January 15, 2021

How to Teach Black History in School

GoGuardian Team
Black History Month

Early childhood is the most critical period to address equality among children and their peers. One great opportunity to do this is through Black History Month, along with other days and months that celebrate and uplift cultures. Outside of the home, the classroom provides one of the best backdrops for teaching young learners about Black History during this vitally important month.

Initially, we only celebrated Black History for one week in February, known as "Negro History Week," observed during the second week of February. Carter G. Woodson, a Harvard-educated historian, began Negro History Week for the first time in February of 1915. He did this to promote awareness and celebrate the achievements of the many great African Americans who came before him in American history. The timing was chosen to honor the birthdays of both abolitionist Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln.

Today, teaching Black history should continue far outside the parameters of February, especially in light of current events in American society and culture. Let’s take a look at how you can celebrate Black History Month with your students with virtual classroom activities and lesson plans that address Black achievements throughout history, including recent events and public figures who have recently made history through social impact or achievements.

Activities to Celebrate Black History Month in the Virtual Classroom

Many of the best activities to celebrate Black greatness throughout American history can be done in the virtual classroom just as easily as in a traditional classroom setting. Here are a few of our favorites for Black History Month.

Discuss Historical Events That Are Lesser Known

Students may have been taught about slavery and civil rights, but do they know that the enslaved were not actually free until two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation? Now celebrated as Juneteenth or Freedom Day, June 19, 1965 is a day worth teaching to students and sparking a discussion.

Other pieces of lesser known Black American history include the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 in what was known as “Black Wall Street” and the thriving Seneca Village community that later became New York’s Central Park.

It’s important for students to learn not just the tragic historical events that have shaped the modern Black experience, but also the triumphant ones that marked their achievements and moved society forward, such as Katherine Johnson’s breakthroughs at NASA as depicted in Hidden Figures.

Pick a Quote of the Day for Each Day in February

By choosing a quote from a great Black poet, writer, entrepreneur, spiritual leader, politician, musician, or other leaders, you open up your classroom to discussions about what these essential figures brought to the world that was not there before them.

Of course, you will want to focus on some of the more obvious choices like Martin Luther King, Jr., Dred Scott, Maya Angelou, Barack Obama, John Lewis, W.E.B. DuBois, Harriet Tubman, and Malcolm X. But also use quotes to introduce your students to Black figures they may not have heard of, like Sojourner Truth, Reverend C.T. Vivian, Audre Lorde, Bayard Rustin, bell hooks, or Shirley Chisholm.

Pick a different student each day to read the quote aloud to the rest of the class, and then open up the floor to discuss what students think it means and why it is still significant today.

Follow Up Your Quote of the Day with Important Black Facts

After reading your quote aloud each day, present an interesting fact about the quote’s author, and use that to help your students elaborate on the discussion. To shine a light on the community they were trying to uplift, you can also teach students about what life was like for that person.

Create Art Inspired by Your Daily Quotes and Important Facts

Young learners love to paint and draw, and creativity helps them learn and retain information. At the end of each week, create some time to allow your students to use their imaginations and creativity. Invite them to look back on the quotes and facts of that week and draw or paint something inspired by that information.

Once they are done, invite each child to share his or her drawing or painting with the rest of the class. Have them expound on what it means to them and reflect on what they learned.

Introduce Black Art to Your Classroom

Now that you have had your students create their own art around Black History Month, this is the perfect time to introduce them to African, Black, and African American art throughout the ages.

Create lesson plans each week that allow you to delve into different periods of Black art. You can do this in chronological order, get ideas from your students about which periods they would like to visit first, or choose what you think will speak most to your students based on their age.

Some, but not all, of the important eras of Black visual art to discuss in class are:

  • Early African American painters (18th and 19th centuries)
  • African American artists of the 1950s and 1960s
  • Art of the Black Power Movement
  • Black art of the 1980s (Basquiat)
  • The Postmodern era (1990s) (focus on Black women)
  • Modern and contemporary Black and African Art

Focus on Themes of Black History Throughout February and Beyond

All educators know that February is Black History Month, but that does not mean you cannot focus on Black history themes outside of this time each year. When you use the right lesson planning tools, you can take your class on a journey that extends far beyond the teachings of Dr. King and the stories of Rosa Parks.

Use this time to not only teach about periods of Black history—but also to introduce essential themes of Black art, music, poetry, and representation in media and politics. Include the teachings of some lesser-known Black leaders and figures who, along with their more famous contemporaries, helped shape the history of our country and the world at large.

To learn more about how to best use your time in the virtual classroom, visit the GoGuardian Distance Learning Resource Center.