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Lessons Learned During Black History Month

“Freedom on the Menu” is a picture book that tells the story of young people who were not allowed to sit at a lunch counter in North Carolina back in 1960 because of the color of their skin.

“We read it in class,” said Regina Gatmaitan, who teaches fourth grade at Robertson Elementary School, “and when we were done, my students all agreed -- this was a story we needed to tell other people.”

And so they did. With their teacher’s help, they created a script, memorized their parts, prepared costumes, rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed -- and then last week (Feb. 22-26) performed 11 separate performances so that everyone else in the school was given a chance to know about this important civil rights story.

“They learned so much,” Mrs. Gatmaitan said, referring not just to her students but the rest of the school community.

At Robertson and throughout town, students had opportunities during February to give extra attention to topics regarding African-Americans, civil rights and related subjects.

For example, Verplanck had two events -- an evening gallery walk at Squire Village highlighted by the display of student work, and an assembly during the school day that featured remarks from Rev.  Aaliyah Mahasin-Blade, a performance by the  MHS Steppers and music by Verplanck scholars.

Mrs. Gatmaitan said she was pleased by way her students handled the challenge of putting on a play -- and not just because of the importance of its message.

“We also wanted to build a stronger community within our class, learn to have each other’s backs,” she said. After each performance, she noted that her students critiqued one another, looking for ways to improve

“Someone might have to speak louder, or face the audience more,” she said. “We focused on the positive, and every performance the kids got better, and more confident.”

Parents were invited in for the last performance on Friday afternoon.

“A lot showed up,” Mrs. Gatmaitan said, “and it was our best performance.”

And there’s one more dimension worthy of mention:

In order make this project work, Mrs. Gatmaitan’s students gave up recess for an entire month.

“I can't stress this enough,” she said, adding that at the outset the students and their parents signed a contract and promised to give up recess and cooperate during rehearsals.

“It was rough at the start,” she said, “but when they saw the play coming together, they understood the reason for their sacrifice. I am so proud of my students!”

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