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Are You Uncomfortable Teaching Black History Month?

Celebrate Black History Month with some tips for teaching history, ideas for lessons and resources.

Did you ever watch the original mini-series Roots as a kid? After the first night of watching Roots, the next day at my high school it was all the students could talk about!  We had watched something that we knew had existed but we had not really understood the horrors. Our teachers certainly weren’t teaching history of this sort!

Statistics about how Roots was the most watched TV series in history

Roots had a profound impact. Why? For the first time, Americans were shown a part of American history that had been ignored, whitewashed, made to sound innocuous or inaccurately portrayed.

black history roundup upost

The Power of Television

Back during those nights in 1977,  we saw slavery as it truly was.  The brutality of slavery was shown with kidnappings, the Atlantic crossing on the ships, the beatings, the humiliations, the degradations, the brutality. This was not the whitewashed Gone With the Wind version of slavery. None of my teachers taught THIS version of history.

It made everyone uncomfortable, sad, angry and bewildered to know that this country once condoned that practice of enslaving and selling human beings.

Teaching History through a dichotomy of liberty and enslavement

After all, Roots premiered only one year after the 1976 bicentennial when America celebrated its revolutionary roots. We were happy to be celebrating our fight for freedom.  Yet, while the colonists were fighting for so-called liberty, millions were enslaved and denied the same liberty.

Teaching History During Black History Month

So when teaching during Black History Month, do we just avoid the whole slavery issue with younger children? Do we avoid any difficult history like the Holocaust or the World Wars?

Should you avoid these topics because they might make you or others feel uncomfortable?

The answer is no. Why? Just remember this famous saying:

Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. - George SantayanaClick To Tweet

It’s Important to Teach Everybody’s History

Too many Americans go through our school systems without learning about those difficult parts of our history. It’s important to dispel myths about history or have people make up their own facts.

But we do need to be cognizant of how we approach history with young children. Teaching history to young children is all about how you approach and present the subject – even if it makes you or others feel uncomfortable. 

And for the African American families that are represented in our classrooms, their history is our history and should be no less important than any other history we teach.

African American Family

It doesn’t mean we only focus on the uncomfortable parts. There are many amazing African Americans who have contributed to science, technology, literature, music, sports, politics and more. They should be celebrated as well.

My Top 10 Suggestions for Teaching History

Here are my 10 suggestions for teaching history (uncomfortable or not) to younger children.

1. Don’t whitewash it.

Slavery, the Holocaust, World Wars, segregation, etc. are all horrible events in our history. We can’t pretend like they didn’t happen. We can’t live in ignorance. Suppressing information is just as bad as giving inaccurate information.

2. Present historical events through a read-aloud. 

There are so many wonderful historical narrative titles, biographies, historical fiction and non-fiction books for most historical time periods. Check out these age-appropriate titles for your students.

3. Allow time for discussions and clarifications.

Kids will ask lots of hard questions. Just be truthful and give accurate information. No one can argue with the facts.

4. Help young children build historical context.

Teaching history is easy. Picturing the past is hard, especially for young children. Help them by making an “Instead of” list. Here’s how it works. Let’s say I’m studying the Civil War period.  I could write:

  • Instead of talking or texting on a phone, people wrote letters or sent telegrams
  • People didn’t buy food at the market, instead, people raised their own food on a farm
  • Instead of going to a doctor, most people used home remedies
  • Most children helped on the farm or worked a job instead of going to school

5. Use the If You Lived at the Time of… book series

A great series of books that can be used to build historical context is the If You Lived at the Time of … books. These books ask questions and then answer the questions for that historical period. For example, Did children go to school during the American Revolution? See this list on Amazon of many of these books in the series.

tips for teaching history to younger students

6. Use primary source documents

Teach history through primary source documents (though you might need to paraphrase or condense for younger children). The Library of Congress is an excellent resource for using primary resources.

7. Present through the eyes of witnesses

Present the events through the eyes and voices of the people who were there using their journals, letters, recountings, recordings, etc.

8. Be careful with reenactments or simulations.

They can be too intense or too real for young children.  Kids love to play-act, but reenacting historical events is not the same as dressing up as a superhero. Instead, children can watch actors reenact historical events in movies, documentaries, newsreels, etc.

9. Integrate Social Studies

Use history topics as your English Language Arts themes or units.  You can pair countless themes with language arts: bravery, courage, justice, injustice, war, peace, sacrifice, and so on.

10. Ask families to share their knowledge of history

Many families have relatives who served in different wars or witnessed certain eras or have family photographs and artifacts of the past. Children need to understand that we are connected to the past. Send home a family letter asking for guest speakers that can come in and share treasured family artifacts, oral histories, documents, and pictures.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Google Maps Lesson

And a bonus suggestion! Don’t be afraid to use technology when teaching history! I created this lesson using Google Maps to teach about Martin Luther King Jr’s fight for civil rights during the 50s and 60s.  The Google Maps lesson included these locations:

  • Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C.
  • Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthplace and home in Atlanta, Georgia
  • Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama
  • Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Alabama
  • The Lincoln Memorial
  • The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee
  • Martin Luther King, Jr.’s tomb in Atlanta, Georgia.

Each of these locations had photos and even videos to explain the significance of the location. The locations were tied in some way to Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.  This includes the hotel where he was assassinated.

Google Maps Martin Luther King Mr Project for Teaching History

The photos and videos and website links embedded into the Google Maps lesson brought first-hand accounts and primary sources for generating discussion and learnings.  You can also create similar lessons using Google Earth.

Instructions on how to share the Google Maps Project with students

You can read more about how to create your own historical Google Maps field trip HERE.

More Resources for Teaching History and Tolerance During Black History Month

In this round-up post, several veteran teachers share some ideas for teaching about history and tolerance during Black History Month.

  • My friend over at Teaching Ideas for Those Who Love Teaching has even more tips before you begin teaching during Black History Month. Great tips for teaching history to young children as well as tips for including the whole family in lessons.
  • My friend over at Enjoy Teaching will show you how to differentiate research projects for your students. Learn how to assign the right level using the Goldilocks principle.
  • Finally, my friend over at Elementary Matters has tips for the importance of showing diversity and kindness in the classroom through read alouds and being a role model for students.

What tips do you have for teaching history to younger children?

How do you approach teaching sensitive subjects with children?

Share your ideas and suggestion in the comments.

You might also be interested in reading these related posts.

Anti-Racism – Fight for Your Rights!

Spotlight Focus on the Fight for our Rights!


Don’t Go Yet!

Are you new to the 1:1 classroom setting? Then you’ll want to read my Valuable Tips for the 1:1 Classroom.

Check out how I use Google Classroom to present at Back to School Night for Parents.

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Are You Uncomfortable Teaching Black History Month?
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Two Boys and a Dad

Hi, I’m Claudio, the dad from Two Boys and a Dad. Whether you’re just starting out teaching or a veteran teacher, let me offer you some ideas, tips, suggestions, resources and a sounding board for your daily classroom struggles (and successes!). This is your place to find information and ask questions about teaching in the elementary grades.

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