Why Should I Embrace Black History Month in My Classroom?
Incorporating Black History Month into the classroom can be a controversial topic. Some teachers believe that a specific focus on a minority culture is unnecessary because diversity should be incorporated throughout the year. Others, whether intentionally or unintentionally, choose to avoid incorporating diversity altogether. In this post, I talk about my own journey to understanding the importance of incorporating Black History Month. I also share my perspective about why every teacher should embrace Black History Month in their own classrooms. If you’re unsure about whether you should incorporate Black History Month in your own classroom or believe that Black History Month shouldn’t be celebrated in school at all – this post is for you.
Finding Purpose in Black History Month
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 professor’s perspective really hit home with me. I decided when I was a teacher, I would make it a point to teach about minority groups and diversity throughout the year, not just during a specific month. But once I started teaching in Florida, I quickly realized this thought pattern was flawed because it was too 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 ensure our students have the opportunity to understand and celebrate diversity.
A Sad Reality
The first time I heard a teacher scoff at Black History Month, I was totally shocked. I remember her comment clearly, “I’ll teach Black History Month when they have a white history month, too.” I truly couldn’t believe my ears. Looking back, I realize now how naïve and idealistic I was as a young teacher. I thought that everyone understood that teaching diversity was important. At the very least, I thought that teachers shared values that allowed them to approach diversity without personal bias. I was truly surprised to find out that some teachers didn’t understand inequality and the injustice that existed and still exists in our society.
This comment opened my eyes. I knew that everyone sees the world through a lens created by their own experiences, but I realized that teachers weren’t any different. A teacher’s personal perspective could heavily influence how diversity was handled within a classroom, creating a lasting impact on their students and perpetuating inequality in our society. About three-quarters of the students in my school were minorities. The reality was that these children were in environments where their teacher may not even be aware of his or her own challenges to understand and embrace diversity. These children were expected to thrive, but their teachers’ embedded values seeped into their lesson plans, teaching, and communication. Although mostly unintended, this conflict ultimately had negative impacts on many children’s education, self-esteem, and sense of personal value within their community.
Overcoming the Inherent Bias
If I’m completely honest with myself, when I look back, I cringe at some of my own ethnocentric perspectives. I did not grow up in a diverse neighborhood and I didn’t attend a diverse 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,” but 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.
A teacher’s job isn’t to “save” a child from their culture. 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 promoting acceptance by sharing specific cultural history with the entire group.
Why We Need to Embrace Black History Month
Having a specific time to focus on the history of a specific minority group ensures we are taking the time, energy, and focus necessary to expose children to minority cultural histories.
Discrimination and racism still exist. As well-intentioned as I was when I used to think I would integrate Black history into every month, the reality is that 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 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.
What Else Can We Do?
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. These principles also apply to teaching diversity and culture in general, like teaching religion in the classroom.
Looking for Black History Month resources to use in your classroom?
Join my email list and receive my Black History Month freebie that I created exclusively for subscribers. It contains a differentiated reading passage about the history and significance of Black History Month, along with reading comprehension questions and writing prompts. It is differentiated at three levels so all students can learn the importance of celebrating Black history.
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 Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Frederick 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!