St. Cloud students help bring black history to life

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — When Avery John gets to her classroom at St. Cloud Elementary School, kindergarten teacher Tiffany China hears the rest of the students asking, “Who is she wearing?”

Avery isn’t walking the red carpet at the Academy Awards wearing a piece by an acclaimed fashion designer. She’s wearing a T-shirt with the name of a black woman printed on it, as she and her older sister, Marlee, have done every day they’ve gone to school in February. To celebrate Black History Month, Avery and Marlee’s mother, Ernestine John, made each of her daughters 19 T-shirts, each with a different name on it.

“I’ve made T-shirts for my family for years, and so I asked Marlee to make a list of people she would want to make shirts for,” John said in a phone interview with the West Orange Chronicle on Feb. 20. “She gave me a list, and I made them all in one long weekend.”

John used a Cricut, a cutting machine, to make the iron-on letters. She chose a font and design for each shirt, fed it through the machine to make the stencil and then ironed it on. The people Marlee chose included well-known figures such as Rosa Parks and Oprah Winfrey, but also people John hadn’t heard of, such as Raven Wilkinson, the first black woman to dance for a major classical ballet company, and Phillis Wheatley, the first black woman to publish a book of poetry.

“I thought I would know all the people, so it was refreshing that she picked ones I was unaware of,” John said. “I added Aretha Franklin, because she was the only one I thought was necessary.”

Marlee has been going to her fifth grade class with an index card of facts about the person on her shirt at the ready, and was reading them to the students she sits with at her table when teacher Karen Thompson caught on.

“She was wearing these shirts every day, and then I started noticing she was sharing information with her table,” Thompson said in a phone interview with the Chronicle on Feb. 24. “They were so interested in what she was teaching, and she was doing it on her own. So I asked her to share it with the whole class. She got a chance to teach the other kids, and the other kids got a chance to learn from their peer.”

The index card was also a suggestion from John.

“I wanted her to be aware of what the person stands for,” she said. “So if someone asks, she’s ready to say, ‘Misty Copeland is this; this is Maya Angelou.’ That way they’ll know.”

Avery doesn’t bring index cards, but China was already reading about a different black person with the students each day using the book “The Fierce 44: Black Americans Who Shook Up the World.” She began to match her lesson to the person on Avery’s shirt.

“She would come home and say, ‘Miss China read my shirt,’ and it took me three or four days to figure out what she meant,” John said. “I have an appreciation for how their teachers picked up on what we were doing and ran with it, especially every day. I think it’s more meaningful to see the names and then learn about them.”

Students in both classes are excited about highlighting a new person every day. Thompson was talking about Black History Month in class as well, and Marlee’s shirts tied in to the lessons she was already teaching about Harriet Tubman and Misty Copeland.

“She became a walking piece of education,” Thompson said. “That catches their attention more than opening a book would. I thought it was genius of their mom to have them do something like this.”

China agreed.

“Because they’re so young, it’s exciting for them to see who’s on their friend’s shirt every day,” China said about the kindergarteners. “It’s a great example of not only are we teaching our children, but our children are teaching us. I know some of it might be going over their heads, but I hope when they’re older and reading about this history, they’ll remember, ‘Oh, I learned about this in kindergarten.’”

Photos Courtesy of Ernestine John