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Teaching Diversity: 4 Activities to Celebrate Black History Month

Frederick Douglass

Teaching diversity is essential in today's classroom, and Black History Month is a wonderful opportunity to educate students while celebrating the black men and women who have shaped our country. Black History Month is also the perfect time for students to recognize how the courageous actions of black men and women can help them deal with the challenges they face in today's world. Here are some activities that can help your students celebrate and connect with the heroes of Black History Month.

Create a Literary Magazine

I often begin Black History Month with a lesson on Maya Angelou. As they examine her writing, my students recognize that words have the power to inspire and influence people. But you can drive that point home even further by having your class curate a Black History Month literary magazine that features past and present black poets, as well as original writing.

Have your students select poems from African-American literature that not only highlight the racial inequalities in America, but also encourage the transformation of society. As they uncover the writing of poets like Phyllis Wheatley, Langston Hughes, and Jericho Brown, your students will learn about the historical struggles people of color have faced and continue to face. Then have your class write their own poems, which should expand on, respond to, or reflect upon the selected literary works.

Sharing their poems on Twitter and other social media, using hashtags like #BlackHistoryMonth, #WeAreBlackHistory, #BlackEmpowerment, etc., will help increase the impact of your students' work.

Assign an Essay on Fighting Intolerance

Each year, when discussing how past leaders dealt with intolerance, I introduce my students to Bayard Rustin. He was a leader in both the civil and gay rights movements, and he initiated a freedom ride to challenge the racial segregation of interstate busing. He later became involved in politics and encouraged the black community to follow suit. Your students can learn to follow Rustin's example by utilizing civil disobedience through protests and pursuing leadership roles.

Have your students write an essay about what they'll do to stand against injustice in today's world. You might be surprised how opinionated your class is. Many of my students participated in the Women's March and Muslim ban protests, and have started and signed equality petitions—so it's clear that they're starting to learn that their voices matter and can make a difference. Giving them time to think about what role they want to play in creating a new, tolerant world and why can be an extremely potent lesson.

Use Music to Analyze Rhetoric

There is a lot of misconception and confusion surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement. Its mission has been co-opted, misconstrued, and distorted, which can leave students wondering "Don't all lives matter?" To help them become more knowledgeable and empowered, compare and contrast two examples of rhetoric on black life in class.

I find that students enjoy lessons that use music as a teaching tool, so I suggest using Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech and hip-hop artist Common's song "I Have a Dream." Read or listen to both works in class, and have students compare them. Use questions to moderate the discussion: Have the dreams of MLK Jr. been realized? Does Common have the same dream as MLK Jr.? What, if anything, is different? Are the obstacles each of these men have faced the same or different?

Analyzing these forms of rhetoric will guide your students to understand the birth of both the civil rights and Black Lives Matter movements. You can help them uncover the truth, while noting where and when challenges occurred, which is a powerful lesson. Just keep in mind that Black Lives Matter can be a polarizing topic, but an exploration like this can help students answer their own questions, draw their own conclusions, and make educated decisions about the movement.

Discuss Social Media's Role in Modern Leadership

Your students have tools and resources that black leaders in the past did not: the internet and social media. During the civil rights movement, prominent leaders could only hope to reach the residents of their town and maybe their whole state if they were lucky. Today, readers can reach thousands, even millions, of people from their pockets. While your students may already be familiar with the ways in which social media tools can help people obtain information, foster solidarity, and effect change, having a discussion solidifies these points.

Have your class write down the answers to the following questions: Would you consider anyone you follow on social media to be a leader? What power do they have? Who's bringing attention to important issues, and who's drawing attention away from them? How can social media spread awareness? When your students have their answers, lead a discussion about their main news sources and how informed they truly are. This is an ideal time to point out that, thanks to the internet, it's possible that what your students consider to be common knowledge is something many people don't know.

Finally, have your students write a reflection where they return to the original discussion questions and see how their answers may have changed. Their reflection should include some new ways they can find and evaluate information, and you can stress the importance of being informed, educated, and empathetic global citizens.

Black History Month is an important pillar of teaching diversity because it affects every student in your classroom, regardless of race or ethnicity. Everyone can learn valuable lessons from those celebrated during this month of remembrance, such as the immense responsibility we all have to fight prejudice and injustice. As former President Barack Obama called upon citizens everywhere in his farewell address: "I'm asking you to believe—not in my ability to create change, but in yours."