The Do’s and Don’ts of Teaching Black History

by Mabel Schumacher, Ph.D. Retired WSPRA Executive Director, Fort Atkinson

February is Black History Month. We encourage you to review and share the following ?do’s? and ?don’ts? about teaching Black History compiled by Camille Jackson. These resources were made available through Teaching Tolerance.

Be sure to visit the Teaching Tolerance web site http://www.tolerance.org/ for more resources and information.

DO…

  • Incorporate black history year-round, not just in February. Use the month of February to dig deeper into history and make connections with the past.
  • Educate yourself. What knowledge do you lack about black history? Textbooks are notorious for omitting information about the struggles of communities of color. If your students’ textbooks are inaccurate or incomplete, most likely yours was, too. Learn with your students, and feel comfortable admitting when you don’t know all the answers.
  • Reinforce to students that “black” history is American history; make it relevant to all students.
  • Relate lessons to other parts of your curriculum, so that focusing on a leader, like Fred Shuttlesworth, expands upon rather than diverts from your curriculum. By the time February comes around, the context of the struggle for civil rights and social justice should be familiar to students if you have already addressed such issues across the curriculum.
  • Connect issues in the past to current issues to make history relevant to students’ lives. For example, ask students to gather information with a focus on what social disparities exist and how a particular leader has worked to impact society.
  • Come to class fully prepared for the lesson, even if that means finding your own materials and resources with accurate and relevant information. Most textbook resources will not provide more than a superficial and one-sided perspective.
  • Include the political and social context of the community’s struggle for social justice. For example, talk about Daisy Bates’ political affiliations and her political ideologies. You see her bravery not as just a personal act but as coming out of community determination.

DO NOT…

  • Stop your “regular” curriculum, to do a separate lesson on Rosa Parks, on the Civil Rights Act, or on Martin Luther King Jr. This trivializes and marginalizes anything you are teaching, making these leaders a token of their culture and ethnicity. Students will get the message that the diversion it is not as important as the “regular” curriculum.
  • Decontextualize heroes or holidays, separating them from the larger social movement or historical place. Great leaders don’t make history all by themselves. For example, if you teach about James Farmer, you must also address the work of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and the Freedom Rides.
  • Focus on superficial cultural traits based on stereotypes. It’s ok to celebrate black music, but teachers should also explore the political and social contexts that give rise to musical forms like hip hop.
  • Talk about black history in solely “feel-good” language, or as a thing of the past. This fails to help students examine how racism still occurs today.
  • Limit the presentation to lectures and reading. Be sure to allow students an opportunity for discussion and reflection.
  • Teach with little or inaccurate information. Be sure resources don’t promote a Eurocentric perspective, or else you run the risk of misrepresenting historic figures and social movements.
  • Shy away from controversial, ambiguous, or unresolved issues. Tell the truth about racial realities in developmentally appropriate ways.

Adapted from material by Pat Russo of the Curriculum & Instruction Department at SUNY Oswego. Reprinted by permission of the Teaching Tolerance Organization. 

About the author

The Wisconsin School Public Relations Association (WSPRA) is a professional association representing schools, school districts, educational associations, consulting agencies and organizations. WSPRA is a state affiliate of the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA). 4797 HAYES ROAD | SUITE 103 | MADISON, WI 53704 | PHONE: 608-241-0300 | WSPRA@AWSA.ORG