Thursday, February 28th, 2008
A Recipe for a Black History Month Preschool Presentation
How do you teach preschoolers about Black History Month? First, you repeatedly unintentionally feed them bad information about peanut butter and traffic lights. More about that in a minute.
As part of the 1.1 percent of African-Americans living within several hundred square miles of our preschool in northern California, my wife was tasked with giving a presentation to 3, 4 and 5-year-olds at our daughter’s school.
So my wife googled for famous African-Americans, and landed predominantly on websites oriented toward childhood education. (Foreboding hint: don’t believe everything you read.)
She began by explaining that the month of February is a time when we’re supposed to think back and remember the neat accomplishments of people who are black, and that means people who have brown skin, but not everyone who has brown skin is considered black. (More on that later…)
2. Famous Person #1
Garrett Morgan invented the traffic signal a long time ago. Does anyone know what a stop light is? What colors does it have? What do they mean? Did you know that without the invention of the traffic light, we would not have the game, Red Light, Green Light? Except the original traffic light only said "stop" and "go," but traffic lights eventually did have red, yellow and green.
Oops. Except in preparing this blog article after the presentation, my first stop was Wikipedia where a common myth was dispelled. Morgan invented a traffic signal in 1923. Some 50 signal patents were already on the books by that time. It’s hard to tell if there was anything special about the invention. Even a Wikipedia claim that General Electric bought the invention for $40,000 is in dispute.
3. Famous Person #2
George Washington Carver invented peanut butter. He’s not the George Washington who you talked about during President’s Week. He helped farmers grow their crops better. Then they had leftover peanuts rotting in their barns. So they asked George, "What can we do with all these peanuts?"
Oops. Wikipedia again tells a slightly different story. Carver rose to fame helping farmers restore nitrogen to their soil using a technique known as crop rotation. Between 1898 and 1943 he published 44 "bulletins" filled with valuable information for farmers. But peanut butter dates back centuries and was first sold commercially in 1890 by someone else.
Carver is still a great guy though. He discovered and/or popularized 300 (food and non-food) uses for the peanut and hundreds more for other crops. He was regarded as a peanut expert, testifying before Congress on peanut issues, despite his skin color.
Ella Fitzgerald is a fabulous black singer. Black people are credited with creating Jazz and some other forms of music we enjoy today. We are going to listen to her sing a song all of you will recognize, but in a jazzy way.
The kids’ reaction varied… a boy drumming with his hands… a boy tapping his hand to his head to the beat… girls bouncing up and down… clapping. Everyone laughed when the teacher stood up and started dancing.
5. Story Time
"I am the creamy white frost in vanilla ice cream."
That’s the first line of the photo book, Shades of Black by Sandra L. Pinkney. Each page contains a photo of a black child with a different skin tone, and a comparison of the child’s skin color to a real world thing. The preschoolers laughed at the popcorn girl, chocolate bar and gingersnap.
The kids talked about that fact that people can consider themselves "black," but look different from each other. When the teacher pointed out our daughter is black, it was an eye-opener for the kids because she has such fair skin. It caught my daughter off guard too because we use the term "brown" at home.
If you put our hands together, you can see she’s closer to my wife’s color than mine.
(Mom and daughter’s hands are a little light due to the camera flash.)
I had never thought about my skin color until my college years when a summer job found me on the same light rail train my mother took to work each morning. The first time I sat across from a Jamaican couple my mother knew, the woman said she knew we were related because we were both the same shade of pink. Holy crap. She’s right. I am pink!
6. Snack Time Project
My wife concluded the presentation with a tantalizing mystery. "At snack time we’re going to do a craft project where we combine traffic lights and peanut butter." There were many "oohs" and "ahhs" as the kids puzzled at how you could combine those things.
Cracker + peanut butter + red, yellow and green M&Ms.
To avoid wide scale mayhem, she buttered the crackers and the kids handled the M&Ms. The difficult part in preparing a project like this one is fighting the urge to lick your fingers.
After it was all said and done, aside from my deflating my wife’s post-presentation elation with my couple minutes of Wikipedia reading, we think the morning went quite well.
And I’m mightily impressed she picked out those two historical figures from (admittedly poorly informed) websites and tied them together with her own idea snack idea.