Gilman fourth graders have been hard at work on their African American Leadership Project (AALP), where each student selected an African American leader in or from Maryland to research. The project was largely a writing and presentation assignment but had a history component as well. Boys spent time learning about many events in the 400-year history since Africans were brought to the United States to be enslaved, including the Civil War, Reconstruction, segregation, and the civil rights movement.
Research subjects include well-known names like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Thurgood Marshall, Elijah Cummings, Judy Johnson, Ben Carson, and Reginald Lewis, as well as individuals especially familiar to the Gilman community, like Stuart Simms ’68 and Brandon Copeland ’09.
AALP was filled with opportunities for building skills that the students will use throughout their time in school: using primary and secondary resources for research, taking notes, writing a thoughtful essay, creating a visual aid, and public speaking. Fourth grade language arts teachers Kim Radle and Michelle Turner and Lower School librarian Melissa Da have been working with the boys on the seven-week project since the end of January.
“This project requires that each boy use the information he has to go beyond summarizing a person’s life. He must reflect deeply and thoughtfully about his leader’s impact on history and their community,” said Da. “These role models are a great way for boys to see Gilman’s mission in action. The leaders they research are men and women of character and integrity who have made a positive contribution to the communities in which they live and work.”
Turner reflected on a poignant moment during one of the project’s lessons: “Coach [Johnnie] Foreman shared his experience of being taken to a lunch counter with his mom in downtown Baltimore. At the time, Foreman did not understand why it was important. As an adult, he realized that he had been part of a historic moment,” she said. He further explained to the boys that not so long ago, he was not allowed to sit at the lunch counter because of the color of his skin. “To someone the boys respect so much share such a personal life experience was one of the many highlights of the project.”
Fourth graders also had an opportunity to share project reflections. One student said that his research subject, George Freeman Bragg, “was extremely special because of his contributions to anti-racism.” Another said that learning about Henry Garnet’s struggles “showed me that I should be grateful for the privileges that I have.”
Students will give their final presentations to fourth grade classes at the end of March.
Read on for details on conversations between fourth graders and the Gilman alumni they interviewed for this project.
Accolades for Brandon Copeland From His Fourth Grade Fans
Johnny S. and Liam S. had the exciting opportunity to meet via Zoom with an NFL football player on Tuesday, February 22. As part of their research for their AALP, the boys connected with Atlanta Falcons linebacker Brandon Copeland ’09. They prepared questions ahead of time with help from Lower School librarian Melissa Da.
Liam wanted to know about Copeland’s hardships. The Gilman alum shared about losing his grandmother when he was in eighth grade, and he encouraged the boys to spend time with their own grandparents even when they feel like doing something else. He said the experience helped him realize he didn’t need to live life with regrets but also that you can’t make up for lost time.
Johnny asked about his favorite accomplishments. “I was captain of the Gilman football team,” he said, “and I was voted most likely to succeed. That was something I was completely surprised by.” Third on his list was being part of Forbes 30 Under 30, which he explained to the boys is a big enough deal in the adult world that he includes it in his email signature. He also received the Alan Page Award, which the boys already knew was a very high honor in the NFL for service to the community.
Though Copeland graduated from Gilman the year the Gilman Five was established, he exuded the values effortlessly, especially humility.
“The biggest thing for me is when my peers and my friends are acknowledging the hard work that we do,” he said. “I don’t do it for the accolades.”
When asked about interesting facts about his family, Copeland shared that his grandfather played in the NFL for 11 years, and that his teammates there were later Copeland’s coaches at Gilman — Stan White and Joe Ehrmann.
When asked about his childhood memories, he talked about his lifelong friend, Anthony. The pair don’t get to see each other all the time anymore, but he says Anthony knows “if there was anything in the world that he needed, and he called my phone right now, Cope is there.” He continued, “You don’t go through life searching and seeking these friends but those friends will reveal themselves to you throughout your life.”
Toward the end of the call, Copeland asked the boys permission to offer them some life advice: Have fun and most importantly, be yourself.
“The biggest accolade I’ve had to this date is the accolade you all are giving me … that you all want to sit down and interview me.” The boys offered to send Copeland their final project, a biography of sorts. “Wow, yes I would love to read that. Thank you so much … it truly means a lot to me.”
After the interview, Liam said he was surprised by how open Copeland was with them. Johnny added that he appreciated how Copeland was talking directly to them rather than to adults. “That’s not something kids get a lot of the time. Especially with someone super famous.”
Stuart Simms Keeps His Eyes on the Goal
Alex L. had the chance to reach out to the primary resource — Stuart Simms ’68, an accomplished attorney and public figure — for his AALP. On Tuesday, February 22, the pair met on Zoom for an interview, with Lower School librarian Melissa Da close by to offer support when needed.
Alex asked Simms what it was like when he was at Gilman, and whether he had any special memories.
“How long do you have?” he replied, breaking into a smile. “I think Gilman was a great opportunity and experience. I felt I was prepared for it. I spoke about this several years ago at Gilman when they celebrated our class’s 50th reunion.” That was in 2018, which was the commemoration of the first Black students to graduate from Gilman in 1968.
Simms shared with Alex about some of his experiences as a Black student at Gilman in the 1960s, a time when the School, he said, “was insular.” He talked about playing football and how athletics brought him and his classmates together, regardless of their differences.
Simms spoke of the role models he had as a child, like Jackie Robinson, who was able to succeed despite the extremely challenging circumstances he faced. He said he learned from their examples that you should “keep your focus, move forward, and keep your eyes on the goal.”
Alex wanted to know which of Simms’ many accomplishments makes him most proud. Though Alex had only read about his subject’s professional achievements in the legal and public service world, Simms shared that being married to his wife for 49 years and his two (Gilman graduate) sons were what made him most proud.
A “thread of community” ran through Simm’s life, he said — at GIlman, at Dartmouth, at Harvard Law School, and back into the community work he is doing now in “retirement” at Maryland Legal Aid, which he said is more like a full-time job.
The Zoom ended in appreciation on both ends of the connection. “I’m very honored that you called,” Simms said. In fact, he enjoyed the conversation so much that he encouraged Alex to interview David Cahn ’86, a Baltimore-based attorney whom Simms had mentored early in his career, beginning with Cahn’s senior encounter at Gilman. And so, Alex met with Cahn on Zoom, and gained a new perspective on not only his research subject but also the strong connections that form and grow between students and alumni at Gilman.