How to Teach Black History Properly in School

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By Andrew Pillow

Black History Month is underway. Since its inception, Black History Month has grown to become an important part of the American educational curriculum. It seems like every year more and more schools, businesses, and government entities are taking part in celebrating Black History Month.

However, some schools have imperfect ways of teaching black history. While teaching it is certainly better than not teaching it, we have advanced far enough to start pushing teachers to engage in better practices around African American history.

So how do we make sure we are properly teaching students black history?

1.       Don’t wait until February

One of the original purposes of Black History Month was to encourage schools to educate students on black pioneers and accomplishments. We have set aside a special month to do this, but that doesn’t mean you should ONLY teach black history during that month. If you teach any kind of American History class, and you somehow neglect to talk about the contributions of African Americans until February, then you are doing it wrong.

It's perfectly fine to do some type of special project or celebration during the month of February, but students shouldn’t get the impression that black history only matters for 28 days a year. It’s not seasonal. 

2.       Make it more advanced for older students

There is no bigger Martin Luther King Jr. fan than I, but students shouldn’t spend 100% of their black history time learning about MLK every single year. By the time most American students leave elementary school, they have a pretty good idea about the teachings and life of MLK. We should use that knowledge and build on it to teach about other icons and their accomplishments. 

Every other subject in school get’s harder and more advanced as you get older. Black History should be the same way. I taught my 5th graders about Fredrick Douglass and slavery, but my 8th graders learn about Claudette Colvin and SNCC.

3.       Remember that you are living history

A history lesson is never more powerful than when it is relevant. Race issues didn’t magically disappear. The accomplishments African Americans achieve today are made possible by those in the past.

Find ways to study current events and even tie them into the past. For example, in my class, we drew parallels from the shooting of Crispus Attucks in the Boston Massacre to the cases of police brutality today. We used Simone Manuel defying stereotypes to win a gold medal in swimming, to segue into a conversation about Jesse Owens.

As Black History Month continues, I hope that educators try and teach the subject matter honestly and authentically.

Following the suggestions above will give you a good start, but it really is mostly a mindset. You have to ask yourself:

Am I teaching this to check a box... 

or am I doing it to educate my students?

As long as you are trying to do the latter, you will probably be alright.  

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Andrew Pillow

Andrew is a technology teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep. He is graduate of the University of Kentucky and a Teach for America Alum. Andrew just recently finished his commitment as a Teach Plus Policy fellow, and he is looking forward to putting the skills he's learned to good use. Andrew has written for several publications in the past on a wide variety of topics but will be sticking to education for his role on Indy/Ed.

Whose Child Has to Die for Gun Reform to Take Place?

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Whose child has to die for gun reform to take place?  I want to know because the lack of change must mean the wrong children have died.  Their parents will have to bear the most significant burden life could hurl their way - outliving a child.  These parents must not have suffered enough.  Their pain, mourning, and forever shattered lives are not broken enough for policy to change.

Which teacher or coach needs to be gunned down while shielding students from a barrage of bullets?  Their children must not be important enough for us to fight for change.  We must be okay with educators’ children wondering if their parents loved their students more than them because they sacrificed themselves to protect their students.

Which student survivors need to be traumatized?  The trauma student survivors face as they watch their classmates take their last breath as they dive into classrooms and duck under desks must not be damaging enough.  That’s right; they should be grateful to be alive and count their blessings.

House Speaker Paul Ryan said in response to the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, “We just need to step back and count our blessings...we need to think less about taking sides and fighting each other politically.”

It’s easy to offer up platitudes when tragedy has not come crashing through your door.

It’s easy to pray when your family is not writing a child’s obituary.

Whose child has to die for policymakers to worry less about re-election and more about addressing the issues we elected them to tackle?  

Until our policymakers take action despite the consequences to themselves, then I’m convinced they believe the children who have died in school shootings weren’t important enough, the children who have lost  parents because they jumped in front of their students don’t matter, and the student survivors who can’t shake seeing the life of their classmates slip away are insignificant.

Find out who your elected officials are and where they stand.  Let them know they can’t hide behind prayer and mental health...it’s not like they are reforming our healthcare system to address that either.

Use your power to vote them out of office.  If you vote for them knowing they won’t fight for gun reform then maybe you should ask yourself, “Whose child has to die then?”

Famous Black Hoosiers: Mari Evans

Raven, 4th Grade Student

Raven, 4th Grade Student

Written by Sylvia Denice

As a fourth grade teacher, my Social Studies curriculum revolves around Indiana state history.  It is a long-standing tradition at the elementary school where I teach that fourth graders create a “Famous Hoosier Wax Museum.”  Each student selects a famous person from Indiana to research.  They formulate speeches to inform other students about the lives of the Hoosiers, including their upbringings, careers, and impact on society.  The pinnacle of the project is when students line the hallways of the school dressed as their “Famous Hoosiers” and deliver their speeches to other students in the school community.

