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It’s Black History Month: 5 suggestions from the National Museum of African American History (and a list of resources)

It’s February. Black History Month.

And I gotta be honest. I’m always a bit conflicted about the idea. The concept of a month specifically set aside for the study of Black History started back in 1926 when historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History announced the second week of February to be “Negro History Week.” That particular week was chosen because it marked the birthday of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

In 1976, the federal government followed the lead of the Black United Students at Kent State and established the entire month of February as Black History Month. President Ford urged Americans, and especially teachers and schools, to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

The hope was that Black History Month would provide a very intentional time for all of us to remember together the struggles of African Americans to obtain the basic civil rights afforded to others, the challenges African Americans have faced for centuries, and the contributions of African Americans to who we are. But . . . the real hope was that the story of essential people, events, and places, routinely ignored, would be incorporated throughout the school year.

Recent movies such as Selma and Marshall and books such as Hidden Figures do a great job of creating a sense of a specific time period, of overt racism and violence, the need for supporting the right to vote, the courage of individuals, the thought process behind events, and the accounts of everyday people going about their everyday lives.. The message of Black History Month remains – that the quest for equality and dignity in the United States was difficult and dangerous. And that the extraordinary work of ordinary folks such as John Lewis, Jimmie Lee Jackson, and Amelia Boynton Robinson still isn’t finished.

But I’m still a bit conflicted.

Jose Vilson, teacher and activist, puts it pretty well in an article titled If You’re Teaching Black History This Way, Please Stop:

First, I’d like to acknowledge that, on the chance that you’re actually celebrating Black History Month, congrats. You haven’t let the Common Core madness deter you from celebrating culture, whether it’s your own or someone else’s.  The decorations will spring up. Common faces like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Benjamin Banneker, and Will Smith will border the walls of a few classrooms, and probably a few hallways. There might be a fact-a-day in the announcements, and one in 400 schools might have someone who knows the Black National Anthem.

But, has it ever occurred to you that, as well-intentioned as this might be, we ought to take the next step and celebrate Black history on March 1st as well?

Too many of us still use February to have kids memorize random black history facts and call it good. (We also seem to have a habit of doing the same thing with women’s history and Latino history and Asian American history and Native American history and . . . well, you get the idea.)

I’m conflicted because I know many of you may be looking for great Black History month resources. And I have a list. But part of me is afraid that it will only get used between now and the end of the month.

So here’s the deal. You can have the list. But you’re gonna have to do a little action research first. Read through a quick summary of an article published in the final 2017 issue of Social Education from the National Council for the Social Studies. It was written by Candra Flanagan, Coordinator of Student and Teacher Initiatives at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and Caren Oberg, a NMAAHC research consultant.

In Above and Beyond the Standards: How Practiced Communicators Teach African American History, Flanagan and Oberg outline seven characteristics of “Practiced Communicators” of African American history and five strategies to help you get better at integrating the story of African Americans into our story in months other than February.

As you reflect on your classroom and your teaching practice, consider the following five strategies for becoming a practiced communicator:

1. Find and utilize primary sources and stories that relate to the African American experience to add nuance and perspective to the study of American history and literature.

Many well-known digital collections are are great places to find these sources and stories, such as those of the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, and the National Archives, which offer primary sources or curated collections around African American history. Most repositories provide ways to filter their collection or to search by historical era, topic or individual.

Websites created primarily for educators offer collections of primary and secondary sources which can be used in a classroom setting and often include connections to national standards, assessments, and extension activities. Teaching History, Gilder Lehrman, and the Smithsonian Learning Lab are a few such examples. On the Smithsonian Learning Lab, you can search “African American,” and investigate collections created by museum and classroom educators. If you are teaching a unit on the system of American slavery and those enslaved in that system, the Library of Congress collection of audio narratives by formerly enslaved persons infuses humanity into a people who had formerly been without a voice.

And while the Civil Rights movement and slavery are stories that can and should not be ignored, the experience of Black Americans is deeper and more nuanced. You can also explore Marian Anderson’s courageous concert at the Lincoln Memorial, study the lives of free people of color in the antebellum period, or compare multiple perspectives on the Buffalo Soldier experience. Maybe your students research and learn more about African American women like Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson calculating aeronautical and astronomical math, helping push the United States into space.

