Personal Genetics Education Project

Movement of People in Boston

Written by Fabienne Mondesir, pgEd’s Director of Community Engagement

On October 18th, pgEd in collaboration with the Boston Public Schools (BPS), the Education Collaborative, made up of the National Park Service (NPS) and it affiliates, took part in a place-based learning professional development seminar called Movement of People in Boston. This day-long seminar took participants through a historic walking tour of Boston, starting at the pier alongside the Boston Harbor Hotel, then to Paul Revere’s house in the North End, continuing to the U.S.S. Constitution Museum in Charlestown via a ferry, and ending at the Charlestown Navy Yard. The goal of the seminar was to have participants get a sense of how Elements of Effective History Instruction including rich content, historical thinking skills, and place-based learning, could be incorporated into meaningful culturally relevant classroom lessons. This event could serve as a catalyst for collaboration, and expansion of pgEd lessons on topics or ethnicity, identity, and immigration.

The first segment of the day, the Harbor walk tour, seemed to be the most impactful to me, as pgEd’s new Director of Community Engagement, and BPS biology teacher. As participants, we were taken on a back-in-time kinesthetic travel experience; we were asked to stand at the water’s edge, look out at the Harbor Islands, and smell the salt air. Then, NPS staff member Shawn, showed a picture of a former Boston slave, Mumbet, also known as Elizabeth Freeman. “Mumbet stood where you are now standing, smelled what you smell and saw what you are now seeing,” said Shawn in a commanding voice. We the learned that Mumbet was the first black slave to file and win a freedom suit in Massachusetts in 1781 due to the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s ruling, finding slavery to be inconsistent with the 1780 State Constitution. To make the moment have even more resonance, Shawn read a quote from Mumbet:

“Any time, any time while I was a slave, if one minute’s freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it—just to stand one minute on God’s earth a free woman.”

To reinforce the somber yet contemplative tone, Shawn used his repetitive mantra, “They stood right where you are standing,” which stayed with the group, as we were asked to walk on the same cobblestones as other notable and often forgotten non-European Bostonians. We listened, reflected, and looked at pictures, recounting historical events such as King Philip’s War, in which the Wampanoag Natives were forcibly exiled from the shores of Boston, imprisoned, and left to starve at Deer Island during the winter of 1676.

I found the last part of the Harbor walk segment to be particularly significant and personal. We stood on the pier at the site where the first slave ship, called Desire, was brought to Boston in 1638. Being Haitian American and a product of French colonization, my last name is Mondesir. Desire happens to be a very common Haitian last name. This information was particularly emotional because, as is often said by members of my community, “the difference between a Haitian, Jamaican, a Puerto Rican, Bohemian, Dominican and an African American is the boat stop.”

The Movement of People in Boston professional development seminar was a powerful, impactful experience, filled with several useful teaching strategies, and presents an opportunity for pgEd collaboration. Perhaps in the near future, NPS Boston, BPS, and pgEd could come together on the topic of genetics and immigration, for example, using the unexpected DNA ancestry results of prominent people of color such as Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. (a Cambridge, MA resident), George Lopez, and Jessica Alba to discuss identity, race, and migration. Such a workshop or lesson could allow the 87% of BPS students of color to see themselves in the content they are learning, and offer room for teacher cultural competency enrichment, while keeping rich interdisciplinary content, historical thinking skills, and place-based learning at the forefront.

pgEd recognizes that in order for lessons to be truly meaningful, all students need to see themselves in the curricula they learn, and collaboration could be one of the paths towards making this a much needed norm. Sign up for the pgEd newsletter and see what new lessons surrounding these topics will emerge.


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