PLEASANTVILLE — The rhythmic beat of drums played softly in the background as several of Tamar LaSure Owens’ first-grade students painted colorful scenes of animals in Africa.
When she called out “One, Two,” the students stopped, stood and began to chant along with their teacher, relaying facts about the continent.
This is how LaSure Owens is implementing the state-mandated Amistad curriculum in her classroom and why she has become a model in the district, and the state, on how to incorporate African-American history.
“She is really the driving force here,” said Leeds Avenue Elementary School Principal Lisa Stuart-Smith. “She has taken this and embraced it and pushed and pushed and pushed.”
Last month, Superintendent Clarence Alston said the New Jersey Education Association was so impressed with LaSure Owens’ implementation this year of Amistad — named for the ship famously commandeered by African slaves — that she was selected for observation by state representatives.
Legislation approved in 2002 created the Amistad Commission to study, develop and promote programming that would incorporate African-American history into the public education system year-round. According to the New Jersey Department of Education, the law “calls on New Jersey schools to incorporate African-American history into their social studies curriculum.”
“She has gone cross-curricular with it. It’s just not part of the history program, it’s part of language arts, it’s part of music. She incorporates it throughout the curriculum, which I think is very necessary,” said Gary Melton, associate director of the executive office of the NJEA.
Melton said the union for education professionals has taken it upon themselves to see the Amistad curriculum put in place and began looking for inspirational educators to hold up as a standard. He said he was introduced to LaSure Owens’ work through another NJEA member and met her at the union’s annual convention in Atlantic City.
“With everything she is doing, it’s not just siloed into her classroom. It’s spreading out into other areas of the school,” Melton said.
There is hardly one square inch of the walls inside LaSure Owens’ classroom not covered in educational posters.
In the first-grade hallway, she has hung maps, drawings and posters of famous black Americans, including New Jersey representatives such as Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver and Atlantic Cape Community College President Dr. Barbara Gaba.
“We know that resources are minimal to none, so we’ve been writing grants, buying things, doing what has to be done, being resourceful,” she said.
LaSure Owens works closely with librarian Ruth Cohenson, and the two have created an Amistad section of the school library for students. This week, Cohenson worked with students on acting out the book “Too Much Talk,” a West African folk story the students will re-enact for their Black History Month event. She said the book is a way to introduce a culture and historical facts on a first-grade level.
Director of Curriculum Noelle Jacquelin said the district is using LaSure Owens’ passion for their gain. LaSure Owens has been giving professional development workshops on the curriculum and sharing ideas with other teachers in the district on how to incorporate Amistad.
“Right now, the implementation is so varied depending on what school district you are in,” Melton said. “African-American history is all of our history, so it’s important for us to have buy-in with all the districts so that they understand the importance.”
Stockton University professor of Africana studies Donnetrice Allison said she finds her students often talk about how little they learned about African-American history in grade school.
“What’s problematic about the current status of the Amistad Commission and what they’re doing is it’s so varied across school districts and among individual teachers that some students get more, some students get less. And it doesn’t seem like it’s clear what is required of them,” said Allison, who is also the Faculty Senate president.
She said that should change and is collaborating with other scholars and the New Jersey Bar Foundation to create a guidebook for educators to teach the material.
Melton said a legislative fix would be to have the state’s education standards reflect a mandate for the Amistad curriculum to be taught. He said the NJEA is working with other state education organizations to get the word out on resources.
A spokesman from the New Jersey School Boards Association said there is also a proposal before the State Board of Education to indicate whether Amistad and Holocaust instruction are included in social studies at a district during state reviews.
Jenny Rich, an assistant professor of education at Rowan University, said that although the law went into effect nearly two decades ago, the implementation of Amistad in K-12 education has been sporadic.
“The Amistad mandate is a really excellent attempt to help teachers become aware of diverse history, and at the same time, there’s no way for the state to check and see exactly what teachers are doing in terms of meeting the mandate, so it becomes very individualized,” she said.
Rich said the Amistad bill was noteworthy because it not only forces educators to come up with ways to speak to students about sometimes difficult topics like slavery, genocide and other “hard histories,” but it also shows students how historical events connect and relate to the present.