Chip Minemyer: Teachers make Black History Month promotion an 'in-depth' learning opportunity

Feb. 2—Teachers at Bishop McCort Catholic High School in Johnstown have turned The Tribune-Democrat's annual Black History Month promotion into a learning opportunity that stretches across various areas of education.

Laura Rice, the school's English Department chair, said Bishop McCort teachers plan "cross-curricular" lessons that include social studies or history plus English and creative writing so that students share their knowledge about important topics and also express the insights or reflective responses the process has inspired.

"In the specific case of Black History Month, seniors, for example, prepare to mark February with lessons on slavery, Reconstruction, post- Reconstruction constitutional amendments, and the Civil Rights Movement," Rice said.

"These lessons occur in the Social Studies Department starting in November. The English Department in January, then, is able to come on board to assist with a culminating project intended to allow the students to employ self-expression after a few months of essential instruction and thoughtful activities.

"Social Studies and English faculty collaborate on content and technical aspects, respectively, in order to create an in-depth, multidimensional learning experience of exploration for our students."

The Black History Month poster and essay contest represents a partnership between The Tribune-Democrat and the Ron Fisher African American History Educational Fund, which honors the late Ron Fisher, who was a reporter with the newspaper.

Alexis Fisher, Ron's sister, manages the fund and takes the lead on developing themes for the contest each year. Then students in all grades at area school districts are eligible to enter posters (K through Grade 4), posters or multi-media presentations (Grades 5-8), or written essays (Grades 9-12).

To connect with the anniversary of a key moment in U.S. history, essay writers this year were given this prompt: "Consider the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. Why is it important to treat people equally and what does that mean to you?"

Elementary pupils were asked to "Depict a famous African American figure who makes a difference in current times," while middle-schoolers were urged to consider this: "What is one of the most important inventions that was created by an African American? Depict why it is important to you or your community."

We received about 150 essays this year, roughly the same as in 2023, while posters jumped from 80 last year to more than 400 for 2024.

Three entries in each age division will receive cash and plaques, with the winners to be announced Feb. 17. A celebration to showcase the work will be held Feb. 24 at Bottle Works Ethnic Arts Center in Johns-town's Cambria City neighborhood — where judges will be evaluating the entries this week to make their decisions.

Bishop McCort students across multiple grades were very active in the essay portion of the contest — thanks to the efforts of Rice and her teaching colleagues, including Nicole Fratrich and Lorie Reagan.

"We don't know ahead of time what the specific essay prompt will be for the Tribune- Democrat's Black History Month essay contest, so we do our best to educate our students as fully and widely as possible," Rice said, "which we believe is rather successful as evidenced by the number of students who write and submit essays for the competition!"

At Greater Johnstown High School, civics teacher Christian Wrabley took his Advanced Placement U.S. History students through lessons on "The Gilded Age" — the late 1800s and early 1900s — when industrialists such as Andrew Carnegie were powering the economy while also providing ample opportunities for later instruction on topics such as economic gaps and the impact on poverty levels.

"They were learning about the haves and have-nots, and the disparity of wealth," Wrabley said of his students.

He said the Tribune's essay prompt inspired the class to then look at the Civil Rights Movement and the issues of racism and access to jobs and services.

"That literally took us from the turn of the century to the Civil Rights Movement and on to today," he said. "We were able to trace that journey of equality in different ways — whether racial or financial or social."

Wrabley said his students' next big project is preparing for the National History Day competition — which will see half a million students from across all 50 states writing essays on national topics.

One of his students is exploring women's rights and the suffrage movement — with links to the Civil Rights Act, he said.

Another is exploring the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott — a pivotal chapter in the Civil Rights Movement.

In December 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to yield her seat to a white passenger on a city bus. A 13-month boycott of the Montgomery bus system led to a Supreme Court ruling that segregation on public transportation is unconstitutional.

Wrabley said he urges his students to research such moments in history, and then connect the facts they've uncovered with their own life experiences to inspire deeper learning.

That, in turn, produces meaningful Black History Month essays, he said.

"Everybody in here has a story to tell," he said, "and that could be something you have experienced in your life or something you learned about."

Chip Minemyer is the publisher of The Tribune-Democrat and The Times-News of Cumberland, Md. He can be reached at 814-532-5111. Follow him on Twitter @MinemyerChip.