This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
In the bustling hallway of Juniata Park Academy, Nissir Rogers and Tiffany Tran, both 9, proudly showed off the doors of their 3rd-grade classes, which were decorated for Black History Month. Nissir’s teacher Penny Leavesley and Tiffany’s teacher Jennifer Ford frequently co-teach their classes and decided to collaborate in the schoolwide door-decorating contest.
Nissir opened a green piece of paper folded in half that was attached to Ford’s door. It was one of 25 numbered clues asking “Who am I?” and inside was a short handwritten paragraph with facts about an anonymous figure in black history. This one said: “born into slavery in 1818” and “the founder of the newspaper the North Star.”
(Photo: Lynn Oseguera)
Then the two children followed a path made of construction paper rocks across the hallway floor to Leavesley’s door, where they found a folded paper with the matching number. Nissir opened it, revealing the name and picture of Frederick Douglass. Tiffany noted that Mr. Devitt, another 3rd-grade teacher next door, had to help them hang the higher ones because “he’s very tall.”
Every class in the kindergarten-through-8th-grade building has decorated or is decorating its classroom door. Each teacher chose from the “kid-friendly” version of the 13 Black Lives Matter guiding principles by Laleña Garcia and designed a theme around that topic, including “empathy,” “loving engagement,” and “diversity.”
Next week, each class will tour the school and vote for their favorite door. Mira Berk-Solomon, Juniata Park Academy’s school-based teacher leader, laughed, saying, “Everything kind of turns into a contest around here with some teachers, but this is actually a competition.”
She added, “We’ll probably choose a couple winners for each grade, though.”
Juniata Park Academy’s student population is 11% African American and 71% Latinx. Berk-Solomon recounted that before this year’s Black History Month, principal Marisol Rivera Rodriguez and other school leaders met to discuss the school’s mission statement that they revised a few years ago. Berk-Solomon said: “We say we celebrate diversity, and if we say that, we need to really celebrate diversity and not just do one event and be done with it.”
In addition to the door-decorating contest, several other initiatives have been going on throughout the school to celebrate black history and culture this month.
A classroom wall displays student Black History Month biography projects at Juniata Park Academy. (Photo: Lynn Oseguera)
Juniata Park Academy is doing its own version of One Book, One Philadelphia, which they are calling One Book, One JPA, in which students across different grades read and discuss the same book. The kindergartens and 1st- and 2nd-grade classes are reading The Undefeated, by Kwame Alexander. Kadir Nelson illustrated this poetry book, which won the 2020 Caldecott Medal. Third- through 8th-grade classes are reading New Kid, Jerry Craft’s 2019 Newbery Medal-winning graphic novel.
On Feb. 14, there was a school-wide “Drop Everything and Read” event, when every homeroom stopped at the same time and read aloud a book or speech written by an African American author or about African American history. While Rivera Rodriguez introduced a similar event last year, this year the school tied it into a larger initiative sponsored by the National Council of Teachers of English called the “African American Read-In.”
After showing off their decorated doors, Nissir and Tiffany excitedly pointed out more projects they had worked on for Black History Month. Each student had chosen an African American historical figure or celebrity they admired and made a poster of that person with facts from a biography of their choice. The posters were displayed in the hallway next to their classrooms.
Tiffany said she chose Will Smith, because “Will Smith is my favorite person.”
Nissir clarified, “Actor?”
She corrected herself. “Yeah. Because he is really good at movies.”
Nissir pointed to his poster of Barack Obama and described how he chose the former president.
“We did it a special way,” he said. “My mom put George Washington Carver, Barack Obama, Maya Angelou, and Frederick Douglass in a hat, and I closed my eyes and picked it out.” He was happy that Obama was the name he picked because “he inspired me with the change he put in the world.”
Nissir proudly noted that “my mom knows I like drawing, and I’m good at it, so she let me do most of it.” He read a 44-page biography called Barack Obama: Out of Many, One by himself. He described going to the local library with his mother, Yanida Alvarez, and Tiffany excitedly added that she likes the library, too, and that “they have thousands of books.”
Teacher Emma Molyneux points to her wall of famous African Americans, school staff, and nominated students. (Photo: Lynn Oseguera)
This year, as the school is piloting a workshop curriculum based on Lucy Calkins’ Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University, books are everywhere in the school’s curriculum and in the building. As Nissir and Tiffany showed off their projects, their path between classrooms was briefly cut off by digital literacy teacher Emma Molyneux pushing a cart full of books donated by her church, United Messiah Methodist, which were being delivered that day.
Upstairs, the door to Molyneux’s classroom is decorated with printed posters honoring famous black innovators, as well as African American staff and students at Juniata Park Academy. The students were nominated by their teachers, who wrote a short blurb celebrating them.
Displays like Molyneux’s exemplify the goal of all the Black History Month events and projects going on at the school. When planning for the month, Berk-Solomon said, “We talked about how issues of race and equity affect our students and about how our school and District can do a better job of supporting our students, as well as celebrating the diversity in our school community.”