Charlie Brown in the Third Grade

Ms. Hurley, why do you like Charlie Brown?

That’s what my third graders ask me every year.

God bless their hearts. They come into the third grade innocent. Taking everything at face value.

I never answer that question, because I never thought I liked Charlie Brown. I just think it’s a good tool to use to teach third graders about race in America.

Before school starts, I use my Amazon points to purchase classroom items such as posters, stickers, door d├ęcor, awards, window stickers and a new grade book -all decorated with Peanuts characters.

I found this Clean Desk Award on the website Teachers Pay Teachers. It’s a great way to teach the third grade organizational skills. I never have to worry about a messy desk. They never know when Ms. Hurley will give out the Clean Desk Award.

There is a huge welcome poster that hangs above the cozy classroom library. It’s the first poster the children see when they walk in. It says welcome in huge red letters, and features every Charlie Brown character-except Franklin.

There is a poster at the front of the room that states “In a good conversation, one person talks while the other listens,” and there you see Charlie Brown in a good conversation…

There is a Snoopy poster. It has a yellow backdrop and it reminds the children how to be a perfect friend. Lucy has a poster. Linus has a poster. There are posters with the whole gang- except Franklin. As a matter of fact, I can count on one hand how many posters Franklin is in…

So I ask the children to create a poster for Franklin.

As the year goes by the children mature. The calendar at the front of the room finally has a picture of Franklin…

Franklin’s image for the calendar appears on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Around this time they are introduced to my Charlie Brown library.

I built the library by searching on eBay and Etsy for Charlie Brown memorabilia. I came across a set of old Charlie Brown books. They are so old the children have to ask special permission to read them and they MUST handle the books with care.

The ones who love to read try to keep them. Before they leave for the summer, I have to search their desks to make sure each one is returned.

During the year, I watch them silently read. It warms my heart to see them understand the humor from the Peanuts characters. Once they start to laugh and enjoy the content, I begin to ask them questions about the images and where they see themselves.

I then pull out the Charlie Brown dictionary- which always amazes them. (It amazed me too!) I add it to our classroom set of dictionaries. As time passes and they learn to define words and use them, I allow them to search the Charlie Brown dictionary.

As the year continues, the class grows older. The students are not new to third grade. They are fully third graders now.

Then one day, someone asks a question about identity – this always happens…someone is always curious about his or her self– and the class begins to argue and no one can come to a consensus. They turn to me and I turn to the dictionaries that they learned to trust and ask them if they ever looked up the words black or white. What do they think it means in a dictionary such as this one? I pull down the Charlie Brown dictionary.

The classroom is usually silent. Everyone thinking.

Then I flip the pages to white.

And read: White is the color of snow. Ducks have white feathers. The sheets on my bed are white. Marshmallows are white.

Next I turn the pages to black and read,

Franklin is Charlie Brown’s little black friend. He is talking to Charlie Brown on the telephone. Black is a color. Black is also another word for Negro, a person with dark skin. The words in this book are black.

The next thing that usually happens is a series of questions. Questions about what is in books and what images we accept without questions.

One year, the conversation happened after a trip to the New York Historical Society. The children were stunned to see a white educator – rather than a black one- teaching them about slavery in New York. They stood, uncertain, and couldn’t answer her questions. When we returned to the classroom, they expressed their discomfort with having a white educator telling them about their history.

Why did you feel uncomfortable? I asked.

Because, what was her ancestors doing when my ancestors were slaves? one little boy said quietly.

What do you think they were doing and why didn’t you ask her that?

A bossy girl at the front of the room replied, Because, that’s rude Ms. Hurley!

Why is that rude? Weren’t you uncomfortable? Was it okay for her to make you feel uncomfortable in your own skin? I’m not telling you to be rude. I am telling you to think. Think about your history and your stories and who is telling them and who will tell them if you don’t learn who you are.

Another year the conversation happened after singing the Black National Anthem. That was two years ago, when Trevor Noah and Roy Wood Jr. celebrated Franklin’s 50th year on the Daily Show. That was the same year the children learned the word stereotype.

Last year COVID happened right when the children started having the conversations. I thought, How can I introduce ‘race in America’ without the setting of the classroom? America quickly answered that question for me. Instead of discussing Franklin and Charlie Brown we cried about Floyd and Michael Brown, Jr.

