When I was in grade school, my teachers usually celebrated Black History Month in some form. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Eli Whitney were always the topics of discussion. Once, my class churned butter and held cotton in our hands in celebration of the month … (pause), and this is as far as our lessons ever went. With all due respect to the three names mentioned, there are so many more freedom fighters, inventors, scientists, artists, musicians, etc., that were never mentioned or taught in school. It seemed as if Black History was an island. It was taught away from the actual lesson-some type of checklist to get it out the way. We would do Black History and then get back to the real stuff. If it weren’t for my mama or grandma, I would have never been exposed to many of the Greats. To this day, I am constantly introduced to so much Black greatness who I never knew even existed, such as Katherine Johnson. Unfortunately, I never heard of her contribution to past and modern day society until the movie, Hidden Figures, hit the theaters. Then there was Neil deGrasse Tyson. It wasn't until I was teaching a unit a few years back about risk and exploration that I discovered him on Youtube. Often, when I show students photos and videos of Africa today, they are so amazed because they have only seen one perspective. Students believe they are all living in poverty with no electricity. They don’t understand that Africa is a continent of 55 countries filled with a diverse population of innovative people who live in cities that’s full of culture. In celebration of Black History Month, expose your students to what they don’t know. I wanted to put together a list of Do’s and Don’ts for you.
Do Make it Relevant. Incorporate Black History into your curriculum. It is not separate. Teach within the context of your content area. For example, in an Argumentative unit for English, conduct a teacher-led close read for Sojourner’s Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech. It focuses not only on civil rights but on women’s rights. Or, for a deeper conversation and analysis, focus of the differing perspectives between Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton. Additionally, black mathematician’s, scientists, and inventors have contributed globally. Include them in STEM classes. For Social Studies, allow students to conduct research on The Harlem Renaissance, The Transatlantic Slave Trade, or The Great Migration; it would be the start of a great history lesson, discussion, and an introduction to many Blacks that students have never heard of before.
Do celebrate the month. Although there are many schools around the nation that honor the month, it is very common for many schools to do nothing. With the nation’s student demographical shift on the rise, how can we do nothing and ignore it? Hold a student-led assembly. Incorporate music, dance, art, and an engaging speaker. Conduct a school-wide writing or drawing contest focusing on a historical figure. Hold a decorative door contest. Get everyone involved.
Do teach other Blacks besides the common ones. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks can never be erased, but if they are the only focus, that becomes a major problem. Hit the link to view Famous Black Inventors and Mathematicians or Influential Black Musicians. Perhaps you want to start off with Black Civil Rights Activists. Have students conduct a short presentation/ project and make your classroom a mini-museum. Or, wherever you decide to start, don’t try to fit it all within the month. Incorporate it throughout the year.
Here are the Don’ts.
Do NOT focus only on slavery. The story does not stop there; show the progression of the history. Jim Crow and systematic oppression cannot be deleted, but putting a heavy emphasis is draining and can be depressing. Make the connection for students to see how the event’s and actions of the past have impacted today. Show victories! Celebrate all aspects of the Black experience, including the defeats and triumphs!
Do not use your regular assignments and change their names and scenario. This is not Black History and this is never ok. I really wanted to add a photo of a colleague’s math lesson but couldn’t muster the strength to display such ignorance. In brief, the assignment included regular math problems but instead of apples and oranges per se in the word problem, the teacher changed the names and objects into stereotypical ones that she associated with Black people. Changing names and scenarios are worthless. It is offensive and simply, don’t do it.
Don’t give lectures. Student engagement is the key into all of this. Allow discussion and reflection. Allow creativity. If you simply read passages, you will bore the heck out of students.
Exposure is so important, so make your lessons relevant to all student. Remember, Black History is American History. Every year, schools across the nation incorporate creative ways to celebrate the month. Please, share your ideas!
And I hope these few words find you well!