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Approaches to Teaching Black History Month

Jordan Catapano

Biographies

One of the biggest opportunities during Black History Month comes from the unique spotlight you can put upon the dynamic African-American personalities of history. Taking time to study the biographies of these individuals reveals their struggles, accomplishments, and inspirational stories, particularly beneficial to English and history.

Do you know these prominent African-Americans?

  • Jackie Robinson
  • Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Rosa Parks
  • The Little Rock Nine
  • Jesse Owens
  • Muhammad Ali
  • Harriet Tubman
  • George Washington Carver
  • Frederick Douglass
  • Richard Wright
  • Langston Hughes
  • Sammy Davis, Jr.
  • Toni Morrison
  • Oprah Winfrey
  • W.E.B. DuBois
  • Emmett Till
  • Bill Cosby
  • Mae Jemison
  • Booker T. Washington

These names and hundreds of others each offer unique stories that play an important role in the history and contributions of African-Americans. You can easily incorporate biographical studies on any of these individuals to fit into your curriculum and skills focus. Think about including full biographies or smaller portions from them; also pay special attention to the possibility for autobiographies, where your students can hear directly from many of these historic individuals.

Athletics/Physical Education

Physical Education is not immune from the opportunity for including acknowledgements of Black History Month. African-American athletes have played a prominent role both in professional sports and in the overall civil rights movement.

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Famous Professional Athletes. Our American sports history is inextricably intertwined with the history of black athletes. From Michael Jordan to Muhammad Ali to Jackie Robinson, across sports and across history, physical education students will take an interest in these prominent athletic figures.

Olympians of the Past. African-American athletes are not limited to American leagues: they have competed on the global stage as well. Recent athletes like Gaby Douglas and Carl Lewis are noteworthy stories to study, but also take students back to the eras of George Coleman Poage and Jesse Owens.

Civil Rights and Sports. The barrier between blacks and whites was perhaps no more prominently displayed than on the competitive fields of professional sports, and it took the courage of individuals like Jackie Robinson to pave the way for future generations of African-Americans. Introduce your students to the stories and struggles of the role sports played in the saga of civil rights.

Science

It’s important in science to celebrate not only the achievements produced in labs, but the individuals themselves who accomplished those achievements. Taking time this February to showcase black scientists like George Washington Carver, Benjamin Banneker, Archibald Alexander and Mark Dean. You can spend time acknowledging the names and discoveries of these individuals, or you can even add activities that imitate the experiments and careers of these prominent black scientists.

Music

There are several forms of music that are distinctly black in their application and origin. Black History Month is a prime time to examine the history and influences of these various forms of music:

  • Spiritual/Gospel Music
  • Slave Songs
  • Rap and Hip-Hop
  • Jazz
  • Blues

In your classes you can discuss the history of these musical forms, explain the influences they have had on culture, and study specific individuals like John Coltrane. Definitely take the time to listen to these unique and diverse musical forms, and even allow students to try these forms for themselves in your music, band, and choir classes.

Arts and Activities

In art class – or any class where you want to include a tangible project – consider some of these artistic activities.

African-American folklore. Have students learn about the characters from African-American folklore, and then have them design their own visual versions of these characters. You can also allow them to visually depict the stories that they hear, or even create stories of their own.

Senufo Paintings. This uniquely African style of depicting animal and people offers a creative way for students to experiment with an unfamiliar art form.

Art and Biography. After students hear the stories of several black historic individuals, have them select one scene from the life of someone they’ve read about and find ways to graphically represent that scene. They can even design costume and small dramatic performance to depict this individual to the rest of their class. They can also examine some of the art created by or about African-Americans.

Novels, Short Stories, and Poetry

Some of the most popular, powerful stories come from or are about African-American history. If you’re looking for some powerful reads for your students this February, consider these “Top 10” novels:

  • “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston
  • “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker
  • “Beloved” by Toni Morrison
  • “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison
  • “The Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison
  • “Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” by James Weldon Johnson
  • “Autobiography of Malcolm X”
  • “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou
  • “Black Boy” by Richard Wright
  • “Narrative of the Life of an American Slave” by Frederick Douglass

Additionally, the following short story collections by African-American authors serve as powerful examples of writing and of the grander African-American history:

  • “Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self” by Danielle Evans
  • “Some Soul to Keep” by J. California Cooper
  • “Spunk: The Selected Stories” by Zora Neale Hurston
  • “A Taste of Honey: Stories” by Jabari Asim
  • “Gorilla, My Love” by Toni Cade Bambara
  • “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” by Z.Z. Packer
  • “All Aunt Hagar’s Children” by Edgar P. Jones
  • “The Best of Simple” by Langston Hughes
  • “Lost in the City” by Edward P. Jones
  • “In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women” by Alice Walker

And finally, equally powerful is the history of African-American poetry. Consider spotlighting some of these classic poets in your poetry lessons:

  • Langston Hughes
  • Maya Angelou
  • Lucille Clifton
  • Gwendolyn Brooks
  • Arna Bontemps
  • Phyllis Wheatley
  • Paul Laurence Dunbar

Photos and Videos

So much of the African-American story took place during the era of photography and videography. This means that we have access to an enormous trove of visuals which we can share with students. Examine the history of African-Americans through photos and videos, spotlighting the eras of slavery, sharecropping, Jim Crow, civil rights, athletics, music, and entertainment.

When students have the opportunity to hear a speech by Martin Luther King, witness the thrill of John Coltrone and his sax, see the savage results of a lynch mob, or compare the environments of blacks and whites, their understanding of black history and contributions compounds exponentially. February is the month our country has dedicated to meditating on these things – how will you play a part in spotlighting Black History Month?

What are some of the ways you expose your students to the history and accomplishments of black Americans during Black History Month? Share your ideas with us here!

Jordan Catapano is an English teacher at Conant High School in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also sits as the District Leader for the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and serves as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website ACTWritingTips.com