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Why It’s Critical That Teachers Become Learners

How would you feel, as a parent or educator, if your child attended public or private school and he or she receives scant relevant instructional content? George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Susan B. Anthony are the only figures about whom your children learn by year’s end-every school year. The instruction they receive and explore relates to African and/or indigenous Americans 89 out of every 90 school days.Your child might feel left out, that he or she doesn’t belong, and struggle with possible anger issues and behavioral concerns.

He or she would be more at risk of dropping out because of consistent disengagement. The school determines your child as having special needs-a learning disability. They perceive your child as being the problem. In reality, you and I know that it is the school professionals’ fault. Your child looks different from his or her teachers, who happen to teach about all things irrelevant to the child. No one considers the possibility that there is a real special need-for cultural relevance. Children NEED to know that they matter and have someone to look to and identify with—they need stories.

Would you not have a legitimate concern, and want to advocate for expanded instructional content, with the classroom teacher, the administration, the school district and so on? Learning in school settings must reflect cultural relevance with respect to diversity. In order to foster respect for self and others, every child needs to learn about themselves and others.

In the United States, the mainstream social studies curriculum largely ignores Black history. Or, it has been misrepresented. Early versions of history characterized black people as lazy, docile, uncivilized and at least one book portrayed blacks as content being slaves; they liked to sing, dance, laugh; they admired bright colors and were never in a rush. In essence, we exalted everything characterized as being white and demeaned all things associated with blackness. The narrative must be changed, and teaching a fully comprehensive American history is the perfect vehicle.

Only until the mid twentieth century did mainstream social studies textbooks begin to eliminate text that was explicitly racist. Imagine that! In the late 1960’s, black students, teachers and parents began to insist that black history become a part of the curriculum at school or stand alone courses. It has been  almost 60 years of asking for a comprehensive multicultural education in schools, and we haven’t gotten there yet.
In a nationwide study of 525 elementary, middle and high school teachers, and a review of social studies standards in all 50 states and D.C., results indicated that teachers considered Black history as central to understanding the complexity of U.S. history. Many teachers stated that they infuse elements of black history in every historical era, often going beyond state and local standards.
Topics such as forced African migration, Brown v. Topeka Kansas[better known as the Board of Education], the impact of the civil rights acts of the 1960s, and the Obama election were most taught. However, despite teachers’ enthusiasm about teaching black history, approximately 1 to 2 lessons or 8-9 percent of total class time is devoted to black history in the classroom. Students aren’t being taught about Harvard University’s Dr. Henry Louis Gates, and he represents current history. As a matter of fact, he researches history-our history, everyone’s history. He is relevant to science, math, language arts, and social studies.
Black history has now been required at all grade levels in school districts in places like Chicago, Minneapolis and Philadelphia. Philadelphia city’s school districts have made African American studies a requirement for high school graduation. If done to appease black people because there is a large population in that city, then why not? The black population in America is not limited to a few pockets around the country, but in every major city, and all over the South.

assorted book in library
In states like New York, the mandates are seen as being in name only. There is no enforcement, curriculum enactment or financial assistance for this inclusion in schools. No targeted textbooks in the standard curriculum. Children can’t read texts on their free time, because books don’t exist, and libraries have limited stock, and high demand for its book collection. Not every child or family has reliable internet access, except cell phones, and though helpful, one cannot expect all research-oriented school work to done on a tiny screen and keyboard.
Still a conundrum exists where students can ONLY name famous black figures like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman. A Southern Poverty Law Center’s report noted that the majority of states received grades of Ds and Fs for their approach to teaching the civil rights movement, with 5 states ignoring the subject altogether.Other research has indicated that what is taught is sometimes lethargic, too celebratory and absent complexity. The answer to this is more dynamic instruction regarding Black history. When it is not, it becomes stagnant, with the same topics revisited year after year.

