As February begins, marking the start of Black History Month, educators across the nation are considering how to integrate into their classrooms lessons on Civil Rights, Voting Rights, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, and more. While these historical figures and the movements in which they participated are important, here at Teaching Matters we encourage teachers to think beyond isolating people and events and relegating the teaching of them to only specific months, such as February for Black History Month and September for Hispanic Heritage Month. Instead, we hope teachers will thoughtfully and intentionally build these important issues into their lessons throughout the year.
At Teaching Matters, we have committed to laying our coaching groundwork on the principles of Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education (CR-SE). The principles of CR-SE challenge us to prioritize our students and their families and communities in every stage of curriculum planning. This is because we need to be familiar with our students' lives in order to plan relevant curriculum and deliver tailored content to them throughout the year. Regardless of broad curriculum decisions made for districts and schools, our coaches work with leaders and teachers to center the identities and lived experiences of their students. We encourage leaders and teachers to take into account the cultures, languages, traditions, experiences, knowledge, and expertise of their students and their families as they plan daily classroom activities.
To be culturally responsive, the study and celebration of different communities and cultures should occur all year long, rather than only in heritage months. The question becomes: how can we extend the celebration and learning beyond these isolated months?
Here are some ideas about how we can celebrate BIPOC communities year-round.
Guiding Principles and Core Values
Many schools have embedded curriculum that highlights guiding principles or core values of the school. These curricula may emphasize teaching students to engage in social emotional learning, goal setting, character development, decision making, and more. These principles and values are an organic place to celebrate and highlight achievements made by BIPOC communities on a daily basis.
Teachers can also use authentic, diverse texts to supplement this curriculum and to celebrate the various communities represented in the school. One way to reimagine this is to take a guiding principle or core value and connect it to the lives of our students. For example, if one of your school's guiding principles is "collaboration," then help your students to identify people in their families, neighborhoods, or even in current events who showcase collaboration in action.
Recently, a Bronx community was devastated by a fire in a high-rise building. Teachers can showcase how Salim Drammeh of the Gambian Youths Organization collaborated within the community to set up a Go Fund Me Page which raised over $1 million to support those impacted by the fire. In doing so, teachers are providing a model from which students can learn how they too can take action to serve their communities.
In these ways, teachers can use the daily context of students’ lives to authentically teach the school’s core values.
Another way to celebrate BIPOC communities all year long is within the content of various subject areas. Whether planning Reading, Social Studies, Music, Art or Math units, teachers can create lessons that acknowledge and honor the work of BIPOC communities.
Typically when teaching science, you see images of a “mad” scientist, which understandably narrows the view of who can pursue a career in science. Students are often taught about Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton. Imagine a science unit where students also learn about Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, a black woman from North Carolina who will go down in history for leading the effort to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, or about Neil deGrasse Tyson’s contributions to astrophysics.
Imagine a math unit where students learn about not only Bernoulli and Pythagoras but also Katherine Johnson and her mathematical contributions to NASA as a ‘human computer.’ Can teachers envision a math lesson where students study Dolores Richard Spikes, the first African American to receive a doctorate in mathematics from Louisiana State University?
Art students typically learn about Vincent Van Gogh and Georgia O’Keefe. However, they can also be introduced to contemporary artists such as Kara Walker or Kehinde Wiley, who centers African Americans in vibrant, large-scale portraits and whose portrait of Barack Obama is showcased in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.
These are opportunities to mitigate the erasure that has occurred in history and is so frequently reflected in our typical curricula. We tend to consider Black History Month separate from the everyday curriculum. Many of us think Black History Month can be celebrated only in reading and social studies classes. But honoring the work of African Americans can and should happen regularly across all subjects.
Elevating Voices and Social Justice
Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and Women’s History Month are celebrated in schools to ensure our diverse students each feel valued and seen. Our goal at Teaching Matters is to help this happen throughout the school year. Ultimately, our goal is to translate our equity work into action. We want to cultivate a social justice lens among our teachers and our students. We want students to authentically care about the content and curriculum we present. We want them to connect their learnings to their community, to their families, and to the world around them. We want them to feel empowered and to use their voices to effect change.
What could this work look like? Teaching Matters has developed a program that strives to do this critical work in K-12 ELA classrooms. Elevating Voices is our national program designed to “elevate” the voices of historically marginalized people to make their experiences visible and have their voices heard. Elevating Voices reimagines students' experience in literacy instruction. Instructional units included in this program allow teachers to foster critical thinking and provide space for conversations with peers, teachers, and parents based on experiences - cultural and linguistic - of their own and of others.
In developing materials for this program, our team of experts curated texts and resources to extend the literary canon to celebrate the identities of our BIPOC students. Our curriculum features authors such as Jewell Parker Rhodes, Isabel Quintero, Joanna Ho, Elizabeth Acevedo, Lupita Nyong, Ibi Zoboi, Jason Reynolds, and Ibtihaj Muhammad. They showcase the multifaceted lives of BIPOC children and how they navigate everyday joys and challenges, such as getting ready for their first day of school, visiting their family members in different parts of the country, exploring identity through writing during their teenage years, and experiencing the loss of a father as well as the meeting of a new sibling. Elevating Voices not only centers student identities and lived experiences, but it also empowers teachers to foster crucial conversations about race and social justice.
As we challenge teachers to extend their inclusion of diverse content and texts beyond February, we also encourage them to remember to showcase and celebrate JOY! It is important to show more than just the struggles of people in BIPOC communities. Instead, teachers should also make sure to show the everyday joys and achievements of people in these communities. This is the type of celebration that should be happening year-round.
Contact us today to learn how Elevating Voices can help support race conversations in your school.