Four Black History Month Must-Haves

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Editor’s Note: This blog was first published at www.Ready4Rigor.com on Feb. 15, 2013 and posted here with permission.

Even though we are coming to the end of February, there’s still time to use this month to deepen cultural responsiveness in both your content and practice.

Here are four things that will not only highlight black history but will strengthen those critical analysis skills that the Common Core State Standards highlight.

1. Begin with student voice and experience. Rather than use Black History Month to throw a lot of obscure factoids at students about famous firsts, let them take the lead. Students, even in early grades, are observant about society’s unspoken contract with race, class and gender.

Find out what’s on their minds and how they are making sense of our society’s growing diversity. Then use their words and points of view to anchor lessons. Student voice roots lessons in relevance.

Check out Jade Cho of Youth Speaks sharing her truth about heroes and holidays.

2. Educate students about the socio-political context. We usually treat Black History Month as a time to celebrate rather than validate. Some believe it’s all about racial pride or building up self-esteem. Too often the disconnect and lack of trust in our classrooms flow out of our failure to acknowledge the racialized society we live in and what some students experience day-to-day.

It’s important to make the distinction between affirming and validating. Affirmation is about celebrating individual cultural traits that have traditionally been viewed as negative–how we look, how we speak, or how we act. It’s about reframing–like black is beautiful rather than bad or ugly. Girl power versus being the weaker sex. You get the point.

On the other hand, validation is the process of acknowledging society’s efforts to marginalize and minimize the full participation of people of color through structural rather than personal means.

There is disproportionality in society that often gets explained away or denied. Use this as an opportunity to acknowledge students’ reality. Let them know they are not crazy or imagining things.

Begin by locating your lesson with “the socio-political context” – an understanding of how our racialized society shapes opportunity, how economic conditions shape employment options, and how inequalities in resources across neighborhoods shape the health and wellness of a community.

This isn’t about blaming or shaming white people. Rather than try to have the “let’s all get along” race talk, leverage what we are learning about things like environmental racism, food deserts and redlining in communities of color as a way to ground lessons in current reality. Be prepared to explain and illustrate the difference between a racialized society and a racist society.

For many of us, this is where we have to build our muscle as educators. Tim Wise, anti-racist author and educator, reminds us that we have to practice talking about living in a racialized society in order to build the language, understanding and the skills to hold that space for students. We have to be comfortable with it in order to help them become comfortable with it.

Where to start? Rethinking Schools offers math, science and social studies curriculum around many of these topics. Use tools like Glenn Singleton’s Courageous Conversation protocol to help bring some structure to these conversations. Try the Socratic seminar from Facing History and Ourselves method as a way to raise the quality of the conversation.

3. Highlight the role other communities of color play in black history. For example, did you know that there’s a connection between Cinco de Mayo and the Civil War? Yep. In his book, El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition, Latino scholar David E. Hayes-Bautista highlights the support California Mexican-Americans gave to those fighting for equality in the Civil War and the deep roots Africans have in Mexico, Peru and Nicaragua, going back to the 1500s. Black historian Henry Louis Gates documents that long history in his PBS series, Blacks in Latin America. Check out this timeline of Africans in Latin America.

Given our increasing diversity as a society, it’s hard not to have our histories intersect, and it’s important to lift that up for students to see.

4. Introduce complex descriptions of key figures in history. Too often we present historical events and figures as one dimensional—all good or all bad. But we know people are more complex. For example, the Smithsonian’s Paradox of Liberty exhibit tells the complex story of Monticello, the home of founding father Thomas Jefferson, as a place of innovation and excellence through craftsmanship as well as a place of oppression and the brutality of slavery.

Think of Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King was committed to civil rights, but was also fiercely opposed to the United States’ increased involvement the Vietnam War in the 1960s. Many people who supported King’s civil rights work were not thrilled about his position on corporate greed. Have students compare King’s early speeches to his later ones to get a more complete picture of who he was.

This process of examining the complexity of a person or event helps students practice four thinking dispositions that Dr. Cabrera, author of Thinking at Every Desk, calls critical in order for a student to take on more rigorous content in the classroom: distinction (how are things different), relationship (how are things the same), system (how are things connected), and perspective (what are the possible ways to understand this thing).

These four to-dos are just the tip of the iceberg. There are myriad other things we can do in our classrooms to validate in authentic and productive ways in February and everyday throughout the year. Of course, that raises the question: do we need Black History Month at all?

That’s a post for another day. In the meantime, here’s some food for thought from two white educators (by way of Jose Vilson a black/Latino educator and blogger) who make a case for why they don’t single out black history during the year, but instead integrate it into their primary curriculum. To each his own.

How do you elevate or integrate black history?

Hammond is an educator and writer passionate about teaching and learning. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area. She’s worked as a research analyst, high school and college writing instructor, a literacy consultant, and, for the past 13 years, as a professional developer.