Visit to the Bronx Museum

A week before the children went to the Bronx Museum. I spoke to them about a possible visit.

We started off by first talking about pastels. I didn’t teach them the entire summer and by the time I joined the program, they were already used to drawing classes via youtube videos. The day I came, they were about to watch a you-tuber explain how to draw with pastels.

I used that as my opportunity to teach them about art history. I taught them how to appreciate spaces that showed art and artist who used either pastels or paint.

Three days before the trip to the museum, I introduced Jamal Shabazz and told them it was his work they were going to see. They watched Legendary Photographer: Honor and Dignity, a clip on youtube of Sahabazz talking about his work and his career. I also made sure they knew that he was inspired by someone they knew, Gordon Parks (a founder of the school they attended). This bit of information made them excited.

On the day of the trip, there was a great stir about whether I should take three little boys who were full of energy. They had a rough time following directions all morning. I made the decision to allow them to attend the trip after remembering how excited they were when they learned about Shabazz and how vital it was for them to see images of people who looked like them in a museum. It was their first time ever visiting a museum!

All 17 children and 5 adults arrived at the museum. We met our educator outside.

We were early and the educator seemed disorganized.

We stood at the museum main reading panel. I always instruct the children to read each panel in museums instead of just walking and looking. However, the educator, dissuade them. She begin to ramble about how long it was and how we didn’t really have to read it… At one point it was like she was begging us not to read it.

During the reading, even the three busy ones listened. The educator cut everyone off after the first paragraph and then escorted the children upstairs to an art room.

She gave everyone a drawing board and spoke in depth about pencils. She had everyone try different types and then lined everyone up and told them to take one pencils and their pad. Next, we returned to the Jamal Shabazz show and she had the group sit down and draw a photograph.

She waited and they drew. Finally, everyone did a show and share. Well, really, no one showed. And no one shared. She asked who drew each picture and then spoke about the pictures. Not really allowing the children to speak about the work.

Around this time, the children began to lose patience.

Next, she told the children to go look at the rest of the exhibit… to Find a photograph and draw it. We were the only ones in the museum and I didn’t stress noise level. I also didn’t give the children any rules of how to behave (outside the talk they were given before we left the school). As I usual, they waited for the educator to give more clear directions.

She didn’t give them three minutes to follow that instruction. She changed her mind.

Actually, let’s look at some of his work together. The younger ones no longer paid attention and continued to view what they had started looking at. Here is a mini video:

She ushered the group into another gallery and we went back upstairs.

Upstairs she told them they were going to use water color. She took out huge water color sheets and asked me if I thought they could share. I told her I wouldn’t mind cutting the sheets in halves so each student could have their own.

The students painted and we returned to the school.

After the Visit to the Bronx Museum

Before leaving the Bronx Museum, the museum educator said,

Your students are my last group for the summer. They are such a great group. They are unlike other students I worked with in the Bronx. I have had students who showed zero interest in art. People assume I have fun and it’s easy-going as an artist here but working with youth is getting more difficult.

She walked us to the elevator and added,

The Bronx Museum is going through a fight about space since the building didn’t really belong to them. I’ve been her for a long time but I am not sure what is going to happen.

Oh, that’s going on here too!?

Yep.

Here, please, lastly, she gave me an evaluation sheet, fill this out for me.

Why do museums do that? Why do they ask the teachers to fill out evaluation forms as if the children are non-existent? If she would have asked my students to fill out an evaluation form, she would have gotten the whole truth.

On the way back to the school, I couldn’t help but think of how I would have lead my students through the Jamel Shabazz exhibit.

It was almost strange how her entire pedagogy was all-together off. My students were very interested in the material we came to see, because I taught them many lessons before we went. However, when we got there, the artist wasn’t at all engaging.

Instead of telling her much, I decided while on the way back to the school, I will conduct two restorative circles to hear their feedback then I will end the day with an art activity that the museum should have done.

I conducted two restorative circles. I turned the classroom into a museum exhibit.

