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Taking Pride in Black Heritage

Poplar Tree Elementary School students learn about great African-American leaders

Throughout Black History month students at Poplar Tree Elementary School in Chantilly learned about great American black leaders such as Underground Railroad pioneer Harriet Tubman, athlete Wilma Rudolph, and inventor George Washington Carver.

"The children really get excited to hear these stories of triumph and learn how these leaders overcame obstacles to help make America great," said first-grade teacher Diane Murphy of Springfield. "When we read stories such as 'The Drinking Gourd,' about a family who helped save African-American slaves, it's so quiet you can hear a pin drop."

The children's other favorites include stories by black authors such as Gloria Jean Pinkney and poems by Langston Hughes.

"The arts have always fascinated me," said Murphy. "I love introducing the children to Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington."

She says the children are also impressed to learn about great Black athletes such as Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson.

"Our main goal is to build awareness of how all these black Americans have helped build our country," she added.

Murphy worked hard to find books about black Americans that were on a primary children's level. This is important, she said, because "the curiosity is there right now."

Carter G. Woodson, the Father of Black History month, was born to slaves in Virginia. His parents taught him the importance of education and determination.

He went on to become a teacher and principal in West Virginia — known for his personal touch with students, especially underperformers. Woodson was asked to teach Filipino children who were underachieving. He soon discovered that they could not identify with the lessons, which required them to learn such songs as "Come Shake the Apple Tree." Since apple trees do not grow in the Philippines, Woodson changed the song's title to "Come Shake the Lomboy Tree." The Lomboy is a kind of plum tree native to the Philippines. Now the children, once considered lazy or impossible to teach, were eager to read and learn. Woodson returned to the states with this experience emblazoned in his memory. He thought it was now time to "Come Shake the Lomboy Tree in America." Woodson realized that school books in America didn't include much black history. Striving to change this, Woodson revolutionized the way black history was taught in the states. He taught in Washington D.C., and went on to receive higher degrees in education at Harvard and the University of Chicago. Woodson then became a member of the American Negro Academy who found and saved African-American writings, and started the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915. In February 1926, Dr. Woodson planned the first "Negro History Week" program. It was the start of what is now Black History month.

Poplar Tree teacher Donna Waybright, 48, of Chantilly's Big Rocky Forest community, feels it is crucial to teach children about Black History Month in a way they can relate to. She talked about Martin Luther King and the students' own hopes and dreams for peace and racial harmony. Discussing what they could personally do to promote peace, she said it was touching to hear the children's responses, which were "'from their world': 'Let someone stand in line in front of you,' 'help someone,' and 'be kind to everyone.'" The children then traced their hands and wrote one thing they could do to make their school better and more peaceful. Then they "joined hands for a better school" in their classroom.

Despite schedule challenges posed by the snow storm, many teachers are making a special effort to incorporate Black History Month into their curriculums.

Stephanie Crawford, 22, of Penderbrook, is a new first grade teacher at Poplar Tree School. She says she will provide resources to her students to learn about famous black leaders, including biographies, other literature, and music.