“No matter what color the kids are, these are important parts of all our histories and we need to know them.”
In many schools across the U.S., Black History Month is a time for celebrating the historical, social, cultural, and technological contributions of diasporic Africans. It has its roots in Negro History Week, proposed by Carter G. Woodson in 1926, but it wasn’t until 1970 that Black educators and students at Kent State University in Ohio successfully got a mainstream educational institution to acknowledge it. Since then, Black History Month in February has grown to become a nationally recognized phenomenon.
To this day, however, the process of integrating such important historical context into schools is not without difficulty. Teachers already struggling to teach to state and federal standards can feel overwhelmed or ill-equipped. Others may simply be uncomfortable with the language of race and discussing America’s systemic injustices.
But the solution is not to obscure this vital part of America’s identity. Here are how five teachers across the country with diverse student populations incorporate Black history into their February coursework.
Natasha Jarvis of New York
Jarvis, who is Caribbean American, is a fourth-grade teacher of all subjects at the West Farms School in the Bronx. The Title 1 school, which means a majority of students receive free or reduced school lunch, is predominantly Latinx and Black.
“I’ve been teaching for six years and I always felt the need to incorporate a cultural component. I noticed Black History Month tends not to be part of the curriculum, particularly in reading material, so I started talking about Black inventors and assigning research for homework or extra credit. This year I bought books to read aloud to my class that specifically focus on Black boys, because for music I dedicated the song ‘Brown Skin Girl’ to the girls. I have to look for ways to bring in things that speak to their experiences.
“Even in math classes, I bring in rhythm and utilize call-and-response techniques because I notice when you set information to a beat, students recall the information much faster. We do have a school-wide assembly for Black History Month that features poetry and dance.”
Becky Miller of South Carolina
Miller, who is white, teaches reading and social studies to two classes of fifth graders at Jefferson Elementary in Warrenville. One is a gifted class of 22 that has one African-American and four Latinx students; the other class of 24 has four Latinx students and five African-American students. The rest of her students are white. Jefferson is also a Title 1 school.
“I do a lot of incorporation of African-American studies year-round, but especially in February. I spotlight poets such as Eloise Greenfield and Langston Hughes, study Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches, and in social studies talk about the Great Migration and Harlem Renaissance.
“My students get really involved in discussions around Jim Crow codes, literacy tests, and poll taxes, so I show them clips of the movie Selma and pass out activity cards that assign them certain handicaps or helps. The cards may tell one student they’re free to vote, another that they’re illiterate so they can’t pass the test. The randomness of the scenarios helps them see how arbitrary and unfair the systems were.
“I try to make it present for them, too. A lot of times they go home to parents who aren’t very educated and don’t know much about national news or issues going on in the country. I can’t tell them who I don’t like politically. But I do think they’re old enough to hear about a lot of these things, and I encourage them to talk about them. I try to draw connections between what we’re learning in class and the things that are relevant to their lives. No matter what color the kids are, these are important parts of all our histories and we need to know them.”
Lillian Shaw of North Carolina
Shaw, who is African-American, is an art teacher at Harding University High School in Charlotte. The Title 1 school is 55.7% Black and 37.5% Latinx.
“I incorporate art critique, teaching students how to talk about their own artwork and other art pieces, throughout the year, but I push even harder in February. The majority of my students are African American or Hispanic. We talk about Kehinde Wiley; we talk about Romare Bearden because Charlotte is his hometown. And many of them are surprised—they know there’s a park in Uptown named after him, but when I show them a picture of Bearden, they’re unaware that he was Black.
“I want to familiarize them with different artists, not just the Picassos and van Goghs. Representation matters and they need to see artists who look like them that were and currently are creating great pieces, influencing entire movements.
“I’ve always loved art, but I didn’t see African-American artists until I went to college and studied at two historically Black universities. I never had a Black art teacher before college. I barely had Black teachers, period. I wonder what would have happened or where I would be if [as a child] I’d seen an example of someone who looked like me doing what I loved and was passionate about.”
Jennifer Evans of Arizona
Evans, who is white, teaches seventh grade math at Ashton Ranch Elementary in a city called Surprise in the Phoenix metropolitan area. The school is close to 60% white, 30% Latinx, and just over 6% Black.
“It is a little difficult to incorporate Black history or context in math, but I tried this quarter with the geometry section. We focused on geometric patterns in African fabrics and did tessellations to talk about it in that format. The students felt like we were doing art so they enjoyed it and wanted to do more, but I’m limited to introducing work that fits the standards. Schools now like to keep everyone on the same track. It doesn’t really allow for a lot of individuality in schools, which are more regulated by districts as to what we’re allowed to teach and what resources we can use, so I fit in what I can.
“I always try to incorporate other cultures in the classroom, and even when it’s not about math I have a lot of discussions in the class. Sadly, the kids in my classrooms don’t have high parent support. They’re kind of doing it themselves. Their parents are at work and their older brothers and sisters are raising them, so they aren’t exposed to a lot of mature, educated conversation about history. There is so much entitlement [among white students]. It’s the hardest thing to … see. They feel like they’ve earned and deserve things they haven’t actually worked for, that were the fruits of exploiting someone else. So I feel it’s important to expose them to as much as we can. Diversity is so important for all the kids.
“Even teachers that should be covering Black contributions sometimes don’t. It’s frustrating. A lot of it is the pressure to just do what we’re told from the administration and state observers who drop in to make sure we’re following prescribed standards, but at the same time there’s also ignorance and a lack of understanding of why it’s important. Some of our teachers come from a very entitled place as well, and are stuck in the very white textbooks we use.”
Eddie Vega of Texas
Vega, who is Mexican-American, teaches high school seniors religion and theology at Incarnate Word High School in San Antonio. The all-girls Catholic school is predominantly white-identified Latina, with few African-American and Asian students.
“I incorporate diversity [in my curriculum], but I don’t mention it by name. I try to use diverse voices as much as possible throughout the year, but I sneak things in without explicitly saying this is for Black History Month. [For example], when we study colonialism and I go into how the Spanish classified their caste system racially. On Valentine’s Day, I taught a lesson on the different types of love, using videos of poetry, and all the poets and videos that I used with the exception of one were African American. No one mentioned these were Black poets, they just saw good poetry. I want to expose my students to people of color, but I don’t want them to think I’m doing it in some inauthentic way. I’m not Black, and I want to make sure that I stay in my lane. I don’t want to feel like I’m patronizing or being inauthentic.
“I’ve seen colleagues of mine highlight the usual suspects only during February, and it’s kind of a ‘them’ thing instead of an ‘us’ thing. It’s weird to say we’re studying this only these 28-29 days. I think my approach of introducing diverse voices all the time frames it more in terms of our shared humanity. It’s more powerful that way, not so contrived. I teach church history but everything I teach in theology is with a social justice lens, so if there’s a racial or nationalist injustice we’re going to talk about it, not just in February or mid-September [Hispanic Heritage Month].
“The benefit for students is seeing that there’s a less privileged world out there and seeing the complicity of the people before us, from whom we have inherited privileges based on these social injustices. It inspires students, and helps them to think more critically.”