If you are studying migration patterns within and to the United States, examine the digital collections of the In Motion project through the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library. You can explore the Negro Motorist Green Book during discussions of migration and how people moved across the country for leisure as well as to find new lives in urban areas.

You can also connect with contemporary events such as the “Take a Knee” movement by thinking about the role that African American athletes have played in raising national consciousness throughout time. Two examples are Jack Johnson using his platform as the World Heavyweight champion or the silent but powerful protest of African American track stars Tommy Smith and Juan Carlos on the podium during a medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympics.

2. Find and register for professional learning opportunities that feature African American history.

Explore your local library programs, non-credit university classes, and other professional development especially designed for educators. For virtual or distance opportunities, consider podcasts such as Sidedoor from the Smithsonian or BackStory from the Virginian Foundation for the Humanities. The National Humanities Center also holds webinars that explore a number of historical topics connected to African American History, and the Southern Poverty Law Center has a wide range of learning opportunities, including their compelling publication, Teaching Tolerance.

3. Seek out like-minded educators and practiced communicators.

Research has shown that professional learning communities can support teacher development and student learning by helping make the usually invisible processes of teaching visible. A network of like-minded colleagues will be a resource as you share ideas for including more African American related primary sources, for practicing how to contextualize the history, or for supporting challenging conversations around inclusion and race.

Journeying through the experience of examining your curriculum with colleagues will be a communal learning experience within your academic setting.

4. Get comfortable speaking about race, racism, and inclusion.

Many topics and themes in African American history are inextricably intertwined with the history of race and racism in U.S. society and the way in which it has influenced the concept of who is American. An educator who wishes to include more African American history in her or his classroom must be aware of concepts of racial literacy, strategies for conducting age-appropriate discussions, and the tenets of anti-bias education.

Organizations such as Facing History and Ourselves and Teaching Tolerance provide educators with online materials and teaching pedagogy on how to address race and foster inclusive classrooms. The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture also holds an annual summer workshop called “Let’s Talk! Teaching Race in the Classroom.”

Browse through this shared Google Doc of teaching suggestions and a whole raft of handy articles for addressing controversial topics such as race and politics in the classroom.

5. Diversify the visual and learning materials in your classroom setting.

One of the first goals of anti-bias education is to help build a positive social identity in students, by encouraging them to celebrate as well as be comfortable with human diversity.

We know that young people are influenced by the visual and learning materials in the environment around them. Research has shown that students learn from what they do not see as much as what they see. When images, books, and characters of various groups are not represented in the grand narrative, students lack opportunities to see themselves and their experiences validated as a part of the American experience.

In primary level classrooms, it is important to include books that portray African American characters in a variety of roles that present African Americans as a part of American society who work and live in similar environments to others. This builds and fosters a sense of shared community. As students progress to higher levels of elementary school, incorporating books that begin to share the African American experience as history will allow for further exploration of the American narrative. In the secondary levels, it is important to include books written by and about African Americans in assignments. Think carefully about the imagery, artwork, books, and characters in the recommended readings for students.

For ideas on books for various ages, Teaching for Change has created Social Justice Books as a place where educators can find recommendations of books featuring multicultural characters, social justice storylines, and thought-provoking plots about inclusion. The NCSS Notable Trade Books is also a great place to find a diverse selection of materials.

Teaching Tolerance has developed a collection of materials to support effective and responsive teaching about American slavery. These include teaching tools, like A Framework for Teaching American Slavery and Inquiry Design Models; the Teaching Hard History Text Library, an online archive featuring more than 100 primary source documents to support robust teaching and learning about American slavery; a podcast series featuring the voices of leading scholars and educators in the field; and an upcoming webinar from their teaching and learning team.

Be sure to get the entire article over at the Social Education site. I especially like the seven characteristics part of the article – it provides a great picture of what quality instruction can look like.

Okay. Article read? Great. Here’s your list. (It’s from 2017 but I’ve updated and added to it.)

But don’t forget . . . with great power comes great responsibility. Use the resources wisely.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Glenn is a curriculum and tech integration specialist, speaker, and blogger with a passion for technology and social studies. He delivers engaging professional learning across the country with a focus on consulting, presentations, and keynotes. Find out more about Glenn and how you might learn together by going to his Speaking and Consulting page.

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