As a product of several countries and languages, I always thought of myself as fairly culturally savvy. But during my first year of teaching, I learned how difficult it can be to align what I thought I knew about my students’ cultures with the people they actually were—and to then try and teach them something new. I knew that I wanted to avoid tokenizing my students, or rehashing clichéd lessons they’ve already had, but I just didn’t know how to go about it at first. Over the years, I’ve intentionally strived to bring honesty and depth to my teaching of various cultures and histories, an especially important task for us educators during Black History Month, or African-American Heritage Month, as we call it at my school. With this month winding down, I want to share some of the tips I’ve learned over the years for deepening my approach to the study of African-American heritage, and my teaching overall.
- Don’t start in February; don’t stop in 2008. I’m inspired by the fourth-grade team at Hiawatha Leadership Academy-Morris Park, which shared parts of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow with students at the very start of the year. I’m equally impressed with the teacher there who gave an unflinching response to first-graders who wondered why schools were segregated in the 1960s: “Because white people were in charge, and they wanted to keep it that way.” Six-year-olds already know a lot about not being in charge, and this age-appropriate answer made it easier to connect Ruby Bridges’ struggle with their own. Sometimes honesty can look like comparing skin tones while discussing other things that are the same and different about us; it can also look like asking children to talk about times they’ve noticed fair and unfair treatment, or using one of these books to spark discussion. When we wait until February, or conclude a unit with the election of President Obama, we make it seem as though efforts for racial equity in our nation are part of our distant past; but setting African-American history within the ongoing realities of marginalized communities can open the door for a year’s worth of honest, consistent discussion of race and society.
- Let families lead. This can be tricky in a school with a small African-American population, since we run the risk of making a few families feel like they must represent the entire African-American experience. Still, if the goal is a connected, inclusive culture, leaving parents out of the planning is the worse choice by far. Why not invite parents, students and local community experts to share about a tradition that is meaningful to them, or about the ways in which being an African-American in the United States has shaped their identity. Even a simple potluck can counter assumptions about what a particular group of people “likes” to eat—as though millions of people can be honored with just one food. The topics that families choose to share may not be what we teachers originally had in mind, but so much the better.
- Highlight intersections. Highlighting similarities between my own heritage as a European Jew and the African-American experience felt, at first, like I was co-opting another people’s journey, or worse—making it all about me. But as social justice educator Zaretta Hammond puts it, “Given our increasing diversity as a society, it’s hard not to have our histories intersect, and it’s important to lift that up for students to see.” Highlighting the role California’s Mexican Americans played in the Civil War, or the role Black activism played in the Asian American struggle for civil rights, can help our students feel more personally invested in learning about African-American history—as long as African-American voices shape the bulk of our narrative. The series Voices of a People’s History can be a good place to start, as can the elementary read-aloud books in this list by The Grio.
Successful teaching can depend on staying one step ahead of our students, and finding ways to fit another “month” into the calendar can seem overwhelming. It’s no wonder that teachers sometimes make assumptions about students’ identities. The truth is, though, that cultural identity is too central a topic to be contained in one month, and it’s far too important for shortcuts. Only by actually listening—to the news, to each other and to our own stories—can we offer our students the kind of education that honors them as they actually are.
Karen Shapiro cannot remember a time in her life when she was not, in some capacity, teaching. She currently serves as the technology instructor at Hiawatha Leadership Academy-Morris Park in South Minneapolis, and has taught every grade from kindergarten to 7th in California, New York, and Minnesota. She spends most of her time thinking about digital literacy, collaboration with families, racial justice, and organizational health within schools.
The MinnCAN blogging fellowship allows Minnesota students, teachers, administrators and parents to share their thoughts on key education issues. MinnCAN supports fellows seeking to advance the conversation around public education, though fellows' views and opinions are solely their own.