Many students don’t always have access to resources at home or extensive resources at their local library. In smaller ‘local’ libraries, the variety of types of books available to the community is minimal. Children, year after year, are handed homework assignments which require research beyond the classroom.
The topics and the notable figures are the same and the research is always found in the same texts. This does not cultivate the breadth of knowledge we would like students to acquire and build deeper discovery with every academic school year.
Most noticable is during Black History Month. The same people are briefly discussed without deep conversation or real exploration of their lives and society and how their lives were impacted by social mores, political climate, etc….
We want chiildren to understand the conditions under which these persons or groups excelled. Children, although affirmed by exposure to the rarely taught lives of inventors, scientists, musicians and every other area, aren’t gaining insights into these persons. How they did it? How did they grow up and where? What was happening on the other side of the fence…?
What was a ‘day in the life’ like?
To delve deeper, we need details, and children need to have clear imagery. Reflective questions to ask students should sound like, “What do you think you would have done? How do you think he or she might have felt?”
Even if students continue to learn about the same figures every year, the discussions should be more than just:
- place and date of birth and death;
- what was special about that person;
- a basic one or two paragraph report[depending on grade level].
That does not constitute cultural responsiveness or relevance. Everyone has a life and a unique story. Help students explore and tell stories. The subject matter comprehension is fostered at a deeper level when stories are told.
In the classrooms, teachers will usually have some supplemental books on display. I did. My books were those which were unavailable in the general ‘library’ collection, though. Topics pertaining specifically to African-American or Latinx figures are usually not found as full chapters in textbooks. Just brief facts or a footnote, if mentioned at all. Shameful!
I brought in a set of books, biographies from home, my personal collection. They were life stories, the backdrop for the future notability of many figures. Before I brought them in, getting my middle school special needs students to read any books was like pulling teeth. They were below grade level in reading, yet with these books, they fought for each book.
These youngsters really engaged and when I read excerpts from the books, they were attentive to every word. Unfortunately, by year’s end, my books were somewhat tattered and a few were missing. But that was ok because they all discovered people and learned things they had never before been exposed to in school or at home.
Let’s educate like we mean it! Students need to hear their stories-the entire and truthful story, unabridged.
Teachers, build your own classroom library, and ensure they are culturally relevant, along with the old traditional Eurocentric resources. The resources you would want to have will provide whole stories. Give them life. Also, mix it up! Seek out collections where a major section, if not an entire text is devoted to persons and groups never before learned.
In search of deeper understanding, re-visit those tried and true standards like MLK, Tubman, Parks, etc….Explore their stories, not just their feats. That’s an important, yet terribly absent component of instruction and learning.
Tell stories and help students feel the content and context.