Black voices should not only be celebrated in February, in the same way that we should not only be grateful on Thanksgiving. But at the same time, February is a time when we can pause each year and think about how to celebrate Black voices in the classroom, reflect on what we have or haven’t included in our own teaching, and challenge ourselves to bring more voices into our classrooms for the purpose of considering the experiences of people that may not be accurately or fully represented in our society.
Here are a few ways you can celebrate black voices in your classroom.
1.) Read Just Mercy and Watch Bryan Stevenson’s Ted Talk.
To say that Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy changed my life simplifies my experience, but I’ll start there. I’ve never before been so disturbed by a book--my own ideas about reality so powerfully challenged. I paused often through this book to grieve and to think. I had no idea how blind I was to the injustices that occur in America until reading this book.
If I were to suggest one text that all American high school ELA programs should include, it would be this book.
There are some outstanding resources that you can use for teaching this in your classroom. Here are a few, but I know there are many more out there:
- Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (eji.org)
- Just Mercy Unit for Teachers (google.com)
- Learning for Justice | Education Resources: This site does not have lesson plans specifically for Just Mercy, but it has some great resources that you could couple with it including nonfiction articles.
If you don’t have the leeway in your schedule to teach the whole book, consider teaching excerpts, and definitely teach Bryan Stevenson’s Ted Talk: “Bryan Stevenson: We need to talk about an injustice | TED Talk.”
2.) Use Mentor Sentences Written By Black Authors.
One powerful way to include Black voices in your classroom is to bring in the works of Black authors frequently. One way to do this is through using mentor sentences from Black authors when you teach writing and grammar.
Unfortunately, the canon and the public domain are short on Black authors, but you can use works that are not in the public domain in your own classroom for educational purposes. And even if your school or district doesn’t allow you a ton of freedom in the texts you choose, you can still bring in diverse authors in purposeful ways. Grammar and writing are aspects of instruction where you can do this.
A few of my favorite Black authors to use for modeling well-crafted sentences are Toni Morrison and Langston Hughes. Consider how you might teach imagery with this sentence:
“The sun was setting, and the sea and sky were all stained with blood.”
-Langston Hughes, “Bodies In The Moonlight”
Or consider how you might teach adjectives with the following sentence fragment:
“Sweet, crazy conversations full of half sentences, daydreams, and misunderstanding more thrilling than understanding could ever be.”
-Toni Morrison, Beloved
Something about starting a sentence with multiple adjectives gives a certain cadence to a sentence, and that’s something your students can mimic in their own writing.
If you're not sure how to get started using mentor sentences in your classroom, I'd love to send you a free lesson that you can use today. It has all the mentor sentences in it, plus a guided note sheet for your students, and even a video tutorial for you to watch first about how to teach the lesson. You can get it here.
It’s designed to give you and your students everything you need for purposeful (and fun) grammar instruction. I’ve also included editable slides, so you can add your own mentor sentences. I go into more detail about how to use mentor sentences to teach grammar in this blog post: “What Is A Mentor Sentence.”
3.) Watch Chimamanda Adichie’s “The Danger of A Single Story.”
You are likely quite familiar with this Ted Talk since it first aired in 2009, but your students may not be. In her Ted Talk, Adichie's main point, that a single story about a people group can be dangerous in overt and covert ways, is one reason it’s so critical that we bring diverse voices into our ELA classroom.
This Ted Talk works well to open up (or continue) the conversation about power, stereotypes, and prejudice.
One way to use any Ted Talk in your classroom is to have students do the following as they watch:
- Write down 2-3 quotes (or paraphrases) from the author that stand out to you. After the Ted Talk give students a few minutes to write about why that quote stood out to them. Do they agree or disagree with it?
- Write down one text-to-text, text-to-world, or text-to-self connection you can make from the Ted Talk
- Finish this statement after watching the Ted Talk “I’m curious about….” Or “A question I have is….”
4.) Use The Moth Podcast To Hear More Stories
If you haven’t used The Moth in your classroom, you are truly in for a treat. The Moth is a podcast where regular people (and some famous people) tell their stories. The topics of the stories range from the everyday struggles of life to deeply moving and traumatic moments. I have never finished an episode without being challenged, encouraged, deeply moved, and more in touch with my own humanity.
The Moth also has some high-quality teaching resources so you can bring these stories into your classroom in meaningful ways. They’ve compiled a list of stories for Black history month here: https://themoth.org/dispatches/black-history-month-playlist.
My favorites from this list are “Outdoor Camp” by Vin Shambry and “Spotted Denzel” by Lee Thomas.
If you’d like to use the teaching resources from The Moth, you can find those here: The Moth | Education Program | Resources
5.) Use Jason Reynolds' “10 Things I’ve Been Meaning To Tell You” As A Mentor Text
If your students are familiar with Jason Reynolds’ writing, this is a great short article to teach, and there’s so much you can do with it. Here are a few ideas:
There are a lot of different things you can do with this article, but one of my favorite ideas is to use it as a mentor text and allow students to write their own “10 things.” If it’s near the end of the school year, you can have students write their “10 things” to students that will be in your class next year.
If you want to take it a little deeper, consider giving your students an option to do one of the following:
- Write “10 Things I’ve Been Meaning To Tell You” to a parent, a sibling, or an ex-girlfriend or boyfriend.
- Write “10 Things I’ve Been Meaning To Tell You” to a current or former teacher, a coach, or even the younger or older generation.
- Write “10 Things I’ve Been Meaning To Tell You” to their freshmen self or to themself in 10 years.
- They could write “10 Things” to our entire society or to a certain person in power.
Before students write, examining the purpose, audience, style, and tone of this article is meaningful. You can lead students to examine style and tone by looking at specific word choices.
The purpose and audience may seem immediately obvious, but it’s still worth discussing and nailing down the reasons behind what your students think is the purpose and audience.
Here’s a PDF of this article: Ten Things I've Been Meaning to Say to You (weebly.com)
We Can’t Only Celebrate Black Voices In February
As Chimamanda Adichie so powerfully states in her Ted Talk, “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” We must work hard to bring lots and lots of stories into our ELA classrooms from Black authors who are old, young, new, classic, wealthy, impoverished, from urban areas, from rural areas, writers of prose, and poets. In this way we can hope to honor Black history month, celebrate many Black voices, and work toward understanding, appreciation, and justice.