The snow was just beginning to fall last Thursday when art teacher Karla Matheny introduced a class of Kindergartners to a trailblazing Black artist.
“We are going to learn about an artist named Alma Thomas,” Karla told the students. “She made abstract art. Does anyone know what abstract means?”
A student made a guess: "It means just painting whatever you want?”
“Yeah, it means art that doesn’t necessarily look like what it’s supposed to look like,” Karla said encouragingly.
Karla then showed students a video about the story of Alma Thomas, the artist and art educator from Georgia who broke many barriers: the first graduate of Howard University’s fine arts program (in 1924); the first Black artist to have an exhibition at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art.
The Kindergartners also learned that Alma Thomas was the first African American female artist to have a painting hang in the White House as part of its permanent collection. Michelle Obama chose her painting “Resurrection,” a stunning piece featuring brightly colored concentric circles, for the White House's renovated Old Family Dining Room.
Karla showed "Resurrection" to the students along with other abstract works by Ama Thomas with titles such as "Blast Off" and "Eclipse."
With that, Karla instructed students in creating their own abstract paintings in the style of Alma Thomas using watercolors and pencil. First, trace a circle on paper and fill with a bright color. Then use the brush to make colored dashes in concentric circles to make a radiating design.
“Now tell me what you title your painting,” said Karla.
The Kindergartners called out a series of nature-inspired names: “Water moon.” “Flower.” “Rainbow Sun.” “Empty Space.”
“Love it!” exclaimed Karla.
The Alma Thomas project, which Karla also taught to 3rd graders, is just one example of how Foote teachers and students have taken a deeper dive into Black history during the month of February. Foote’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion in the curriculum has deepened in recent years and Black history by no means relegated to a single month. Rather, it is a thread that runs across disciplines and throughout the school year.
Still, Black History Month offers an opportunity to examine Black history on a deeper level and to look for ways to improve how we teach this part of the American story, says Assistant Head of School Beth Mello.
“We want to celebrate stories of resilience and leadership and broaden the story of Black history so we're not only teaching about Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks or the other best-known civil rights heroes,” says Beth.
Another part of Foote's approach, says Beth, is to normalize racial difference and Blackness in the lower grades, when children are solidifying their perceptions of difference and sameness. A simple way to promote that is to read picture books such as The Snowy Day or Jabari Jumps that feature Black children doing everyday things, says Beth.
In Grade 1, teachers are reading picture books about civil rights heroes and asking children to think about the character traits that made those individuals exceptional. "Our hope is that the children will recognize that these are important character traits that they have," says Grade 1 teacher Melissa McCormack. "This in turn can help them to be the change they want to see in the world—even in small ways as first graders!"
Grade 2 teachers Hilary Pearson and Kim Yap have marked Black History Month by celebrating one Black American each day of February. These include authors, poets, athletes, musicians and inventors, says Hilary. On Friday, February 26, Hilary's class will present mini biographers of Black leaders during the Grades K–2 virtual morning meeting.
Third graders have examined Black history in a number of ways: focusing their biography projects on people of color (from the Obamas and George Washington Carver to Sojourner Truth and Jackie Robinson); discussing how early Connecticut history was primarily documented by whites and why that matters; watching Titus Kaphar's TED talk to understand the importance of different perspectives; learning about the figures who organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom; analyzing Amanda Gorman's inaugural poem and using it as inspiration to write their own; and talking about why there needs to be a Black History Month in the first place.
Each day during Black History Month, Grade 4 teachers are reading a different picture book by Black authors and illustrators. Fourth graders are also learning about the forced migration of slaves through books and projects. Students are creating quilts based on the stories of enslaved people from one of two books they are reading: Seaward Born by Lea Wait and Eliza's Freedom Road: An Underground Railroad Diary by Jerdine Nolen. Sharing stories through quilts was an integral part of life as an enslaved person, and this project-based activity is great way for students to learn about these "quilt codes" in a hands-on way, says Grade 4 teacher Denise Quinn.
Each day during February, 5th graders in Adam Solomon's class have been learning about a different notable African American from Connecticut. Among them are: Stamford native Ruth A. Lucas, the first African American woman in the Air Force to be promoted to the rank of colonel; New Haven native Constance Baker Motley, a lawyer, judge, state senator and Manhattan borough president; Derby-born Ebenezer Bassett, the U.S.'s first African-American diplomat (he was Ambassador to Haiti); and Waterbury native Jahana Hayes, the current Congresswoman from Connecticut's 5th district. The unit has provided an opportunity for 5th graders to broaden their understanding of the contributions of Black Americans from their home state, says Adam.
Dovetailing with these lessons, music teacher Dana Kephart Queiros' students are examining Black artists who have helped to preserve the legacy of spirituals, either as performers or arrangers.
Underpinning all of this are several essential questions that students consider and discuss: What forgotten people, events or aspects of Black history should America remember and why? How is history uncovered and shared? How would the story of a specific historical event be told from the perspective of a Black person at the time?
