4 Teaching Tools to Honor Black History Month in the Classroom

As any social studies teacher will tell you, you can’t mark Black History Month without shining a spotlight on Dr. Carter G. Woodson. Dr. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History) and organized Negro History Week, which was first celebrated in February 1926. The week expanded to a month during our country’s bicentennial in 1976.

Dr. Woodson is considered to be the father of African American history for his creation of what is now Black History Month, as well as his work in making the study of African American history in the U.S. a serious academic field. We join with schools, parents, and our communities to spark important, impactful conversations as we observe Black History Month. Here at HMH, we know students respond to material that speaks to them, that mirrors them, that understands them, and that guides them.

So, allow me to share with you four of my favorite teaching tools that can be used each and every day of the year—but especially this month—to promote lifelong learning. 

1. Character Education 

One of my favorite tools is the use of biographies to teach character education— especially in the elementary grades—and I think highlighting the stories of influential individuals is one of the most powerful ways to teach history to our students.

A great woman to highlight this month is Madam C. J. Walker. She was an amazing entrepreneur who worked through significant challenges to become a multi-millionaire. She also embodied the character trait of trustworthiness in her community by providing jobs, training, and charity. Other examples could include teaching:

  • Patriotism through Phillis Wheatley
  • Respect through Mary McLeod Bethune
  • Caring through George Washington Carver
  • Fairness through Sojourner Truth
  • Responsibility through Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
2. Primary Sources 

As every teacher knows, stories can capture students’ imaginations, hold their attention, and teach important concepts all at once. When students experience historical events through the eyes of individuals, the events take on new meaning. Students therefore begin to make personal connections to the past. We know that students may feel disengaged by the presentation of separate narratives and the traditional deluge of facts, dates, places, and names. To honor Black History Month, I suggest bringing history to life with the juxtaposition of art, primary sources, literature, and film on topics like the Harlem Renaissance. A few of my favorite primary source examples include:

  • Zora Neale Hurston on the University of Central Florida’s Digital Archives
  • James Weldon Johnson’s lyrics in “Lift Every Voice and Sing” on PBS
  • Video clips of Langston Hughes on Biography
  • The murals of Aaron Douglas through the New York Public Library
  • Classroom activities through The Kennedy Center   
  • Video and musical excerpts from the Harlem Renaissance on YouTube
3. Virtual Reality

The benefit of virtual reality is that it allows students to go beyond their classroom walls and cross space and time. With Google Expeditions, students can literally “see” in 360 degrees things that they cannot experience, such as an active volcano, rock climbing a sheer cliff, and the Great Barrier Reef.

For social studies and world languages, students can travel back in time to examine slavery and the Civil Rights Movement. Students can visit Gorée Island in Senegal and see La Maison des Esclaves, the House of Slaves, from which Africans were transported to the Americas. Students can tour the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana and see where and how enslaved peoples lived, worked, and slept.

In addition to contemporary photos of these actual locations, the Civil Rights Field Trip juxtaposes past and present images. From the Lowndes Interpretive Center in Alabama to the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Georgia, the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama, and the National Mall in Washington, D.C., students see contemporary spaces that link to archival images from the Civil Rights era.

4. Current Events

Sometimes, history can seem far away and remote for children. Teaching current events can be a powerful way to bring the past to life by connecting it to today’s issues. While the medium may differ—Twitter, online news, news shows, and so on—integrating current events into your curriculum is a critical way to spark important conversations and help students connect their lives to the history lesson.

As recently as the 2019 Super Bowl halftime show, “taking a knee” in the modern context sparked heated debate about social justice and patriotism. Colin Kaepernick’s protest as a well-known athlete captured media attention, and it  offers today’s students a current example to examine this enduring understanding. With PBS educator resources from Ken Burns: Teaching American History and Culture, teachers can make past-to-present connections by using the provided lesson plan, which asks excellent compelling questions about famous athletes like Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, and Muhammad Ali and their role in civil rights: 

  • "Should athletes use their position in society as sports figures to advocate social or political change?"
  • "Are athletes placed on a higher social, moral, or ethical pedestal or standard because of their position?"

Other useful current events source links include:

  • We Are Teachers: “How to Talk About ‘Take a Knee’ With Students”
  • PBS: “Johnson, Louis, Ali: Lesson Plan”
  • CUNY Law Review: Police Brutality, the Law and Today’s Social Justice Movement: How the Lack of Police Accountability Has Fueled #Hashtag Activism”

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You can learn more about the inception of Black History Month and sign up for the This Month in History newsletter here. Check out our free current events pages built exclusively for K–5 students and 6–12 students

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