The sad fact is that teachers, white teachers in particular, aren’t aggressively teaching black history because they lack knowledge, confidence, time and resources. This indicates the necessity that teachers educate themselves on the subject and structure, teacher training, resources need be emphasized and delivered in order to support this area of history education, not limited to the content area alone.
There may also be concern about children’s maturity level to tackle complex knowledge. Yet, at the earliest ages, children understand sadness, injustice, cruelty and the concept of unfairness..
Clearly, Black history has gained momentum in subjects taught in our nation’s schools, and rightfully so. African-American children greatly outnumber whites in many schools and in school districts across the country,  hopefully, it is being realized that, in order to increase engagement, motivation, and overall achievement, these students require the previously omitted pictures of themselves and others like them.
Also, these students need to gain deeper knowledge as they age in the k12 education system. At present, the once per year recognition of Black history, continues to reproduce lessons about the same 4 or 5 people. The result of this repetition is that students who would ordinarily actively engage in the classroom during this dedicated month of studies, are still bored in school.
To counter this disengagement, during one out of a 9 month academic school year,  expand the figures and historical events, relevant to African-American history in EVERY ACADEMIC SUBJECT and content area. There is no absence of noteworthy people of color to explore with students. EVERY SUBJECT AREA. This responsibility does not rest in the classroom of the social studies teachers alone. All students should be able to graduate high school with a minimum familiarity with 20 authentic facts and figures in African-American and Black history.

children wearing white academic gown during graduation ceremony at daytime

When teaching and introducing facts and figures in history, you’ll most likely  learn along with your students. That’s just fine. Take it slow. There has been stated concern about the complexity surrounding teaching this history, and students’ capacity to process it.  The traditional approach has thus been to omit the history almost completely. This explains the absence of black history in texts and instructional materials. Or does it?

Not obvious to some, the omission points to the purposeful and targeted efforts to bury and hide this knowledge from young children. They must not know the population’s historical value to American society, in the interest of continued inequity. The system-wide purposeful acts to undermine one population’s upward mobility, with the same rights and privileges as whites, would also mean an intentional admission of guilt.

There is not much that children cannot process, if presented developmentally appropriate. The truth is much better told. Research, research, and study and learn. We can’t teach what we don’t know. Step outside of your comfort zones. Life long learning for students, has to apply to educators, as well.

With commitment, eventually Black history content will be fully embedded in the general curriculum, and pre-service teachers will be required to be at least, basically versed. This will require educators to fully integrate Black history AND other people of  ‘diversity’ into pedagogy within a normalized approach.
Black history, thought of an ‘area’ of education, separate from traditional standardized content, will and must be considered requisite and intertwined with all things America. Whether we care to fully acknowledge this fact,  America would not be America without Africa-American contributions. There is not one area of society untouched or uninfluenced by black people. It couldn’t be more clear that this is factual, as evidenced in music and dance, sports, language, beauty, science and engineering, the culinary arts, just to name a few.

photo of children inside classroom

To ignore or be ignorant of Black history is to allow children to continue to be ignorant of this population’s importance,  influence and impact on their lives. We’ve got a long road ahead of us, but the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. Teaching Black history to young learners and learning Black history for adults and educators, is the first step towards demonstrating social justice and learning the true meaning of empathy and respect. ‘Diversity’ has grown weary of being tolerated.  They communicate this in their expressions of anger and the ways they rebel. Instead, to be appreciated is the essence of being recognized and valued.

Be a pioneer or thought leader in your field or area of expertise. As an educator or professional, you’ve got to disrupt. No one is more remembered or hailed as genius, brave or innovative, than he or she whose immediate impact was viewed as a disruption. The first demonstration of disruption should be in the classroom.

Think about it. MLK, Ghandi, Newton[Huey, not Isaac], Marshall, Tubman, Parks, Jemison, Carver, Daly, Easley, Giovanni, Vaughan, Dean, Walker[Alice and Madame C.J.], and a host of names that can provide complete lessons each individually. Black students need to know. White students really need to know, and parents ought to know. Teach and learn along with them! “…You know better; you do better!”[Angelou] 
There is an abundance of materials from which to develop lessons. Organizations and websites such as:

Teaching Tolerance[https://www.tolerance.org] offers free resources and fully developed lesson plans.

Blackmail4u: [https://www. blackmail4u.com] offers facts, biographies, and all things “Black History”.

TeachersFirst’s: [https://www.teachersfirst.com] offers ideas, research material and interactive sites for studying black history in all grades.

Teacher Planet: [https://www.teacherplanet.com] offers free activities and classroom resources.

This is your starter list of resources. Teachers become learners, too.

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