As co-heads of Hewitt’s Black Student Union (BSU), our mission is to provide a supportive and productive environment for Black students to discuss issues that are important to us. In our first year running the BSU, which Clarissa founded this fall, we decided to take on a leadership opportunity by creating an original Black History Month curriculum for students in middle and high school. Throughout January, members of the BSU worked in small groups to plan three sets of lessons: one geared toward fifth and sixth graders, another for seventh and eighth graders, and a third that was designed specifically for high school students. Each lesson plan included multiple opportunities for students to engage in thought-provoking discussions and written reflections about the Black experience and what it means to be an empathetic and active ally. On behalf of the members of the BSU, we are not only extremely proud of our hard work on this project, but also amazed by the dedication, engagement, and support we received from Hewitt students and faculty.
As students who have attended Hewitt since middle school, we chose to focus our lessons around topics we wanted our white and non-Black peers to know more about. All members of the Black Student Union felt that it was important to teach our peers about the detrimental effects of microaggressions, but we also wanted to focus on the importance of celebrating Black excellence and appreciating Black culture both within and beyond the Hewitt community. Once we had an idea of the themes that we wanted to cover, we started thinking about how to design actual lessons and conversation prompts. We researched teaching materials and resources that were age-appropriate and aligned with each grade’s ongoing conversations around race, and that would push those conversations further and allow students to gain a deeper understanding of the Black experience at Hewitt and their connection to racism in the world beyond school. Reflecting on our goals for this project, Director of Equity and Community Life Ms. Loris Adams notes, “The BSU’s intentional work to provide the student body with window and mirror experiences — to offer their peers windows into the experiences of others as well as mirrors to reflect their own experiences — speaks to their commitment to become and inspire ethical leaders who forge a more equitable future. At Hewitt, we know that the work these students are doing is the true mantle that all of us must share in order to create actively anti-racist communities.”
We knew it was important to collaborate with Hewitt teachers as we planned, since they were the ones who would actually lead students through our programming. We invited Black faculty members to help us gather resources and plan our curriculum, and met with as many middle and high school teachers as possible to get their input and feedback on the lessons we were developing. The program we created was new for the community and we did not have close relationships with every middle and upper school teacher, so we came into these first meetings a bit unsure of what to expect, but we ended up getting a lot of support from the faculty. Our conversations with non-Black faculty members also opened our eyes to important ways to improve our curriculum. For example, their questions about how to lead productive classroom discussions about race inspired us to come up with different ways to engage students in these potentially challenging conversations. Talking with teachers allowed us to tailor our curriculum to possible situations and classroom dynamics we had not thought of previously, such as the scenario of teaching our lessons in a class without Black students in the room. We are grateful to Ms. Adams, Head of Upper School and Assistant Head of School Ms. Elizabeth Stevens, Head of Middle School Ms. Launa Schweizer, and the middle and upper school advisors for reviewing our plans, offering feedback, suggesting resources, and staying in communication with us to make sure our programming ran smoothly. They not only supported us as we designed our curriculum, but also encouraged individual growth and learning in their students throughout the month of February by ensuring our plans were carried through and providing their students with additional resources.
Because of our own class schedules and social distancing rules, we knew that the members of the BSU would not be able to join each middle and upper school class for their Black History Month activities. We decided to add an important personal touch to our curriculum by creating a short video for every advisory to watch at the start of February. This video included an introduction to all of the members of the BSU, a short history of the origins of Black History Month, and a list of community norms for students to keep in mind as they participated in our programming. These norms reminded students to stay present, respect and reflect on differing opinions, and lean into the discomfort of difficult conversations. To keep ourselves and our community accountable, we checked in with students and teachers throughout the month to find out what they took away from our curriculum and how they planned to further develop their understanding of the Black experience. Ms. Schweizer described how both faculty and students benefited from our student-created curriculum. “In their roles as leaders of the BSU, Sydney and Clarissa fully embodied Hewitt’s values in creating engaging, challenging content for us to discuss. Their program was based on increasing self-awareness and empathy in Hewitt students. Examining our experiences and biases and trying to understand the experiences of others allows us all to become more ethical leaders and to better appreciate our own community.”
Our middle school curriculum started in fifth and sixth grade with a biography project, which was inspired by a list of influential Black leaders the BSU had generated. We were struggling to find the most effective way to share our initial list of Black figures with the school, and realized that instead of giving students biographies we had written, it would be much more impactful if they led their own learning by creating biographies themselves. The project ended up being a way for fifth and sixth graders to exercise their research skills and learn more about influential Black people such as Viola Davis, Naomi Osaka, Lena Waithe, and Amanda Gorman. While we wanted to give the students a good amount of freedom and independence in these projects, we also knew it was important to set some guidelines and provide models of strong biographies. In addition to providing guidelines for the fifth and sixth graders to follow, we also shared example biographies we had written of ourselves to set the tone for what we were asking the students to do. By the end of February, each student had used their research to create a Google Slides presentation on a Black leader, which they presented to their classmates.
