Well, it’s February again. And you know what that means…Yep, it’s Black History Month. Folks are asking if we should even have a Black History Month. That’s neither here nor there. What I do know is there are some things we will want to avoid if it’s to have any significance at all. Here’s five things I think we should take special care not to do.
1. Don’t create pseudo-“culturally responsive” lessons by simply changing the names or circumstances of math word problems like the teachers at Beaver Ridge Elementary School in Georgia. Here’s an example of what not to do.
(Ok a quick sidebar…this is in the realm of what where they thinking? Remember, colleagues don’t let colleagues create offensive lessons.)
If the goal is to help students perform better by helping them relate to the task, just changing the names and circumstances of the math problem doesn’t make it easier to solve.
Instead, take a page out of The Algebra Project’s playbook. The Algebra Project uses culture of place as a reference point of understanding mathematical concepts, not racial history to try and make it familiar and friendly.
For example, as a way to make the concept of a number line more accessible to urban students, teachers lead them on a field trip on a subway, after which students reconstructed their journey using a map, which serves as an analogy of the number line and illustrates key concepts such as “how many,” “which direction” (positive and negative numbers), and equivalence.
2. Don’t simply focus on famous firsts or popular celebrities. I remember when I was in school we always talked about Mae Jemison, the first Black astronaut and tennis player Arthur Ashe. By the time my children were in school, the big emphasis was on sports figures –Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. Nowadays, entertainers and rappers are in the Black History spotlight. You can bet that we will be hearing the story of Beyonce’s early days of struggle. And of course, there’s President Obama, who has replaced Colin Powell.
I know we all want to believe we are doing something more sophisticated in our classrooms, but by and large we are still doing some version of what activist and educator Enid Lee calls “heroes and holidays.”
Rather than focus on famous firsts, shake it up and use this as an opportunity to acknowledge the consistent contributions people of color make to the everyday functioning of our country that often go unacknowledged – bringing urban farming to inner city food deserts, parents of color leading education reform efforts in major cities like Detroit and Los Angeles. You need not look any further than advertising to see how we’ve leveraged innovative and creative aspects of Black youth culture to sell everything from cars to laundry detergent.
3. Don’t whitewash history (pun intended). Despite our country’s movement toward becoming a multicultural, multi-racial, and multi-lingual society, we still tell a sanitized version of American history. Traditional historical narratives have been written from a particular viewpoint and often eliminate, distort or minimize the circumstances and conditions of people of color in this country.
So flip the script. Use this month to simply ask the question: Whose story does our history book tell? What are other versions of this American story we need to include, reframe, or magnify? Need some ideas for how to do that? Check out the resources offered by the Zinn Education Project. This initiative is named after famed historian, Howard Zinn who wrote The Peoples History of the United States and The Young People’s History of the United States. He dedicated his life to the telling parts of the American story often left out of the mainstream narrative.
4. Don’t make the month an African-American “mash up.” We have kids bring in the soul food, have them make construction-paper kente cloth mats, arrange for guest speakers who are “role models”, and plan a mish-mash of other supposedly Afrocentric activities. This is a reminder for us to move beyond the heroes and holidays approach to multicultural education and cultural responsiveness.
Rather than simply going for the additive approach where African-American themes and perspectives are sprinkled atop the curriculum without any change to its basic structure, content or perspective, take this opportunity to restructure your curriculum a bit. Engage students in seeing concepts, issues, themes, and problems from different points of view. Pick a focus and go deep with it.
5. Don’t think you can’t talk about black history because you’re a white educator. I was sitting with a colleague last week at a retreat, and she was telling me about how she and another mutual friend lead a professional development session for a multi-racial group of teachers in Michigan. She laughed that there they were, two white ladies talking to this group about race. I thought, well, isn’t it appropriate that our white colleagues would be talking the lead on discussions about race. Remember, discussion of anything racialized is not the sacred territory of only people of color. Nor does a person of color need to be present in order to have a discussion about race in America.
I know white educators who are very skilled at talking about race and equity inside the classroom, in the teacher’s lounge, and in the community. You don’t need special permission and you don’t need to apologize for stating the obvious – we live in a racialized society (note, there’s a different between a racialized society and a racist society…that’s a discussion for another day).
But you do need to be comfortable in your own skin, build your knowledge about the topic, and be in alliance with educators of color for support and feedback. Remember what happened at Beaver Ridge Elementary. Wonder who they are in alliance with?
There are a number of white educators to look to for both inspiration and information. I lean on them for insight and understanding too.
Check out the work of Herb Kohl and his essay, I Won’t Learn From You in his book by the same name. Then there is brother Tim Wise who takes it to a whole other level. I love the work of writing teacher, Linda Christensen and the way she creates a classroom culture that makes it ok to racialize language arts topics. Both her books are worth reading, Reading, Writing and Rising Up and Teaching for Joy and Justice: Re-Imagining the Language Arts Classroom. Two other good resources are Everyday Anti-Racism and ColorMute: Race Talk Dilemmas in an American School, both by Mica Pollock.
Well, in the next post, I’ll share five things I think we all should be doing during this month.
Now a question for you: How has your teaching of Black History changed over time?