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Spotlight: The ABCs of Black Excellence

At the Early Learning Center this year, students in Pre-K 3 to Kindergarten grooved to Ella Fitzgerald, practiced breakdancing, and learned the significance of box braids, Bantu knots and Basquiat. This was all a part of a curriculum developed by Packer’s Preschool and Lower School Learning Specialist, Sherleen Bruno (below). The curriculum, which she has dubbed “Black Excellence: Our History, Our Culture, Our Legacy,” focuses on several early learning domains: social and emotional development, language and literacy, cognition, and motor development, all through the lens of Black history and social justice. The intention is for each lesson to be a celebration and an opportunity to gain cultural competency. 

Sherleen Bruno

As a learning specialist, Sherleen typically works with children in small groups or pushes into classrooms to provide customized learning support for students. But with the introduction of smaller learning pods during the pandemic, and with a division-wide need for extra coverage, Sherleen found herself working as a classroom specialist teacher. Although she’d worked as a special education teacher prior to working at Packer, Sherleen initially struggled with the curriculum she wanted to teach. “I started by re-teaching Fundations [a literacy curriculum], but it felt repetitive. I thought; I have the attention of all of these children. There has to be something deeper I can do.”  

Attending NAIS’ People of Color Conference in December 2020 showed Sherleen the possibilities. “POCC was life changing,” she says. “I was emotionally exhausted [at that time], but I realized I could use my practice as a way to heal. I knew I needed to make my time in the classroom more purposeful.” 

She cites the POCC address from Dr. Bettina Love—who was also the keynote speaker of the 2021 Packer in Action Program—as a particularly profound experience. “When I listened to her speak, it was like I woke up, there was no question that this needed to happen. This is my calling.”

During the virtual conference, she gathered with educators of color from independent schools across the city. Her peers became her sounding board as she discussed possible ways to expand her literacy instruction by weaving in lessons on Black history and culture. 

“I initially called the curriculum ‘The ABCs of Black Excellence’ to keep it linked with Fundations and to focus on letter recognition and letter sounds,” Sherleen explains. “I’d introduce the kids to an important Black person from the past or present day, and they had to identify what [letter their] name started with. For example: B for Basquiat. It’s since expanded to a larger exploration of various facets of Black culture and history.” 

Every class in the ELC experiences the same content, but Sherleen modifies the lessons for each grade level, making it age appropriate for our youngest learners. Following a shared reading—which supports literacy comprehension—students will do targeted breakout activities; Pre-K classes might create a craft inspired by the topic of the lesson, while Kindergartners do written responses. 

Sherleen believes that when it comes to learning about Black history, the earlier the better for her students. “I’ve been able to form what they know and think about Black people and our culture. I’ve been able to reframe their thinking and any preconceived notions,” She adds: “Students shouldn't just be learning about Black history in middle school and high school. I like that they now know more than MLK.” 

Leading up to a Preschool and Lower School assembly on Hip-Hop culture in April, students learned about artists who used their rhymes as a means of storytelling and activism. They then discussed elements [of Hip-Hop culture,] including breakdancing and graffiti. Sherleen challenged the common misconception that graffiti is merely vandalism, considering it as a form of public art in the absence of other venues for expression as well as a means for artists to make their mark, feel a sense of ownership, and claim space. As an activity, students penned their own booklets using graffiti lettering. During a lesson on Juneteenth, the newly recognized federal holiday that commemorates the emancipation of the final enslaved people in our country, students learned about the symbolism of the Pan-African flag. Using the colors red, black and green, Pre-K learners made beaded bracelets, and Kindergartners created weavings.

Pre-school students holding weavings.

Another standout was the “Hair-story” lesson, which introduced the children to the variety and significance of natural Black hairstyles. The lesson, Sherleen says, “taught the children that when they see someone different from them, they can respect that difference. We learned that hairstyles are important means for self-expression and identity in the Black community, and because of that, Black folks may change their hairstyles often.” 

Conversations like this embody Packer’s goal of developing students’ cultural competency — and may help prevent the unintended microaggressions that can occur when differences exist within a group. “Now, instead of asking ‘why do you always change your hair?’ they know it's a part of our culture, and can compliment it and move forward,” says Sherleen. “Instead of reaching out and touching a Black person’s hair, they now know to ask. And if the answer is ‘no,’ that’s okay.” Sherleen shared that natural Black hairstyles have at times been banned, even at schools. Her students were moved and recognized the injustice. A four-year-old in the Pre-K 3s class said; “We learned about children who were treated unfairly because of their hair. If I were there, I would’ve stood up and said, ‘that’s not right!’” They also learned about the Crown Act, a bill to ban hair discrimination on the federal level, currently before Congress. (At a similar point in the year, Packer’s oldest students also learned about the Crown Act and heard personal hair stories from members of the Upper School’s Black Girl Magic club.)

Another student added, “That is why hair is so important. We learned about afros, puffs, cornrows, and dreadlocks. I think those hairstyles are so beautiful.” 

After reflecting on their personal hair stories by drawing self portraits, the class read Don’t Touch My Hair, by Sheree Miller (who was a visiting author at Packer in January 2020), then each student got to experiment with braiding or twisting yarn. Preschool children are just beginning to learn to hold a pencil, and this activity helped boost fine motor skills, a necessary precursor for writing. 

The curriculum underscores the Preschool and Lower School’s broader goal of developing students’ sense of agency by empowering them to take responsibility for influencing their communities. Rather than saying she’s teaching children to be anti-racists, Sherleen uses the term “changemakers.” In every lesson she reminds them that they have the power to make changes to our world, too. “After learning about Black changemakers who’ve paved the way, I ask the children, ‘how would you, or how could you, make change if you were in their shoes?’ They’ve learned that a changemaker is someone who fights for justice and makes a big difference in our country or community in various ways, and that they can be a changemaker through their art, through dance, through the way they wear their hair and more.” When asked about the responsibility she feels as a Black educator to do this work, Sherleen acknowledges that it sometimes feels like a burden, but also appreciates the opportunity. “I’ve sometimes asked myself, ‘why does it have to come from me?’ But ultimately I felt like I was in a position to use my platform to make a change. I felt purpose in teaching predominantly white kids about topics like hip-hop, graffiti, and natural hair. I just couldn’t wait for this to happen sometime later in their education. I'm okay with being the one to initiate it.” 

Going forward, Sherleen hopes these lessons will be adopted and extended across the Lower School along with lessons that celebrate other identities. “While my lessons are anchored around literacy, this is really social studies,” she says. “The approach I’m taking is how we have diversity and equity in our social studies and history curriculums.” 

Kindergarten teacher Anne Montero recognizes the impact Sherleen has had on her students. “I remember coming in at the end of one of Sherleen's classes, and Hip-Hop music was playing. The kids were bopping along to the beat in their chairs, and the joy was palpable,” she says. “When I asked the kids what they were learning about, everyone was able to articulate the many aspects of Hip-Hop culture with appreciation and pride. We had a classroom full of graffiti experts, mix masters, break dancers, and beat boxers.” 

And a parent of a child in the Pre-K 3s says her daughter comes home gushing about the latest Black changemaker she’s learned about in each lesson. “Those lessons with Sherleen are her absolute favorite.” 

Glynn Pogue, a former Preschool and Lower School teacher at Packer, is now a Communications Specialist at the school.

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