Terra Nova teacher teaches Black History Month daily

The son of former slaves, distinguished writer, scholar and historian Carter G. Woodson was one of the first Black Americans to receive a doctorate from Harvard. In February of 1926, Dr. Woodson established Negro History Week which has evolved into Black History Month. February is Black History Month.

"I want there to be a time when we don't need a Black History Month because black history is so incorporated into our curriculum that we don't think of it as 'black history' but as 'American history,'" said Terra Nova High School teacher Diane Fornasier. "But we are not there yet. If you ask people across the nation if they know about the Boston Massacre they do know." (In March of 1770, there was a deadly incident in Boston which many consider to be the first battle of the Revolutionary War.)

"But if you ask if they know about Bloody Sunday, or the Little Rock Nine, or the Children's Crusade, people don't know," Fornasier said. "But these are events and people we are teaching at Terra Nova."

Bloody Sunday took place on March 7, 1965. Approximately six hundred people began a fifty-four mile march for voting rights which journeyed from Selma to Montgomery. As they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River en route to Montgomery, their way was blocked by Alabama State troopers who used teargas and billy clubs to stop the nonviolent crowd.

The Little Rock Nine were nine black teens who faced angry white mobs and massive obstacles when they attempted to go to Little Rock Central High School, Arkansas, in September of 1957, a school that was under federal court order to desegregate. The Children's Crusade took place in Birmingham, Alabama on May 2, 1963. Thousands of black children, some as young as six, left their classrooms to march against injustice and they were met with fire hoses and attack dogs, actions that opened the eyes of a horrified nation.

Fornasier is the Department Chair for Social Science at Terra Nova. She teaches AP Psychology, AP European History, Peer Helping and Psychology/Sociology. This is her 18th year at Terra Nova, and for the past 12 of those years, Fornasier has taken a group of students on the Civil Rights living history project, Sojourn to the Past, www.sojournproject.com. This is an elective offered to Terra Nova students during spring break.

Sojourn to the Past is an "empowering academic immersion program that takes eleventh and twelfth grade students from diverse backgrounds out of their schools on a ten-day moving classroom journey along the path of the Civil Rights Movement through five states in the American South." On this journey students meet and interact with the "foot soldiers" of the Civil Rights Movement. These individuals include: US Congressman John Lewis, Simeon Wright (Emmett Till's cousin), Elizabeth Eckford and Minnijean Brown Trickey (two of the Little Rock Nine), and members of Denise McNair's family (Denise was 11 when she and three other little girls were murdered in a bombing at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham on September 15, 1963).

"For the students who go on the Sojourn trip it is transforming," Fornasier said. "For instance, when they realize that it was children in both the Little Rock Nine event and the Children's Crusade who risked their lives to change America for the better, they grow. Students change their majors after this trip. They become activists and advocates for social justice. For me, every year I go it feeds my soul."

Fornasier extends her teaching of human rights throughout all her course work. In her Peer Helping class, juniors and seniors mentor freshmen for the entire year. They do conflict mediation and lessons on stereotyping, human rights, civil rights, and how not to be a silent witness when a voice or action is needed.

In Fornasier's AP Psychology class, juniors and seniors talk about the bystander effect, the diffusion of responsibility and cognitive dissonance. In psychology and sociology, Fornasier's students do a whole unit on ethnicity and on crime and discuss inequalities within crime. In sociology and social psychology, Fornasier and her students talk about civil rights and ethnic relations and human rights in America.

"As to Black history being a theme that only takes place once a month every year, to me, it is something to be taught all year, every day," Fornasier said.

"Teaching is an honor," Fornasier continued, "as well as a big responsibility. You are part of a young person's growth and education. I learn quite a bit, too. It is because of my students that I have great hope for the future."

Pacifica Tribune correspondent Jean Bartlett can be reached at editor@jeansmagazines.org.

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