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First Grade Teacher ‘Sparks Learning’ by Dressing Up as Different Figures for Black History Month

A first grade teacher in Virginia found a creative way to teach her students about important figures in Black history.

Every year during Black History Month, officials at Creekside Elementary School in Suffolk, Virginia, announce a person they want the students to learn about. First grade teacher Latoya Smith McGriff took it a step further.

On Feb. 3, McGriff went to work dressed as Mary Jackson, a former NASA mathematician who was portrayed by Janelle Monae in “Hidden Figures.” She posted a shot of the costume on her Facebook page with a short blurb about Jackson. 

I was Mary Jackson today! She was born in Hampton, VA. She was a mathematician who worked as an aeronautical engineer…

Posted by LaToya Smith McGriff on Monday, February 3, 2020

“I was Mary Jackson today! She was born in Hampton, VA. She was a mathematician who worked as an aeronautical engineer whom people referred to as a human computer,” McGriff wrote. “She was the first African American Women Engineer that played a vital role in the development of the NASA Space Program!”

She kept it going for the rest of the month and donned a different get-up for each person.

The Hampton grad got the idea from her own childhood teachers.

“That’s what I remember, having a teacher come dressed as a storybook character,” she recalled to local TV station WAVY. “Well, I could dress up as a different figure, an African-American figure past or present so they can see themselves represented.”

Today I was Ella Fitzgerald! She was born in Newport News, VA. She was a jazz singer. She was sometimes referred to as the First Lady of Song, Queen of Jazz, and Lady Ella!

Posted by LaToya Smith McGriff on Monday, February 10, 2020

The kids appreciate her effort, and her costumes make them eager to learn.

“It’s kind of bringing history alive for the kids and it sparks curiosity. Once they’re curious about something, that sparks learning,” McGriff said. “So, they can ask me stuff throughout the day or see me in the hall walking, because I’ll stay dressed up all day. They’ll say ‘Oh, you’re the teacher that’s dressed up.’ And they may tell me some facts that I didn’t know about that person or they may ask me something about that person.”

Most of McGriff’s students are Black, so she knew her costumes would teach an important lesson.

“I work at a majority-black school, so with having so many children of color, I wanted them to see that people who look like them contribute,” she said. “They made contributions to the world.”

McGriff closed out the month dressed as former President Barack Obama.

So today I was President Barack Obama!!! Had to close out the month with our 1st African American President!!! Number 44…

Posted by LaToya Smith McGriff on Friday, February 28, 2020

She hopes her costume series will inspire students after Black History Month.

“I’m hoping they have more confidence in themselves that ‘I, too, can be great, that I can contribute to the world,’” McGriff said. “That’s the biggest takeaway for me.”

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