The first assignment I completed with my students was with the teens. It was during this time, that I learned that some thought the show was boring and some were looking forward to actually meeting Jamal Shabazz. When I asked them how they would have showed the work, they mentioned that a video to see Shabazz speak would have been nice and even a zoom call with the artist for question and answer. They admitted that they didn’t see the connection between the pencil excise, the watercolor and the photographs.

(The educator told me she loved to just let children do art… “they are thinking about what they saw and somehow it would come out in their watercolor”…)

The second restorative circle was with the younger children. It began after their lunch period.

I gathered old photos from my photo albums and my darkroom days. I placed them on the wall and allowed the students to get as close to the photos as they wanted. I split them up into groups then the groups into pairs. Each student had a few minutes to draw a quick sketch of any image on the wall and when I told them to switch, each student had to give it to a friend who in turn looked for the image they drew.

During this exhibition, they laughed and talked about art. They asked questions and showed they were very capable of viewing art and engaging in conversation about the art itself.

I knew my students. They were unhappy, insulted I might add, that they went to the museum to see work by an artist they studied before hand and the museum educator was not equipped to engage in dialogue with them. I could have asked to give the tour myself but assumed she was well versed in the subject matter more than me. When I realized she wasn’t, I tried to give her pointers but she quickly placed paper and paint in from of them and told them to paint anything. All the while, telling me how worried she is about the program closing.

Thank You, Ms. Renee Watson

watson

This public thank you letter is long overdo. Since this picture in 2019, I have seen Ms. Waston on many occasions and said thank you personally but putting it in writing has helped me shape the deepness behind my ‘thanks’.

Dear Ms. Watson,

This letter is about your involvement with the Langston Hughes’ house even though it was for a short period of time in which you (along with friends) made it into a community reading space.

It was in that short time, my interest in Langston Hughes sparked.

At the events, I met many writers such as the children’s book authors, Mr. and Mrs. Lesa Cline- Ransome, who wrote the book, Finding Langston and Mrs. Rita Williams-Garcia, the author behind the creation of the Gaither girls.

Meeting these authors and talking about their work in real time, was very pertinent to me as a teacher and writer. I did not know it then, but my school would soon be forced to relocate and my students would need as much of Langston Hughes and the Gaither girls as they could possibly have.

Last spring when the flowers were beginning to bud in front of the school building, the entire community was hit with terrible news- the school will be relocating. This shocked everyone. We were at our location for over 15 years. This news put everybody in another mode of survival (we were still coping with COVID-19). From the school’s administration to the children, plans had to be made and arrangements had to be set for the future.

As a teacher, one main thought of mine was, if the school remains open, whom can I teach next year that will open up discussions about displacement, gentrification, and Black migration in the U.S?

Because I had been involved in conversations about those very topics at the Langston Hughes House, it was easy for me to think of Hughes’ childhood and migration. I could think of no better person than this writer and renaissance man to teach and open up these tough discussions.

When putting together a syllabus for the school year, Langston Hughes’ children literature was sought after. Finding Langston by Lesa Celine-Ransom which deals with many relevant themes such as death, migration, poverty, Blackness, country living vs. city living and survival, wasn’t hard and it was the first book on their list. Gone Crazy in Alabama, was the last.

The children started Finding Langston at the same time the moving men started to pack the classrooms.

They read about Langston moving from Alabama and imagined they were in Langston’s shoes….The moving men were outside the classroom doors toting things away and they were in the classroom sitting on the floor with their legs crossed imaging they were on grass under the hot Alabama sun. Langston became us and we became him.

Learning about Langston Hughes and remembering the past conversations gave me a solace.

The students begin to bottle up their emotions and tried to process what was really going on. Their school building along with their friends and the comfort of common community was all being taken away.

Knowing the tough time they were experiencing, I drew from facts of Langston Hughes life and Black Life in general. For the rest of the year, we looked at Jim Crow laws, Brown Vs. Board of Education, Thurgood Marshall’s Life, Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series, and at the end of the year ended with the Black Panther Party and the 10 point system.

Langston Hughes was a child of the Great Migration. Our parents (my parents at least) were apart of the same migration.

But my students and even myself are apart of another type of migration, gentrification. It seems to be the same story, and the same folks.

Thank You Ms. Watson for providing me the tools to have these conversations.

Ms. Hurley