Every year, I have brilliant students of color lining the halls dressed as white men like Jim Davis, Larry Bird, Abraham Lincoln, Gus Grissom, and David Wolf.  This year, I decided it was time to update the Famous Hoosiers selection list to better reflect my students.  This meant adding more people of color and women to the list.  This change brought new depth to my students’ presentations and performances.  This used to be a project put aside after presentation day in October, but this year it has transformed into a recurring topic of student discussions.  Students made stronger connections to themselves and the world around them once the Famous Hoosier List was diversified.

I recently sat down with fourth grader Raven to revisit her experience studying and playing Mari Evans in our Famous Hoosier Wax Museum.  Mari Evans “is famous because she was an African-American writer and poet,” Raven recalled.  Evans was associated with the Black Arts Movement and taught at several Indiana universities.  She died in March of 2017 in Indianapolis at the age of 97.

When Raven first heard about the Famous Hoosier project, she explained “[I] wasn’t that excited because [I] was thinking that it was going to be really boring just looking at some ‘famous’ people doing nothing.”  She continued, “now I understand what was going on, and it was really, really fun.  I just felt like I was really Mari Evans.”  Raven selected Mari Evans from the list because of her recognition for writing.  Raven has an affinity for writing as well.  “I don’t write poetry, but we both write, so we have a connection there,” she explained.  “Her poetry is something you should read because they are really deep,” Raven encouraged.  

My class has been celebrating black history this month with highlights including viewing Hidden Figures, reading biographies about Thurgood Marshall, and discussing famous peacemakers like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  “I used to think Black History Month meant celebrating slaves,” Raven stated.  “Now I know what it really means is celebrating all black people.  I think [Mari Evans] would really feel special and appreciated,” she added when I shared with her the role Mari Evans plays in our celebration of black history.  Raven would like to encourage readers to visit downtown Indianapolis to see the mural painted in Mari Evans’ honor, and to celebrate all black people!

Access Denied

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Growing up with a grandmother who was an educator raised in segregated Alabama, I always knew how important receiving a good education was.

When I had my children, I looked for the best educational options. As a parent, I desired a quality education for my children in a diverse school setting. It quickly became clear to me that lack of access to a quality education and school segregation was not a thing of the past for the African American community.

I have watched my children's school become more diverse as school choice in Indiana has grown over the past five years. The private school my children attend is still predominantly Caucasian, but each year I see more diversity in the student body.  My children have friends from all different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds because of school choice.

It also became clear to me when I was talking to a family member who is down on her luck, how far we still have to go in providing access to a quality education for everyone. My family member, a single mother, works for a local township school where she was able to enroll her children. She recently lost her car and had been having trouble getting transportation to work and to her kids' school. She was told by her sons’ school if they were late or missed any more days of schools, they would have to return to their assigned school, or they would send her to truancy court.

In my effort to encourage and help this single mother who lives within the boundaries of Indianapolis Public Schools, I helped her research her neighborhood schools. She hadn't looked at them in a few years. I hoped progress had taken place at her neighborhood schools and this option would be a quality one. She has one son in seventh grade and another in fifth grade and both their elementary and middle school options are D and F rated schools.  Looking at charter and private voucher school options would again pose a transportation issue. This mother was torn between sending her children to failing schools to meet the state's requirement to attend school or finding a way to give them access to a quality education. Luckily, she had a co-worker who was willing to help with transporting her boys to school until she gets back on her feet.

During Black History Month, we reflect upon the struggles of black people and the progress we have made.  One area of highlight during this month is our fight for civil rights, but providing access to a quality education is a civil right we are still fighting for in our poor and minority communities today. I had family members who marched to Selma on that Bloody Sunday in 1965, so we could have equality in many areas including education. There are so many poor and minority families who can't access quality education options in 2018. As we continue to improve education options in Indiana and many places across the country, we need to be sure to create access to those options for the families who need them most.  


 

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Cheryl Kirk

Mrs. Kirk is a married mother of three children, 16-year-old twins and a 9 year-old son, who all currently attend private school on a voucher. She is a Gary, Indiana native but has lived in Indianapolis for many years. While trying to provide a quality education for her children she met many obstacles and became determined to access the best education for her children. Cheryl is a licensed practical nurse and has worked in home care, hospice, long-term care, and is currently the clinical director for an assisted living facility.

Donald Trump Is Proof That White Kids Need More Black History

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By Justin Cohen

Was it only just one year ago that we learned President Donald Trump didn’t really have any idea who Frederick Douglass was? After making comments at a Black History Month celebration, the contents of which suggested he thought Douglass might still be alive, the internet’s condemnation was swift. David A. Graham of The Atlantic was direct, if diplomatic, when he pointed out that, “Trump’s comments point to the superficiality of his engagement with African American culture.”

