How To Teach Black History
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Every February, teachers get out their black history lesson plans. But some struggle with how to engage their students about important issues of race in America on a more regular basis. NPR's Jason Fuller put that question to some educators and researchers.
JASON FULLER, BYLINE: At one school in Washington, D.C., the answer is to teach it every day. Or better yet, incorporate it in everything you do.
UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: One, two, three. Go.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: A million...
FULLER: Here at Roots Public Charter School, cultural identity and African-American history are interwoven into everything the school teaches.
RASHEKI KUYKENDALL-WALKER: We look up, who are the great scientists that contributed to weather? Who are the great scientists that contributed to electricity and magnetism? Like, whatever our theme is, we'll focus on African-American and African contributions.
FULLER: Rasheki Kuykendall-Walker is the vice principal here.
KUYKENDALL-WALKER: These children are like our children. Like, it really is like a village. Right? They call us mama and baba. We hug 'em up. So it's just the intention of planting the seed that they are very important.
FULLER: Roots is one of hundreds of African-centered schools around the country where students learn about African-American history from a more comprehensive and intentional lens, a lens that doesn't start with enslavement.
GREG CARR: If the history of African people were a 24-hour day, slavery and colonialism would be one second on that day.
FULLER: Greg Carr is the chair of Afro-American studies at Howard University. Before teaching at Howard, Carr helped design the framework for Philadelphia's mandatory high school African-American history course. Carr says that beyond teaching students about peoples of the African diaspora before and after slavery, African-centered schools ask students contextual questions and tell a fuller backstory of African-American luminaries.
Take, for instance, how students learn about poet Phillis Wheatley. Carr says if students learned about her, they learn she came to this country when she was 6 or 7, learned English and eventually gets to the point where she writes to and critiques George Washington.
CARR: If we're going to teach this history, are we teaching contributions to American history? Or are we teaching extensions of African history and culture and their influence? 'Cause when you read her poetry, she refers to her African homeland. But is it - so is this just going to be about her critique of George Washington, or is this going to be about her as a fuller human being in the world?
FULLER: And research says it's important to talk about these nuances. A report published last year from the Southern Poverty Law Center, called, "Teaching Hard History," found that nearly 60 percent of teachers surveyed said their textbooks were inadequate when it comes to teaching subjects like slavery or white supremacy. The study also found that even though 90 percent of teachers surveyed said they felt comfortable teaching hard history topics, their open-ended answers showed there was a profound unease around having the discussion with their students.
Maureen Costello is the Teaching Tolerance director at the Southern Poverty Law Center. She helped write the report referenced to earlier. She says the reason black history hasn't been integrated more comprehensively is because the United States hasn't fully dealt with its racial past.
MAUREEN COSTELLO: We have this progressive notion of American history, which is the kind of rationalization that makes us feel good about ourselves.
FULLER: To remedy this, Costello and Carr recommend school systems strengthen their curricula with more historical documents that highlight African-American narratives. And for Afrocentric schools, success for them comes through finding sustainable funding and finding ways to meet annual markers, like standardized tests, to further validate their framework. Jason Fuller, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.