Students at two South Side schools channel their artistic talents for Black History Month
Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and first lady Michelle Obama are among the many prominent figures whose images line the walls and desktops in Adam Felleman’s classroom at Clary Magnet Middle School.
Felleman, an art teacher, is one of two standout teachers working with students on Syracuse’s South Side in celebration of Black History Month.
He has taken an artistic approach in teaching his sixth- through eighth-grade students about some of America’s most influential African-Americans. A few years ago, he started a drawing project.
“This year we’re trying to do political leaders of note and some entertainers,” he said. “But I’m really trying to highlight some of the classic people whose talent and influence has endured over the years.”
Students draw primarily using pencil and some background color. A short, written piece about each person complements the artwork.
Each year, Felleman introduces new people into his classroom project, even if the reactions are mixed.
“Sometimes my students want to draw who they know,” he said. “But I’m trying to teach them about new people like some from the ’50s and ’60s — people of note and great influence in their history that they may not know.”
For Felleman, the project is more than just an opportunity to educate. “Our school is about 70 percent African-American,” he said, “and my biggest hope is that they take pride in themselves and in their history by doing this.”
Tyriek Mayo, an eighth-grade student working hard on his sketch of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said King sent a powerful message to the world and to African Americans.
“I think it’s a good project because we’re celebrating important people from our history,” he said, “and because you get to draw and learn at the same time.”
Michael Morris, also an eighth-grader, felt that the project helped him learn from other people and their struggles. “I like that we can celebrate the people who have made our lives better,” he said. “And I think that by doing something like this we are also sending out a message of peace.”
Felleman said he couldn’t be prouder of the work that his students produced. “I think they have a lot of talent, and anytime I get a chance to highlight my students’ work, I try to do that,” he said.
Theresa Ladd, a music teacher at McKinley-Brighton Elementary School, is another standout teacher making a difference for her students. Ladd said her students have always been very interested in black history.
“Every single time we have a class on the subject, students’ hands go up and you have at least 10 kids who still want to talk even after the bell rings,” she said. “They just want to keep it going and sometimes we won’t even get to the song because they have so many questions.”
Ladd began educating students about black history when she became a teacher 13 years ago.
“Being an African-American myself, I share the history with them when I’m talking to them about it,” she said.
Ladd teaches kindergarten through fifth grade, and she devotes a lot of time to the issue through music.
“I like to make sure that our students know that our history didn’t just start with slavery,” she said. “There was Africa before that.”
The students sing songs that slaves sang, as well as those sung during the civil rights movement. Ladd also educates some of her older students by showing them clips of the actual footage of the civil rights march.
“They love to see the photos and video,” she said.
When Ladd was a student, the footage had a huge impact on her. “It did something that made me want to get my education, achieve, reach out and help people in need,” she said. “So I feel like when you teach black history, it instills an appreciation for education and for the opportunities we have today.”
Ladd’s students will be able to share their lessons with the rest of the school and their families. In February, the elementary school will hold an African-American history month performance. The event features poetry, songs, and African dance. The performance takes place on National African American Parent Involvement Day, and is a good opportunity for the students to celebrate black history.
“If you’re African-American, you’re talking about your ancestors and this is what they went through,” she said. “And when you understand that, it just adds something special to what you do and why you do it.”