Classroom of the Week: Berkshire students take an 'empowering' field trip to nation's capital

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This article has been amended from its original version to correct the fact that Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps during World War II. 

PITTSFIELD — Taconic High School junior Isaac Percy has been to Washington, D.C., before, but "mostly drove by" the museums and monuments there.

During the weekend of March 31, he and nearly 100 students from Berkshire County high schools, came together to take a bus trip to learn about the histories of African Americans and people affected by the World War II-era Holocaust through the museums of the nation's capital.

Derek Adams, a classmate of Percy, remembers stepping off the bus and onto the patio of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

"I was just like, 'whoa.' I mean, completely wowed and awed by it," Adams said. "And no matter where you looked, you saw people of different races there."

It was totally worth getting up at 1 a.m. and taking a six-plus-hour bus trip, he and his classmates said.

Wrapped in an ornamental bronze-colored metal lattice, the five-floor museum finally opened in September 2016, after its construction was authorized by Congress in 2003. But proposals for a memorial to African American life, history and culture date back to 1915. To date, this museum houses 36,000 artifacts displayed as testament to a both troubled and triumphant history of African Americans in a way no textbook could illustrate.

"It's empowering to know about other histories you don't know about, especially when books about black people's history just show people as slaves," said Lorie Alcin, a Pittsfield High School senior.

On the second day of the trip, students also visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which illustrates through artifacts, narratives and images the genocides of the 1940s and as well as more modern-day genocides of people from Burma to those in Darfur.

Monument Mountain senior Kya Austin says she had learned about the Holocaust in middle school. "But it was kind of basic stuff. At the museum they go into intense details about how the Nazis not only went after Jews, but gay people and Roma people," she said.

NAACP Berkshire Branch President Dennis Powell first suggested the organization sponsor a student trip to the African American Museum.

"While raising money I had conversations with others and decided to include a visit to the Holocaust Museum given the current climate of racist attacks against African Americans and the increase in anti-Semitism," said Shirley Edgerton, cultural proficiency coach for Pittsfield Public Schools. "Clearly, these tours provided valuable lessons of humanity and displayed the richness of these cultures."

Co-sponsoring the trip for students from Pittsfield, Taconic, Monument Mountain Regional high schools and members of the youth Rites of Passage Empowerment program were the NAACP Berkshire Branch, Pittsfield Public Schools, Jewish Federation of the Berkshires, The Williams College Society of the Black Griffins, and Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, with Guido's Fresh Marketplace donating fruit and snacks for the trip. Transportation,

hotel stay including breakfast, and lunches were paid for by the partnership. The students were responsible for paying $25 each for the field trip, plus the cost of dinner.

Pittsfield High junior Brandon Cook said he joined the trip "for the chance to learn about an important part of history and see how far we've really come."

PHS senior Olivia Kriedeman-Hubbard, who plans to study criminal justice psychology and international affairs said the trip also prompted her to wonder about other people's histories she hasn't been exposed to.

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"I know there were [Japanese] Americans put in concentration camps in America, but I know next to nothing about it," she said.

Resoundingly, this sample of students who went on the trip unanimously agreed that school curricula and teaching materials need to change.

"I read 'Anne Frank' but there's more to the story," said Taconic sophomore Ornella Bamba.

She later noted that she's approached some school leaders about diversifying sources of information and told The Eagle, "If we don't know about these things, who will?"

In their own words ...

Additional students reflected on this educational trip. Here's what they had to say:

"I hope that learning these things brings more awareness that there are different things in history that impact us differently. Knowing that can bring more understanding among people."

Katherine Blay-Tandoh, junior, Pittsfield High School

"The one thing that was really powerful to me in the Civil Rights exhibit is that they didn't sugarcoat it. You could see the nitty gritty stuff, the really provocative stuff about the N-word, blackface, the KKK. In English class today, sometimes they skip over the N-word or censor out important facts."

Ronny Brizan, senior, Pittsfield High School

"People have multiple different fears in talking about these tragedies. They're afraid of acknowledging truths, whether it's a past truth or a present one. They're afraid of other people's opinions, but we have to hold that truth up."

Breanna Lytle, junior, Taconic High School

"We still have to know our countries did this so our goal for the future is to do better for people."

Isaac Percy, junior, Taconic High School of the historic persecutions of Africans, African Americans and Jews

"As soon as we stepped off the bus the first thing I noticed was the whole place was engulfed in glass, The exhibits were amazing. When we got to the top, the cars, the clothing on display were very colorful and something I've never seen before. Learning about people in the sports section and Civil Rights, those people were amazing."

Charity Loy, sophomore, Monument Mountain High School on her impressions of the National Museum of African American History and Culture


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