Teaching Black History Month in Your Classroom


Black History Month is an incredibly important, though often misguided time in a teacher's year. We should approach it as an opportunity to show the relevance of African Americans in our content area, and not just isolated lessons that don't give it the respect it deserves.

Teaching Black History

Every year in February, schools across America find meaningful and creative ways to celebrate Black History Month. Established by Carter G. Woodson in 1926, it was originally promoted as Negro History Week. He saw it as a way to educate African Americans about their history so that they could be informed and involved in the country, as well as the rest of America so they could have a better understanding of it. As teachers, we often are expected to incorporate Black History Month into our classrooms in the same spirit that Woodson intended. However, it is not the fact that we do it at all, but how we do it that makes it meaningful to our students and their families.

Teach Black History in the Context of Your Curriculum

As a fellow teacher, I get it. By the time February rolls around each year, your mind has turned to thoughts of 'how in the world I am going to teach all the standards' while mentally counting how many minutes there are until spring break. So, when you sit in a faculty meeting and they tell you 'Oh, by the way . . . you have to put together a lesson for Black History Month,' your impulse is to compile the fastest thing you can and move on. However, that is probably the worst and most degrading way to approach this task. If you want to show students the value of African Americans and their history, you want to teach about it within the context of your subject.

Integrating Black History into your Standards

I think English and history have the most straightforward path to teach African American history within the context of the standards you already teach. For example, most English teachers are expected to teach literature and poetry. So why not spend some time using poets such as Langston Hughes to teach about the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance changed the fabric of America in ways beyond its arts contributions. It changed society's perception of African American culture by showing they were a sophisticated, intelligent, and a highly literate society. The civil rights movement itself can be traced back to the events of the Harlem Renaissance. So while you are teaching poetry, you can also teach how arts influence our society and what we value.

Langston Hughes

Science and math teachers can pursue a similar approach, though sometimes it might be a bit more challenging to find ways to tie black history into your content. Math teachers might be tempted to just do a lesson on a famous African American and leave it at that. But again, we want to incorporate it into our standards in a way that shows students we value African Americans in society. Math and science teachers could work together to teach about the impact of African Americans on the math and science they are teaching. For example, if you have to teach about space, you could spend time talking about the decades of math that women such as Katherine Johnson did to get astronauts like John Glenn into orbit. There are endless possibilities, but the rule of thumb is it should align with the standards you are already teaching. If you don't do that, your students will see it as a random lesson and not value the history you are teaching about.

Thyrsa Frazier Svager, one of the first black women to receive a Ph.D. in Mathematics
Thyrsa Frazier Svager

Teach the Relevance of Black History in the Moment

I admit that I have done it too—pulled snippets of African American history from the past and ignored their active role in the present. However, if we are to do justice to teaching black history in our classrooms, we don't want to treat it as a thing of the past. We want to show students that African Americans continue to contribute to society, as well as being foundational to American history. The fabric of both are inseparable, and students should see that in how we teach black history in our classrooms.

Take, for example, a teacher whose class covers civics or American history. It is a wonderful thing to teach about Rosa Parks' decision to refuse to give up her bus seat. However, There are other less known figures as well. Talk about Medgar Evers, who organized voter registrations in his role at the NAACP and was assassinated for his activism. Fannie Lou Hamer from Mississippi helped organize the Freedom Summer African American voter registration drive. So many African Americans contributed to civil rights advancements, but it is far from being a resolved issue in America. So, when government is your area, talk about the ways African Americans are continuing the work of their predecessors. Unfair housing, compensation, and poverty are all issues that African Americans and others are working to overcome and can easily be made relevant in the curriculum. Teach them about the issue of racism today, and how that is driving changes in America through movements such as Black Lives Matter.

Rosa Parks

If the more political issues don't fit into your content, find ones that do. Get creative! For example, you can find ways to use dances that originated in African American culture such as hip-hop, hand dancing, or go-go to teach math in your classroom. Students could create dances to remember math rules, or even apply the rules of equations to come up with rhythms to dance to. If you are teaching biology, recreate the process of separating blood in your classroom created by Charles Drew. The important thing is that you don't teach it in isolation. Instead, do it in a way to show that black history continues to shape American and world history today in positive ways by teaching the concepts alongside the figures in history.

Black History and American History

When we approach teaching about black history in our classrooms, we must do it in a way that is meaningful to students. While it is tempting to pull a random lesson off the Internet, teach it, and be done, that doesn't send the message to students that it matters. To show students the importance of Black History Month, you want to integrate it into the content you are already teaching. That way, students don't see it as a detour, but instead, understand how it is woven into the fabric of your lessons. African Americans continue to contribute and shape our world every day. If we value African Americans, let's not limit our celebration of their role in American history to one month of the year. Instead, find ways to celebrate and integrate it throughout the entire year!

By Rachel Tustin
February 2018
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