A Lesson in History

From my journal: February 4, 2016, Newbury Park, CA

“Lee’s mom called and asked if she could come in and talk to our class this month…will be great for what we’re studying.”

The Great Miles Davis

Never hesitant about parents coming in to speak to students, I was happy that I could work her presentation into our Social Studies unit.  The computer system and screen were set up in the Multiple Purpose Room and on a nearby table were a few show-and-tell items. As soon as the fidgety 4th graders were seated on the floor, the music began.  Thirty seconds of a soft piano sound was followed a by distinct trumpet buzz. That’s when Lee’s mom and grandmother appeared up front. They smiled and asked if anyone knew this famous jazz musician and song.  The only hand that went up was Lee’s so his mom let him answer. “Miles Davis, of course!  The song is So What.” Next we were treated to the smooth sax sounds of John Coltrane and the piano tinkering of Thelonious Monk. It was apparent that Lee’s family grew up listening to this music and clearly loved it.

Voting in 1965

Their discussion of distinguished Black people continued and a little later they touched on slavery as it related to their family. A world map was shown highlighting the triangle trade route. We saw a Pan African flag and they told us the meaning of the colors. Red symbolized the blood that unites the Black African ancestry, the black represented the people and nation and the green stood for the abundance of natural resources.  We heard about how it felt to vote, describing it as a privilege as Blacks were only given this right in the last fifty years. We learned Lee’s grandmother had been a teacher and that his mom was a business owner. Enthusiastic yet humble, their words expressed their pride in their heritage, culture and history, despite obstacles they and their ancestors had to overcome. 

At the end of the talk, the women stepped aside and let Lee take over. He said he wanted to share a family tradition.  In front of him was a terracotta pot filled with soil and a watering can. The seeds buried in the soil, he told us represented a goal. He said while watering them each day, he says positive things to them out loud. To grow a healthy plant, he said, it needs time, encouragement and care, just like achieving anything in life.

I’ve thought about this talk a few times since that day five years ago. Sharing real life experiences with kids is one of the best ways to help them learn and understand the world around them.  Black History Month is more than just thirty days of focusing on the contributions of black people in our country. It’s hearing first- hand accounts from those who have lived this history and are currently writing this history through their thoughts and actions. Perhaps the time we spent together that day allowed the students to begin to view Black people outside of the context they’re usually seen in. History is never just facts written in textbooks, but a series of events and experiences that people have actually lived and breathed.  

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