Lunch Bunch: Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures.jpg

Written By Sylvia Denice

When my students arrived in August and I started seeking extra opportunities for community-building, “Lunch Bunch” became our norm.  We shared films together in the classroom over lunch, watching 20-minute segments per day.  Before and after our viewings, we would discuss what we had watched or were preparing to watch.  We have enjoyed a variety of films, ranging from the powerful Bully documentary to the comical Diary of a Wimpy Kid to the vibrant Moana.

I noticed students beginning to feel a sense of belonging, ownership, and loyalty within their classroom community after several Lunch Bunch meetings.  Lunch Bunch became the highlight of each day, as students eagerly lined up with their trays to return to the classroom for a movie and discussion.  Students started bringing in film suggestions, enthusiastic about the shared movies and meals with their classmates.

We took a break from Lunch Bunch after I noticed students making great strides in cooperation and problem-solving as a class.  They were ready to bring learned lessons into the cafeteria with their fourth-grade peers from other classes.  Recently, I have been sporadically receiving questions from students asking about Lunch Bunch: “Hey!  Remember when we used to do Lunch Bunch?  Can we do that again?”  When a student came to me suggesting that we watch Hidden Figures, I was sold.  I couldn’t have thought of a better way to bring back Lunch Bunch and launch Black History Month than with Hidden Figures, the true story of the team of African-American female mathematicians behind NASA’s U.S. Space Program in the 1960s.

I enter each Lunch Bunch with an idea of what I hope my students will take away from the experience.  The beauty of Lunch Bunch, and teaching, in general, is that students bring ideas far more novel and profound than I could ever imagine.  Even so, I can’t help but predict and anticipate scenes or lines from each film I hope will catch their attention.  Here are three discussions I would love to facilitate during our Hidden Figures Lunch Bunch this February:

“I think we can say we are living the impossible.”

When Karl Zielinski, an aeronautical engineer character in the film, suggests to computer Mary Jackson that she pursue a career as an engineer, she initially turns away the idea.  She notes this would not be a prospect for her as an African-American woman.  Karl shares his background as “a Polish Jew whose parents died in a Nazi prison camp” who is now preparing “a spaceship that’s going to carry an astronaut to the stars.”  “I think we can say we are living the impossible,” he adds.

Some of my students face adversity and prejudice incomprehensible to my adult mind; and yet, they come to school faithfully with a desire to learn.  Watching Mary Jackson’s character go to the courthouse to enroll in classes where African-Americans and women were unwelcome in order to earn her engineering degree and position I find incredibly inspirational.  As cliche as it may sound, I am truly foolish enough to believe that nothing is impossible for my students.  I hope they catch onto this idea and notion from the film.  My belief in them as my students is just one piece of the puzzle.  Their belief in themselves and their capacity to achieve brings their experiences to a whole new level.

“Separate and equal are two different things.”

I do not want my students to be fooled.  They are familiar with the stories of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Ruby Bridges.  They express dismay, shock, and disbelief when they learn about life under Jim Crow.  However, this statement from Dorothy Vaughan’s character in the film to her young sons is no less relevant today in 2018 than it was in 1961.  The United States is still segregated, and opportunities are not equal.  My hope is that my students are aware and equipped to demand more.  They deserve it.

“Not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

This famous line from John F. Kennedy’s “Moon Speech” resonates strongly with me as I reflect on the growth I have seen from my students since they walked through my classroom door that fateful day in August.  I don’t know if you remember learning long division or embedding text evidence into your reading responses when you were in fourth grade; but, for many nine-year-olds, it is no walk in the park.  I tell them incessantly that my position as their teacher would be pointless if I gave them easy material.  “What would I be teaching?  What would you be learning?  That would make for a boring year for us all.”  Nonetheless, it takes time to build up the level of trust and comfort with students for them to acknowledge that it is OK to not know sometimes.  Discovery is good.  The struggle is real--and acceptable.

The story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson epitomizes this sentiment that the most challenging of feats are also the most worthwhile.  In addition to challenges that I present to students in reading, math, writing, science, and social studies, they face a slough of social and emotional challenges they learn to overcome in the school setting.  The most difficult of these are inevitably the most rewarding.  This sentiment is easy to hear and hard to accept.  I love that the story of NASA’s Hidden Figures exemplifies not just facing but overcoming trying challenges.

While I may speculate where our Lunch Bunch will lead us, Lunch Bunch has historically exceeded my expectations.  I come in with a “lesson plan,” and their fourth-grade minds come back with one ten times better.  We are looking forward to celebrating this Black History Month as a classroom community, and I can’t wait to find out what Hidden Figures has in store for us.