On December 16, seventh graders celebrated Early America Day—a project that goes back decades at Foote School. After studying early American figures for months, these poised students recited original, research-based monologues about their figures before audiences of fellow students and teachers.
Yet something was distinctly different this time around—and it was evident from the moment the students processed into the Twichell Room at the start of the day. Among the powdered wigs, waistcoats and tricorn hats were students dressed in everyday clothes: jeans, Converse shoes, striped sweaters, button-down shirts.
It was the most visible illustration of how this Foote project evolved this year to focus on equity and inclusion. Beginning in September, the Humanities Department and other faculty worked to reimagine Early America Day in a way that would focus less on costumes and "mythologized" history and more on celebrating the students' research and giving students choice, explains department co-chair Sheila Lavey.
For the first time, students could decide whether to wear a costume at all, and whether to recite their monologue as their historical figure (in first person) or about the person (in third person).
"We wanted to give students choice but also to be sensitive to issues of identity—that some kids might find it hard to take on the persona of someone from another race or gender," says Sheila.
Students who chose first-person monologues had to create an original costume and were encouraged to use items they already owned, or could borrow, rather than purchasing or renting costumes off the rack. Those reciting third-person monologues had to create an artifact related to their historical figure. In either case, students had to first propose their costume or artifact and explain to teachers why they made those decisions.
A student who studied astronomer and inventor David Rittenhouse constructed a model of the telescope he used to observe the transit of Venus. A student who studied African American astronomer, mathematician and almanac author Benjamin Banneker created an incredibly detailed replica almanac. Another student, who studied Eliza Lucas Pinckney, even attempted to make her own indigo, says Sheila.
Another change this year was decoupling Early America Day from the Thanksgiving holiday; it was moved to December after traditionally being held on the Tuesday or Wednesday before the holiday. "Thanksgiving is hardly the only historical event in early America," explains Humanities co-chair Deb Riding. "The history of Thanksgiving is complicated. For instance, we talked with seventh graders about how there were different Thanksgiving feasts, including one held by settlers for the successful massacre of Native Americans."
The day featured another new component as well: after introducing themselves to parents in the Twichell Room, students and their parents broke into small groups wherein the parents asked students questions about their historical figure such as "What are the most important lessons you learned in life?", "Do you have any regrets?" and "How did you treat people from other backgrounds?"
After a busy morning of presenting their monologues to classes of all ages, the seventh graders traveled to Criterion Cinema downtown to see the movie Harriet, about Harriet Tubman—a film that had a profound effect on many students, Deb recalls.
The changes are all geared toward getting students to think critically about whose stories get told, and by whom. At the same time, the project allowed for more individuality which allowed students to dive into the stories and people that ignite their curiosity and passion. In that way, Sheila and Deb explain, the project reinforces a central theme in seventh grade: developing students' voices and value systems.