One day last month Mackenzie Miller, age 10, stood in front of her class at Vaughn Elementary and told her classmates about Mary McLeod Bethune.
“She was an educational leader for black women and she opened a school for black people because she believed they deserved to get more education,” Mackenzie said.
“She was the only one of the 17 children in her family to go to school.”
For Mackenzie and her classmates in Elise Michaels’ fourth-grade class, it was part of their observance of Black History Month.
“We started in January by studying Dr. Martin Luther King,” Michaels explained.
“Every year we talk about him, because we always get a day off in his honor, but the kids don’t always remember. So we review the fact that he was a civil rights leader and we reflect on the changes that have happened in America,” she said.
Using a pile of reference books from the school’s library, the kids in Michaels’ class selected black Americans who have been important in the country’s history.
They created timelines about the lives and accomplishments of their selections then gave oral reports on what they had learned.
Michaels also had the children read a play about Dr. Martin Luther King written by students she had taught in Tacoma.
The play was a real eye-opener. “When the mother of Dr. King’s little friends told her kids that they couldn’t play with him any more because they were too old to play with black children ––this idea was totally foreign to the kids in my class,” Michaels said.
The Vaughn students also learned about Jackie Robinson, Sojourner Truth, Ralph Bunch and others.
Makenzi Carter, 10, reported on Zora Neale Hurston. “She won the Nobel Peace Prize,” Makenzi said.
Alex Miller, also 10, talked about another Peace Prize winner –– Ralph Bunch. “He was the first black man to win the prize and he was also part of the UN and eventually he headed the United Nations,” Alex said.
“It’s important to learn about our history so we don’t make the same dumb mistakes we did in the past. So if we become something like a politician or a Prime Minister we don’t make the same mistakes again,” he said.
Zoey Hulse, 9, reported on Althea Gibson and told her classmates that Gibson was a champion tennis player, golfer and singer. “It was fun to do this project.” Zoey said with a shy smile.
It was also an important learning experience.
“It’s educational because I believe everybody should know about slavery and black women and just about black people and the changes they’ve made,” Miller said.
“And they should know about what happened –– like segregation. Let’s say I had blond hair and they segregated me just because I have blond hair, there’d be no other reason.
“It doesn’t make sense why they segregated black people. They really didn’t know who they were –– except, ‘Oh they have a different color skin so we can’t let them in our group.’ And that is just wrong,” she added.
That’s what the assignment was all about, Michaels said.
“The big thing I wanted them to get out of this is diversity. There are people out there who have paved the way for us whether it’s women’s rights, equal rights, civil rights, whatever.
“They paved the way and our lives are so much easier and better because someone paved the way. Someone opened the doors,” she said.
In doing their assignments, Michaels said the students weren’t thinking about color. “They were thinking about how this person had many obstacles to face. How many things did they have to overcome? Like Jackie Robertson. These kids are just getting an understanding that it takes hard work and perseverance to do things.
“And the children are learning what all that means: civil rights. You have your own rights to do things,” she said flatly.
Michaels acknowledged that learning about black history isn’t a part of the regular school curriculum and that she has occasionally taken some flack for teaching it.
“But it’s a fun learning experience for parents too,” she said.
“I want people to know that our kids are working hard to learn about history and about different people. They’re fascinated about different people who have worked hard to do something, to make something, to accomplish their goals. And they’re learning good lessons from that,” Michaels said.