There is no doubt that K–12 English learners (ELs) who are being educated in the U.S. should receive instruction about Black American history related to their communities. I felt compelled to teach my students about the contributions made by Black Americans in this country since they did not have prior knowledge about Black history in general and how it connected to our school community.
I currently teach English as a second language (ESL) in an urban high school. My students are Black and Brown immigrants living in the U.S. with less than five years of studying English. The languages spoken by my students include Spanish (about 50%), Haitian Creole, Cape Verdean Creole, Portuguese, and Arabic.
The Black history unit that I taught, “Black History, Black Boston,” primarily focused on three internationally known Black American men: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and President Barack Obama. The goal was to teach the historical contributions connected to our school community. As an ESL teacher, over the years, I noticed that ELs were surrounded by street names and school names of Black Americans where they lived or went to school; however, they were not educated about who those names belonged to and why the people were being honored this way. For example, in addition to having a street named Martin Luther King Boulevard, Melnea Cass Boulevard is named after Melnea Agnes Cass (1896–1978), a local civil rights activist who was instrumental in desegregating Boston Public Schools. As I inquired about my students’ level of prior knowledge, I posted one image of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on an anchor chart. In prompting students to identify Dr. King, I was surprised to see that some students were able to identify him and some were not. I was ready to roll up my sleeves and work.
The teaching and learning that was accomplished about Dr. King served a double purpose when the George Floyd protests started taking place. Students took notice of the historical patterns of anti-Blackness and systematic oppression in this country. One student was able to connect the civil rights marches that Dr. King led in Roxbury decades ago with the marches that were being organized to denounce police brutality in the U.S. in 2020. They now had more background knowledge of social ills that Black Americans had historically faced and that all Americans continue to fight against. Students had a better understanding of how nonviolent protests demonstrated the call for social justice.
The instruction of the ”Black History, Black Boston” series coincidentally aligned with the Boston Public Schools’ new reimagining public school effort. Upon returning to a new school year in September 2020, the district made a commitment to include an action by educators. School leaders were required to make it a point, along with educators, to increase their knowledge of the communities they were serving in to help with improving student success and anti-racism for their new school year plan. Educators were to learn about and acknowledge small businesses, neighborhood streets, and community demographics that surrounded their schools.
It is my opinion that all public schools should teach a local Black history series for EL students. For example, Cooper (Language Magazine, July 2020) asserts that the Juneteenth holiday is celebrated by Black families locally; however, it is not a part of standardized school curriculums. Franklin Park, one of the city’s largest outdoor spaces, has held Juneteenth celebrations for decades. More local governments and organizations have begun to acknowledge Juneteenth. Another example would be having students learn why a Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard exists in Black American neighborhoods across the country. Having students learn local Black history helps to connect them to the communities they are a part of. Students will develop academic English language with relatable information they can see as evidence in their surroundings in the neighborhoods they live in or go to school in.
Recommendations for Future Lessons
Teaching a local Black history series should come from an educator who is open-minded about culture. Be prepared to give details about information that wouldn’t get included in a traditional U.S. history curriculum. Culturally aware teachers will add to the quality of the series, especially if they are from the communities they teach in. Students will get the opportunity to compare what they are learning to the standardized White U.S. history classes simultaneously.
Start Local – Motivated, licensed ESL and content teachers can collaborate to research local historical information about the communities they teach in. Start with public libraries and historic preservation societies. Be sure to include diverse perspectives.
Teach Background about Black History Month – Explain the history of how Black History Month became a part of U.S. history. It was officially recognized in 1976, less than 50 years ago. This will help students have a better understanding of the background and key figures.
Connect Students’ Native Countries and Neighborhoods – Research the neighborhoods their nationalities are grouped in demographically in your city. Learn whether or not they reside and attend school in the same neighborhood or live and go to school in different neighborhoods. Let that information drive your series’ starting location or solely focus on the school community neighborhood they’re currently in.
Include Visuals – Continue to provide as many images as possible of the subject’s accomplishments, places of living, and more throughout the lessons. If the printed sources are limited, reach out to local community advocates and document discussions with them about what you’re trying to achieve, including elders because they’ve lived through it. Communicate with any Black librarians you know and assign Black biographical literature. As you gather your evidence, include audio and video (with subtitles if possible). Visit the locations where Black historical events took place and where the subjects lived. Practice social distancing by recording a brief video of yourself during the visit explaining the relevance of it.
Content and Language Standards – Black history lessons naturally lend themselves to incorporating both content and language standards. ELA Common Core standards require students to compare and contrast, recall, and argue across all four domains of language. Resources such as historical documents, articles, and audio and video excerpts can be embedded into traditional or virtual learning models.
Extend Learning Time – If necessary, begin your series at the beginning of the school year and extend your timeline until the end of the school year. Black history need not be celebrated just one month per year. Find ways to incorporate facts and notable figures throughout several units of study.
Assess Student Learning – Create a survey with less than five questions, prompting students with questions that allow them to share evidence about what they have learned in regard to language and local Black history. Give options for written feedback or a one- to two-minute videotaped reflection if they feel confident enough remotely. Aggregate the data you receive from students. Based on the aggregations, adjust your lessons for the next year.
Black and Brown immigrant families settle in urban neighborhoods, enter the public school educational system, and take traditional U.S. history subjects as graduation requirements. It is imperative for students to learn about Black history. Educators are in a position to make sure Black history is part of their students’ educational experience. Starting locally and helping students make connections to their communities assures that history is not lost but acknowledged and celebrated.
Resources Used for “Black History, Black Boston” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
Bay State Banner
“Martin Luther King Jr.’s Boston Legacy” (www.baystatebanner.com/2020/01/16/martin-luther-king-jr-s-boston-legacy)
Boston University Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center
Sept. 11, 1964 – Martin Luther King, Jr. Press Conference (http://hgar-srv3.bu.edu/videos/video?id=569629)
“Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Mark in Boston“ (www.youtube.com/watch?v=1zoxrFexbvU)
Cooper, A. (July 2020). “Dismantling Racism: Working from the inside out.” Language Magazine.
Settenah A. Wright is an ESL teacher in an urban public school. She received her Bachelor of Science degree from Northeastern University concentrating in technical communications. She also attended Simmons University Graduate Studies as a Master of Arts teaching English as a second language major.