Teaching Black History to Our Students of Color

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By Jennifer Hartmann

As we celebrate Black History Month, how many of us pause and think about how much black history our nation's students of color actually learn? The bleak answer is, not very much. In fact, students of color are often not getting any social studies curriculum at all. When I taught history at a Southside Chicago charter school, I had a bright, articulate student named Sam. As a 9th grader, Sam openly complained that we weren’t studying black history. By 12th grade, as he learned about terrorism, gangs, and global poverty, Sam frequently asked, “Why don’t we learn about more of this important life stuff?” More and more for Sam and his peers, the time that should’ve been devoted to social studies was being used to reinforce reading skills.

Sam’s point is a direct indictment on the curriculum narrowing that has been happening since 2001. The regulations to meet the ever-increasing “annual yearly progress goals” have had a far-reaching impact on all schools and low-performing schools in particular. Rather than offer social studies courses that appeal to African American students, we cut electives. Social studies teachers like me have had to dedicate at least one day a week to test prep. The one day slowly became five days of “teaching literacy skills.” Professional development for social studies, art, music, drama, and science teachers have morphed into sessions titled “Teaching Reading in the Content Area.” A committee to redesign social studies curriculum in our school ended up issuing guidelines on using non-fiction articles to teach literacy skills. The result of this guideline was that Sam and his classmates never learned about the Civil War. In the end, we were merely teaching math and reading.

Every February, criticism is lobbed at traditional history classes that teach white-washed history. But what happens when students of color learn no versions of history? When instead of learning how slavery, the Civil War, white supremacy, the Civil Rights Movement, and modern race issues are interconnected, students merely read Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and answer reading comprehension questions about it? The fact that schools most desperate to raise scores have large minority populations only adds to the irony. We should be preparing these students for the challenges of race in America with a broader knowledge base and more elective courses. Instead, we are robbing a generation of students of ownership over their identity by turning the social sciences into collections of reading quizzes.

When Sam was a senior, we took his class to a college lecture at Northwestern University. Afterwards, a professor of African American history had a brief discussion with our students. During the discussion, I was thrilled to see Sam raise his hand. His genuine excitement to be engaging with black history and talk about race relations in America was obvious. This was the kind of excitement I never witnessed during an ACT-reading passage quiz. Without robust background knowledge, our students will walk into college unsure of facts that are considered common knowledge. This sets them up for potential failure. This reality became clear to me as I saw my students thrilled by the lecture but confused by basic historical facts.

Now is the time to break this cycle. Illinois has the opportunity to create a new school accountability system, which should include well-rounded and culturally-relevant curricula. All subjects should be considered “academic and necessary” in order to provide the rich education that Sam and his classmates deserved but didn’t get. I have watched Sam and 2,000 other African American students earn their high school diplomas. Half of them were never taught about slavery and none of them learned about World War I. Yet all of them will be expected to pass a survey of history course in college. After last November’s election, articles and memes internet-wide joked that students are no longer being taught about the Electoral Process, paying taxes, or basic economics. I couldn’t help but picture Sam with his enormous grin saying “told ya’ so.” My social studies colleagues couldn’t agree more.

Jennifer Hartmann teaches eighth grade social studies and science at PFC Omar E. Torres Charter School in Chicago. She is a Teach Plus Illinois Teaching Policy Fellow.

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