, and Beller says cardholders can watch documentaries about black culture and the works of black filmmakers through Kanopy, a free video streaming service.
    Whether it’s developing an appreciation for your neighbors’ background or learning about one’s own roots, libraries are the go-to source for such information, Beller said.
    “This is a place where people needing to know more about a topic, can find out more,” he said.
    Others like David Schrag are promoting education of another kind.
    As the director of curriculum and instruction for Orinda Union School District, he organized the first of what will be several training sessions by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to combat racial bias.
    The first 90-minute online presentation held in early December encouraged the approximately five dozen parents who attended to examine and discuss their own biases.
    The ensuing conversations were intended to help participants better understand how biases can affect minority students whose families are moving to a predominantly white town, Schrag said.
    Are young people only reading classic literature written by “old white men”? he asked rhetorically. Do they see teachers who look like them? If the curriculum includes the contributions of blacks and is taught by a staff that is not entirely white, Schrag said students are more likely to feel as if they belong on campus.
    And when that happens, kids tend to work harder at their studies, he said.
    “We want every kid, whether they are different in any kind of way, to feel comfortable when they step foot on campus,” Schrag said. “If they can see themselves in their classmates and literature and the school’s culture, that makes the biggest difference in being successful learners.”
    Three more trainings are planned during the next few months, two for parents and a third for district and city leaders.
    Orinda Union School District first engaged the ADL to train principals and their staff at the beginning of the 2019-20 school year, during which the organization held a handful of sessions.
    An international leader in the fight against bigotry of all kinds, the ADL is teaching local educators how to address bias head-on when they encounter it in the classroom, whether it’s blatant or subtle, deliberate or unintended, Schrag said.

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