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How an MPS 5th-grade class immerses itself in historical movements and culture for Black History Month

Students at Garland School studied the Harlem Renaissance as part of Black History Month lessons.Milwaukee Public Schools students across the district have been studying and researching topics for Black History Month. Teacher Samantha Beacham’s 5th-grade class at Hamlin Garland School is an example of how classes immerse themselves in the topic.  

Because there is so much to learn, Beacham said, the students began their study of the history of Black Americans in mid-January.  

The students started their lessons and research with slavery and continued through the civil rights movement’s Freedom Riders. Their studies also included more recent events such as the Black Lives Matter movement and its central figures; the students made posters about Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, and others, after researching them. In fifth grade at Garland, student learning is centered in social justice and incorporated into all content areas. Learning is inclusive and project based. 

The class had read the novel “Ghost Boys,” loosely based on the life of 12-year-old Tamir Rice from Cleveland. That led to students’ creating the posters for the Black Lives Matter lessons. “They wanted to learn more about what happened,” their teacher said. The read-aloud book was intentionally chosen to help students relate with characters who are their age. The book connects historical events to current issues of racism, equity, and marginalization of African-Americans that students can connect and identify with. 

The lessons and activities sparked students’ interest altogether in the history of Black Americans. “I want to keep going,” 5th-grader Naia Scott said. 

Her classmate Hala Azzam was especially interested in the civil rights movement and learning more about Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “A lot of people wanted to fight for civil rights,” the 5th-grader said. 

Naia was struck by the history of the slave trade, with people taken from their home in Africa by ship to America and elsewhere, and by Harriet Tubman’s work to help slaves escape to freedom.   Garland School students made posters after learning about the Black Lives Matter movement and other historical events.

And their classmate Abdullah Emran was left wondering why racism exists. “We’re all humans,” he said.  

The music of Louis Armstrong played in their classroom as students worked on projects while learning about the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s. The music already was familiar to Naia. “My dad has us doing book reports in summer, and he plays this kind of music” while the reports are being written, she said. 

Beacham’s students practiced researching, brainstorming, and creating rough drafts before presenting reports on their chosen Black Lives Matter figures and on other historical figures. They included the civil rights activist Malcolm X and the cosmetics entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker, known as America’s first female self-made millionaire.  

Beacham said her students asked, “Can I go first?” when it was time for presentations. “They’re so excited to share and showcase their learning,” she said. 

As part of their Harlem Renaissance lessons, the class studied poet Langston Hughes and drew a portrait of Hughes piece by piece.  

Inspired by Hughes’ poem “Dreams,” the students drew T-shirts bearing their own dreams — from ending pollution, making people healthy, and urging world peace, to seeing Paris, improving at soccer, and visiting family overseas. 

“Hold fast to dreams 

For if dreams die 

Life is a broken-winged bird 

That cannot fly. 

 

“Hold fast to dreams  

For when dreams go 

Life is a barren field 

Frozen with snow.” 

—Langston Hughes 

Hamlin Garland School, for K4 through 8th grade, is at 3120 W. Green Ave., Milwaukee. 

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