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Go beyond February. 5 ways for becoming a culturally competent communicator

Carter Woodson grew up in Virginia, moving to West Virginia at the age of 17 to attend high school. He worked as a coal miner while he studied part-time, eventually becoming a full-time student and graduating in 1897. He became a teacher and school administrator, later earning two college degrees from the University of Chicago and a doctorate from Harvard.

As a historian, Woodson established the Association for the Study of African American Life and History while advocating for the intentional and accurate teaching of African American and Black history, achievements, and accomplishments. And in 1926, he and other historians pioneered “Negro History Week” to encourage the telling of these stories beyond the lens of a Eurocentric perspective:

“For centuries we have been the victims of propaganda; and as long as the truth is denied a hearing there will always be strife among the members of the human family, and disorder like the present in which the world now finds itself will always be possible.”

This truth, Woodson claimed, was

“overlooked, ignored, and even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them.”

Fifty years later, following the example of Black students at Kent State University, President Ford would establish Black History Month.

The hope was that Black History Month would provide a very intentional time for all of us to learn together the  contributions, challenges, and successes of African Americans; incorporating our present, the past 400 years in North America, and the the thousands of years before that in Africa. But . . . the real hope was that the stories of people, events, and places, routinely ignored, would be incorporated throughout the school year.

As educator, author, and activist Jose Vilson put it:

“. . . has it ever occurred to you that, as well-intentioned as (Black History Month) might be, we ought to take the next step and celebrate Black history on March 1st as well?”

I’m guessing we’re all in agreement on the going beyond February business. The question now becomes how to do what Woodson dreamed of and Vilson advocates.

Do I have all the answers? Not even close. But there are a lot of very smart people out there who do. What have I learned and continue to learn?

It’s not just teaching about Black “firsts,” slavery, famous inventors, Civil Rights activists from the 1960s, and Revolutionary War poets. It’s about being culturally competent, what two writers describe as being a “practiced communicator” of African American history. It’s not just teaching that racism is wrong, it’s about being anti-racist. It’s not just integrating Black history into American history throughout your nine month curriculum, it’s also about finding ways to explore those stories outside the lens of white America.

Perhaps most importantly, t’s not just classroom educators teaching Black and African American history in their classrooms, it’s about teachers learning more about this history themselves.

For me, and many of you, that means breaking out of what Dina Strasser calls our “White Teacher Bubble.” And like most of the content we teach, this process is nuanced, complicated, and sometimes uncomfortable.

Researcher and speaker Dr. Vernita Mayfield is one of the very smart people out there. Her book, Cultural Competence Now: 56 Exercises to Help Educators Understand and Challenge Bias, Racism, and Privilege and MiddleWeb article 5 Steps Toward Cultural Competence in Schools, provide practical suggestions for breaking out of the bubble and  becoming more culturally competent educators, better equipped at what we do.

First steps?

  • Become cognizant of how racial bias and inequity have been embedded in our culture and how our cultural values and beliefs influence professional practices;
  • Adapt professional practices to create more equitable student outcomes;
  • Dismantle inequitable policies and practices that limit access and opportunity, and
  • Relinquishe their privileges in exchange for championing equity and disrupting injustice.

What can that look like in practice?

Above and Beyond the Standards: How Practiced Communicators Teach African American History 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, provides five suggestions for going beyond Mayfield’s first steps to becoming what Flanagan and Oberg call a “practiced communicator:”

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

Start with BlackPast, a site providing reliable and accurate information on the history of African America and of people of African ancestry around the world. The Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, and the National Archives 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 HistoryGilder Lehrman, and the Smithsonian Learning Lab are a few such examples. On the Smithsonian Learning Lab, search “African American” and investigate collections created by museum and classroom educators.

And while the Civil Rights movement and slavery are stories that can and should not be ignored – i.e the Library of Congress collection of audio narratives by formerly enslaved persons infuses humanity into people who had previously been without a voice – the experience of Black Americans is deeper and more nuanced. Perhaps  explore Marian Anderson’s 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 also explore the Negro Motorist Green Book during discussions of migration and how people moved across the country.

2. Intentionally plan 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. Read books and articles. 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.

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture is hosting a wide variety of digital programs, initiatives and experiences. (Do not miss Historically Speaking: 400 Souls – A Conversation with Ibram Kendi and Keisha N. Blain on February 2.) Multiple events are being held at Black History Studies as does Facing History Facing Ourselves. And EventBrite lists a ton of both free and pay learning options. Several federal organizations like the Smithsonian, National Parks Service, and NEH have partnered together to provide resources including webinars and online events.

And Woodson’s Association for the Study of African American Life and History is offering multiple virtual events as part of its Black History Month Festival.

LaGarrett J. King is the Director of the Carter Center for K-12 Black History Education at the University of Missouri and recently published an article titled: Black History is Not American History: Toward a Framework of Black Historical Consciousness, a must read for wrapping your head around possible ways of not integrating Black history and why that might be a good idea. Other articles for your personal professional growth should include Teaching Tolerance’s Do’s and Don’ts of Teaching Black History and Four Black History Month Must-Haves.

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

Research has shown that professional learning communities support professional growth and student learning by helping make the usually invisible processes of teaching visible. This network of like-minded colleagues becomes a resource for sharing and exchanging ideas share ideas around African American related primary sources, for practicing how to contextualize the history, or for supporting challenging conversations around inclusion and race. Heading down the hall in your own building and district Should be first steps.

But the interwebs is a great place to connect with others. A few quick suggestions would be to start with the #sschat Twitter hashtag and website. Then read and participate on threads tagged with #sstlap, #blackbooksmatter, or #blackhistory. Feel more comfortable with Facebook or Instagram? Trust me. You’re gonna find people there too.

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

Or at least accept the fact that it’s okay to be uncomfortable while you do. 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. If you want to include more African American history in your classroom, you need to 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” with tons of available resources.

Browsing through this shared Google Doc of teaching suggestions and a whole raft of handy articles for addressing controversial topics might help.

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

We know that young people are influenced by the visual and learning materials in the environment around them. 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. 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. Think carefully about the imagery, artwork, books, and characters in the recommended readings for your kids.

But before you head out to start picking stuff, be sure to take some advice from Denene Millner – don’t settle for the easy titles.

The African American Literature Book Club is a great place to start for some great lists and suggestions. Be sure to poke around, especially their page on resources for writes, readers, and publishers.

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. Dig in to the Black Children’s Books and Authors genre page for a ton of suggestions. The NCSS Notable Trade Books is also a great place to find a diverse selection of materials. Try Where to Find Diverse Books and a list by the Skokie Library. The group Social Justice Books curated more than 50 lists of multicultural and social justice books in a variety of topics for children, young adults, and educators that are helpful.

The Anti-Defamation League says that “Books matter. Books have the potential to create lasting impressions. They have the power to instill empathy, affirm children’s sense of self, teach about others, transport to new places and inspire actions on behalf of social justice.” Use this searchable list to help find what you’re looking for.

When Dr. Woodson created “Negro History Week,” he didn’t envision it becoming a permanent calendar event with a couple of lessons plans here or there and a photo of MLK up on the wall. As teachers, we need to listen and read and reflect and share and accept the fact that this is a process, as much for us as our students.


If Dr. Woodson were sitting in front of you, what plans for celebrating Black History Month would you share?

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