In the Middle School, students are learning about Black history across disciplines—from Humanities to Spanish and Music. During the recent Project Week, 6th graders in Lara Anderson and Trevor Rosenthal's Humanities classes welcomed a special guest speaker via Zoom: Constancia "Dinky" Romilly, the grandmother of a 6th grade student, who spoke to students about her experiences as an activist during the Civil Rights movement. The talk connected to the novel 6th graders are reading, One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia, which is set in the summer of 1968 and tells the story of three sisters who travel to Oakland, California to meet the mother who abandoned them.
Seventh graders are engaged in several projects around Black history and heroes. In Humanities, teachers Sheila Lavey and Skye Lee made an exciting connection with the Witness Stones Project. Modeled after the Stolperstein in Europe—stone cubes with the names and life dates of victims of Nazi extermination—the Witness Stones Project places similar cubes at norther locations where individuals were enslaved. Seventh graders were introduced to the project by Dennis Culliton, director of the Guilford-based Witness Stones Project, and Khail Quotap, Director of Education at New Haven Museum. The goal is for Foote seventh graders to help place a Witness Stone at the Pardee-Morris House in New Haven this June as a tribute to Pink, an enslaved woman who was held there.
Seventh graders also recently completed a project about trailblazing Black women. Each student chose a Black female trailblazer (from a list of more than 100). They researched the women through an activism lens, identified three key facts and annotated why each fact is important. Finally they created a poster on the design app Canva to capture their research and the trailblazer's remarkable spirit.
"We wanted to be sure the students did not just hear stories of Black oppression this month," says Skye. "The trailblazers project highlights remarkable Black women and honors their agency and creativity in the face of inequality."
The theme of 8th Grade Humanities is "A Seat at the Table" and the course focuses on books, articles, videos, podcasts and other sources that examine race, class and gender. Teachers Deb Riding and Alison Moncrief Bromage have spent the year introducing students to African American writers, artists, poets and activists who have made a difference in our country.
Guest speakers have also enhanced the Humanities curriculum. Recently, 7th and 8th graders had the opportunity to hear a presentation by Jeffrey Fletcher, a past Foote parent and the founder and president of African American Collections, a collection of artifacts and objects that tell the story of the African-American experience. A former New Haven police officer, Jeffrey has amassed a unique collection of these artifacts over the years, including wooden stockades (aka whipping posts), slave shackles, a KKK hood and robe, and much more. Among the artifacts Jeffrey shared with students on the recent Zoom call was a slave collar made of leather and metal. "It was made in 1842 and was used on slaves as well as mules, or other animals," Jeffrey noted.
Language and arts classes are focusing on Black history and change-makers as well.
Lower School music teacher Tina Cunningham has been teaching about Black composers, instrumentalists and performers, using picture books to connect to the instrument or person. Black musicians children are learning about include Florence Price, Louis Armstrong, Ella Jenkins, Kanneh Mason Family and Bob Marley.
In Deadra Hart's 7th grade music class, students are in the midst of a blues and jazz unit, studying composers and performers like W.C. Handy, Bessie Smith and Duke Ellington. Students learned how to play Ellington's "C Jam Blues" before composing their own blues melodies and improvising over the 12-bar blues form, using the electronic music program Soundtrap.
Art associate Riley Brennan recently introduced 7th graders to a pair of projects inspired by Black artists. Students first learned about the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. "We discussed how he uses a mixture of words, imagery and abstraction within his work to discuss contemporary issues within society," Riley said. "For their projects, the students reflected on how they could represent themselves through abstract portraiture."
Separately, Riley's students were broken into groups and each group was given a book from the Foote library about a person who faced adversity: racism, sexism, illness, etc. After reading their individual books, the students then created a piece representing a scene from the book in the style of Kara Walker, a contemporary artist who uses black cut-paper silhouettes to explore race-specific issues.
In Latin classes this month, Tina Hansen has been teaching about Roman Africa as well as historical and current Black classicists. Spanish teacher Katie Hackenburg's students have been learning about Afrolatino cultures and associated Spanish vocabulary words. They're also learning about notable Afrolatinos including Epsy Campbell Barr, the Costa Rican politician and economist who is the country's first woman of African descent to become vice president.
For their part, 9th graders have been learning about the life and legacy of Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer cells were harvested without her consent to create what became the first immortalized human cell line.
In their global studies course, 9th graders are studying the achievements of Colin Powell, the first black Secretary of State and first black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Additionally, students are exploring the intersection of sports and race by learning about Major League Baseball's recent decision to incorporate records from the Negro Baseball leagues into their own records.
"It's a really rich topic because by incorporating the Negro League's story into their own, Major League Baseball's own story will change," observes teacher Liam Considine. "What happens when the 47th best hitter on record in the Hall of Fame becomes the 72nd because of the accomplishment of someone previously excluded and now added? Does this move by MLB make up for past racism? These are the kinds of questions students are examining."