Dr. Mamie L. Pack is a faculty member in the WGU Teachers College, as well as a Black business owner, an active-duty military spouse and a mother. She is a former classroom teacher and a regular contributor to this Learning Community with her advice columns for teachers. This month, Mamie shares tips for integrating Black history with celebration and joy.
February is Black History Month.
I’m excited to talk about the importance of integrating Black history into your classroom curriculum and offer a few practical steps on how to infuse Black history year-round.
First and most important, teaching Black history and culture is not just for February.
Let’s start with a deep commitment to integrate and amplify narratives celebrating the experiences, perspectives, and accomplishments of Black people throughout the year in your classroom, giving all students a chance to grow their knowledge, cultural awareness, and empathy.
Second, Black history should not start or focus solely on oppression. As educators, it’s important we ask ourselves “What type of Black history are we teaching in our classrooms?” If students only think of Black history in terms of slavery, we have done all students a great disservice, and we are creating an environment that may be traumatic for many students. You can seize the opportunity right now to teach your students about Black joy, love, celebration, successes, and resilience. You can choose to educate your students about the kings, queens, and civilizations influenced by African people way before there was an American history to tell.
At WGU Teachers College, we integrate stories, research, and resources about diversity, equity, and inclusion in our curriculum for our students, throughout the entire course of their degree path. We believe this integration of DEI benefits them as people and professionals and prepares them to be knowledgeable empathetic educators and leaders.
Okay, so let’s get you some helpful advice on creating holistic approach to teaching Black history all year! Here are three steps you can employ to lift your knowledge, awareness, cultural empathy, and courage. Your students will benefit from your efforts for many years to come.
If you’ve read any of my columns in the Learning Community, it won’t surprise you that step one to creating an authentic, holistic approach to teaching Black history is self-reflection. As with any leadership role, you want to start by looking inward at unpacking your own learning experiences and perceptions. Be honest about where you may have bias or lack of understanding.
Think about how you were taught about Black history. Use these questions to help you begin reflecting on your experience and how it has shaped your understanding of Black history and culture.
- How old were you when you learned about Black History in school?
- How did it make you feel?
- What narratives did you learn about Black history and the fight for racial equity?
- What images were used to teach the stories and experience of Black people in your education?
- How do you think what you learned about Black history in schools may have been inspiring or harmful?
- How do you approach teaching Black history in your classroom? School?
- Do you have a professional group of collaborators that you can learn from and grow with?
Some of your answers to these questions may be uncomfortable and that’s okay. Don’t rush the process to make yourself feel better. Instead, sit in the uncomfortable space to identify where you need to unpack and uproot inaccurate narratives about Black culture and history. This process will help you identify where there are areas for growth and change. Remember this is an ongoing process meant to be revisited often. Be curious and courageous.
Once you finish this self-reflection, identify professional resources that can help you grow. Taking the time to connect with professional educational organizations can help you learn about additional resources to integrate Black history into your discipline. Being a part of professional organizations like the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), provides you with the opportunity to attend conferences, webinars, and offers additional resources to help you diversify your curriculum and learn from subject matter experts. You don’t have to go this journey alone.
I’ll leave some resources at the end of this article to get you started on a good path!
Just as you spent time with self-reflection, it’s vital to also take a critical look at your curriculum and your classroom library. Our curriculum and classroom libraries must be affirming, accurate, and authentic when reflecting Black history, Black culture, and Black narratives. We must be willing to challenge inaccurate and harmful representations with curriculum choices that represent the beauty, joy, hope, love, and genius of Black people.
Here are a few questions to consider when critically analyzing your curriculum and classroom libraries:
- How many books in your classroom include positive and affirming stories with main characters who are Black?
- How will you include more curriculum resources focused on positive and affirming stories of Black people?
- What narratives about Black people are represented in your curriculum?
- Do you include resources that explore the multiple identities that inform and intersect with Blackness?
- How do you include and center Black perspectives in my curriculum?
- What privileges or blind spots impact your curriculum choices?
- How are you using texts by Black authors in various discipline areas?
Many teachers find they have some gaps. Including and centering Black experiences and voices in your curriculum requires intentionality. Remember, Black history is U.S. history and world history. Scientific discovery includes Black scientists, and the same holds true for math, literature, politics, and all of the creative and performing arts as well as the world of entertainment and pop culture. If you are not sure where to start, there are numerous excellent vetted curriculum resources available to help you include Black perspectives and voices into your classroom and your curriculum units, including significant offerings from Black authors and booksellers.
Another curriculum challenge I see, and a well-intentioned friend asked me about this just this week, is superhero syndrome. In your efforts to not focus on oppression, some teachers focus on representations of heroes and heroines in the Black community. This harmful approach reinforces the idea that being good is not good enough for Black people. Instead, you create unrealistic expectations that because they are Black, they have to over-achieve to be visible and valued. Integrated curriculum can create a better balance by including stories of Black children and their families, caregivers, and culture in a humanized, empathetic way. While you’re modeling this DEI-forward way of teaching and leading your diverse students, help other teachers understand when you see curriculum that perpetuates stereotypes or completely leaves out Black contributions to history and culture. Not giving visibility and voice to Black people is another form of racism that we as educators want to be sure to avoid.
Fortunately, many teachers have incredible skills at empathy.
You’ve spent time and energy setting up your classroom to be exciting and engaging. Now step out for a minute, and step back using a critical lens analyzing the diversity IN your classroom.
Looking around your classroom and reflect on these questions:
- Are there materials around your classroom that represent various cultures and families?
- What types of music do you play for students? Do you include music outside of your preference or culture?
- Which holidays are recognized and celebrated on your classroom calendar?
- Are toys in your classroom diverse? Are students able to use dolls/action figures that look like them?
- Are there posters with a good mix of diversity among the people in the pictures?
- Do you provide diverse materials for students to use to learn about Black experiences and voices?
I’ve seen many educators only introduce stories of Black people under the lens of oppression because those are the stories they were raised with. While we must address the inequalities and challenges Black people continue to face in the U.S., we shouldn’t start or stop there. Our students need access to information that relates to their culture, identities, and experiences within their schools. Creating space to lead these conversations in a safe way helps all students. It’s vital for our emerging leaders to see themself in history makers and realize they too can make a difference. Creating change in your classroom will take purposeful planning, but it is worth it.
Black History month is an important time of celebration. Let’s just be sure not to limit it to February when there is so much to celebrate and learn year-round. Using texts and resources that speak to Black experiences, using Black perspectives, and amplifying Black contributions benefits all students.
In closing, here are some excellent resources to get you started in amplifying your Black-focused curriculum throughout the year:
- The 2022 Ultimate List of Diverse Books curated by Here We Read
- Let’s Talk about Race: Anti-racist Book Recommendation
- From the Center for Racial Justice
- KQED - Eight Media Collections from PBS
- INC - Six Must-watch TED Talks to Understand Black History and Diversity
- STEM - African American Pioneers of Space
- Celebrating 10 African American Medical Pioneers
- Celebrating Women during Black History Month
- 13 Pioneering Black American Librarians You Ought to Know