Lessons from the past: Hadley students connect with W.E.B. Du Bois Center to learn about Black history

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  • Hadley sixth grader Nora Dowd responds to a question about photos of W.E.B. Du Bois posed by archive and manuscript librarians at the University of Massachusetts during a virtual discussion on Black history and experiences with her class on Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jessica Parker’s sixth grade class at Hadley Elementary School listens to University of Massachusetts archive and manuscript librarian Blake Spitz as she talks about this photo of W.E.B. Du Bois and his Great Barrington High School senior class during a virtual discussion on Black history and experiences on Thursday, March 19, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Hadley sixth-grade teacher Jessica Parker helps Tucker Russell set up for a virtual discussion on Black history and experiences at Hadley Elementary School last Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

For the Gazette
Published: 3/22/2021 4:41:35 PM

HADLEY — In an effort to remain committed to its values of diversity, equity and inclusion, the town’s public schools have partnered with the W.E.B. Du Bois Center and the UMass Special Collections and University Archives to discuss Black history, voices and experiences.

Over two days last week, librarians and archivists held a series of virtual lectures which included topics ranging from the life of W.E.B. Du Bois to revealing new perspectives on the Civil War depending on the K-12 students’ grade.

In Jessica Parker’s class at Hadley Elementary School, 12 sixth-grade students sat behind socially distanced desks to watch a virtual presentation hosted by Blake Spitz and Caroline White, archives and manuscript librarians at UMass Amherst. In total, more than 70 members of the public schools community joined in virtually.

“Hadley is not very diverse … so it’s really important that they get that kind of exposure,” Parker said. “For them to see another perspective and try to learn from it because a lot of them haven’t been racially challenged or had racial hardships. It’s important that we’re really bringing awareness to our school.”

Jennifer Roman, the sixth-grade language arts teacher, feels that conversations such as these are important, especially with the younger generations.

“As we develop, starting at a younger age for students, … (it’s important) for students to learn more about other heritage rules and customs,” Roman said. “I think it’s important as they grow into adults, that they’re able to communicate more effectively and treat each other with happiness and peace. Treating each other the way that we deserve to be treated.”

The librarians explained how libraries and archives work before diving into a brief history of the life of W.E.B Du Bois, a sociologist, author and civil rights activist — and the recent history of protests in photos and other archival resources. Students were encouraged to critically view these photographs and newspapers and share their thoughts and opinions.

“Even though someone was alive a long time ago and was using quite antiquated or old-fashioned language, it still resonates to me living in 2021 and facing some of the same issues,” Adam Holmes, project manager of the W.E.B. Du Bois Center, told the students. “I think it’s really important to remember that history is not just something that’s in the past and that we leave in a box. History reaches into our own time and we can learn from it.”

Cassie Dion, a 12-year-old sixth grader, said she found the virtual lecture informative as it allowed her to learn about the past without researching and reading up on the events by herself.

“It’s important because things like this could happen again. You can use some things that worked in the past to help with the future,” said Dion about learning about the different forms of protests that were prominent in the past.

Holmes said that he hopes these types of educational events encourage people to engage with and support the W.E.B. Du Bois Center in the future.

“Through events like this, we hope to encourage younger generations, and people previously unfamiliar with the work of Du Bois, to seek him out and discover the ways in which Du Bois helps us understand not just our past but also our present,” Holmes said. “We believe that Du Bois’s writings provide a framework for understanding issues of race and socioeconomic inequality in our own time.”

Jennifer Dowd, Hadley Elementary School principal, has been working for the past couple of months alongside April Camuso, principal of Hopkins Academy, to introduce students to the center since it was closed to the public due to COVID-19. During the two days of lectures, more than 500 students between the two schools attended from grades K-12.

“I wanted students to be able to have an opportunity to learn about social matters and about a whole host of topics that they normally wouldn’t be able to have an opportunity to go and see for themselves at the archives at UMass,” Dowd said. “Students ask us questions all the time about topics that are happening in the world so it’s just an opportunity to be able to have presenters that are really experienced talk about things in history and what’s happening now.”

Dowd noted that she feels it is important that the lectures offered developmentally appropriate topics and information for each grade to include everyone in the conversation.

“It’s my hope for all schools that we can continue to have a dialogue about race and equality and inclusion and making sure that our children when they walk through the doors, feel supported, included, seen, and heard,” she said.

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