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.