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Wisconsin Teacher of the Year Aims to Tell the Whole Story about Black History Month

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

I decided years ago that I wouldn’t celebrate Black History Month. Instead, I started telling American history through the lens of African American history all year long. This transformation is a story about equity and the role we all need to play in righting the wrongs of history by including all voices in our curriculum.

I believe every child deserves to see themselves reflected in America’s story. Headlines tell us we can’t wait to include the stories of people of color. According to the PBS Newshour, “The U.S. Census Bureau projects that, by the middle of 2020, nonwhites will account for the majority of the nation’s 74 million children.”

The road to telling those stories in my history curriculum has been an adventure. It all began by asking a question and not giving up on finding answers. Inquiry is the foundation of all learning. Of course, I brought my students along on the journey as I struggled to answer the question, “Why does our textbook drop the story of African American history after Reconstruction and not really talk about African Americans again until the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s?”

The seeds of stories of resilience, tragedy, and triumph were buried deep, and as I unearthed the names of people who overcame obstacles during 80 years of lost history, I wove their stories into the curriculum.

For example, in 2012 I first discovered an article about freedom colonies built after the Civil War. I used the article to help students empathize with the emotions of the freedpeople. Once we put ourselves in their shoes, we asked what we might do when facing the endless opportunities that freedom offered. We put a human face on Reconstruction.

I revisit the freedom colony story every year and it’s exciting to see an increasing amount of grassroots work happening across the country to unearth Black history stories, preserve them, and share them with future generations.

Here in Wisconsin, grassroots work is breathing new life into America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee. Connecting with the griots at the museum and participating in round table discussions at “Let’s Face It: How Communities Can Remember and Repair Racial Trauma,” offered opportunities for my understanding to grow.

This year the ABHM will reopen their galleries to tell the story of African American struggle and triumph and carry that story beyond 2020. The museum will be a rich resource for generations of students and training for educators will help us all make history more inclusive.

This month is a starting point for all of us. If you don’t know much about Black history, this month is a time to learn beyond the heroism of Rosa Parks to small acts of courage throughout American history.

When the calendar turns to March 1, we must continue to demand inclusive history so all children see themselves reflected in America’s story. We want all kids to be inspired to be the change they want to see in the world.

Subscriber Submission: Wisconsin’s National Teacher of the Year Representative, Erin McCarthy, social studies teacher, Greendale Middle School