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Prelude to Black History Month: Students View 'Hidden Figures'

On January 24, the Lower School Diversity Committee organized a field trip for the entire sixth grade to experience a private viewing of "Hidden Figures." The film is based on the true story of the lives of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, brilliant female African American mathematicians at NASA who made crucial contributions to the space race of the early 1960s, including the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit.

Before seeing the film, students learned about social and legal constraints and gender attitudes of the time period. After the viewing, teachers met with students in small groups for discussion.

Teachers collected biographies of the principals in the movie and received a listing of video interviews with the actors in a NASA panel discussion, videos of interviews with the living Katherine Johnson, and a synopsis of the movie. Teachers suggested question prompts for student discussion and gave students prompts for reflective essay responses.

After a few teachers saw the movie "Hidden Figures" it became immediately apparent that the girls in the Lower School HAD to see this transforming film about African American women in the 1960's who had made essential contributions to America's first space launching of John Glenn.

Not only were the three women exceptionally talented black women in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields, they all also broke racial and gender barriers at a time when black women were supposed to "stay in their place."

The first proposal was to arrange for only the girls to attend a viewing of the movie. However, further discussions revealed the necessary roles of males in the lives of females to promote and encourage their wives, mothers, aunts, sisters, girlfriends, essentially every meaningful woman in their lives, to rise up and crash the "glass ceiling." Thus, the unisex field trip became an inclusive excursion to enlighten every sixth grader to the formidable power of determined and talented women.

In the follow-up discussions, students expressed disbelief that it had taken over half a century for this story to come to light. Thanks to the book Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly and 20th Century Fox Production Company, this critically acclaimed movie is now available for all to witness the grace and power of these formerly forgotten heroines in American history. Students also noted how, at the time, the system of racial and gender segregation denied (hid) the contributions of the "human computers" [African American women] to the calculations required for the successful launching of the Apollo spacecraft.

In the 21st century, women still confront double biases of gender and race. Nevertheless, Woodward Academy wants our young women to step out into the world of STEM wearing the armors of confidence, capability, and perseverance, knowing that Woodward has prepared them to be competitive on every front in the job market.


Barbara Dunbar, Sixth Grade Teacher

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