What does it mean for Black History Month to be sustained beyond February?
The events of 2020 served as a catalyst for this year’s Black History Month. Justified civil unrest in the midst of a global pandemic that disproportionately affects marginalized communities left teachers all over the country rethinking their own teaching practices, adding Black and Brown voices to their curriculum, and thinking about how to best support students, all while teaching the necessary skills and standards. These experiences culminate in the month of February, a month designated to amplify Black and Brown voices, celebrate Black joy, and shed light on America’s untold history. Black History Month serves as a designated time for teachers and schools to highlight, and intentionally integrate, Black History. We should, however, be sustaining Black History Month, its learning, and perhaps unlearning beyond a single month.
What is culturally relevant teaching and why does it matter?
Zaretta Hammond, a teacher, author, and researcher of issues of equity and culturally responsive teaching, defines culturally relevant teaching as, “an educator’s ability to recognize students’ cultural displays of learning and meaning-making and respond positively and constructively with teaching moves that use cultural knowledge as a scaffold to connect what the student knows to new concepts and content in order to promote effective informational processing.” If we are to be culturally responsive educators, we must expand Black History Month into everyday curriculum. This, in turn, is no easy task, as it requires more than introducing our students to voices of color, and starting our days with inspirational quotations. This work asks us to first and foremost, do our own work as educators, addressing the gaps in our own education when it comes to Black history, exploring beyond the master narrative of American history, and leaning into courageous conversations with our peers about issues of race and inequity within our communities, curriculum, and systems.
How do we sustain Black History Month as educators and school leaders?
Before we begin introducing students to texts and the history of Black and Brown voices, we must first build a relationship with students and promote a culture of trust within our classrooms and schools. If we do not create a safe space, students will not feel the freedom to explore and rethink, as this both requires vulnerability and courage. Building a culture rooted in trust and understanding can look like offering students opportunities to share themselves, their cultures, and their experiences creatively. Students can engage in regular restorative circles, which provide students with a structured and inclusive environment to process. Teachers can practice vulnerability with students by sharing their own experiences, or by inviting students to be the experts in the room.
Once a culture of trust is established, educators can reflect and brainstorm on their own teaching practices, asking questions such as, “whose voices am I privileging in this space?” Or, “is this text relatable to all students, or do they need prior knowledge or experience to access it?” The system of education is, in fact, Eurocentric at its core, so as educators, it’s important to explore and question our own practices and teacher choices in order to promote equity within our communities.
During Black History Month, it is common for schools to shed light on voices such as Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, or Harriet Tubman. However, authentic integration of diverse voices asks us to share the untold voices and stories of people of color across curriculums. We can challenge ourselves to research the Black and Brown human stories behind the mathematical equations, scientific solutions, or literary work. We can share the stories of courageous individuals such as Paulie Murray, Claudette Colvin, or John Lewis. Additionally, we can share these stories with our students, and ask them to explore and get curious about these people and their successes. It is important for our students to see themselves represented in our curriculum. Additionally, it’s important for our students to see the regular expression of Black joy. We can do this by choosing texts with protagonists who are dynamic and diverse. Likewise, we can intentionally use images and art from diverse voices that promote a celebratory experience. We can expose students to people of color in our own community who have diverse experiences. We can be honest about what we do and do not know when it comes to Black history.
Why is this work so important?
Black History Month is a beautiful and celebratory month to amplify marginalized voices, to celebrate our Black and Brown students and their families. However, the heart of this work exists beyond February; it is our work to do so that our students may feel truly seen and known. Sustaining Black History Month into our everyday learning and culture will positively and powerfully impact our students and school communities.