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Embrace Black History Month in the Classroom

 
 
  

When I was in college, my social studies education professor said he didn’t believe in teaching Black History Month, Women’s History Month, or Hispanic Heritage Month. He said teaching about people from minority groups for a short period was ineffective. We should be teaching about minority and disenfranchised groups ALL. THE. TIME. The key was should.

This really hit home with me. I decided when I was a teacher, I would make it a point to teach about minority groups all the time, not just during a specific month. 
 
Well, once I started teaching in Florida, I quickly realized this thought pattern was flawed and idealistic. Yes, we absolutely SHOULD be teaching about minority groups and supporting diversity every month and every day; however, it is necessary for us to allocate specific time to focus on certain cultures to create awareness. The reality is that many teachers don’t teach about diversity on an ongoing basis. By focusing on specific minority experiences at certain times, we have a better chance to make sure our students understand and celebrate diversity.
  
The first time I heard a teacher scoff at Black History Month, I was shocked. I remember her comment clearly. “I’ll teach Black History Month when they have a white history month too.” I was naïve and thought that everyone understood why teaching diversity was important – or that teachers shared values that allowed them to approach diversity without personal bias. I was truly surprised to find out that some teachers were challenged to understand inequality and the injustice that existed and still exists in our society. This comment opened my eyes. I realized that everyone sees the world through a lens created by their own experiences, and a teacher’s perspective could heavily influence how diversity was handled within a classroom.
  
The students at my school, who were about three quarters minority groups, were in environments where their teacher may not even be aware of their own challenges to understand and embrace diversity. These children were expected to thrive, but the reality is that many teachers’ embedded values seeped into the teachers’ lesson planning, teaching, attitudes toward children, and although unintended, ultimately had negative impacts on many children’s education, self-esteem, and their sense of personal value within their community.
  
Looking back, I cringe at some of my own ethnocentric perspectives. I did not grow up in a diverse neighborhood or school. Black students were bussed into my suburban school, which was about all the diversity we had. I wanted to be a teacher since the day I set foot into school as a Kindergartener. When I attended teacher training in college, I decided I wanted to be a teacher in an inner-city school because I wanted to “save” the kids who lived in horrible conditions. Many of my friends had similar desires and motivations.
 
Little did I realize, I was stereotyping the black and Hispanic kids in inner cities. I thought they needed “saving,” when, they didn’t. It is not the job of white teachers to go into inner-city schools and save students. This attitude perpetuates the idea that we (young, white teachers) are better off than minority students.
  
Instead, our job is to teach all our students in the same way. Our job is to inspire our students to be the best they can be. To properly teach a diverse group, all students must be able to see themselves and their peers in everything they read and learn. We can do this by giving students of all races and cultures the opportunity to explore their own cultural history, while also sharing specific cultural history with the entire group. A focused time to do so helps ensure we are spending the time, energy, and focus necessary to expose children to minority cultural histories.
 
Why We Need to Embrace Black History Month
 
Discrimination still exists. Racism still exits. As well intentioned as I was when I used to think I would integrate black history into every month, our culture and educational system do not have equal representation of “black” and “white” history. Teachers who are not minorities have embedded prejudices that we are not even aware exist. Let’s be real, about 80% of teachers are white. Most are female. The literature we teach our children with is biased. Many books do not have equal representation of characters from diverse backgrounds. This is why it is crucial for teachers to be very purposeful in their representation of people in everything we do, all year, but we also need to be intentional and celebrate Black History Month.
 
What to Cover In Black History Month
 
  • Black history is not separate from American history. It is American history.
  • Dig deeper into studying about the past, including historical figures.
  • Use multiple resources. Textbooks can be one-sided.
  • Use primary sources as much as possible. https://blackpast.org/ Is an excellent source for primary articles such as speeches and newspaper articles.
  • Provide many opportunities for reflection and discussion.
  • Connect the past to the present. How are issues such as slavery, segregation, and discrimination relevant today? How have these past events and mindsets impacted our mindsets today?
  • Be sure to cover a wide scope of important figures from the past and present.
  • Don’t only focus on one time period as though the Civil Rights Movement is the only era that produced figures who fought for equality. If you only teach about one time period, you may be perpetuating the misconception that racial injustice only happened in the past during slavery or the Civil Rights Movement.
 

What Not To Cover and Misconceptions to Avoid

  • White “saviors” as Black History Month figures, such as Abraham Lincoln. Should you teach about these figures? Of course! But be cautious not to perpetuate misconceptions. Teach about them separate from your Black History Month celebrations.
  • The misconception that racial injustice and prejudice are things of the past and things are better today. Racial injustice and prejudice are still very much alive today. This should be addressed with your students.
  • Participate or facilitate simulations where students pretend to be slaves or face segregation. These sort activities perpetuate inaccuracies, assumptions, and further marginalize oppressed groups.
  • Don’t single out African American students and expect them to share their thoughts and experiences. One person’s thoughts and experiences do not reflect everyone’s.
 
 

 

During Black History Month and every month, increase your impact. Teach your students about a variety of cultures, historical heroes, and everyday people. Representation matters in everything you select for your classroom.
 
Looking for Black History Month resources to use with your students?
You can grab my Black History Heroes Bundle here. I also have all of the individual units available in my TpT store. This unit includes individual units about Harriet TubmanSojourner TruthRosa ParksMartin Luther King Jr.Nelson MandelaFrederick Douglas, and Malcolm X. Each mini-unit includes differentiated reading passages leveled for 2nd-4th grade, writing prompts, foldable activities, and a coloring topper for bulletin board decorations, and more!
 
 
 
Tips for teaching black history month to elementary school children.
 
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