By Julia Wickes
“None of the manuscripts I’d been illustrating featured any black kids—except for token blacks in the background. My book would have him there simply because he should have been there all along.” – Ezra Jack Keats
Every fall, three year-olds at SCCS begin the school year by reading the books of Ezra Jack Keats– The Snowy Day, Peter’s Chair, and Whistle for Willie. Published in the 1960s these books blazed a trail simply by featuring an African American boy as a main character in a child’s picture book– something that was unprecedented at that time. Of course, when our three year-olds read these books, they just enjoy the story itself and are not aware of anything especially controversial or trailblazing about Peter and his ordinary boyhood adventures. They also learn about the life of author Ezra Jack Keats and how he came to make a living as an artist. He was not black himself, but the child of immigrants–Polish Jews living in New York. Fearing discrimination in America, his family changed their surname from Katz to Keats in order to disguise their origin.
These stories are presented to our kids without any explicit conclusions or moralizing about discrimination or skin color. The characters– both the fictional character of Peter, and the non-fictional life story of Ezra Jack Keats–are simply there. As our students move up through the grade levels at SCCS, they will encounter many other fictional and nonfictional characters of color or minority status who are there because they should be there– their story is one part of a balanced and honest view of history.
This February, after thoughtful discussions among teachers, board members, and staff, SCCS made a decision to incorporate Black History Month into our classrooms for the first time since our school was founded. Black History Month has been celebrated in public schools since the late 1970s, so it may seem like an oversight or an afterthought that we have not done this before. But if you look closely at our curriculum, you will see that it has been carefully crafted to honor diversity with a there all along approach.
Black History Month can be done well, but it could be said to function more as an intense spotlight on the experience of African Americans, rather than a balanced, holistic inclusion. For this reason, it has its detractors. Critics say that it is problematic because it compartmentalizes the story of African Americans, superimposing their experience, contributions, and story as if it is something extraneous to regular history. Moreover, it can tacitly suggest that once February is over, students can direct their attention away from the African American experience the until the following year.
A February 2016 Atlantic Monthly article discussing the pros and cons of Black History Month quotes a fourth grade teacher who says that an ideal history curriculum should have “slavery and racism ingrained within it, just as it is in American society. It would not be discussed as a side issue.” At SCCS, while we can see the value of celebrating Black History Month, we can also say with confidence that diversity–including, at certain grade levels, a focused attention on slavery, segregation, and the Civil Rights Movement–is unambiguously ingrained within our overall curriculum.
But most of the time this diversity–though real and intentional–is presented with subtlety and balance. Our PreK-4 classes, for example, read the books and study the illustrations of Jerry Pinkney, a prolific children’s book illustrator who is a person of color. They closely observe and discuss many of his amazing books, see a picture of his kind face, and learn a little about his life as an award-winning artist.
Kindergarteners will encounter a fictional girl named Molly in the book Molly’s Pilgrim. Molly is a little girl who has immigrated to America from Russia and is teased for her accent and old fashioned clothes. When she and her classmates learn about Thanksgiving they realize that she is very similar to the first pilgrims, who also came to America seeking religious freedom.
First graders study the real historical characters of Pocahontas and Squanto. They will also read The Hundred Dresses–a chapter book about a first generation Polish-American girl who is poor and struggles to fit in at school but harbors an unusual talent for drawing. In third grade, students will encounter the fictional but realistic story of a French family of gypsies who suffer from classism in turn of the century Paris in the book The Family Under the Bridge.
Women scientists are also strongly represented in the SCCS curriculum. First graders learn about Jane Goodall and fourth graders delve deeply into the life and writings of Rachel Carson– a groundbreaking environmental scientist who also advocated for women in science.
As part of their picture study, fourth graders will study the African-American artist Faith Ringgold, in works like Tar Beach. Other diverse artists that our students will study over the years include Diego Rivera (Mexican), Makato Fujimura (Japanese-American), and Brian Collier (African-American). Fifth graders study the life and paintings of Marc Chagall, who was among the artists in Europe targeted by Hitler and forced to flee to America for asylum.
In the spirit of Ezra Jack Keats, who delighted to create whimsical illustrations that introduced Peter to the world in the form of gentle stories about an ordinary boy, when we look at history and culture with a broad lens, we acknowledge that the stories and contributions of individuals–both extraordinary and ordinary–are diverse and should be known and honored. As a Charlotte Mason school, we believe that this learning should be delightful, mimicking a table set for a big feast, so we try to abstain from force feeding children morality lessons, ideologies, or dry, disconnected historical facts. We present ideas, vivid biographies, works of art, and living stories that have the potential to capture a child’s innate moral imagination, curiosity, and empathy.
Writing from a time and place that pre-dates the pluralistic societies we now inhabit in the West, Charlotte Mason nevertheless advocated for an education that had the power to humanize and familiarize the other:
To leave off or even to begin with the history of our own country is fatal. We cannot live sanely unless we know that other peoples are as we are with a difference, that their history is as ours, with a difference, that they too have been represented by their poets and their artists, that they too have their literature and their national life.
The books we read and people we study through the grades at SCCS have been carefully selected to reflect a broad sampling of history and culture. But there is also a time and place for students to encounter more explicit history lessons about race and discrimination. SCCS second graders spend a significant amount of time learning about the Civil Rights Movement and its heroes, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Ruby Bridges. They learn about the Underground Railroad and also read the works of naturalist George Washington Carver. Sixth graders will learn about the Little Rock Nine and read the Lions of Little Rock— a chapter book set in 1960s Arkansas that deals with the issue of public school segregation and friendship across racial lines. In Middle School, our students circle back again to these topics–particularly the Civil War, reconstruction, and segregation–with a more age-appropriate attention the complexities and atrocities that still blight our society.
In our treatment of American history and the humanities in general, we strive to honor diversity in both subtle and– when the time is right– not-so-subtle ways. In A Philosophy of Education Charlotte Mason says:
It is a great thing to possess a pageant of history in the background of one’s thoughts. We may not be able to recall this or that circumstance, but the imagination is warmed; we know that there is a great deal to be said on both sides of every question and are saved from crudities in opinion and rashness in action. The present becomes enriched for us with the wealth of all that has gone before.
The goal of a Charlotte Mason education is always, in the end, character. In our Portrait of a Graduate, we envision our students being able to “actively integrate and synthesize knowledge, ideas, and possibilities.” We know that our kids are growing up in a world where they will be called upon to understand and address many issues relating to pluralism, race, and what it means, in particular, to be American (or some other nationality). This will require empathy, the ability to see things from multiple angles, compassion, and a knowledge of the past. We hope that that our social studies curriculum and the time our students spend in contact with a broad range of stories, art, and the experiences of people from different walks of life will empower them to avoid the fatal pitfalls of bigotry, racism, self-centeredness, and shallow reasoning. These stories, forming a “pageant” in the background of our thoughts, have the power to help us see the world with the eyes of equity and love.