Social Studies

Teachers Decorating Their Doors for Black History Month Say Representation Matters

By Sarah Schwartz — February 15, 2019 3 min read
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This Black History Month, some teachers are starting their lessons at the classroom door.

All over social media, educators have shared pictures of doors decorated with black historical figures, cultural icons, and dozens of construction-paper portraits of women celebrating black hair.

The teachers who designed the displays say that these artworks are more than just decoration—the door collages reflect lessons, values, and black cultural history that these educators want their students to engage with all year round.

Chanique Davis’ classroom door features a young black woman, wearing a gold crown and kente cloth. Long dreadlocks, styled out of twisted black construction paper, frame her face.

Davis, an art teacher at Lake Alfred Elementary School, in central Florida, said she chose the hairstyle to recognize the students at her school who wear their hair the same way.

View this post on Instagram Tis the season! Do me a favor and push SHARE! It's black history month and it's like a holiday over here at Lake Alfred Elementary. Here is this years door and if you scroll you'll see last years. Shout out to my #Artclub babies for twisting this paper into dreads (The real mvps). She's got her gold clips,yarn wrapped around her dreads and baby hairs and she's ready to go. We are excited to share our projects with you guys. #TAkaChanique #TAka #ArtTeacher #Artist #ElementaryArt #BlackEducator #BlackArtTeacher #BlackHistoryMonth #BlackHistoryMonthDoor #DoItForTheCulture #WakandaForever #naturalhair #Dreads #Locs @happyhairgirls #africa #Africanprint @africanprint @becauseofthem @blackeducators @theshaderoom @mediablackoutusa @afropolitainmagazine @africanprintsinfashion @willsmith #bhm #bhmd A post shared by Chanique Davis (@takachanique) on Feb 1, 2019 at 5:11am PST

“In a lot of corporate American settings, they don’t allow such a style. I wanted [my students] to know that this style is to be celebrated—it’s not to be shunned and it’s not anything negative,” Davis told Education Week.

“It’s a beautiful style, and ... it’s just like anyone else’s hair: It’s welcomed, it’s celebrated.”

Davis enlisted students in her art club to help her craft the portrait. They measured out the dimensions on the door and created the woman’s hair, rolling and taping the construction paper. “They were really involved in helping get it done,” she said.

In her art classes, Davis highlights black performers and designers. “Since they are learning about the Martin Luther Kings and the Malcolm Xs in other settings, I want to be the one to let them know there are people who are currently adding to black history,” said Davis.

Glen Mourning, a 4th grade reading teacher at Friendship Public Charter School’s Armstrong campus in Washington, D.C., also wanted to celebrate someone making black history today.

He covered his door with the likeness of activist and football player Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who famously kneeled during the pre-game national anthem in protest of police brutality and systemic racism in the United States. Kaepernick’s action sparked a protest movement across the National Football League and other professional sports.

Since then, Kaepernick hasn’t been signed to an NFL team. He has filed a grievance against the league, claiming that team owners have colluded to keep him off the field as a punishment for his activism.

View this post on Instagram I've always dreamed of becoming an NFL superstar and when this guy right here decided to fight for love and equality...He changed my perspective on what being a big time play maker actually meant. Make the game winning move in the game of life! @crunchylifebooks #blackhistorymonth #colinkaepernick #istandwithkap #teacher #author #educator #blackmaleteacher #nike @teamcolinkaepernick #takeaknee @nike @usnikefootball @kaepernick7 @nessnitty 🙌🏿🙏🏿 @tylerperry A post shared by Glen Mourning (@mourningknows) on Jan 30, 2019 at 4:09pm PST

“It’s so much bigger than sports or the professional athletic community—this is something that’s going to impact, and has already impacted, the entire world,” said Mourning, who played football in college and coaches the elementary school’s flag football team.

The teacher wanted to highlight Kaepernick’s moral courage, using the former quarterback’s story to discuss why people choose to fight against injustice, even in the face of serious consequences. “He wasn’t afraid to even lose his livelihood at the time to stand up for what he believed in,” Mourning said.

At the beginning of the school year, when Mourning’s class was learning about “great-hearted” heroes, he introduced Kaepernick alongside historical figures like Anne Frank and Clara Barton. His 4th graders read a Newsela article about Kaepernick’s protest and the uncertainty around his return to the NFL.

Many of his students had heard their parents talking about the controversy surrounding the football player, said Mourning, and were familiar with the story. “It’s not a political issue for them—it’s a community issue,” he said. “They’ve had relatives that have been mistreated by police officers right in front of them.”

Talking about Kaepernick, and other current social and political issues, in class gives students an opportunity to search for answers to the questions about the world “that they’re going to naturally come up with,” said Mourning.

The door decoration can spark these coversations, but ultimately, the artwork isn’t as important as what’s going on inside the classroom, said Mourning.

“Our focus is not necessarily to be pretty and glamorous on the outside—we’re extremely focused on curriculum and getting our kids ready for the next grade,” he said. “Decorating a door, although it got a lot of attention, it’s not something that I’m overly concerned with.”

Photos courtesy of Chanique Davis and Glen Mourning.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.