In seventh and eighth grade, students learned about microaggressions — indirect and unintentional statements against one's identity — and why they are so detrimental. To encourage conversation and help students develop empathy for the experiences of others, they watched a short video depicting some of the most common comments and questions that Black people receive about our Afro-textured hair. The video highlighted how easy it is for people to commit microaggressions by making casual remarks about Black women’s hair and showed one of the worst and most difficult parts about facing microaggressions: that these painful and humiliating comments usually come out sounding like a joke. After learning about microaggressions and watching the video, we asked seventh and eighth graders to reflect on why it is hurtful to Black people when a non-Black person is unable to realize that their humorous or lighthearted comments are actually harmful. Students also used writing and discussion prompts to think about times they had heard or made comments like the ones shown in the video and develop strategies for being better allies in the future.
In upper school, we incorporated two of Hewitt’s school values, respect and curiosity, into our curriculum. Our activities focused on the idea that true appreciation of Black culture requires us to be curious about and respectful of its origins. We introduced this topic through Dr. Dre Presents "You Love Me," a short film that asks, “You love my culture, but do you love me?” Featuring celebrities such as rapper Lil Baby, tennis champion Naomi Osaka, and NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace, the video speaks to how non-Black audiences often appreciate the contributions Black people make to pop culture without actually showing respect for the people making those contributions. After watching the video, high school students responded to discussion prompts about why it is important to understand the history and origins of Black culture and acknowledge the effort and skill that notable Black people put into their work. These conversations led students to begin considering the difference between respectfully appreciating Black culture and appropriating it without acknowledging and understanding its roots.
The curriculum we created for the entire high school also connected to and led to smaller conversations and activities in specific classes. For example, inspired by our programming, students in Señora Arlene Padilla’s Spanish class were able to make connections to and deeply engage in conversations around the intersectionality of Black and Latinx culture and the experience of being Afrolatina. Sophomores, who study U.S. History throughout the year, watched and discussed “One Angry Man,” an episode of the TV show Blackish that aligned perfectly with the conversations they were having in their history classes about the origins of America’s justice system and how it has been biased against Black people since its creation. Not only did the episode connect back to the history lesson, but it also provided modern context for students to understand America’s unjust justice system. Lastly, in advisory meetings students had the opportunity to share the resources they most enjoyed from a list of Black businesses, restaurants, shows, movies, and books curated by the BSU and offer classmates additional recommendations for businesses and media that celebrated Black culture.
We are extremely proud of how well this project went and how much we have achieved in our first year founding and leading the BSU. Along with our overall sense of accomplishment, the most rewarding takeaway from this experience has been seeing how our community has learned and grown throughout February because of our leadership. Faculty members — those we have known for years and those whom we met during this planning process — reached out to express their gratitude for our work, and both teachers and students shared that they learned something new from our curriculum. We have also heard that our discussion prompts encouraged students to open themselves up to thinking more deeply about the experiences of their Black peers, and we are excited to know that our work has made an impact in this way. Students have started reflecting on what they do not yet know about microaggressions, Black history, and Black culture, and we are excited for them to continue their independent learning around what it means to be an ally. The feedback we received from our teachers and classmates makes us proud of ourselves and our school, and we hope our work inspires even more student leaders to organize diversity, equity, and inclusivity programming for the Hewitt community.
As we developed our Black History Month curriculum for Hewitt’s middle and upper school students, we learned how important communication and collaboration are to accomplishing our goals, both as students and in life beyond school. Working together with people who shared our same motivation was crucial to our team’s success, and in the future we will ask for support from more of our peers, including non-Black students of color and white students. This experience has given us a platform to show the Hewitt community that Black history is everyone’s history and that the programming we created is critical to preparing all students, regardless of their race, to live and work in a diverse world. Moving forward, we recommend creating more opportunities for members of our community to participate in the research and planning phases of projects like ours, and to become better educated about the Black experience. Our project has also helped us realize how important it is to have confidence and a growth mindset when trying something new. We set high expectations for ourselves, and we were motivated to try out new ideas and problem solve in order to be successful. We worked hard and dealt with various challenges along the way, but it was all worth it for the pride and accomplishment we felt watching our peers follow our curriculum and seeing our project have such a lasting, huge impact on our school.