Auburn students highlight African-American history
RINER — Bonnie Sumner is an English teacher, but for the past five years, many of her January lessons have shone a light on history.
The Auburn High School teacher of 30 years has combined elements of Virginia Heroes Day and Black History Month each year by tasking each of her 10th-grade students to learn about a different African-American from Virginia’s history.
“I wanted to expand past the traditional historical figures they learned about in elementary school,” Sumner said.
The students were to prepare a three-page essay on their designated person and create a presentation for their class, in which they would tell the person’s story and explain his or her historical significance.
Sumner said the students wouldn’t find many of the historical figures assigned in their textbooks, and she hoped that got them thinking.
“I want them to understand traditional history books have been written from a certain perspective that might not be all-inclusive,” Sumner said.
While the lack of textbook coverage drove many students to the Internet in search of resources, Sean Wilkins sought information directly from his source.
Wilkins, who was tasked with researching former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder, said he found Wilder’s email address on Virginia Commonwealth University’s website and decided to see if Wilder would field a few of the questions he couldn’t answer with textbooks.
To his surprise, within three days, Wilkins said he received a reply with answers to each question.
“It felt good that he can be that influential but caring enough to email someone back if they ask him stuff,” Wilkins said.
Wilkins wasn’t the only student to be surprised by what they learned.
Classmate Jared Downing, who researched Booker T. Washington, said he learned Washington didn’t strongly fight segregation.
“He didn’t like it, but he kind of took the back seat,” Downing said.
Montana Hill said she was surprised to learn that one of the first people who South African Nelson Mandela wanted to meet upon his 1990 prison release was her historical Virginian — tennis player Arthur Ashe.
Sumner said that opening her students’ eyes to such facts, along with the overall struggle of African-Americans throughout history, was the main goal of the project.
Over the years, however, the students haven’t been the only ones with their eyes opened.
Seeing the lack of resources the students had available over the years for the project, school librarian April Lester helped supplement the school’s resources by amassing references containing more African-American history.
Yet another way the English teacher has helped shine a light on history.
The Roanoke Times | 381-1643
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