Two Ways to Rethink Black History Month
In February, schools across the nation celebrate Black History Month. This is a long-standing practice and one that school leaders can amplify to accelerate student learning, advance culturally relevant instruction, and engage the whole school community. We are elevating two common misperceptions that can impact how schools do this work—and actions that can be taken to benefit all students over the course of the school year.
We teach Black history only to inform and empower Black students.
All students can benefit from learning about Black history. While Black history is taught to all students, too often the subject is framed by researchers, district leaders, and school leaders as a sole benefit to Black students. Consequently, school systems fail to appreciate the inherent value for all students. This framing and implicit understanding of Black history has its beginnings in the desegregation of schools in Brown v. Board of Education.
Social scientists Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s work on child development was critical in the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling, but the full extent of their research wasn’t highlighted by the court. The Clarks found that not only did segregation harm Black children, it also harmed White children. In the 1974 broadcast interview with the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, Dr. Kenneth Clark stated that “…the literature indicated very strongly, and I put this in the book, that it affected privileged children.”
In addition to all students being more well informed by learning about Black history, Drexel University’s School of Education offers a perspective of the qualitative benefits of teaching subjects like Black history to all students.
Students become more empathetic. Being taught about the experiences of people of different races and from different cultural groups helps students to become more empathetic and could prevent them from developing prejudices later in life.
Students gain a better understanding of lessons and people. Every culture has its stories of hardship and triumph that students can learn from and be inspired by. By learning about the lessons from other races and cultures, all students can add to their own self-determination.
Students become more open-minded. Many cultural icons, like Apple founder Steve Jobs and Nike founder Phil Knight, expanded their worldview through intentional exposure to other cultures. The same is true for students who can open their minds through reading about subjects like Black history.
Students feel more confident and safe. When you provide students a true view of the world, appropriate for grade level, you reduce the chance for any sort of dissonance that students might have in their questioning of the world. Additionally, it allows students to interact in a wider range of social groups and feel more confident in their interactions.
Students are better prepared for a diverse workplace. In our increasingly globalized world, our students will be competing on the world’s stage. If students are exposed to diverse subjects and develop cultural awareness in the classroom, they will be better prepared to compete and thrive in the workforce.
Black History Month is the only time to teach Black history.
Black history can be taught all year long. It’s been more than100 years since Carter G. Woodson founded Negro History Week in 1916, and nearly 50 years since President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month as part of the country’s 1976 bicentennial celebration. At these moments, formally designating a time to celebrate Black people’s culture and learn about their history was significant. Today, many school districts still teach Black history mostly, if not fully, in the month of February.
Many schools and districts also do the same thing with other diverse histories. Take Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month for example. Principal and New Leaders alum Kitae Fernando Kim calls it the tourist approach. "[Students] learn to see multiculturalism as a ‘detour’ where they get sidetracked for a little bit, and then they come back to the main road where they do not normally value different cultures or have difficult conversations about race and equity.”
Unfortunately, the importance of valuing different cultures in classroom instruction often gets lost in the difficult conversations part. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can find common ground and look for ways to increase the learning of all students by incorporating Black history and other diverse cultures in our instruction all year long.
Many of us understand the shortcomings of these two misconceptions, but aren’t sure how to affect change or operationalize a 21st-century approach to teaching Black History. So, what can district and school leaders do to initiate change?
- Think about and talk about Black and other diverse histories as beneficial to all students. Let’s move away from highlighting the ways in which teaching these subjects benefits marginalized groups.
- Don’t wait on your state or school district to make teaching Black history and other diverse histories mandatory all year. You can start making small changes in the way you teach and approach teaching American history in your school and district. Here are some resources to help integrate Black history, in particular, into instruction year-round.
Resources and Insights
Center for K-12 Black History and Racial Literacy Education
6 Ways to Teach Black History All Year Round (TNTP)
Teaching Black History Year-Round Requires Rigorous Sight (Edutopia)