Weekly Letter 2.27.17

Dear Families:


Years ago, our fourth grade study of Native Americans, was taught in third grade.  In 2002, Carmen FariƱa, then superintendent of District 15, instituted a District-wide Social Studies curriculum and suggested some changes to our program here at BNS. The 4th grade would now study the Lenape, along with colonial New York. The 3rd grade curriculum would be "Communities Around the World." Carmen's vision was 3 units: China, because of the rising importance of China in our world, Africa, because of the number of students of African heritage, and a 3rd region of the school's choosing based on their population.


At BNS, the 3rd grade team at the time - Steve, Shirley, and Jenny - decided to limit themselves to the first two. Since our focus is always depth over breadth, the feeling was that we could only do two curriculums well. Over the next 14 years the curriculums grew, evolved and changed in various ways. The China curriculum always culminated in a museum. Back then, the spring share, now called "June Share," originated as an "Author's Share" where students showcased their writing. Originally, this writing wasn't even necessarily connected to the Africa study, but over time it became research reports on African animals. This contrast - between the China Museum and the June Share writing - confused some parents, who thought that students were not learning about African cultures. This was not true. But it was true that projects based on African culture had gotten squeezed out, and it was true that over time, the Africa curriculum was being taught more through a science lens than a social studies lens. With a focus on the work of Wangari Maathai and Jane Goodall and the culture of the Maasai, the curriculum also evolved to have an East Africa focus. This meant that it had lost something of its original purpose of having students develop pride in their African heritage. While all of us have our ancestors in East Africa, that is not the culture that the enslaved Africans brought with them when they arrived on this continent.


Last spring, a group of parents volunteered to work with the 3rd grade team to bring in more content related to West African culture and the teachers committed to bringing back projects. The parents organized a Senegalese lunch, and African dance performance, a storyteller, and a beading workshop. The teachers organized a six-week cross-class project time. The curriculum was enriched, but everything else felt squeezed and rushed. It was not realistic to keep everything that had been developed over the years and add another curriculum on top of it! A third option had to be found.  


The third option that the team decided to try was to eliminate China entirely and spend the year on Africa. The first half of the year would focus on West Africa, which would be where most students of African heritage would find their ancestors. This curriculum would culminate in a museum. This would also support the 4th grade New Amsterdam curriculum, which focuses on the cultural interactions between the Lenape, different groups of Europeans, and enslaved Africans. Following this, the team would develop a new mini-unit on North Africa, and then would end the year with their traditional East Africa curriculum.


While we have heard some express sadness over the loss of the China curriculum, the third graders, their parents, and their teachers are excited and energized by the new curriculum. We have also forged new relationships with cultural institutions as a result.  Representatives from the Brooklyn Children's Museum visited and are interested in developing a close working relationship with us so that their extensive West African artifact collection gets more use. The third grade team also applied for and was accepted to receive a dance residency with BAM. Just as their 12 weeks with Jose and BAX are ending, the grade is set to begin a 12 week African dance residency with BAM.

We invite all of you to attend the first ever Museum of West Africa on Tuesday, February 28th from 12-2pm and Wednesday, March 1st from 8:30-11am! You will not be disappointed!

All for now,