A small after-school program in a lower-income neighborhood in northwest Washington, DC, uses an unusual humanities-based curriculum to engage students in learning and encourage them to aim high. The Great Persons Series introduces children to a variety of historical and contemporary leaders who have made a mark on the world. The idea is that “when you hear the story of someone achieving something that you connect with, then you see the possibilities for yourself,” explains Chitra Subramanian, deputy director of Mentors of Minorities in Education Inc. (M.O.M.I.E.), which runs the program.
The series includes such well-known figures as Martin Luther King, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Albert Einstein. It also features lesser-known people, for example, environmental activist Julia Butterfly Hill, who lived in a redwood tree to protest logging, and Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus, who developed the concept of using “micro-loans” to help the poor start businesses. All of the individuals included in the series have made a contribution to the cause of social justice, which helps to instill cultural pride in students, while equipping them with the tools to confront injustices in their own lives, Subramanian explains.
Teachers focus on each personality for two weeks and incorporate a variety of hands-on activities to engage the students, who range in age from 5 to 12. In the unit on abolitionist Frederick Douglass, children read and listened to excerpts from his writings, created their own “freedom papers,” wrote articles for a North Star anti-slavery newspaper, and dressed up in suits and wigs to deliver one of his fiery speeches on a “soap box.”
M.O.M.I.E. works closely with classroom teachers to identify children’s needs, and the program includes time for the youngsters to do their homework and receive help from university tutors. According to Subramanian, in the 2009–2010 school year, more than 90 percent of participants improved their skills in language arts and math, and all advanced to the next grade level.
“When you hear meaningful stories of the lives of great people, you know you have the potential to do great things later on in your own life. History and the humanities are a powerful way to bring that to the surface.”Chitra Subramanian, Deputy Director Mentors of Minorities in Education Inc.