So often, elementary students study the same well-known figures during Black History Month: Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks. While these are certainly people students need to know about in order to understand United States history, there are other important figures from every state and region. Consider seeking names of influential Black historical figures in your community and local region and think of ways to highlight them in your classroom activities. The following ideas are some ways I implement place-based learning during Black History Month.
Finding local historical figures
Take time to find names of figures of importance, which may entail more than a simple Google search. Ask staff in your school building or district about notable alumni, for example. Communicate with local historians or others familiar with the area (for instance, the local librarian or elders in the community) to recommend figures they find to be important to the local history.
Contact faculty of a nearby college or university who may have some ideas of local influential people to highlight; Black studies and education departments may be a place to start, as they may already have lessons and unit plans. University museums are also a good option, as they can have community outreach programs and staff knowledgeable about local history.
These sources may also know of others who might be able to contribute to your lesson either by sending realia to share with the class for a show-and-tell or doing a Q&A.
Invite local guests to come to class, either virtually or in person, to share their knowledge about local Black history and/or a particular figure they choose. They can show photos and objects to bring the topic closer to home.
Also ask local professionals—artists, musicians, business leaders, etc.—to visit your class to talk about their family history or their perspective of the importance of Black History Month.
If a chosen figure or their relative or representative isn’t available to visit your class, have students write a letter to them to express what they’ve learned about the person and how it applies to their own life. Another option is a virtual speaker visit, which allows for the conveniences of hosting multiple guests throughout the unit.
Field trips (in person and virtual)
If there’s a local historical society, museum, or home of a famous figure in your town, arrange to visit that place, or if it’s not available to visit, inquire about virtual opportunities for students to view the building. It may be possible for a docent or director to video call with the class and walk around the house with their device to give a simple tour.
One example of an underrepresented historical figure is the Harlem Renaissance artist Augusta Savage (1892–1962), whose home is listed on the New York State and National Registers of Historic Places. Located in the bucolic Hudson Valley town of Saugerties, New York, the Augusta Savage House and Studio represents a vital physical link to the remarkable work and legacy of a renowned figure, who was a teacher and poet, as well as artist, and spent her later years living in this lovely small town and engaging with many neighbors and friends in the community. While the home, which is situated in a secluded wood, is not easily accessible, it has been featured on local tours and through online classes. Sharing this distinctly important historical site is both important and meaningful to many students.
Another idea is to visit a local cemetery that may have gravestones of noteworthy figures. I’ve also brought students to a nearby plot of land marked as a place of historical significance that’s known to have unmarked graves.
You might contact a local college about campus visits related to Black History Month. A state school in my area (State University of New York, New Paltz) has a high-quality art museum with an education outreach program for K–12 students. They offer public student groups free transportation to their campus (they reimburse the entire fee for a round-trip bus ride) along with a customized lesson and tour based on the interest and needs of the class. This may be rare, but it’s worth researching these possible opportunities.
Lessons, activities, and projects
Have students do individual or group projects about local figures, researching one person they’ve chosen. Some ideas include making an illustrated book with highlights from the figure’s life; pretending to be the character and writing a journal to describe parts of their life in the first person; creating a collage on a poster board with printed images of the figure and handwritten captions.
Have students use creative ways to present what they’ve learned about this person. Most of the information will probably be from an internet search using allowed websites, easy readers that a librarian may provide for the class to do their grade-appropriate research, and material collected by the teacher from local resources (local historian, newspapers, library history room).
Students can present their project using a visual PowerPoint, a poster, a short essay, a visual timeline, etc. They can also collaborate on a bulletin board or any creative project to share with the school community. For example, a written summary for the school newspaper, the district website, or a newsletter.
Brainstorm reasons why this local figure is important in the context of history. What impact did they make on the lives of future Americans? Why are they a role model or an inspiration?
Bridge across content areas
If possible, find ways of connecting the figure or figures across curricula. For math class, for example, students could conduct a survey to see who in their school building, family, or friend group has heard of the figure that the class is studying or who can name three facts about that person or how many facts they can name. Students could then make a bar graph or a pie chart to illustrate the amount of knowledge that people have about the person.
In English language arts, students could write about the person, including creative writing and poetry. They could produce a short dialogue or skit to reenact an experience the character may have had.
For art, students could make illustrations of the figure or create a vignette of their environment.
Put students’ work on display in hallways, and consider giving students an opportunity to share their creative work at a Board of Education meeting.
Using the local community can result in meaningful connections to Black history and inspire a deeper appreciation outside of the month of February.