Black History Month ends today. In many classrooms, after this month comes to a close, the instruction about the contributions of black people to U.S. history, society and culture falls off. In others, students will stay deeply engaged in the study of black history and experiences. I invite you to consider the following questions about what happens in your classroom:
- How often do your students learn about the contributions of black individuals to U.S. society?
- Are your students able to explain to someone else the contributions that black individuals have made in the United States?
- How many books or other texts by black writers do your students read during the academic year?
- How many books or other texts do your students read during the academic year that highlight black experiences?
- If your students’ readings have black characters, do these characters have positions of power?
This is by no means an exhaustive list of questions, but I hope it will inspire you to reflect on how often—and with which resources—you teach about black history and black experiences in your classroom.
Sadly, it still needs to be restated every year: Limiting sustained, in-depth engagement to Black History Month is problematic. It creates gaps in the curriculum and instruction, and ensures that students—especially black students—will continue to receive harmful messages about the value of African Americans as a result of those gaps. Every day, not just the days in February, should be an opportunity for students to learn about black history, experiences and people. Here are four ways to do it.
Add—and keep adding—books by and about black individuals to your classroom and school library.
Students are often not exposed to stories of black experiences in the United States. In fact, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center reviewed 3,400 children’s books in 2015 and found that only 261 books were about African Americans. All students benefit from being surrounded by curricular “windows” and “mirrors.” And it is especially crucial for black students to see their lives reflected in what they read, as black people are so often portrayed negatively in the media.
To help expand your classroom and school library—and your students’ minds—check out this list of books featuring people of color compiled by CaneRow. You can also use Teaching Tolerance’s Reading Diversity tool to assess a particular reading’s diversity.
Incorporate black history and black experiences into all of your units.
Actively—and regularly—consider the opportunities where you could use books or other writings by black authors and the life stories of black individuals to teach enduring understandings. TT resources that you may find helpful include the reports and guides in the Teaching the Movement initiative and the blogs, lessons and other materials in the “Teaching About Race, Racism and Police Violence” web package. You can also find free, anti-bias readings in TT’s Perspectives text library, such as “Ain’t I a Woman” by Sojourner Truth, “Harlem” by Langston Hughes or the prologue from The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. (You can filter the reading by Race and Ethnicity for a longer list of Perspectives titles.) Perspectives also includes literacy-based instructional activities and assessments designed to be used with the readings.
Engage students in critical conversations about how black people are portrayed in the media.
Students are inundated with media that portray African Americans, especially males, as thugs and criminals. Guide your students through discussion about this phenomenon and brainstorm ways they could combat this messaging. Perhaps they could engage in making their own public service announcements or campaigns. (Check out “Listen Up! PSA for Change,” a 6-12 “Do Something” student task.) Critical conversations about the media can shift mindsets, disprove inaccurate stereotypes and begin to dismantle implicit racial bias. Moreover, consider inviting black role models to further complicate the models of blackness portrayed in the media. (For more information about facilitating difficult discussions about race and racism, see TT’s guide Let’s Talk!)
Challenge yourself to read books by black writers and other writers of color.
When you deliberately seek out readings by writers of color for yourself, you are modeling diverse reading for students. This reading habit will also expand your knowledge and worldview. It won’t be easy, as noted here, but you could begin with this list of recommended books by writers of color.
By integrating black voices and experiences into the curriculum and instruction—and into your own self-education—you can help black students value their identities and help all students to humanize black people, who are so often stripped of their humanity and dignity in our classrooms, on our streets and on our television sets.
Simmons is a lifelong activist, educator and student of life from the Bronx, New York. She currently serves as the director of implementation at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.