It was an unusual place for instruction. Young students crowded around the decorated door to the office of the assistant principal, Audrey Sturgis. She was giving an impromptu black history lesson at Cambridgeport School in Cambridge, Mass., a K-5 school where nearly half the students are non-white.

The lesson centered on the artwork, taped to the metal door, depicting a black woman. Her skin was made from brown paper, her black hair from tissue paper. She had full lips and piercing eyes. Underneath her chin was a collage of photos of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and other African-American historical figures.

“So this is your beginning, and this is where we always have to remind ourselves,” Sturgis told the group of about seven students.

Aniyah Smith, a fifth grader, couldn’t stop looking at the artwork.

“It was amazing,” Smith told WGBH News, smiling. “I think it was a very powerful message.”

Sturgis got the idea for this black history lesson from social media. During February, Black History Month, the decorated doors have been a trend in schools across the country in recent years. In some cities, schools or even entire districts hold competitions for the most creative doors.

“I saw on Facebook many pictures of people doing doors.” Sturgis said. “I was like, 'Hey I can do that. That will work. That is totally different.’ I wanted to find an interesting way to talk about black history without just going into a classroom and saying, ‘Let me talk about my people.’”

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The office door of Assistant Principal Audrey Sturgis of the Cambridgeport School in Cambridge, Mass., was decorated during Black History Month.
Meredith Nierman WGBH News

The artwork caught Madelyn Monestine, another fifth grader, by surprise.

“I didn’t know that Miss Sturgis’ door had this beautiful piece of artwork on it,” Monestine said, “and I was coming down from the library one day, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’”

That wow factor was a team project. Sturgis got the inspiration, and art teacher Larry Wynn Jr. took it from there.

“Miss Sturgis gave me these beautiful images,” Wynn said he stared at the artwork. “I started off just collaging all these images together, then we actually used tissue paper for the hair to give it a 3-D effect.”

Strugis said the images of historical figures and a celebration of different dark skin tones were sparking conversation.

“Not only the kids [are] having questions,” Sturgis said. “The teachers are questioning, ‘I didn’t know that. How did you find that out?’ I found some people we usually don’t talk about.”

One such lesser-known figure from history is Mary McLeod Bethune, a civil rights activist who in 1904 started a private college for African-Americans in Florida, now known as Bethune-Cookman University.

Sturgis said she hopes inspiration from a door will open countless other ones in the future. With Black History Month coming to an end, Cambridgeport School plans to decorate doors to honor of Women’s History Month in March.

Aniyah Smith, also a fifth grader, summed up the significance of the images to her and other students.

“Other African-American little girls can see that and say like, ‘Oh yeah, you know, there’s me.’”

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that nearly half of the students at Cambridgeport School are black.