This is a story about Black History Month, now referred to as African American History Month. Keep reading and you’ll see why.
I stumbled into teaching by accident. Certainly by most definitions up until that moment I was living the dream. As the owner of two small businesses in rural Florida, we weren’t rich…yet…but things were looking promising. Yet something was missing for me. I just didn’t feel like I was where I was intended to be.
Over a cup of coffee at the local diner, a friend nailed the problem on the head. “You need to be working on something bigger than yourself,” he said. He was absolutely right. Having grown up the eldest child of an Air Force family and having recently retired from my own 20-year Air Force career, I was steeped in an ethos of service to a higher cause. Until that moment I hadn’t realized that service to others was practically a part of my DNA.
After some soul searching, I gave up the businesses and signed up to be a substitute teacher in the local school district. That, in turn, led to teaching stints in classrooms ranging from Play-Dough sessions in Head Start to monitoring orchestra classes at the high school. My toughest assignment: A two-week gig covering a Drop Out prevention class at a middle school.
The experience of working with kids on whom the system had all but given up was my personal turning point. I’ll save that story for another post. Suffice to say that I had found my new calling!
It wasn’t too much later that I got a call from the principal of the middle school asking if I was interested in a long term contract substituting for a teacher who was taking a year of maternity leave. I jumped at the chance and became a 7th grade communications teacher.
I loved the process of creating lesson plans. The experience with the dropout prevention group proved to me that creative thinking was one key to keeping students engaged and stimulating learning. When Black History Month rolled around, I came up with the idea of encouraging my students to write reflective essays on the meaning of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech. I then invited a reporter from the local newspaper to visit the class and listen to the students’ presentations. What follows is a reprint of the article that was originally published in the Charlotte (Florida) Sun Herald.
“Martin Luther King inspires 7th-graders”
Author(s): ROBERT ECKHART
Staff Writer Date: January 18, 1999
PUNTA GORDA — He had a dream.
Punta Gorda junior high student Jillianne Genus-Leach already knew that much about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
But it was different when she actually saw the proud, powerful face of King delivering his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on a television screen in her Punta Gorda classroom last week.
“I’d never heard it for real before,” Genus-Leach said. “It’s more believable. He really said this stuff. He really meant it.”
Genus-Leach and her classmates at Punta Gorda Middle School spent this week researching and writing about King, the civil rights leader who won a Nobel Peace Prize for coordinating nonviolent protests of racism and inequity in America in the 1950s and ’60s.
“Usually, I don’t take a lot of time on my reports,” said Christina Bryant, another student in David McNamee’s English class. “But this one meant a lot.”
Bryant and Genus-Leach are two of five students in McNamee’s classes whose essays are being reprinted in today’s Sun Herald.
Another of those students, Rachael Serur, said she spent four days working on her paper, which included a photo of King that she found on the Internet.
“The color of your skin is just something natural that you’re born with,” she said. “It doesn’t matter.”
Serur said she was especially impressed with King’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech — another fiery talk about racial conditions in America.
“He didn’t take time off to talk about himself,” she said. “He talked about the racial problems.”
The students whose essays appear in today’s paper are Christina Bryant, Jillianne Genus-Leach, Fraser Mackay, Artnetta Patterson and Rachael Serur.
As we celebrate African American History Month, I wonder what happened to those kids. I hope they’ve grown to become servant leaders.
Photo: Viewminder via Flickr
Written by David McNamee Director of Marylhurst Center for Servant Leadership