Equity & Diversity

African-American History Museum Gears Up for School Visits

By Madeline Will — November 01, 2016 | Corrected: November 04, 2016 5 min read
Sixth grader Omari Sterling, left, and his teacher Gabrielle Randall of the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) DC’s Northeast Academy visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington.
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Corrected: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of the Nashoba Brooks School.

As Kilolo Moyo-White watched her 8th grade students walk through the newly opened National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, she felt a sense of awe.

Seeing the exhibits last month felt like an affirmation of her identity, she said, which was also felt by her students from the Global Leadership Academy Charter School in Philadelphia, most of whom are black.

“It was just a transformative moment for them to be able to see themselves in that history and to be able to connect it so quickly to what’s happening in our society today,” Moyo-White said. “For some, I think that was a little upsetting and troubling. But I think they were also calmed by the beauty of the museum and the fact that this museum is honoring that hard work, those trials and tribulations, instead of just shading over it.”

The museum, which cost $540 million and took 11 years to come to fruition, opened on Washington’s National Mall Sept. 24. While the exact number of school groups that have visited since then was not readily available, educators and students are already flocking to the museum to see the stories of influential African-Americans from past and present.

Next year, the museum, which has offered educational programming for several years before there was a physical building, will formalize additional resources for students and teachers, including official school tours. Candra Flanagan, the coordinator of student and teacher initiatives, said the museum’s education staff wanted some time to observe what exhibits crowds would gravitate toward.

Also in 2017, she said, the museum will roll out more tools for educators, such as previsit guides, online activities, and other information sources to support classroom learning. The museum also plans to host one-day thematic workshops for teachers about various topics in history or history education four to six times a year.

Meanwhile, many of the stories and collections in the museum are on the museum’s website. Teaching Tolerance, an educational project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, has developed a free tool kit for teachers that compiles some of the available resources they can bring to their classrooms.

Adrienne van der Valk, the deputy director of Teaching Tolerance, said the museum’s resources are designed to help educators start a dialogue about race with their students, from a historical perspective.

“I think they allow you to tell the story of American history through an African-American lens,” van der Valk said, “particularly if you’re a white teacher—that’s not your lens. I think having a set of robust, vetted tools to bring that history to the classroom is very important.”

Telling a ‘Complete Story’

The museum’s exhibits add context to the school curriculum and give educators an opportunity to share a “complete story” of African-American history and culture, she said.

Four 6th graders from KIPP DC’s Northeast Academy—from left, Kalicko Smith, wImani Poston, Michaela Young, and Makayla Hall—huddle over an interactive display of historic photos inside the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The stories in the museum are those of resilience, triumph, culture, and identity, van der Valk said. Upsetting exhibits in the museum—such as images of lynchings—are marked by a red border and a sign warning visitors of graphic content.

“I think that one of the considerations that we take with the material is to look at the humanity that is involved in the story … and find the triumph in the story, even if it’s a hard story,” the museum’s Flanagan said. “I think sometimes we think that children can’t take in something that’s serious or hard or dark. I think children can take it in. It’s a matter of using age-appropriate language … and connecting it to something they can understand,” like fairness, justice, and inclusion.

In fact, the museum has an education initiative geared to children from birth to 8. Flanagan said research shows that children as young as 6 months see differences in people, making it important for them develop a positive identity early on.

For the past three years, the museum has offered a workshop for teachers on talking about race in the classroom. Eighty-two percent of teachers are white, while just over half of U.S. public school students are nonwhite.

“The conversation about race and racism is not a conversation that needs to happen just among African-Americans,” Flanagan said. “We want all teachers to feel involved in this conversation and not outside of it because they’re not a person of color or they’re not teaching students of color.”

Uncomfortable Conversations

Teachers have different comfort levels in discussing race, Flanagan said. She said some teachers discuss slavery as an economic institution and ignore the racial aspect. One of the museum’s goals, she said, is to help teachers become comfortable talking about race in historical ways: “That’s the first step to talking about it in a contemporary way.”

During the National Council of Social Studies’ annual conference in Washington in December, the museum plans to offer a session on discussing race in class.

Lauren Funk, a social studies teacher at Nashoba Brooks School, a private, all-girls middle school in Concord, Mass., will attend that workshop. She said she teaches in an affluent community and tries to work with her students to acknowledge their privilege—specifically, she said, white privilege.

“I think we have to lean into that discomfort,” Funk said, “having our kids actually know that this matters and these conversations need to be had, but also providing a safe space to kids who might be marginalized.”

Funk said she tries to teach students that as much progress as has been made with race in the United States, things are not yet perfect. "[Talking about race] can be challenging work,” she said. “It can feel overwhelming and isolating as a teacher. I think it’s really helpful to connect with other educators but also get support from organizations and individuals.”

She said the museum exhibits tie into her spring-semester curriculum: implementing change in an imperfect democracy, with a focus on civil rights. Funk is taking her students to visit the museum in January as part of a trip to the presidential inauguration.

“I think it’s probably going to be a hard experience for some of the students, but I also think it’ll be an important one,” Funk said. “I think there will be some disturbing truth in there, but also some emphasis on the joy in the [African-American] experience and the pride in the experience.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2016 edition of Education Week as African-American Museum Gears Up School Offerings

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