It’s Black History Month. It is around this time that teachers all over the country will start dusting off their Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks lesson plans. That is understandable. Students definitely need to have an appreciation of the key figures in the Civil Rights Movement, but why do educators always jump to the national level when talking about Black history?
I was journalism major, and my father, who was very accomplished in that field, told me his secret to a great print story: “Find a local angle on a national conversation.” His logic being that you grab people with something they are already aware of then make it hyper relevant to them by bringing it home. Of course, this makes it easier for the writer too as they have much more access to people locally for interviews.
This advice serves me well teaching history. Kids are no different than adults when it comes to keeping their attention. Yes, they are enamored by the titans of the Civil Rights Movement like anyone else, but it can be hard to make that meaningful to them. Often, the distance of these historical events and locations, both physical and temporal make it difficult for kids to relate.
Every history teacher has had the experience of telling a student about a famous Civil Rights leader, but have you ever told a group of students that the street they have lived on their whole life is named after a local Civil Rights leader?
It’s one thing to tell your students about the Underground Railroad … it’s another thing to show them where the stops are in your local area. (My students got a kick out of finding out there was one by the mall.)
I just got done teaching a colonial history unit. There is a high school named Crispus Attucks nearby. They all know someone who goes there. So, they perked up when I taught the lesson about who Attucks actually was. That’s just the start because Crispus Attucks high school is an extremely culturally significant school with a rich history that people are unaware of too. Now I’m not saying it isn’t important for them to know about the high school in Little Rock … but it is equally important for them to know the history of the Black high school down the street especially since many of them will matriculate there.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that just because your local history wasn’t included in the “Black chapter” of your textbook that it isn’t significant enough to teach your students. It will probably be more work on your end as a teacher, but it is more impactful on their end as a student.