Students at Western Avenue Elementary school are not simply learning about African-American history this month, they are bring immersed.
Angel Gaines, a 16-year veteran of L.A. Unified and 2014 nominee for Teacher of the Year, worked with her third-grade class to create a pop-up museum featuring artifacts and replicas honoring significant African-American figures throughout history. The exhibits include a replica of the necktie that President Obama wore during his inauguration, a racquet used by tennis superstar Serena Williams; eyeglasses worn by slain civil rights leader Malcolm X; and a necklace worn by activist Coretta Scott King.
“It’s one thing to learn the fundamentals of reading, writing, math or history,” said Western Avenue Principal Shelby Sims, known in L.A. Unified for her innovative leadership style. “It’s a whole other matter to give students experiences where they can see, hear, touch and feel what they are learning about.”
Sims credited Gaines, who is new this year to Western Avenue Elementary, for developing the concept of the museum, with input from students and parents.
The museum is located in the school library. It will be open through Friday to visits from students, families and community members.
Leading guests through the museum are students from Gaines’ class, who competed for the honor by submitting resumes and presentations articulating the reasons why they were qualified to be docents.
“I wanted to give them exposure to what they will face out in the world,” Gaines said. “Competing for opportunities is a reality they need to be prepared for, and giving them the chance to start practicing early will give them in edge in showcasing their strengths through their careers and their lives.”
The nine student docents enthusiastically greeted museum guests and guided them from exhibit to exhibit, offering background information and interesting facts about the collections.
Third-grader Miguel Garcia demonstrated this extensive knowledgeable with vivid detail, describing how abolitionist Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery and went on to rescue more than 300 others. He also told how Frederick Douglass changed his surname to avoid being discovered after escaping slavery, and related Jackie Robinson’s ground-breaking entry into Major League Baseball.
“I’ve been studying about these things since kindergarten,” Miguel said. “I really like history. It’s really fun and interesting to learn about and even more fun to talk about everything we have in our museum.”
A highlight was Wednesday’s display of a full-size replica of the bus on which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man, leading to the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. The vintage bus, provided by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, is used as a mobile museum piece to commemorate events during the early days of the Civil Rights movement. Visitors had the opportunity to go inside the bus, and several teachers used the activity to re-enact what it must have been like for Parks in the 1950s.
“Can you imagine what it must have felt like if someone told you can’t sit where you want because of what you look like?” teachers asked their students. “Do you think that would be fair?”
“No!” the young students emphatically responded.
Sims said her school works to bring learning to life every day of the year. During a tour of the campus, she described how teachers are incorporating content standards into activities that are meaningful and relevant to the students. In one math class, for example, students planned for a new sports arena, calculating the capacity and ticket prices to cover the costs.
“Our teachers are just amazing,” Sims said. “When you look around, you see 100 percent engagement among students. It’s because of our teachers’ efforts at making everything they learn relevant and exciting. Our students are really going places.”