Black History in the ELA Classroom


Black History in the ELA Classroom 

Written by Rikki Carter

I was never taught Black history when I was in middle school. In fact, the Black history that I did know I researched and discovered on my own as an adult well into her twenties. As a first year teacher in 2014, I knew that I didn’t want that for my students, so I made a conscious decision that I would be ever so intentional with what I taught my 7th graders throughout the school year, and especially during Black History Month, about historical Black figures that have shaped our world in incredible ways. 

Where do I start? Research. 

As I said before, as a Black woman in America, I was never taught Black history growing up, so how was I going to teach my students about historical Black figures that I didn’t know about? Well, it was simple--I researched. 

As teachers, we know that all learning starts with an essential question. My learning started with the question, “Who are historical Black figures in America?” It then progressed to, “Who are historical Black figures in the world?” I quickly realized that my learning was infinite. 

Teachers must always remember that they are, first and foremost, students. If I wanted to learn about Black history, my history, I had to pull up the good and faithful Google and discover for myself what my teachers failed to teach me growing up. With a simple Google search, my unknown Black history popped up on my computer screen with force and certainty. Link after link, article after article, video after video, photo after photo, revealed what I never knew, but was now discovering. In my research I learned about powerful women, such as Angela Davis, Marian Anderson, and Zora Neale Hurston. I learned about great men, such as Nelson Mandela, Frederick Douglas, and Benjamin O. Davis Jr. As they say, knowledge is power. I was now able to teach my students about these historical Black figures because I equipped myself with knowledge of their great achievements. 

Will I have to discuss potentially awkward topics, such as racism, slavery, and segregation? Yes. 

What I have learned in talking with my colleagues over the past 7 years is that many of them shy away from teaching Black history because this then forces them to teach about the three dreaded words: racism, slavery, segregation. In researching Black history, you will find that many of these historical figures experienced overwhelming racism, dealt with segregation, and their inventions, accolades, and achievements were stolen by their White counterparts. Is this uncomfortable to discuss? Absolutely! Should we discuss it anyways? Absolutely.

As awkward as these conversations may be, they need to be had. And what I have come to realize is, our students are largely more knowledgeable about equity, equality, and social justice than we give them credit for. In teaching this Black history in full, not shying away from the harsh realities, you are affording your students the real truth and knowledge of our history as a nation. 

As your students are researching and learning about these historical figures for themselves, they will learn, for example, that Marian Anderson was banned from performing opera at Constitution Hall simply because she was a Black woman. But they will also learn that first lady Eleanor Rooselvelt stood with Anderson against this blatant racism, opening the doors for her to perform for thousands in front of the Lincoln Memorial in protest of the indescribable racism in America. 

Your students will learn that yes, racism and segregation is a huge part of many of these Black historical figures’ stories, but their tenacity, their vigor, their determination, did not falter. Through these historical figures they will not only learn right from wrong, justice from injustice, and love from hate, they will also learn what it means to be relentless in their pursuits. 

What about resistant parents? Get them involved!

I have taught in both Title I public schools with a large Black and Hispanic population, as well as a public school in a very affluent area of my city with majority white students. I have never, in my 7 years of teaching, experienced a parent resistant to my Black History Month lessons or projects. Why is that? Because this is our history. It is not my opinions, my views, my outlook of situations--these are facts and were the realities of these historically Black figures’ lives. 

Also, I would encourage ELA teachers to let their lessons or projects be exploratory for their students, allowing them to choose the historical figures they would like to know more about. Giving students a choice and voice in what they want to learn, closes any doors for resistant parents. 

You can also get parents involved by including them in the learning! In the current climate of our world, we are all on a journey of learning when it comes to social justice issues. Allowing the parents of your students to learn alongside their children, discovering new information about the historical Black figures of our world, creates connections between your students and their parents, as well as gets parents involved in the happenings of your classroom. 

What if I don’t know the answers to questions? That’s okay! 

If you don’t know the answers to every question your student asks about a historical Black figure, then guess what that means? You’re human! I certainly don’t know every historical Black figure that ever existed, and I make it very clear to my students that I am learning right alongside them. This has created so much excitement in my classroom because they get to teach me new things! It’s an incredible feeling to walk around my classroom and hear, “Ms. Carter, did you know this….?” and, “Ms. Carter, did you know that...?” You have now created an environment of learning that is reciprocal. You teach them, and they teach you. What a beautiful thing. 

Next Steps. Look to those who have done it before. 

I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support and guidance of mentor teachers who have gone before me and figured out the “tough stuff.” Same is true with this. If you’re still unsure of your next steps in creating a Black History Month unit of study for your ELA students, look to those who have done it before. 

There are tons of Black History resources, including my Women of Black History Month Bundle on Teachers Pay Teachers, that will take your students on a journey of discovery as they read, research, and learn new information about historical Black figures that have changed the trajectory of those who came after them. 

Remember, this is a part of history. Research it, learn it, embrace it, teach it. 

Thanks for reading,

Rikki Carter

Instagram: @Widlflower_Classroom,

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