Sharing the Story

Ayanna Cooper encourages enhancing, embedding and embracing Black History Month

What started out as “Negro History Week” during the second week of February in 1926 grew into “Black History Month” by 1970. Negro History Week founder Carter G. Woodson, a historian, wanted the contributions of Black Americans to be recognized and acknowledged as fundamental to American history. Today Black History Month is not only celebrated in the United States and Canada in February but also in the United Kingdom in October. With the increasing number of students from diverse cultures, backgrounds, countries of origin, and native languages spoken besides English, now is the perfect opportunity to not only celebrate Black History Month but enhance, embed, and embrace it.

Who are the famous Black Americans that come to mind when we first think about Black History Month? Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Oprah Winfrey, or maybe President Barack Obama? Their contributions are most noted in history books and across various forms of literature. When and how their stories and the stories of others are taught is the question. How can we as educators diversify and include less familiar contributors to American history who happen to be of African descent? What about the contributions of notable Blacks who were not native English speakers? How can we be sure to educate our students about the history of Black Americans while affirming their own cultural backgrounds?

My History, Black Female
Think about your first experience learning about Black history. My first experience learning about Black history began by me asking my mother if she learned about Black history in school. My mom responded with “not until college.” My mother was in elementary school in the 1950s so it wasn’t until adulthood that she was formally educated about the contributions of Black Americans. Then again, she has lived through and remembers tumultuous times such as the Jim Crow laws in the South and the assassinations of both Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She remembers her parents telling her and her sister what not to do during their summer trips to visit relatives in Alabama but not understanding why things were that way.
My generation was fortunate enough to have not been subjected to those inhumane laws, but the residue of racism and discrimination remained during a time of renewal for Black Americans. For example, I remember playing the role of Rosa Parks in the preschool play, maybe because I most physically resembled her out of the other girls. The preschool I attended in the early 70s was within my community and readily taught us that “Black was Beautiful.” Later, I attended a predominately white elementary school in the suburbs of Boston where we learned about slavery. I remember not having the same sense of pride I had just a few years before. I recall the other students looking at me when our White teacher would talk about how “awful” life was for slaves. I also remember the first time a second-grade classmate called me the “n” word and that I had to go home and ask my mother what that meant. That memory of shame and embarrassment has never left me. These memories and others like them are frozen in my mind of how I began to understand race, culture, and identity early on.

On a more positive note, I remember reciting Nikki Giovanni’s poem “Ego Tripping” during a Black History Month celebration in high school. I, too, was more formally introduced to the contributions of notable Black Americans as a college student but would prefer that our students not have to wait until college. They should be enlightened now in the K-12 grades!

I became a teacher of English learners early on in my teaching career for several reasons, but mainly because I could relate to some of what the Mexican students in my fourth-grade class were going through. I have often been asked if I am an English learner or if my parents were. What would drive me to want to teach English learners? I am not an English learner, but I am sure my ancestors were. As a person of color, I know and have experienced firsthand marginalization, a lack of respect for the diversity I bring, and an underestimation of my ability. Aside from my grandparent’s ties to Southern states, I do not know my country of origin but rather the continent — Africa. Helping students, especially English learners, maintain their cultural, native language and affirm their identity is essential to their academic and social development.

Enhance by highlighting contributions of notable Black Americans who were born outside of the U.S.
Including accomplishments and contributions of Black Americans who were not originally from the U.S. may be a challenge if we are not aware of who they are. With the increasing number of Black immigrant students, the need to educate ourselves about their culture and history is imperative. The Migrant Policy Institute recently publicized research about young Black immigrants in a publication and webinar entitled Young Children of Black Immigrants in America: Changing Flows, Changing Faces. Their research is timely, because they found “far less academic attention has been paid to the changing Black child population, with the children of Black immigrants representing an increasing share of the U.S. Black child population” (Caps Fix, 2012). We can begin by educating ourselves and our students by including the accomplishments of Black Americans born outside of the U.S., whose first language was not English. Black History Month is another opportunity for all English learners, but especially Black English learners, to connect with and learn about Black American History.

Here are three examples:
Jean-Baptiste Pointe du Sable (1745-1818) was born in Haiti, spoke French, and later attended school in London. He is best known as a pioneer, merchant, fur trader, farmer, and businessman. He was adventurous and was able to travel across unsettled wilderness territories and areas settled by Native Americans. He set up a successful trading post and was officially recognized in 1968 by the State of Illinois for having been the founder of Chicago. The U.S. Postal Service issued the tenth stamp in the Black Heritage series on Feb. 20, 1987, featuring Jean-Baptiste Pointe du Sable.

Jan Matzeliger (1852-1889) was an inventor originally from Paramribo, Dutch Guiana, a formally Dutch-owned country in northern South America. He was the inventor of the shoe-lasting machine. As a youth he worked his way to the U.S. as a sailor. He later became a shoemaker in Lynn, Massachusetts, known as the shoe capital of world. As a native Dutch speaker, Matzeliger learned English in his limited free time. He designed a patent that substantially cut shoe-manufacturing costs, which ultimately made new shoes more affordable for Americans.

Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) was a human rights leader who was born in Jamaica and later migrated to London. He traveled extensively throughout Europe and North Africa. He came to the U.S. in 1916 and founded the United Negro Improvement Association. He also established the African Orthodox Church, the African Legion, the Black Cross nurses, the African Motor Corps, and the Black Eagle Flying Corps. He preached unity among Blacks, pride, economic empowerment, and self-government. He was later convicted of fraudulent activity and then pardoned before being deported to Jamaica.