Damon Young of Very Smart Brothas, on the other hand, named the giant, white elephant in the room. “The most puzzling part of the entire non-sensical pseudo speech/rant,” Young said, “was that it seems entirely possible that Donald … doesn’t know that Frederick Douglass is, like, waaaaaay dead.”

Trump’s ignorance of basic black history, and our utter lack of surprise at that ignorance, is symptomatic of a broader void. That void lives because the average white person has little knowledge of any American narrative that does not place at its center the experiences of people whose ancestors came from Europe.

Because nature abhors a vacuum, something must fill that void. In the very best of cases, that void is filled with curiosity for cultures that are not one’s own. That version of void-filling comes with some baggage, though, as it is impossible to grapple with the actual history of this country without coming to the obvious conclusion that white people perpetrated some of history’s worst crimes in the pursuit of shaping the American dream. Several centuries of chattel slavery, coupled with the ruthless genocide of Native and First Nations peoples, are at the tip of the iceberg. Underneath the jagged edges of those most obvious examples are carefully constructed prejudices, created to justify all manner of oppression. Those prejudices, coupled with the power to enforce them, have ensured that racism persists well after the abolition of both slavery and Jim Crow.

Those same prejudices, coupled with the discomfort involved in learning about the terrible behavior of white people, means that the average white person’s void has been filled not with good-spirited curiosity, but with skepticism, denial, fear, and often hate. The actual history of this country is so painful – and the most heinous perpetrators of its crimes so obviously white – that avoiding the void altogether has been the choice du jour for generations of white Americans and their children.

And so, we arrive at February every year, when schools with large numbers of Black children and families will spend an entire month reveling in the joy, pain, and genius of their ancestors … and white children learn one or two safe Martin Luther King quotes and move on.

Is this always the case? No. As I’ve written before, I was lucky enough that my own predominantly white public elementary schools went above the call of duty. Our community was steeped in abolitionist history, and most of the faculty embraced a beyond-the-basics approach to teaching black history to white kids. We read texts by a diverse array of writers, wrestled with the ugliness of slavery, and learned about the international historical context of American racism. Did I learn enough? Absolutely not, and it will be a lifelong journey for me to understand the depth and breadth of a history that we all share, whether or not we acquiesce to participating in the perpetuation of oppression today.

On this Black History Month, we should do a lot of things, both important and joyful. We should read speeches by Sojourner Truth and see Black Panther on opening night. Spend money at Black businesses and give copies of your favorite Audre Lord essays to your friends.

Whether it feels comfortable or not to say, we also should spend more time teaching black history to white kids. In pursuit of this goal, we should prepare way ore of our white educators to do the heavy lifting on that work, as asking African-American educators to teach white children about black history is one of the most profoundly ironic requests for uncompensated labor one can imagine.

Education alone will not eradicate racism. A livelier Black History Month in his Queens elementary school probably would not have erased whatever prejudices Donald Trump learned at home. But hate thrives where ignorance festers, and the President’s ignorance is all the proof we need that too many of our children are ill-prepared to be compassionate citizens of the future. We all have work to do if that future is going to be brighter than current trends suggest. 

Weekend Education Links (2/11/2018)

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Andrew Pillow

Andrew is a technology teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep. He is graduate of the University of Kentucky and a Teach for America Alum. Andrew just recently finished his commitment as a Teach Plus Policy fellow, and he is looking forward to putting the skills he's learned to good use. Andrew has written for several publications in the past on a wide variety of topics but will be sticking to education for his role on Indy/Ed.

Indianapolis Celebrates Frederick Douglass’ 200th Birthday

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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave is one of my top ten my favorite books.  I have read this novel several times and finished reading this novel again a few days ago.  Towards the end of the novel, Douglass shares of the time when he held a Sabbath school at a free man’s house over the course of a year to help men and women bound in slavery to learn how to read.  The reason Douglass expressed concerning why he taught others in this school back in 1834 aligns with the reason why I choose to teach in 2018. Douglass states, “I taught them, because it was the delight of my soul to be doing something that looked like bettering the condition of my race.”

Although death isn’t an obstacle I face as Douglass did as a teacher back then, there are other obstacles minority teachers face that might make them give up and walk away from this profession when students, especially minority students, need them the most.  That’s why it is important to celebrate and reflect upon those who have paved the path for us during Black History Month.

On February 16 from 4-6 p.m. at Frederick Douglass Park, the city of Indianapolis is celebrating the 200th birthday of Frederick Douglass: abolitionist, orator, and author.  Mayor Joe Hogsett, Councillor Zach Adamson, and the Edna Martin Center Youth Choir will be part of the celebration.

If you are available, come out to this celebration to honor and celebrate this great man.  If you haven’t read The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, listed below is a link to where you can read it online for free along its follow up novel My Bondage and My Freedom.

The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave

My Bondage and My Freedom