The most dangerous conversations are always the ones we’re not having. If I want to know what is important in any given discussion I end up searching out the parts we’re not talking about. Reading between the lines is as important a skill as any. I learned this, among other things, during more than twenty-three years working in education by listening to other teachers, working on committees for equity, and experiencing my own issues of marginalization within the system. It wasn’t easy but I learned that what we wouldn’t discuss could inform me of our collective values just as much as what we did discuss. And that was, often, a painful place to be.
For example, we haven’t talked very much about racial equity in schools but the issue comes up in other ways. We’ll talk about an “achievement” gap without giving credence to biased testing or we’ll discuss why diversity is important and reach for the easiest answer: gender. But, race? We educators don’t make that a priority often enough.
Celebrating Black History Month, like many other things, doesn’t belong to a monolith. Not everyone will agree on it and there are two schools of thought: one, we should definitely celebrate it because important contributions have been made that make up the fabric of this nation or, two, if we did a better job of distributing African American history throughout our textbooks we wouldn’t need to “other” it by separating it apart from the rest of American history. I lean towards the latter, and I’ll tell you why:
Regardless of the school of thought, educators are often the first ones who look at Black History more this month than usual. It’s something that I realized wasn’t healthy to do for my students when I recognized that I was also compartmentalizing the achievements of Black Americans in my own mind. After a few years, I began to supplement the curriculum I was given by introducing it in ways that normalized it as a part of their learning instead.
By trade, I’m an English teacher and we’re told to stick with The Canon, but The Canon doesn’t always work for our students. Classrooms are increasingly (some 53%) not looking as homogenous as they have in the past. The natural growth in this nation following the de-segregation rules handed down by the Supreme Court means that those classrooms are now filled with the kind of diversity that reflects a shared history. So I began to believe that teaching a shared history, rather than a compartmentalized one was the best way to serve students of all races.
Of course working in public and private education also taught me to look for the results and seek out the research and here is what I learned: all students do better when diversity is celebrated regularly and is reflected in the teaching staff. If we want all students to do better we have to start having the conversations we’ve been avoiding around race and culture and the best way to do that is to stretch the historical contributions of Black Americans out all year long. The same can be said of Latino, Asian, Muslim, and a host of different cultures as well.
So celebrate Black History in the classroom this month if you must, but use it as a springboard for on-going curriculum not just one compartmentalized unit in the greater scope of students’ education. Normalization is the best celebration.
Kelly Wichkham Hurst is the Founder and Executive Director of Being Black at School where she advocates for equity and safety for Black students in classrooms across the nation. Before founding BBAS, Kelly spent more than 23 years in the education system as a teacher, literacy coach, guidance dean, and assistant principal. For more ways to promote equity in schools and help improve the experience of Black students check out the BBAS blog on Medium.