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March 2, 2018

How To Teach Black History Beyond February

Contributed by Maya Corrin

As we begin the month of March, many people are ready to forget the cold, dark days of February. However, one integral part of February should not be forgotten — black history. While February formally commemorates this essential history, black history should be, and easily can be, acknowledged and incorporated into school curriculum all year round.

The History of Black History Month

Carter G. Woodson, a black public school teacher, began “Negro History Week” in February 1926 when he realized little to no African-American history was being taught in schools. As Leah Shafer writes on the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Usable Knowledge website, Woodson saw Negro History Week as a means through which history, and education more broadly, could be illuminated, reoriented and reimagined by teachers and students.

The week particularly gained popularity in African-American schools where it worked to refocus the community on accomplishments and also as a platform for demanding more relevant curriculum, textbooks and programming for students. Quickly, 80 percent of predominantly black schools adopted the week and, in 1976, Negro History Week expanded into the national Black History Month we know today.

Negro History Week was a direct challenge to a power structure that had dictated African-American history was unworthy of learning. The week encouraged students to further challenge the power dynamics of history and academic knowledge. However, Jarvis Givens, an African-American education historian, critiques that many of the Black History Month activities in today’s schools don’t “get to the heart of the critique that was inherent in Negro History Week.” So, now — over 90 years after Woodson revolutionized schools —how can we ensure Black History Month is living up to its legacy?

The Present Reality of Black History Month

Some teachers are working hard to preserve the integrity of Woodson’s mission. Femi Lewis, a teacher and writer in New York City, wrote in “The Importance of Teaching Black History” that seamless integration of African-American history is essential in the classroom “because we live in a world where things we visualize is considered a truth, it is important to consistently remind not only ourselves, but others of the trials and successes that African-Americans have endured. That’s how people learn the humanity of others – by learning about their struggles and their joys.” Lewis also wrote of a troubling instance where a student asked, after reading black literature, “Why are we reading this instead of Shakespeare, it’s not February,” to which Lewis responded, “Why should we wait until February to read or learn something about ourselves?”

African-American history is an intrinsic element of American history, and we do history and our students an educational injustice by constricting that complicated history into a month. African-American history is not an occasion, but a complicated, ongoing period of triumph and adversity that is relevant and engaging for all students from all backgrounds all year round.

Here are some strategies, by subject, to incorporate a more complete black history into every subject throughout the year:

English

There is often far too little emphasis focused on black authors and stories in libraries and in the classroom. The University of Wisconsin’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center found that in 2017, out of 3,700 children’s books only 340 were about Africans or African Americans (and even less were authored by African Americans themselves). Black authors possess all of the same valuable literary traits that students can learn from, as well as giving students the tools to see their identity and experience reflected through writing.

In a time where media sources are filled with negative portrayals and stereotypes, the voices of African-Americans, beautifully reflected through stories, narratives, essays and poetry, can help to ground students at every grade level in a more human reality while learning to read and write. To help teachers and parents select and talk about diverse texts with students, Teaching Tolerance provides three valuable guides on their Reading Diversity page.

History

Black history is most readily infused into history curriculum. However, the way that this history is taught is often problematic. As Malcolm X said, “Our history did not begin in chains.” Malcolm X was right, but history is often presented to students beginning with slavery. As activist and academic Shaun King writes to the New York Daily News, “The biggest problem that my wife and I have with Black History Month (and black history in general) is that, far too often, it begins with American slavery.” King points out that this approach not only ignores 99 percent of known black history, but that it has damaging psychological effects on students. King writes, “It actually does damage — not just to young black children, but to all children, when they are given the distinct impression that black people began as inferior subjects and somehow found their way out.”

Shuan King’s wife, an elementary school teacher, always teaches black history beginning in either African Kingdoms moving forward or in the present day working backwards so that the first impressions students receive of black history are of powerful leaders and communities, not subjugation. Students deserve to see their full humanity reflected in a full black history that stretches beyond slavery into both the past and modern day, and addresses not just key figures and moments but the whole political and social contexts and players. For additional tips on teaching black history, Teaching Tolerance curated a list of the Do’s and Don’ts of Teaching Black History.

Science

Discussions about black history typically stop beyond the humanities. But there are many ways to incorporate an understanding of black history into STEM subjects. In fact, this connection may be even more important since minorities, especially black students, are severely underrepresented in STEM fields. Connecting those subjects to their identity through highlighting the accomplishments of so many African-Americans could inspire a long term interest in STEM.

Jordan Moehny writes that science curriculum should incorporate prominent figures that look beyond George Washington Carver’s peanuts and astronaut Mae Jemison. Some suggestions could be the inclusion of Daniel Hale Williams, who conducted the first open-heart surgery and opened the first interracial hospital. Vivien Thomas, a black graduate of a segregated Johns Hopkins, also invented a device that corrected a heart defect which was a personal and scientific story worthy enough to constitute an HBO film. A lesson on bioethics could include a discussion of Henrietta Lacks, a black woman whose cells were unethically obtained to make strides in vaccinations, fertilization and cloning. The ethics of medicine is an important and fascinating issue for students, and cannot be completely discussed without discussing the ways African-American bodies have been unethically used throughout history.

Math

Moehny also discusses the subject of math, and how math classes are tougher to incorporate black history into since they often avoid talk of history at all. However, someone like Katherine Johnson, a black woman who made essential calculations at NASA, could serve as an example of the many real-world applications of mathematics. Benjamin Benneker also made calculations that led to the American-made clock, a series of almanacs and the boundaries of our capitol.

Art

North Carolina art teacher Melissa Purtree writes, “When I stopped celebrating Black History Month and started making a habit of showing diverse artists to my students, my teaching improved.” Purtree decided that for every art project, she would use three artists with differing traits as examples. Purtree reflects, “Exposing students to different points of view made the content of my lessons richer and students’ learning deeper.”

By using historical and present day black artists as examples among other diverse artists, Purtree was able to show that all artists have something valuable to say through their medium. If you’re looking for ideas of contemporary artists to use, Purtree has some suggestions. And, when looking to the past, here are some great ideas for lessons and projects.

Music

Black music is full of musical talent, innovation and historical significance. Students should be encouraged to learn and listen to jazz, soul, disco, rock and roll, hip hop, blues and more genres throughout the year. Students can be encouraged to answer questions about composition and patterns, but also of the deeper meanings behind the songs. As the Anti-Defamation League suggests, students should be asked questions about how the music makes them feel, what it reminds them of and any meaning they pick up from the lyrics. Older students can also be encouraged to do research on a genre, and its social and political significance. For younger students, the music teacher can provide this important background information.

Music teacher Jacqueline Kelly-McHale writes of the importance of making diversity a foundation in music curriculums because “music is an experience found across all cultures, and music classrooms are a logical place where difference and respect can be recognized, practiced and celebrated.” Kelly-McHale later adds, “The chance to sing, play and listen to the music of other cultures creates an understanding that transcends personal experience, and creates a more global perspective.”

Now that we know black history doesn’t need to remain confined within a history classroom, we can also start embracing the fact that it doesn’t need to remain enclosed within the 28 days of February. Black history is America’s history, and as such deserves to be discussed for as long as the school year runs.

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