Voices in Education

More Than A Month: For My 4th Grade Teacher, Mrs. James

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“The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.”  - James Baldwin 

What points/contributions does a Black educator make to speak to how Black history has been taught, is taught, and should be taught in America? This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write, because since so little is said, there is so much to say. As a Black educator on a public blogpost, I ask myself, “How far can I push the imagination of my audience? How much truth can I speak to power? How can I live in the light of the Black leaders who came before me?” Upon much reflection, I realized the answers to those questions live in my life’s story.

Like many Black millennials who grew up in the inner city, if I was fortunate enough, Black history was reserved for the month of February. I attended five different schools during my K-12 experience. I was part of the St. Louis desegregation program where I rode a bus for 2 hours, twice a day, out of the inner-city to a predominantly white school in the suburbs during grades K-3. Shortly after 3rd grade began, I switched to my local neighborhood city school, which was predominantly Black and only a 10-minute walk, two blocks away. I transitioned into the St. Louis City Schools magnet program and attended an extremely diverse International Studies themed magnet school for 4th and 5th grade; additionally, once there, I tested into the “gifted” program and began “gifted” classes. I then moved up to the gifted middle school in the city, where Black students were approximately 50% of the student body. Finally, for high school I attended a predominantly white private school in an affluent suburb of St. Louis. 

At the predominantly white, county schools (public and private alike) I attended, Black History was rarely mentioned, taught, or discussed. Other than the African American History elective offered during my senior year of high school, Black History in predominantly white schools consisted of Martin Luther King Jr. being praised for his non-violence with little to no other individuals or details shared about historic events where Black people fought for equality. In my city schools, from 3-8th grade, February was blackity, blackity, black!  We had elaborate Black History Month (BHM) productions covering the most notable people in Black History, Black History Month trivia bowls, Black History Month research reports, soul food lunch, you name it! I lived for the month of February annually because it was the one time of the year where I knew my people, my skin color, my identity, and my history would be uplifted, celebrated, and recognized. I LOVED learning about all the amazing Black people who contributed to the foundation and success of this country. They inspired me to be better, to work harder, and to excel! They taught me resilience and that the world was truly mine to conquer no matter what obstacles would be in my way. They whispered to me to speak up and fight against systemic, institutional racist and classist policies. These amazing Black people I learned about were (and still are) my POSSIBILITY MODELS. I was just a lil’ Black girl from the hood born to a teenage mother, whose father passed away from a gunshot wound when she was 4-years-old. However, I knew I wasn’t born into slavery, and I knew that if my people could overcome slavery and Jim Crow segregation for 300+ years, then I could make it through college and keep carrying on their legacy for freedom and equality. By the time I hit fourth grade, I was affirmed in this belief. 

Fourth grade was the first time I was taught Black History outside of the month of February in the school setting. In October, my fourth-grade teacher, the inimitable Mrs. James, told the entire class we were going to write a research paper about an important person in Black History. We were required to dress as that important figure and the assignment was to be presented to the class on Halloween. 

I told my mom about the assignment and she suggested Phyllis Wheatley. I did my research and fell in love with Phyllis Wheatley. I vividly remember going to Walmart with my mom, walking the aisles where they sold cloth and sewing materials, watching my mom deliberate over what she needed to purchase to bring this costume to life given the limited amount of money she had. Now, as an adult (and culturally responsive educator), it’s kind of weird to think about the fact that I went to school dressed as a slave, but I reflect on what my 4th grade mind held as truth: I didn’t walk into my classroom on Halloween as a slave servant, I walked into my 4th grade classroom on Halloween as the FIRST published Black American woman poet! I was PROUD! I was TALENTED! I was the epitome of RESILIENCE! 

My fourth-grade teacher, the 2nd Black woman teacher I ever had, was the 1st teacher to see me clearly and challenge me to see myself clearly as the young, gifted, and Black child I was!  The inimitable Mrs. James, is my POSSIBILITY MODEL for how Black history should be taught and nurtured. I LOVE my Black History Month, February! I reserve the right to highlight and celebrate the achievements of Black people in ALL their glory during these 28 days thanks to Dr. Carter G. Woodson (a problematic fave).

In honor of Mrs. James and every other adult that has helped me see the beauty, truth, and power in teaching Black History, not only to Black students, but all students, here are my top 5 recommendations for having a “LIT” Black History (More Than A) Month:

  1. Always acknowledge that Black History should be and will be recognized and celebrated year round. Teach history truthfully, and in a way that empowers all students to create the future we desire.
    • Use important holidays, current events, or popular culture as ways to ensure its inclusion within the curriculum.
    • Around MLK Jr. Day, for middle/high school aged students, teach them about the Children’s March.
    • Create and implement a culturally and linguistically responsive curriculum.
    • Imagine a new way of teaching Black History that has never be done before. Be creative. Be innovative!
  2. Black educators, if you have the passion and talent, go where your heart, mind, and students lead you; simultaneously, don’t feel like you have to do it all and do it alone. Educators who are allies, partner and collaborate with Black educators in the building. Don’t expect them to do ALL the work, and be open to learning and having courageous conversations about how you all will move forward as a team.
    • Expand your Professional Learning Network (PLN) and seek guidance and leadership from Educators of Colors who share via Instagram/Twitter. (Shoutout to @LiteracyforBigKids for the compilation! This list is not exhaustive by any means.)
  3. If there are Black students in your school, seek out their opinions and suggestions. The young folks will make sure your BHM is “LIT”!
  4. Make sure that your Black History Month is INTERSECTIONAL! Teach about Black women, LGBTQIA folks, Black Trans leaders, Black folks with disabilities, etc.
    • Watch the screening of “Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart” a documentary that tells the story of Lorraine Hansberry - a young, gifted, Black woman who chose words to fight injustice - on stage and off. View the conversation with director Tracy Heather Strain and Professor Soyica Colbert that my student and I helped moderate. 
  5. Teach about Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)!
    • Be sure to watch the new documentary screening on PBS entitled “Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges & Universities.” Register your class for the screening and Q & A with the director!

In an effort to grow stronger, teachers must be intentional about teaching history holistically and truthfully. Don’t let the discomfort of the story keep you from telling the truth and empowering your students. Marcus Garvey is a notable Black leader who many teachers are afraid to teach about because his legacy makes others uncomfortable. If educators lean into that discomfort, they will see the gifts that Garvey left us through his actions and words. Although Marcus Garvey was speaking specifically to Black people, I think the following quote applies to all citizens of the United States of America, 

“A people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” 

As a person with a semi-green thumb, I know from experience that nothing good happens to a tree without roots. However, my plants remind me again and again that they are resilient. Even if we are damaged and split, with the right nurturing, we can heal and be the version of ourselves that we’ve never seen before.

Andrea Woods

Andrea Woods Middle School Teacher Twitter: @WoodsTeaches

Andrea Woods is the 2017 Missouri PBS Digital Innovator. Her passion for social justice drives her project-based, technology-infused, culturally relevant Humanities curriculum. In 2009, she began her teaching career as a Teach for American Corps Member in Phoenix, AZ and has been teaching ever since in the states and abroad. She is a proud member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.

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