Honoring Black History Through Curriculum and Brave Conversations

February 15, 2018

By Alice Wiggins

For the past month and a half, I’ve received a plethora of emails and social media posts reminding me of the work and life of Martin Luther King, Jr. and of February’s designation as Black History Month. Both events are meant to address important historical exclusions in curriculum — African American history. Each email or post includes ways I can commemorate Dr. King’s life and the lives of other African Americans with featured articles, readings, and lessons. I’ve been reflecting on these posts and have noticed that they’ve been offered by organizations that don’t ordinarily post about equity, race, or access to the language of power for students of color.

Although well-intentioned, these posts actually perpetuate an instructional move that is, in itself, inequitable. Spending an isolated day or a week dedicated to the study of Dr. King, or any other topic for that matter, privileges those students who have background knowledge and about the topic. To be equitable, we must coordinate within and across grades to integrate this content in a manner that allows all students to place African-Americans in the broader context of history and its associated literature. Research is clear that building a coherent base of background knowledge builds vocabulary and strengthens reading comprehension. Staying on topic provides an efficient and productive way to review and extend students’ understandings of vocabulary and concepts related to the topic. And, a broad base of knowledge help students more easily acquire, remember, and apply new information — an infinite loop that benefits all children.

The intersection of equity and rigorous, aligned curriculum is worth considering further. The ideas of equality and equity espoused by Dr. King deserve more than a day or a week. The role and perspectives of African Americans in our history deserves more than a month.  This notion is especially relevant on the heels of this month’s latest report from the Southern Poverty Law Center.The report, Teaching Hard History: American Slavery, presents dismal statistics about high-school students’ knowledge of slavery and its continuing impacts — only 8% of surveyed high-school seniors identified slavery as the reason the South seceded from the Union. Also outlined in the report are data regarding the attention high-school teachers, textbooks and standards pay to American slavery. While most teachers surveyed indicated that “teaching and learning about slavery is essential to understanding American history,” they expressed that they lack resources and guidance on teaching the topic and are often uncomfortable discussing important elements of slavery and its impacts. Teachers also indicated that they wished they had more time to devote to the subject.

In addition to presenting these findings, the report is designed to serve as a resource for educators.  The data were used to identify key problems with current practices, to develop a set of best practices (informed by a distinguished advisory board of scholars in partnership with institutions and teachers), and finally to present ten key concepts that should be included in instruction about American slavery. However, without attention to equity and bias, content-rich curriculum, and approaches to content adaptation, these best practices, and key concepts sit atop a shaky foundation.

First, as the report acknowledges, “Teaching about slavery is hard. It requires often-difficult conversations about race and a deep understanding of American history.” This content will continue to challenge us and we will continue to fail our students if we haven’t yet created a climate within our schools and districts where brave (and uncomfortable) conversations are the norm, where bias is recognized, and where equitable practices permeate our instruction. This climate is key to making vital connections between our past and our present.

Next, we must consider these finding in the context of a spiraling, content-rich curriculum. The report asks, “How can students develop a meaningful understanding of the rest of American history if they do not understand the scope and lasting impact of enslavement?” and states that, “Reconstruction, the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance and the civil rights movement do not make sense when so divorced from the arc of American history.” We must, as the report guides, start early. The events of history are connected and provide important context for one another. A well-designed, year-by-year, knowledge building approach to curriculum, that recognizes and exemplifies the perspectives of many, will prepare all students to engage with rich, rigorous texts and will allow them to experience the roles, perspectives and contributions of people of color not as disconnected events, but as ongoing meaning-making experiences.

Finally, until curriculum and textbooks catch up, we must understand the need and provide support for curriculum adaptation. Teachers and curriculum often shy away from difficult topics, negative developments, and alternate perspectives in American history. As the report states,

In elementary school, if slavery is mentioned at all in-state content standards, it is generally by implication, with references to the Underground Railroad or other “feel good” stories that deal with slavery’s end, rather than its inception and persistence. Young students learn about liberation before they learn about enslavement; they learn to celebrate the Constitution before learning about the troublesome compromises that made its ratification possible. They may even learn about the Emancipation Proclamation before they learn about the Civil War. Many teachers tell us they avoid teaching about slavery’s violence in elementary school, preferring to focus on positive developments in American history. Yet these early narratives often form the schema by which later learning is acquired, making them difficult to undo.

Even rigorous aligned curricula, that spiral to connect historical events, sometimes include Eurocentric lenses, racist content, or one-sided perspectives. We must allow and support adaptations that maintain the rigor while addressing these content shortcomings.

Today’s issues of race and equity sit squarely on the past. There are no easy solutions or shortcuts for addressing them. But, change starts with building knowledge of our history and our improving ability to talk about it — for ourselves and with children. UnboundEd offers a free Bias Toolkit to support the facilitated conversations about race, bias and prejudice that will allow us to provide a foundation in which we listen, lead and teach towards equity. We offer rigorous aligned curriculum that serve as a strong starting point. And the Teaching Hard History: American Slavery report offers guidance that can fuel conversation and consideration for content adaptation. This is difficult work, but we must create systems and environments where we are constantly striving to disrupt inequity, bias, privilege and racism; where we are building knowledge intentionally; and where our instruction highlights multiple perspectives — not just those that we learned and not just those that are comfortable for us.


About Alice Wiggins

Alice Wiggins has directed initiatives at the national level related to P-3 ELA curriculum implementation and support. As the director of early literacy, she is responsible for ELA curriculum work, including professional development programs for the Standards Institute. Alice was most recently executive vice president of the Core Knowledge Foundation and previously served as associate director of the Preschool Language and Literacy Lab at the University of Virginia. She is also the author or co-author of a number of publications including the Core Knowledge Preschool Sequence and Teacher Handbook; Preschoolers at Play: Building Language and Literacy through Dramatic Play; Scaffolding With Storybooks: A Guide for Enhancing Young Children’s Language; and Literacy Achievement and Assessment in Emergent Literacy. Alice’s interests and expertise in education are enhanced by her 15 years as a consultant and project manager in the private sector.


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