Gloria Ladson Billings' Learning Story


My most memorable learning experience came as a result of being a student in Mrs. Benn’s 5th grade classroom. Despite being in a de facto segregated school over crowded with baby boomers, Mrs. Benn was a no nonsense, challenging teacher who wanted students to know that they were capable of learning any and everything because they came from a nation of people who had overcome immeasurable odds.In Mrs. Benn class we learned to sing in Latin, Italian, French, and German. She took what must have been a rag-tag group of poor and working class African American students all around the city of Philadelphia to sing concerts at nursing homes, community centers, and churches. However, more significant than the singing opportunities was Mrs. Benn’s focus on the history of our people. Most of us thought she must have been making things up. How was it possible that a Black man had earned a PhD from Harvard? How could it be that a Black man had performed open heart surgery? Who on earth would believe in a Black explorer? Mrs. Benn assured us that these were aspects of our history that we needed to know. They were powerful reminders of who we were called to be.Despite having had fine educational experiences at Morgan State University, the University of Washington, and Stanford University, none of these experiences compares with what I learned from Mrs. Benn. And each February when we celebrate African American History Month and I hear the song, “Life Every Voice and Sing,” I am reminded of Mrs. Benn and her devotion to our education, our community, and our people.