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Spotlight on Walden // Feb 20, 2020

Recognizing Black History Month and Diverse Role Models in School

Cassandra Holifield
Dr. Cassandra Holifield

Since 1976, February has been recognized as Black History Month, an annual celebration of the achievements and history of African Americans. During this time, it’s common to hear stories about the accomplishments of civil rights leaders Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. However, there are many examples of black excellence throughout American history that are rarely highlighted and taught in schools.

Dr. Cassandra Holifield, faculty member for Walden University’s Master of Arts in Teaching program, says that all school districts should acknowledge Black History Month and diverse role models throughout the school year.

“We don’t talk enough about the historical contributions of African Americans,” says Dr. Holifield. “Due to the pressure on teachers for test scores, diversity often gets ignored because it’s not included in standardized tests.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s 2014 assessment on The State of Civil Rights Education in the United States revealed that 20 states received grades of ‘F’ for failing to meet civil rights curriculum standards.

“This research shows that regardless of the racial diversity in the state, black history needs to be acknowledged in every school,” says Dr. Holifield. “Understanding your value and worth goes back to understanding your past and what your people have accomplished. That’s why Black History Month is so important.”

To commemorate Black History Month in the classroom, Dr. Holifield offers the following advice.

  • Incorporate diversity in every lesson. Since history books and school districts vary in standards of acknowledging black history, each teacher should incorporate cultural diversity into their curriculum. It needs to be intentional. For example, teachers can incorporate issues of race or reference a historical black figure in a word problem.
  • Highlight hidden pioneers. When planning for Black History Month activities, schools often cover notable African American leaders that everyone already knows. Instead, find creative ways to introduce your students to black heroes that often go unrecognized such as Fannie Lou Hamer, a civil and voting rights activist, and Jesse Leroy Brown, the U.S. Navy’s first black aviator.
  • Use culturally sensitive activities. While it is important to teach the impact of slavery and racism, educators should never reenact the suffering. Teachers are culturally responsible for the lessons they implement in the classroom and should be mindful of how interactive activities of black history may affect their students. Black History Month activities should focus on celebrating the triumphs of African Americans throughout history.
  • Increase teacher diversity. A recent study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that black students who have at least one black teacher are more likely to graduate from high school and enroll in college than their peers in the same school who are not assigned a black teacher. Imagine the impact of observing Black History Month for an African-American student, especially one that may never have a black teacher. Increasing teacher diversity enables students of color to share identity and history.

The significance of Black History Month should serve as a reminder for educators to hold themselves accountable for recognizing black history year-round. Being culturally competent, diversifying faculty and curriculum, and expanding students’ knowledge of minority activists and leaders are effective ways to support marginalized students and promote acceptance in the classroom.