Focusing on Black History All Year Long

Recently, Friends Select middle school dean Dan Capecchi asked faculty to share what they have been studying with regards to Black history—African, African American, or the African diaspora—in preparation for an upcoming Black History Month assembly led by upper school religious studies and history teacher Malik Mubashshir. As head of school Michael Gary said, “What followed was heartwarming and inspirational. It moved me to tears, actually.” 

The numerous responses from faculty speak to the excellence in teaching and learning that define Friends Select’s educational program. As Malik said, “I am impressed by the breadth of your coverage of African and African-American history, culture, literature, arts, etc. You are building a great foundation for me to work with when they get to the upper school.” Moreover, these responses illustrate how “Friends Select does Black history 365 days a year, and not just during the month of February,” as middle school director Desiree Harmon said. 

Read the responses from Friends Select’s middle school faculty members:

Dan Capecchi, middle and upper school percussion:

In 5/6 and 7/8 percussion ensemble, we have studied Ghanaian drum choirs and polyrhythms. In 8th grade music, I used to teach a long unit on the rise of sampling and rap and their place in society as an expression of and mirror for the inequities forced upon marginalized groups. This unit led to larger conversations of music for social change that often involved music's role in the Civil Rights movement and expressions of African American experiences.


Dan Consiglio, middle school English:

English 7: In late February, students will be in the middle of reading Lost Boy, Lost Girl, a memoir set around the Sudanese civil war in the late 1980s-1990s. The book briefly explores the effects of historical colonialism on modern day Africa and shows the experience of refugees entering into other countries with different languages and cultures. At the end of the book, we discuss the advocacy work done by the two authors.

English 8: As part of our discussion of the verse novel The Poet X, we will be looking at several slam poetry performers, watching videos of their performances, and reading over transcripts of their work. Students will look at the history of slam poetry with emphasis on African American contributions to the form, and will write and perform their own poems.


Stephanie Demko, middle school history:

In last year's 5th/6th grade and this year's 6th grade, we have been covering American history (5th up to Civil War, 6th Civil War through Cold War-ish). During each unit, we have spent time examining how different groups have experienced the events that we studied. In the 6th grade specifically, we spent a lot of time looking at topics like the institution of slavery, Reconstruction in the South, the rise of hate groups like the KKK, the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, the African American experience fighting in WWI and WWII, segregation/integration, the Civil Rights movement, and more.


Alexis Flack, middle school history:

In the Human Geography course, students examine landforms and bodies of water in the African continent and how people interacted with those geographic physical features (and each other) at various times. Examples of this that we explore are: civilizations in the Nile River Valley like the Kingdoms of Kush and Egypt, Aksum, East African city-states, Great Zimbabwe, the trading network across the Sahara, Nok culture, and West African kingdoms like Ghana. In 7th grade, students have a Black History Month STEAM project, in which they research the STEAM inventions or innovations of an African American, in addition to their experiences. This project connects to one of the themes we study during the year (people interacting with the environment through building and making things). And this year, we created “The Art of Voting” project, which included examining primary and secondary sources connected to voting rights, voter suppression, and voter discrimination in the United States, and the work African Americans have been doing to create change in these things across numerous decades.  


Carolyn Gray-Rupp, middle school math:

Some of the 7th and 8th graders have studied Benjamin Banneker, David Harold Blackwell, and Lyndsey Scott in our year-long History of Math unit. One goal of this study is to highlight the rich diversity of mathematicians beyond those typically represented in math textbooks.


Erik Hermans, middle school Latin:

Thank you for bringing this to our attention. I am hoping to strengthen this part of my curriculum in future years. For now, these are relevant points in this year's curriculum: in 8th grade Latin, I will discuss the relation between race and slavery in Greco-Roman times. In 7th grade Latin, we discussed projection of whiteness on the racial identity of ancient Romans in modern movies. In 5th and 6th grade, we discussed the fact that large parts of the African continent were an integral part of the Roman world. 


Fred Kogan, middle school art:

These are a few of the artists who I cover throughout the school year: Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, Kara Walker, Mark Bradford, Mickalene Thomas, Kerry James Marshall, Chakaia Booker, and Jean-Michel Basquiat.


Bryan Skelly, middle school history and English:

Social Studies 5: We are studying early U.S. history and civics. We have identified the term "diaspora," and focused on positive contributions from West Africa to everyday "American" culture, such as the trickster story, call and response, etc. We also discussed the race-based social hierarchy of Central America and the United States, starting with the early conquistadores. We've tried to make connections to current topics in the U.S., such as Black Lives Matter. We also did a mini-lesson on West Africa before the start of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, exploring Mansa Musa. We then discussed the Transatlantic Slave Trade, both in terms of human cost and economic cost.

English 6: Two books, specifically, deal with social justice—New Kid, which focuses on micro-aggressions, and Harbor Me, which focuses on the power of storytelling. In both books, we discuss the experiences of African American kids in historically White spaces.  

Identity and Society (Grade 6): The course asks students to explore their own identity and listen to each other's experiences. We defined words like race, ethnicity, nationality.  


Donna Romero, middle and upper school drama:

I was looking for contemporary African-American playwrights to study this year, and just finished reading/watching Pipeline by Dominique Morisseau with Drama I students. This play explores the "school-to-prison pipeline" that disproportionately affects young men of color. It's a fascinating play and the students really enjoyed it. Tangentially, the students researched Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright's Native Son, "We Real Cool" by Gwendolyn Brooks, and the problem of "white savior" movies like Dangerous Minds (all of which are mentioned throughout the play).


Andrea Weber, middle school music:

Here's what I've covered with 5/6 music so far:

5th Grade: An introduction to the blues

Students learned about the origins of the blues (geographically and historically). They have listened to music by Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, and Willie Mae Thornton, and are currently learning how to compose a blues chord progression. 

6th Grade: West African drumming 

Students were introduced to West African geography, particularly Mali and Guinea. They learned about the talking drum, the use of the djembe in the Mali Empire, the kora, and a bit about traditional dances. They also experimented with performing and notating polyrhythms. 

6th Grade: Afro-Cuban music

6th Grade students are currently learning about Afro-Cuban music, particularly the origins of rumba. They're learning about Yoruban, Congolese, and Spanish musical traditions are represented in this marginalized style of music; they are also studying how rumba has greatly influenced not only so-called Latin music, but North American music like jazz, pop, and hip-hop. 


Lisa White-Jones, middle school physical education and dance:

Reading the different areas of African and African American history and culture the teachers are covering reminded me that in PE/Dance, I cover a swing dance and jitterbug unit with the 5th and 7th grade. We discuss how music and movement are used in a myriad of ways but especially to uplift the spirits of the colored or Negro people, as we were referred to in that era. We discuss how the Great Depression of the late 1920s and 30s affected the people and how the music and the freestyle dance could (in the moment) cross the racial line. I also show video excerpts from a few films like Hellzapoppin’ and The History of Swing

When I started at FSS, I taught African dance and drum. I plan to teach this unit again when we return to our regular schedule.


Photo from The Poet X, by Elizabeth Acevedo.