Fifth grade inspired by Black joy, genius

Fifth grade social studies and English curriculum converged for a cross-curricular deep dive into influential Black figures.
By Sierra Smith, Communications Specialist

In early March, students in Fifth Grade Social Studies Teacher Connie Fink’s class kicked off their study of historically Black Nashville neighborhoods at Fort Negley where members of the U.S. Colored Troops were stationed during the Civil War. 

Before Fink led students on this exploration of Black history in Nashville and more broadly in the United States, she shared that she presented students with another assignment intended to “focus on the concepts of joy and genius instead of starting with an oppressive historical perspective.” 

Fifth graders began by being challenged to create meaningful definitions for the terms “joy” and “genius.” From there, she tasked the Class of 2030 with a research project. With the help of Interim Library Director Kate Pritchard, students selected Black Americans to learn about in pursuit of answering the assignment’s guiding question “How have Black joy and genius impacted the world we live in today?” As students researched, they discovered challenges their subjects had to overcome and identified ways their individuals persevered or resisted in order to accomplish goals. 

With research underway, students reinforced their understanding of the same guiding question by watching commercials and reading articles on influential Black figures followed by in-class discussions and reflections with their classmates. Students made further connections to the material during classmates’ research project presentations. As each student presented their findings on the Black American of their choice, others took notes to identify as many as four people with similar characteristics or qualities as the person they researched. 

Additionally, students captured the essence of their research using artistic elements with the help of Middle School Art Teacher Emily Holt, who shared two examples of Black joy and genius within the visual arts field that would inspire students. They examined the works of Kehinde Wiley, known for his painting of Barack Obama featuring elaborate and brightly colored wallpaper behind a highly naturalistic portrait of the 44th United States president, and Nelson Makamo known for his distinct use of charcoal and oils to create striking images that uplift and celebrate African culture to counter the stereotypes and misinformed perceptions associated with many African countries. 

After learning about both artists, students embarked on creating their research-based masterpieces. They used watercolor washes and paint pens to create patterned backgrounds, similar to wallpaper, depicting symbols that represented their subjects’ joy and genius then cut out black and white images of their individuals to glue on the wallpaper. To complete their projects, students pulled inspiration from Makamo’s technique for highlighting certain features in a portrait by using paint pens to emphasize and integrate the subject’s image in the final piece. Some followed the edges and contours of the person’s clothing, hair, or jewelry while others outlined the person’s eyes and glasses before completing the project by adding the influential individual’s name to the piece.

This study and understanding of Black joy and genius further evolved in Fifth Grade English Teacher Lauren Gage’s class. As students researched Black individuals in Fink’s class, they read poems with two voices to understand how writers show multiple perspectives in one piece during English. After sharing this writing technique with students, Gage asked them to use the technique to create poems to teach others about the Black figures they’d researched in social studies.

“While writing their poems, students focused on rhyme, rhythm, and figurative language,” Gage shared. “Students told the stories of their research subjects by incorporating challenges they faced, ways they persevered, and the influential accomplishments they made into the poems.” 

After polishing their poems, fifth graders continued to share their research with others by presenting their poems and artworks to USN’s fourth grade students. 

“I liked that we got to be creative and help other people learn about someone that isn’t well known,” Lucy Garrison ’30 shared.  

“I really liked how we got to research someone who we wouldn’t normally talk about in class,” Max Tidwell ’30 agreed.

During these special presentations, fifth and fourth graders shared a special treat celebrating Black joy and genius in the candy world. They snacked on Charleston Chew candy bars invented by Donley Cross. 

“I really enjoyed hearing the poems and was amazed by the teamwork and collaboration,” Allie Jackson ’31 said. “And, I liked the Charleston Chew.”

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University School of Nashville models the best educational practices. In an environment that represents the cultural and ethnic composition of Metropolitan Nashville, USN fosters each student’s intellectual, artistic, and athletic potential, valuing and inspiring integrity, creative expression, a love of learning, and the pursuit of excellence.