Walk into the fifth-grade wing of Columbia Valley Elementary School this month, and you’ll find a celebration of Black History Month.
The walls are lined with key events of the civil rights movement. Picture books and chapter books about famous African American leaders are displayed in classrooms. And, on Friday, small groups of 10- and 11-year-olds sat in clusters for their latest edition of the Civil Rights Book Club, a monthlong project challenging students to read and discuss books about black families navigating life in America in the 1960s.
“It teaches a lot about how racist people were,” said Lily Sem, 11, in her group’s discussion of the 2012 novel “Glory Be.” The book follows a girl living in a Mississippi town in 1964, where the public pool is segregated by race.
“It raises awareness,” Alexia Moreno, 11, said in agreement.
School districts in Clark County and across the country are taking the month of February to recognize Black History Month in their classrooms. It’s a longtime staple of the American classroom, with deep roots reflecting gaps in the education system. What has since become Black History Month was first championed by Carter G. Woodson, a black scholar who, in the early 20th century, observed that the story of black people was not adequately reflected in American history books. In 1926, he launched “Negro History Week,” which President Gerald Ford in 1976 expanded to a nationwide, monthlong recognition.
In the decades since, groups like the National Education Association teachers union and the Anti-Defamation League have reflected on how best to teach black history, both during and outside the month of February.
“Black history is American history,” said Monita Bell, managing editor of Teaching Tolerance. “Black history is world history.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance initiative provides classroom resources and professional development to teachers exploring issues of identity and diversity. Bell said it’s important for teachers to build experiences that allow students to empathize with black history, without casting black people exclusively as victims. At this Evergreen Public Schools campus, for example, students spent the month reading books that highlight the historic experiences of black children, discussing the books in small groups and writing journal entries from the characters’ perspectives.
“We teach reading through history,” said fifth-grader teacher Kari McArthur, “A lot of what we see kids lacking is background knowledge of history. These kids really respond to it.”
But there are common pitfalls teachers may fall into, Bell warned. In recent years, teachers have made headlines for running mock slave auctions, or in taking students on field trips to pick cotton.
“Some classroom practices can really serve to retraumatize students of color,” Bell said. “Black History Month is a prime time for that to happen.”
Fifth-grade teacher Beth Petrie, who designed the book club program with McArthur, said they wanted to build lessons focused on the compassion and courage of the books’ characters, so all students felt supported.
“You have to be really mindful of having a safe space,” Petrie said.
Bell also encouraged teachers to explore black history outside of slavery or the civil rights movement. Framing black history only in the context of oppression can be a source of shame for black students, who may see themselves as victims rather than self-advocates.
“There are opportunities at every point of discussing our history and heritage to talk about black people and black culture,” she said. “Black people and black culture are integral, not just from the ensuing oppression.”
Back at Columbia Valley Elementary School, 11-year-old Nevaeh Williams chatted with her classmates about “One Crazy Summer,” a book about three sisters traveling to visit their mother in California during the summer of 1968. Nevaeh hopes reading the book and continuing to talk about the civil rights movement helps her classmates — and adults she speaks with — avoid the errors of the past.
“Some people are still getting the history,” Nevaeh said. “People are still not learning from the past.”