For Jason Walloschek and the eight students in his Grade 3-4 class at Royal Oak Community School, Black history is as much about the present and the future as it is the past. Classes at the independent Niagara-on-the-Lake school have been focusing on Black history throughout February, designated as Black History Month in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K.
“All of our classes are engaged in Black History learning,” head of school Julia Murray tells The Local. “Mr. Walloschek has been delving in quite deeply with his students, and has also picked up on our whole school conversation about how children can make an impact.”
Walloschek, who previously spent eight years abroad teaching in Brunei and Dubai, began Tuesday morning by reviewing some of the most recognized names in Black history of the past. Canadians such as Viola Desmond and Oscar Peterson were on that list, as well as pivotal figures Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and the first African-American female to become a licensed pilot in 1921, Bessie Coleman.
Walloschek pivots the discussion into more recent times. One student, Max, was eager to share some details about Muhammad Ali, including his boxing career and the year he passed away. Walloschek segued that into a chance to remind students the famous boxer and activist denounced what he termed his ‘slave name,’ Cassius Clay, when he accepted the teachings of the Nation of Islam.
While he served as the first Black president of the U.S. for two terms, Barack Obama’s impact on low income individuals and human rights was the focus of that topic.
And Zack piped up when Walloschek mentioned nine-year-old Kyra Milan Brown. The young entrepreneur from Montreal started her online brand, Koily Kurls, in mid-2020, when she was just seven years old.
With the help of her mom, Shenika Paris, Kyra created logo designs and slogans for a brand of products for people who want to embrace their curls and natural hair texture. Last Christmas, she used her social media fame (93,500 followers on her Instagram account @kyra_milan) to mobilize residents to help the city’s homeless with essential goods and winter garments.
Murray says the examples of children the same age as Royal Oak students making positive, impactful change, focusing on the bravery necessary to make that first small step, has been a theme for the school this month.
“Small voices can make a large noise when put together,” says Murray. “Changing a community can change the world.”
As an example, Royal Oak students learned about Ayanna Najuma, who at seven years old in 1958 travelled to New York City from a segregated Oklahoma City. While there, she noticed that segregation did not exist in the north at water fountains, restaurants, hotels or otherwise.
When she returned home, Najuma and 12 of her friends organized peaceful sit-ins, and one segregated lunch counter at a time, they changed their rights and eventually their entire communities. Now 71 years old, Najuma continues to use her voice to fight for change.
“It’s important to connect the history to what’s happening now,” Walloschek told The Local. “It’s still not always easy for the Black community. We continue to learn today that a lot of people are still struggling because of their race.”
With the 2022 Winter Olympics just finished, Walloschek discussed the story of 31-year-old Eliadj Balde. The class learned how the Black Canadian figure skater faced an uphill battle to become a high-level competitor. His family’s financial struggles and his darker skin raised barrier after barrier to his early development in the sport.
Balde helped found the Figure Skating Diversity and Inclusion Alliance, a group of like-minded athletes working to get more minority youth in the sport. Though he didn’t qualify for the 2022 Games, the 2008 junior national champion was there as a field reporter for CBC Television.
Following the review, the class is asked to share the results of its Family Day weekend reading activity. The students were paired up to read graphic novels that focused on important figures in Black History.
“This way they come in as leaders, as authorities to a certain degree,” Walloschek explains. “Then they teach us about something that has happened. Book presentations are new to the class, but they seem to be enjoying it and they’re doing a great job.”
Grayson and Zara read a book about Ruby Bridges. Now 67 years old, she was the first African-American child to desegregate an all-white elementary school in Louisiana during the New Orleans school desegregation crisis in 1960. She was six years old at the time.
“She stood up every day, went to school instead of staying home and being scared,” Grayson told the class. “When she went, people would be mad at her. She knew inside that she should keep on doing what her heart told her to do. It’s good that she stood up, because today there would be even more racism.”
Aspen took his place at the front of the class as his partner Skielor appeared behind him on screen from her home. They presented what they had learned about Frederick Douglass, who once spoke on American slavery at the Town Hall in St. Catharines.
Max read about how Harriet Tubman helped freedom seekers leave the US for Canada in the mid-1850s via the Underground Railroad. Both Tubman and Douglass spent a great deal of time in the Niagara area, where many freedom seekers eventually settled.
Walloschek, who gently guided the discussion using positive reinforcement to keep things on track, posited the idea of taking the class on a future walking tour of the many Black history sites just down the street in NOTL, piquing the interest of the children.
And he’ll use the next few school days to move from the past and the present and into the future.
“Black History Month is certainly needed,” he said. “It’s important to look at the persecution, the fight for rights and enslavement. But we talked about the possibility of some day having a Black Futures Month to focus on how we can make a positive impact to move things forward for the future.”