So, How Should We Teach Black History In Schools?
Questions around what history to teach in schools continue to be debated, but for teachers, how to teach history — and Black History in particular — remains unaddressed.
January 17, 2022 at 3:00 am
On a Tuesday morning in February, one of my five-year-old students started class in tears. “H-h-how did Martin Luther King,” she warbled, “a-a-and Rosa Parks d-d-die?” Curious, confused and indifferent expressions on the faces of her classmates looked up at me as my mind raced through potential responses.
Murdered? Too gruesome. Assassinated? Too complicated. “Well, Rosa Parks died when she was old and Martin Luther King Jr … he was shot,” I settled.
Taking in a deep breath and crying out, she replied, “But why-y-y-y?”
Again, I paused. I wanted to be honest and not sanitize the truth about prevailing forces of racism of then — and now — that deemed Dr. King too dangerous and removed him accordingly. But I was also talking to a scared five-year-old who might be worried about the same fate.
“Martin Luther King, Jr. died because people didn’t agree with him wanting Black people and white people to be treated the same,” I settled.
Convinced, though still weeping, she nodded an “OK,” and we picked up our pens and started school for the day.
Teaching history to all students — especially our youngest ones — is often a daunting task. State-standards are vague and open-ended: “Know the triumphs in American legends and historical accounts through the stories of such people as Pocahontas, George Washington, Booker T. Washington, Daniel Boone and Benjamin Franklin.”
How do we define triumphs? Who do we consider legends? Which historical accounts do we include?
Furthermore, social studies curricula are few and far between, and teachers often identify how to teach what they teach through a combination of storybooks, news articles, Instagram influencers, Teachers-Pay-Teachers accounts and curated resources by publications.
There are teachers struggling to teach everything from slavery to the Holocaust. We should be exploring ways to support teachers and students in history classes, investigating gaps in the knowledge and identifying how to better teach both groups, through textbooks, professional development trainings and funding to make all of this possible.
Instead, prevailing discourse in the mainstream seems to have halted in a purgatory of whether we should be honest with students or not about history. The summer of 2020 saw a racial reckoning that sparked calls for radical re-education around the history of race in the United States in order to better understand the moment. The backlash the following summer was laser-focused on “critical race theory” and fervent campaigns to remove any and all mentions of race when teaching history. Public figures, pundits, politicians and school boards continue to debate on what history should be taught in schools, and teachers are still left with the question of how to teach it.
In May 2020, I graduated from my teacher education program in the Bay Area and accepted a transitional kindergarten position at a small, urban, public elementary school with a predominantly Black student body and staff, myself now included. Even in the face of a pandemic and the daunting uncertainty of virtual learning, I was excited and determined to teach Black History to my four- and five-year-old students, to show them the pride and legacy of Black folk in America and around the world.
However, almost immediately, I began to wonder how I was going to teach this history: How was I going to define concepts, such as “slavery,” “rights” and even “Black”? How was I going to decide who and what to teach given that my lessons needed to be short to suit students’ attention spans? How was I going to make the content engaging and interactive, helping them make connections to their own lives and leave a lasting impact on them?
I decided to start with developmental appropriateness. My students loved stories and so I picked a person a day from Vashti Harrison’s Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History or Little Legends: Exceptional Men in Black History. I would ask students what they noticed in the illustration and then I would paraphrase a few sentences from their biography. “Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland. Slavery meant because he was Black, he had to do work all day with no money and he couldn’t quit, even as a kid.”
Developmental appropriateness often required more simplicity and less nuance than I would have wanted. And although I agree with arguments against sanitizing history and trusting students to understand, I also know that if content is taught in ways too complex for them to understand, the lesson will fall flat. I had to trust that I did not have to teach every aspect of history at the same time in one foul swoop.
Family involvement was also salient to me when teaching Black History. Over Zoom, adults often hovered around in the background, but during our unit, I made it a point to invite families to share their knowledge, experiences and own family history. Following every figure, we learned about a corresponding topic by exploring online museum artifacts, newspaper articles, YouTube clips and more. When we learned about Angela Davis, we looked through pictures of the Black Panther Party around our city, and to the glee of his daughter, one father animatedly raised his hand. He shared additional local Panther locations, as his daughter glowed with pride.
Family involvement in schools, particularly around teaching history, has been politicized to mean that families should be consulted to approve everything that teachers plan to say in school. Instead, both groups can work together to co-create knowledge, and as students see their family proud and excited about history, they are encouraged to feel the same too.
Finally, when considering how to teach Black History to my students, joy and resistance were essential themes throughout. We sang along to Aretha’s “Respect,” danced along to “Rapper’s Delight,” and learned about young activists like Ruby Bridges and Little Ms. Flint, who made history by doing their best and helping others.
A central argument against “critical race theory” in schools is that it will “make white kids feel bad for being white.” The kernel of truth to this somewhat paranoid claim is that history can and often does make kids feel bad about who they are. But for centuries, it has been Black kids made to feel bad about being Black, through history lessons that limit their legacy to slavery, the Civil Rights movement and Barack Obama. We can and should teach Black History in a way that makes all students proud and aware of all that Black Americans have done to shape this country and beyond.
Teaching history is hard. We have a duty to do it anyway. To make known all that came before, in order to understand our world today, and help provide roadmaps for where we would like to go. We feel the hard stuff, keep moving forward and revel in the joy.
My student in tears that morning learning about Black History was exuberant the next, and months later, she would run up to me on the playground and remind me about all we had learned the year before. The most important part of how we teach Black History is often just doing it, inside and outside of the classroom too.