Nina deBodisco's fifth-grade class learned compassion, along with history, thanks to an innovative approach to teaching.
I have to admit that when I first learned from my son, Grant, a fifth-grader, that he was assigned to dress up like an African American for a living wax museum, I was wary. Would this be seen as offensive to African Americans in any way?
The event was held on the afternoon of Friday, Feb. 24, in the old cafeteria at Bunnell Elementary School. I was greeted first by Emma Brugna, who was dressed as a gymnast and standing still, as though made of wax. Photos of Olympic gymnast Dianne Durham had been glued onto a cardboard trifold on a cafeteria table, and in front of the display was a button that said something like “Press me.” I touched the button, and Emma came to life, reciting facts and stories from Durham’s life. A QR code was also on the table to connect visitors to her online presentation.
“All of us learned a lot from this project. We got to find out how someone impacted the world around us.”
Emma was one of 25 students posed next to their displays representing African American legends from Frederick Douglass (born in 1818) to Simone Biles (1997). Jack Gilvary dressed in a white robe and championship belt to look like Muhammad Ali. My son dressed in a black trench coat to look like Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Nick Fury, from “The Avengers” movies.
Josefine D’Elia, who dressed as early 1900s singer Josephine Baker, told me, “All of us learned a lot from this project. We got to find out how someone impacted the world around us.”
When I got to Chloe Long, who was impersonating Michelle Obama, I asked, “What does Black History Month have to do with you?”
Chloe said, “It’s important to learn about the people who came before us. We shouldn’t judge them different just because of the color of their skin. Everyone matters.”
“It’s important to learn about the people who came before us. We shouldn’t judge them different just because of the color of their skin."
Then I found the teacher who was responsible for it: Nina deBodisco. She said she got the idea for the project when she was surprised to learn there were no state education standards to teach African American history in fifth grade.
She said she hoped that having the students speak in the first person, as if they really were their chosen African American figures of the past, would help them think more about the figures had to endure.
“I want them to become compassionate and come to a place of understanding,” deBodisco said. “Through that, they will become better citizens themselves.”
On the way out, I met Joseph Matthews, who is president of the African American Cultural Society. I told him about my concerns that having a bunch of white kids dress up as black heroes could be somehow offensive, and he smiled and said that, on the contrary, the event was “inspiring.”
“I think she should be commended for stepping out to do this. It shows that she is a true humanitarian.”
JOSEPH MATTHEWS, president of the African American Cultural Society, speaking of Nina deBodisco
Matthews praised deBodisco, saying, “I think she should be commended for stepping out to do this. It shows that she is a true humanitarian.”
“Everyone should know of the accomplishments of African Americans,” he said. “This program will enlighten everyone.”
It was apparent that the students themselves were enlightened, and so was I. I’m also grateful that we have teachers like deBodisco in Flagler Schools, people who will open the kids’ minds and put in the extra work required bring a little change to the world.