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Southwest Fourth-Graders Design Monuments Honoring African-Americans

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Maya 22 By Kim Underwood

Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools

MARCH 6, 2019 – One day, fourth-grader Phoenix McKeown would like to make his living as a writer. He wants to write books that speak to young people and that can help them.

So, when it was time to pick one of the eight prominent African-Americans that his teacher Jamie Dease had chosen for students to do projects on, his choice was straightforward.

Phoenix chose Maya Angelou whose works include I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She also taught at Wake Forest University.

“She really fascinates me,” Phoenix said. “She was a really good writer. I hope her books inspire more kids.”

Dease teaches academically gifted students at Southwest Elementary. For the “project-based learning” assignment that focused on African-Americans with ties to North Carolina, she had her students work in teams of two or three. Phoenix’s partners on the project were Ambyr Miller and Sadie Rudert.

Dease 74 This was no knock-it-out-in-an-afternoon project.

After learning a bit about all eight of the African-Americans on the list, students chose one person and did research. After the students wrote about the person, fellow students read and critiqued their work. Students created timelines.

They designed and built prototypes for monuments that could be built to honor their person. They wrote letters to the members of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education making the case for honoring the person by building the monument.

They created presentations to deliver to parents and school administrators, members of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education, and people based in the school system’s Central Office.

Dease estimates that, by the time students were done, they had invested about 40 hours over several weeks in their projects.

“They worked really hard,” she said.

Kids 63 On Monday, the day came to step up on the stage in the auditorium at Southwest.  By the time the presentations started, the audience included a number of parents, three members of the Board of Education – Lori Goins Clark, Leah Crowley, Deanna Kaplan – two people based in Central Office – Rebecca McKnight, the Program Manager for Social Studies, and Kelly Nichols, the AIG (Academically Intellectually Gifted) Lead Teacher for Elementary School.

Ambyr had an excellent goal for the presentations.   

“I hope they will get joy,” she said.

Ambyr said she chose Maya Angelou because she was so inspiring. One thing that Ambyr had learned along the way was that, in addition to writing, Angelou sometimes acted.

Sadie chose Angelou in part because of her connection with Wake Forest. That’s where her mother, Anne Rudert, who is the PTA president at Southwest, went, and Sadie liked that.

And, of course, there was the fact that Angelou was a writer.

Art 59 “I love to read,” Sadie said.

In addition to reading, Sadie loves making art and helping younger students.

It was a good project, Sadie said. “It was fun but hard.”

On Monday morning, the students set up their models on the stage in the auditorium.

Evelyn Martinez, Joseph Streeter, and Lauren Davis had created a design for a monument honoring Thomas H. Jones, who was born a slave in 1806 and grew up to become an abolitionist.

Asked whether she could imagine their monument being built, Lauren said, she could indeed.

Well, except for the duct tape, she said.

Asked what her favorite word is, Lauren said, “tchotchkes” because she likes the way it sounds.

Art 32 Evelyn said she chose Jones because she liked who he seemed to be.

“He was the coolest person,” she said.

At Evelyn’s house, her father often cooks the meals and Evelyn and her mother fix dessert. They have learned that, if you want to make Gummy Worms, don’t even think about using Jell-O.

“Jell-O did not work,” Evelyn said.

Joshua was so busy putting the final touches on his presentation that he didn’t have time to talk.

His mother, Dotty Streeter, who was there helping out for the day, wasn’t surprised.

“He loves history,” she said. “He loves diving into it.”

The presentations would be the culmination of a day so jam-packed that Dease had to cut recess short. When Dease told the students that, the next day, they would celebrate with an hour-long recess, the response was quite enthusiastic.

Art 44 As they were getting ready, other students also talked a bit about their person and other topics that came up.

Trinity Griffin and Owen Franklin chose Rose Butler Brown, who in 1950 became the first African-American to earn a doctorate in education from Harvard University. She later taught at North Carolina Central University.

Here’s why Owen picked her: “I am a pretty good student in class, and she was a really good student in class. So I thought I would learn more about her.”

One of the things he learned about her was that, during a time when many schools were segregated, she taught both African-American and white students.

Trinity had not ever heard of Brown name until Dease told the students a bit about her. Trinity was impressed by what Brown had done.

“I think it was cool,” she said.

Read 45 Never having been on the stage of the auditorium to make a presentation, she was feeling a bit nervous.

Lola Needham, Joshua Pegram and Benjamin Ward chose to focus on Golden Franks.

“First of all, his name sounded cool,” said Benjamin.

Franks was a Civil Rights leader sometimes called "The Great Agitator." During his lifetime, he was jailed eighty-seven times. Lola was impressed by how much time and energy he spent fighting against the Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation in the South.

Joshua was also impressed that he served in the Navy during World War II.

“I am interested in World War II and World War I history,” he said.

The model they built for their monument turned out to be so tall that it started tipping over. That inspired them to come up with an impromptu song that they call “Golden Franks Is Falling Down” and sing to the tune of “London Bridge Is Falling Down.”

Read 46 Dease said she chose the people she did for the projects to help students understand what an important role people with a connection to North Carolina had in advancing Civil Rights.

As part of the project, she and students also talked about how we still don’t have equal rights for all and how it’s important that we all continue working toward that. They talked about how diversity makes for a stronger society. 

And they talked about how each of us should treat others.

“Everyone has value,” she said.

Dease finds it satisfying to be a teacher.

“I love creating relationships with the kids and seeing them grow,” she said. “The kids make me laugh every day.”

After the presentation, the members of the audience went down front and talked with the students.

Read 43 It was quite a day.

The African-Americans and the students who did projects on them were:

  1. Simon Green Atkins: Lydia Tate, Jim Wang
  2. Maya Angelou: Phoenix McKeown, Ambyr Miller, Sadie Rudert
  3. Ella J. Baker: Gracelyn Hutchens, Kelsey Ina, Emery Schlabach
  4. Charlotte Hawkins Brown: Alanis Cannito, Pavlos Strates, Qushui Yun
  5. Rose Butler Browne: Owen Franklin, Trinity Griffin
  6. Golden Frinks: Lola Needham, Joshua Pegram,  Benjamin Ward
  7. Thomas H. Jones: Lauren Davis, Evelyn Martinez, Joseph Streeter
  8. Joseph McNeil: Grace Ko, Ian Ross, Cooper Warman
Kim Underwood