In previous years celebrating Black History Month, Sarah Matthysse and her students sought to better understand the reason for the observance.
Vanguard Charter Academy students asked “Why are we all of a sudden talking about other people and diversity? Why do we care about this?”
“I didn’t have a good way of explaining it to them because we should be doing it all year long,” the sixth-grade teacher said.
Indigenous Heritage Month was celebrated in November at Vanguard.
Last year she weaved in every month’s Moral Focus virtue with learning about different minority groups. In striving to do better as a school, a diversity committee was formed, and each month at Vanguard a group of teachers meets to brainstorm ideas for students to learn about or celebrate a particular culture.
“We saw a need for it and we decided we needed more brains and more manpower,” said Pam Foster, an at-risk teacher who is part of the diversity committee. “We’re just trying to grow our students in their knowledge of every culture and all the diverse, wonderful things they bring.”
The Kwanzaa kinara started out small...
Vanguard students learned about Indigenous people in November and Kwanzaa in December. Kwanzaa’s focus on being a good person fit in with Moral Focus virtues, and it being a non-religious, relatively new celebration having started in 1966 made it an appealing choice to highlight.
Matthysse said in learning about Kwanzaa, some Black students were able to share that some of their families take part in the celebration. Some went home and asked their parents more about the holiday.
…and grew with names throughout December.
Vanguard’s Kwanzaa activities included a read aloud, a bulletin board candle, and a “Catch a Kwanzaa Virtue” with teachers celebrating students who exhibited one of the seven Kwanzaa principles. The construction paper candle started out small but grew with names who exhibited the virtues getting a shoutout with their name on a paper flame. As the shoutouts were announced, Matthysse said students stopped writing and eagerly listened to clap for names they knew.
Matthysse was nervous the students might not be excited about adding another activity two weeks before the school break, but they embraced it at a time of the school year when they otherwise might be mentally checked out.
For Women’s History Month in March, Vanguard students made cards.
“When it came to the Kwanzaa candles, so many kids had them done the first day, they loved it,” she said. “They were writing down genuine answers to what they need to work on. In fact, some said, ‘Can I write down two virtues because I need to work on this one and this other one?’ I was so impressed because I was like, ‘Well I know that about you but I expected you not to show that self-awareness’ or to put down something easy or to be like, ‘You know what? I'm perfect. I don't need to write anything down,’ but they were invested in both creating something beautiful in coloring, but also reflecting on what they need to work on.”
In celebrating Indigenous Heritage Month, Foster put together a bulletin board showing examples of different groups. One of her students asked if they could take home a picture from the bulletin board to show their grandparent who had a shared ancestry.
“It’s just cool, the personal connections, they seem really excited about it,” Foster said. “It’s just really fun to celebrate the goodness in everybody and also bring in that culture piece.”
Vanguard students made yarn dolls during Hispanic Heritage Month.
Upcoming plans for the diversity committee include inviting a Black-owned dance studio that places emphasis on the culture and the tradition of African dance to come for Black History Month and possibly an international expo for parents and students. The schedule has students looking forward to each celebration, including one who is already counting down the days until Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
“A student the other day said, ‘I can’t wait until May,’ Matthysse said. “I was like, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘Because that’s my month.’ I was like, ‘You know what, it is,’ and I’m so ready. I’m excited for what we’re going to do for those months, too.”
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Vanguard Charter Academy is a tuition-free, public charter school in Wyoming, Michigan, serving students in Young 5s through eighth grade. It is part of the National Heritage Academies network, which includes 99 tuition-free, public charter schools serving more than 65,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade across nine states. For more information, visit nhaschools.com.
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