A first grade teacher from Suffolk, Virginia found a way to teach her students about black history by taking them back in time to meet celebrated black figures. For each day of Black History Month, LaToya McGriff has dressed up like a famous African-American trailblazer and taught her students about their significant contributions to the U.S.
She kicked off her creative lessons on Monday, February 3, when she dressed up as Virginia native Mary Jackson. "She was a mathematician who worked as an aeronautical engineer whom people referred to as a human computer," McGriff wrote on Facebook. She shared a photo of herself in 1960s attire, like Jackson would've worn when she worked for NASA.
Jackson wasprofiled in the book and film "Hidden Figures," which shed light on the African-American female mathematicians whose efforts helped put men on the moon.
Once McGriff started dressing up, she kept going. On February 4, she wore athletic gear and held a tennis racket –the first African-American man to win the U.S. Open.
Next, she was Mack Benn, Jr., a Suffolk, Virginia native who had a strong connection to the school. Benn was the first African American superintendent for Suffolk Public Schools, McGriff wrote.
On February 7, she was another Suffolk native, Colonel Fred Cherry, who was the first and highest ranking African American officer among U.S. prisoners of war during the Vietnam War, according to McGriff.
On February 10, she glammed it up as Ella Fitzgerald. Wearing a sparkly dress fit for a music icon, McGriff taught her students about the jazz singer. The following day she was educator and presidential adviser, Booker T. Washington; then she was ballerina Misty Copeland, and then Florence Bowser, a Suffolk teacher who taught in a one-room schoolhouse for African American students.
By February 18, McGriff's Black History Month lessons were starting to gain traction online. She was interviewed by CBS News affiliate WAVY, and said she works at majority-black school and "wanted [students] to see that people who look like them contribute."
That day, McGriff dressed up as Dr. L.D. Britt. "He is the first African American doctor in America to have an endowed chair in surgery at a Medical School," she wrote on Facebook.
Then she was James Lafayette, a double agent during the Revolutionary War, and Henrietta Lacks, who has human cells named after her (HeLa cells).
McGriff wore a green aviation jumpsuit to transform into Lt. Col. Howard Baugh, "a decorated veteran of World War II and a member of the Tuskegee Airmen," she said. Then she wore boxing gloves to become Laila Ali, boxer and daughter of Muhammad Ali.
This week, she taught kids about Virginia native Maggie L. Walker, the first black bank president in America. McGriff has two more school days left in February to dress up like iconic figures, and she will likely reveal her final costumes on Facebook, as she has throughout the month.
She told WAVY the seeds for this project were planted in her years ago, by a teacher who did something similar. "That's what I remember, having a teacher come dressed as a storybook character. Well, I could dress up as a different figure, an African American figure past or present so they can see themselves represented," McGriff said.
"My students will want to know who I will be tomorrow. Today, they just said 'Are you going to be Barack Obama? Are you going to be so-and-so?' Because they want to know and kind of prepare themselves for it so they can tell me something they know about that person," she said.
McGriff said bringing history alive kept her students curious and asking questions, and she's hoping the overall project will give them the confidence to know that, like these historic figures, they can be great, too.