Embed the accomplishments of Black Americans as suggested by Common Core State Standards
Forty-five states, the District of Columbia, four U.S. territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity have adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS, 2013). In English Language Arts, the standards require all students to engage in increasingly diverse and complex text. There is no prescribed reading list but rather recommendations that include contributions made by Black Americans among other notable Americans. For example, in grades 6-8 the CCSS suggest students read The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Other exemplars include Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Virginia Hamilton’s The People Could Fly and poetry from Nikki Giovanni and Langston Hughes, all Black Americans. In grades 9-12 some suggested exemplars include informational text written by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Letter from Birmingham Jail) and his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by poet and activist Maya Angelou is also noted.

The CCSS does not prescribe exactly how to teach the material. Significant scaffolding will be required to effectively prepare English learners for these types of texts. Building one’s own background of notable African Americans and thinking creatively about ways to incorporate their stories is encouraged. For example, using a speech from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a poem from Gwendolyn Brooks, or lyrics from a Negro spiritual to teach figurative language or personification. In primary grades, CCSS notes the use of The Story of Ruby Bridges, by Robert Cole, to teach cause and effect, sequential order, and use of specific language. In an advanced ESL class teachers might incorporate scenes from A Raisin in the Sun, written by Lorraine Hansberry, for students to act out and for character analysis. If autobiographies are a required genre, then including the stories of Black immigrants or refugees such as Left to Tell by Immaculee Illabageza or Escape from Slavery: The True Story of My Ten Years in Captivity and My Journey to Freedom in America by Francis Bok and Edward Tivnan may be of interest to you and your students.

The study of language is clearly required as part of the Common Core State Standards. The language progressive skills require all students to recognize variations from standard English in their own and others’ writing and speaking and to identify and use strategies to improve expression in conventional language (CCSS, 2012). In order to do so, teachers must recognize the presence of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in literature and within student-to-student discourse in communities where this dialect is present. AAVE is ever-present in song lyrics, especially jazz, rap and R&B music, poems and Southern folklore such as the Br’er Rabbit tales. All English learners may not only become bilingual but also bidialectical, meaning having the ability to communicate in two dialects. In this case, they must be able to communicate in standard and non-standard English. For example, an English learner from Haiti could learn standard English in school and AAVE with his or her peers.

Embrace and celebrate current-day accomplishments of Black Americans
Black Americans are still making history and notable contributions. For example, when Gabrielle Douglas won two gold titles as a U.S. gymnast and Olympic all-around champion during the summer of 2012, our hearts were overwhelmed with happiness for her. As she was the first Black American to ever earn that title, clearly there are areas where Black Americans are shaping American history. Even more recently, the re-election of President Barak Obama further defined the presence of Black Americans in American history.

Teachers can include accomplishments of nationally known Black Americans as well as the accomplishments of more local contributors and leaders. For example, they can have students research leaders in their communities who are of African descent. They could investigate their community’s first mayor as well as who doctors or police officers are in their community to see if any are African American. They can research other African American firsts within their school communities. They can research the presence (or lack thereof) of Black Americans in their communities and the implications of their findings.

Civil Rights Movement and English language learners
The laws that protect the rights of English learners grew out of the civil rights movement. The federal law Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 declared, “No person in the United States shall, on the grounds of race, color or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Before that, Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) declared discrimination illegal. Racial segregation was ruled a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. These milestones must not be forgotten but rather celebrated as part of barriers to education Black Americans have overcome. What does that mean for this and future generations of English learners? It simply means freedom. Freedom to retain your native language while learning another. Freedom to have your culture acknowledged and respected. Freedom to be a lifelong learner because of the hardships others had to endure and overcome. For example, my daughter attended Moses Middle School, which is named after Lena Moses, the first African American to graduate from the school district and earn an advanced degree. At the time the district was predominately White, but it has since become increasingly more ethnically and linguistically diverse. Ms. Moses later dedicated over forty years to the district as a teacher and later as a media specialist. The school has her photo displayed along with a description of her accomplishments.

In a recent trip to Maryland, I stumbled upon the birthplace of Harriet Tubman. It was on a serene field off of a rural country road in Dorchester County where I found the historical marker. The sign could not hold all the words necessary to express the magnitude of her bravery and accomplishments. It was a reflective moment that made me think of Harriet Tubman not only as the heroine that I had learned about as a child but as someone I could still learn from and teach others about. As we encourage all of our students to find and follow their passions, consider sharing this quote with them.

“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world. ”

Guiding questions to promote discussion
Here are some guiding questions and/or writing prompts to help facilitate English language development with a focus on Black History.
• What do you know about Black American culture and history?
• What famous Black Americans are you most familiar with?
• How did you learn about them?
• What characteristics do you most admire about those people?
• What words would you use to describe them?
• What are some examples of how they displayed courage?
• What obstacles did they encounter?
• How did they overcome those obstacles?
• What would you like to accomplish in your life?
• Who can help you reach those goals?

In conclusion, I encourage you to think about how you will enhance, embed, and embrace Black History month. How will you make a positive difference in the lives of the students you teach? How will you affirm their cultural identities and histories? Having students share their stories or the contributions of notable historians from their culture or country of origin will continue to enlighten and educate us all.

African American History Month
City of Lynn, Commonwealth of Massachusetts
Common Core State Standards
Common Core State Standards Initiative (2010). Common Core State Standards for English language arts and literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. Retrieved from
Harriett Tubman
Marcus Garvey
Migrant Policy Institute
Nikki Giovanni

Ayanna Cooper, Ed.D., is an independent consultant who specializes in facilitating professional development for educators of English language learners. She is currently serving a second term on TESOL International Association’s Professional Development Standing Committee and serves as the Black English Language Professional and Friends forum leader (BELPaF). Cooper holds an Ed.D. in Teacher Leadership from Walden University. The name “Ayanna” is of African origin and means “Beautiful Flower.”