ARTICLE

Heritage Months: Hard to Handle?

Heritage months offer opportunities to model yearlong inclusive teaching practices.

Editor's note: This blog was originally published on March 3, 2014.

February and March present a special problem for social justice educators. While everyone from administrators to advertisers are promoting Black History Month contests and Women’s History Month programming, you find yourself annoyed by this co-optation of content that you take seriously all year long. But this is also the time of year when more folks turn to our community—and to you—for ideas and perspectives on how to integrate diversity into their curriculum. 

Within the TT community, to say that educators should do more than celebrate heroes and holidays is to state the obvious. But, however problematic Black and Women’s History Months may feel, staying home from the party on principle doesn’t quite jibe with the spirit of inclusive education either. No matter how we feel about it, February and March are when many civic organizations and the television, film and publishing industries choose to promote films, seminars, exhibits, news features and other programming about the topics we all so deeply care about. In other words, they are opportunities to make your point about yearlong inclusions while people are listening.

Here are some suggestions if you’re ready to tell folks outside “the choir” why and how they should teach black and women’s history all year long:

Explain the problem

There are likely teachers in your building who think the activities they plan for Black History Month are a fine solution to the underrepresentation of African Americans in the other nine months of curriculum they deliver. Try to be patient and non-judgmental. Acknowledge their attempts and then share the scholarship about multicultural and anti-racist education. In their influential works, both James Banks (1993) and Peggy McIntosh (2000) place the reductionist and trivializing messages students receive from heroes and holidays lessons near the bottom of a pedagogical food chain—distinctly above a D.W.E.M (dead white European males)-centered curriculum but far from the goal of socially transformative teaching and learning. Paul Gorski at EdChange provides a helpful synthesis of their work and of how the heroes and holidays approach falls short.  

Offer Solutions

It’s not a stretch to connect multicultural education to the instructional best practices your colleagues already know to be effective. Here are two:

Multicultural curriculum mapping. A problem with the heroes and holidays approach reinforced by heritage months is that it places non-dominant groups in silos outside of the standard curriculum, thus perpetuating marginalization. Take the Wikipedia-esque biographies and factoids about famous women and African Americans off of the bulletin board. Leaving them there fails to teach students about people, groups, events, experiences and accomplishments in authentic context, an important historical thinking skill.

Here are some examples of less trivial and more intentional places to teach February’s famous figures, across disciplines and any time of year:

Anti-bias essential questions. Another problem that emerges during “the months” is the focus on a few successful individuals from a particular identity group rather than an examination of the larger systems that impact the lived experiences of an entire group.

To help students think about the “big picture,” pose critical essential questions (EQs) that transcend the single story. Such questions invite student voices and perspectives into the curriculum and can teach them to adopt multiple lenses as they view the world.  

Consider how the following anti-bias EQs could be used to integrate women’s history, and gender studies in general, across disciplines and any time of year. 

  • Identity: How do gender and society’s attitudes about gender influence who we become?
  • Diversity: How are the lived experiences of women around the world different and similar?
  • Justice: What bias and injustice have women experienced because of their gender?
  • Action: What actions have individuals and groups taken to challenge gender inequality?

Teachers across disciplines can use EQs to co-plan lessons. For example, along with these questions a math and social studies teacher could co-plan a lesson related to unequal pay and the underrepresentation of women in government. Visit Perspectives for a Diverse America for hundreds more anti-bias essential questions, as well as texts related to race, gender and other diverse voices.

Heritage months are when it is most critical that multicultural and anti-bias educators engage that teacher next door, contribute to staff development and draw students in to authentic discourse that hopefully continues all year. The conversations we have in February and March will shape the ones we’re having in April and beyond. Seize the opportunity—don’t be silent.  

Chiariello is a teaching and learning specialist for Teaching Tolerance.