At this point in the year, teachers are deep into their curriculum and inevitably far behind. There are 7-9 units of study in our reading, math and writing curricula, and pages of teaching points in the NY scope and sequence for social studies and it is nearly impossible to get to it all.
In the midst of this constant battle for our time and attention, comes black history month. In addition to our regular curriculum, we also have to try to do justice to centuries of history in one short month. This does not lead to meaningful learning about what should be an interdisciplinary and crucial topic. This is tokenism via curriculum. And a false token at that. Each year, we bring out Ruby Bridges and Rosa Parks read alouds, and take 45 minutes or so to celebrate Dr. King. But that is the most we do because we’re constantly racing to teach the parts of the curriculum that we “have to cover” by the end of the year.
I love reading about Ruby Bridges, Parks and Dr. King. But that is not enough. We should be devoting whole units of study to the history of African peoples in America, to slavery, to emancipation and the Civil Rights movement. Every month should be black history month. African American history deserves more than a few read alouds. In the scope and sequence for NY state elementary school students, there are many units that focus on colonial America and the Revolutionary war, many units about communities around the world and at home, but nothing that focuses on the African American experience over time, slavery or the Civil Rights movement. Kids should be learning about this. It is important, it’s part of our heritage, and it particularly resonates with upper elementary school students’ innate interest in fairness and equality. We need to teach history in a way that fairly represents our nations past and also consistently incorporates the perspectives and experiences of minorities and historically oppressed peoples, no matter the month.
As someone who works with mostly students of color, this feels even more urgent. Likewise, in a city with one of the most diverse student populations in the world, we should all feel uncomfortable with token read alouds in lieu of meaningful curriculum about a major component of American history. Whether it means we need to loosely interpret the scope and sequence or change it all together, we should be immersing ourselves in African American history throughout the year, not just in February. It should be part of our curriculum, so that we teach and learn about it in a meaningful way that empowers our students and fosters both critical thinking and empathy in our classrooms. And it should be coupled with investigations of many cultures and traditions.
Needless to say I feel the same way about women’s history month. After all, half of our students will be women one day. They should be learning about their historical counterparts all throughout the year, not just in March.