Black history month and the lessons beyond
February is Black History Month in Canada and across a number of other countries – and it’s an important opportunity to recognize underrepresented stories and experiences of our past and our present. As February ends, we wanted to highlight the unique ways in which students of all ages were able to partake in this month of learning, while we recognize that Black history is Canadian History, and it needs to hold a place in our year-round learning.
Celebrations of culture through music and art
This month, learning happened in many ways. There were literature studies, storybooks read, research assignments on influential Black leaders, discussions about discrimination and hate, and much more.
There have also been celebrations about Black history and culture through art, showcasing the beautiful, creative aspects of Black culture and heritage from around the world.
One such example of this happening took place at Connaught Heights Elementary School.
Students were brought in to the gym to learn from presentation about steel drums from Trinidad and Tobago by the District Vice-Principal for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Anti-Racism, Kenneth Headley.
The presentation started off with quick history lesson about Trinidad and Tobago, and the people who live there – including touching upon the history of Western Africans who were brought over during transatlantic slavery in the 17th century, and Indian people who were brought over for labour purposes in the 19th century.
Far from what had been considered home, enslaved people looked for ways to keep their cultural practices alive and make music. At first, they used large carved sticks, called Tamboo Bamboo, and would rhythmically hammer them against the ground to make music. Over time, as oil reserves were discovered in the nation, they turned to using oil barrels as drums … which lead to the creation of steel drums, just like the ones we know today.
Ken, who still has family living in Trinidad & Tobago, grew up watching his dad play the steel drum professionally. He developed a talent for it himself, playing alongside his dad and others at a wide range of events.
A performer at heart, Ken knew how to play to the crowd at Connaught … with songs that ranged from “Under the Sea” from Disney’s Little Mermaid to “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. As soon as the music started, the room started to buzz with energy – the steel drum spreading vibrations throughout the gymnasium, reaching into the bodies of all the students and staff. The energy was so contagious that students got up and began dancing and playing, letting the beat guide them.
After seeing what the drums are capable of, students and staff got to try to playing them too. Ken carefully guided them, teaching them notes along the way … even getting some eager participants to the point of playing simple songs, like “Mary had a little lamb.” At first many were hesitant, but after watching their friends participate, very quickly it was clear that everyone wanted a turn!
After an afternoon of learning and dancing and laughing together, students walked away with an appreciation for this important part of Caribbean history and culture.
This year Ken was able to share that skill and history with seven of our district’s schools, including for the students at Connaught Heights. At the high school, a different approach of celebration through art was taken.
In collaboration with the Burnaby School District, Black students at NWSS attended a screening of “Wakanda Forever,” a movie dedicated to celebrating African cultures. Films like these shine a light on Black culture – including through the use of textiles, languages, jewelry, dance forms, etc.
Why is this important? Because even fictional movies like these help remind students that their cultures and communities from around the world deserve to celebrated and honoured. And whether it’s as a superhero like Black Panther, or a Black mermaid named Ariel, it’s important for all of our kids to see that that leading roles should never be limited by skin or colour. It’s important for every kid to be able to see themselves in the stories we share.
Black history and culture throughout the year
From the stories we share to the realities that shape our daily lives, culture and race can play a role in everything from preparing for a day to dreaming of our futures.
Earlier this year, at Lord Tweedsmuir Elementary, kindergarteners did an activity on the different types of hair people have, including traditionally Black hairstyles like cornrows, box braids, and afros. Teacher’s encouraged children to feel pride in each of their hair types, and feel respect and appreciation from their peers.
In honour of Black Excellence Day in January, students at Lord Kelvin Elementary listened to Martin Luther King Jr’s inspirational and iconic “I have a Dream” speech. After discussing dreams and their personal ability to make changes in the world, students then got to reflect on their hopes for our community and wrote speeches to share with the class.
Librarians across the district have been pulling together book displays that feature black stories and experiences, like the one you can see here that was on display for students at Fraser River Middle.
Dreams can also be very practical in nature. Throughout this year a group of almost 20 Black students from NWSS have been participating in UBC’s Black Futures initiative. Students travel out to the campus three times over the course of the year to meet Black faculty members and learn more about the opportunities that are open to them after graduation. Students have shared their excitement about being in a space where they can see themselves in ways they hadn’t previously been able to, and are looking forward to the next visit that will be happening soon.
These examples are just some of the ways we make our classrooms more diverse and remind us that, this month and every month, Black history and culture has been and continues to be largely influential on the world we live in today. From historical figures to hairstyles, our educators continue to keep that fact in mind, using these scaled lessons in their classrooms to help ensure our lessons reflect the students in our schools and families in our community.