5 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 my 2020 top five teaching tools that can be used each and every day of the year—but especially this month—to promote lifelong learning. 

1. Great Reads

Predicted by Carol Jago last year during the HMH Lead the Way to Literacy webinar “When Children Read the World: Books That Lead the Way,” the 2020 Caldecott Medal was awarded to Kadir Nelson, illustrator of The Undefeated. Nelson also won the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, and author and poet Kwame Alexander won a Newbery Honor for this powerful book.

This beautifully drawn and expertly crafted book of poetry presents the triumphs and tragedies of African Americans in the United States. It pulls no punches on the cruelty that Africans faced in their journey across the Atlantic and years in the U.S., but it is presented in a way that students can take in and begin to understand. The reference citations allow students to conduct research reports on individuals they know well or are just learning about. The book provides hope by showcasing determination, self-actualization, and perseverance. You can watch Carol Jago’s reading of this book on the Lead the Way to Literacy webinar here.

2. Equity and School Culture

At the 2020 LearnLaunch edtech conference, many of this year’s topics included equity. I heard from administrators, educators, and researchers about the power of identity and acceptance. A student must feel welcome and included in his or her school and community in order to be successful. In the session “Data, Dashboards, and the Whole Child,” Elizabeth Homan, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction for Waltham Public Schools, shared that in her district, students are polled twice a year about their school climate. Many questions about school climate center around issues of representation and inclusion. Homan noted that the schools with the highest school climate scores are also those that have the highest achievement. These same schools are very diverse in socioeconomic status and race. They are not among the most affluent. Thus, equity in culture has great outcomes on achievement. How to achieve this in schools? Examine the content.

A second LearnLaunch panel, “How Are Educators Using Edtech to Close Equity Gaps?”, had panelist Kevin Clark, Professor at George Mason University, share media statistics. According to the 2016 research article “The Digital Lives of African American Tweens, Teens, and Parents: Innovating and Learning with Technology,” in 33% of media experiences, race is portrayed negatively. In 24% of media experiences, gender is portrayed negatively. If children of color are spending up to 13 hours a day on media, what lasting harm is this causing? In today’s world, it’s difficult to pull the plug, and disassociating from the world is not the answer.

As children are members of their family, school, and community, each is responsible for cultivating an environment to make them feel safe, welcome, respected, and supported. Explore what’s on the bookshelves and in the media. Don’t look for equality. Look for equity.

One of my favorite tools is the use of biographies to teach stories of the past and show how to support social-emotional learning (SEL) through real-life models of people who are self-aware, make responsible decisions, and foster relationships. These models can be incredibly useful, particularly in the elementary grades, and highlighting the stories of influential individuals is one of the most powerful ways to teach history to our students. Bottom line: provide materials with equity at the foundation to show how real people, not superheroes, are superstars because they made a difference in their communities.

For older students, think about media discussions. Harriet (rated PG-13), starring Cynthia Erivo, has been nominated at the Academy Awards, Golden Globes, and Screen Actors Guild. While we don’t yet know the parental rating, so many educators and consumers are anticipating the upcoming Netflix series Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker, featuring stars Octavia Spencer and Tiffany Haddish.

Madam C. J. Walker was an amazing entrepreneur who worked through significant challenges to become a multimillionaire. She also embodied the character traits of perseverance, caring, and responsibility in her community by providing jobs, training, and charity. Other examples could include teaching:

3. 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.

The sudden and tragic death of Los Angeles Lakers basketball star Kobe Bryant reopens public debate of the legacy of a famous and talented athlete. One cannot help but think of other athletes in the spotlight and how they are portrayed to—and judged by—the public.

Since 2019, “taking a knee” has continued to make headlines. A New Jersey school board heard statements about a teacher kneeling during the Pledge of Allegiance, and in Florida, a student was suspended for refusing to cite the Pledge of Allegiance. In both instances, debate remains heated 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”

4. 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

5. 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 people 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.

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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.

This blog post was updated in February 2020.