Black History Month Re-imagined

From guest author Shana White. DEN Community Member, Lower School Physical Education Teacher, and Coach at Wesleyan School, Peachtree Corners, GA

February marks the beginning of Black History Month in the United States, when students commonly learn about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and other influential African Americans. Much of the history we study is familiar: they are the stories we’ve all been studying – and with good reason – for most of our lives. This year, I challenge you to go beyond the most mainstream narratives to grapple with some more nuanced stories of struggle and triumph. Whatever narratives you choose, though, I urge you to approach and present them with sensitivity, because the history can be painful and the stories are intense and must be taught with care. Students should never be placed in positions that may be dehumanizing, such as in simulations or debates.

If we wish to develop critical thinkers and digitally literate students, we must move past the commonly tempered historical context of the civil rights movement, slavery in America, and Black History as a whole. Educators should be encouraged to teach about lesser known Black Americans, those who were the first in their field, or whose visionary and innovative ideas and practices impacted so many. We must strive to share truth, as appropriate per age group, of the breadth and depth of Black stories and viewpoints. We must dig deeper into and regularly include the rich, impressive, and powerful history of Black Americans not only in February, but throughout the year, if we are to be responsible, culturally competent educators. By actively choosing to include Black figures in our regular lessons as well as diversifying the text and media we use, we provide students a new and improved perspective of the Black race and its rich history and culture.

Here are some lesson ideas to make Black History lessons and topics more meaningful, authentic, and culturally relevant.

  1. Have students research the Black Lives Matter Movement and compare and contrast it to the Black Panther Party during the Jim Crow era. Who were the major leaders of these movements? What were their stances on major issues of the time? Students can hold a Socratic seminar about the leadership, ideas, and effectiveness of the two groups.
  2. Introduce the story of Ruby Bridges and the Little Rock Nine and allow students to research these individuals. Have students examine various data from text about desegregation efforts of the past and the segregation that still exists in American schools. Have students examine the images from these students’ first few days in newly integrated schools. Using the SOS strategy Circle of Viewpoints, have students select a viewpoint and write a letter to a friend about the first day of school integration. (Possible viewpoints: a white student, a Black student, parent of a Black student, parent of a white student, school teacher/administrator.)
  3. Provide students a collection of images from the civil rights movement of the 60s and 70s and current day protests and marches. Using the SOS strategy Multiple Perspectives, have students pick several people out of each image to write about. [What emotions might these people be feeling? What might their body language convey? What are they marching about/protesting? How might you (the student) be able to relate to the emotions you imagine these people are having?] Have students reflect in written and video form.
  4. Provide students with information and videos about the Underground Railroad. Using Google Maps and other resources, have students create a potential route on the Underground Railroad from the South to the North. Have students calculate the distance traveled, determine potential stopping points, normal gait characteristics (for adult males and females), and estimate the amount of time it may have taken. Have students investigate the terrain of their potential route as well as seasonal and weather variables that could impact travel. This lesson is a non-dehumanizing way to teach the significance of the Underground Railroad and its role in liberating enslaved people and an opportunity to implement STEM concepts.
  5. Have students research the following terms: racism, bias, bigotry, privilege. How are these terms related to each other? How are they different? Examine the writings/text of speeches by Dr. King, Malcolm X, Fred Hampton, James Baldwin, Audre Lorde and other civil rights leaders. How did these civil rights leaders define the terms above? What are examples of systems/laws they believed to be racist against Black Americans? How have the systems changed – or not changed – today?
  6. Have students research famous Black musicians, dancers, and hip hop artists. [What are some of their accomplishments? What artists had conflicts and/or collaborated with each other? Whose music/dancing from current day was influenced by them? Who are some of the non-black artists (e.g., Elvis Presley) whose music/dance style was influenced by Black musicians/dancers?] Then, have students create their own music, dance, or song lyrics using styles and techniques similar to the Black musician, dancer, or hip hop artist they researched.

Here are other great resources for incorporating Black Americans and Black History into your curriculum throughout the year.

Shana is a veteran educator of twelve years serving in both public and private school during her career. Shana is a passionate educator who believes in purposeful disruption of status quo, is passionate about safe and inclusive schools for all students, and works as an advocate for marginalized groups in education. 


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