Social Studies

How These Teachers Build Curriculum ‘Beyond Black History’

By Sarah D. Sparks — April 15, 2024 4 min read
Photograph of Dawn Brooks-DeCosta at Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School in the Bronx.
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A pilot to infuse Black history and culture in social studies curriculum is gaining ground in the nation’s largest school district, offering a potential model to overcome widespread political debates over how to teach race in public schools.

In a symposium on the project at the American Educational Research Association’s annual conference last week, M.C. Brown II, the executive director at the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, called New York City’s $3.25 million Black studies curriculum “a nationally historic moment.”

The curriculum “acknowledges the history and the contributions of Black Americans predating slavery, which is where much of American social studies begins,” Brown said, “and provides a paradigm for professional learning that can support effective implementation, not just in New York City, but around the world.”

The project comes amid vicious political fights over critical race theory, which holds that race is a social construct, and racism can be embedded in policies and laws (such as enrollment policies that tend to segregate schools), not just personal prejudice. The legal concept is separate from but often conflated with culturally responsive teaching, which holds that students learn more effectively when teachers use their customs, experiences, and identities as tools in the classroom.

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The New York curriculum, developed in collaboration between local educators and the Black Education Research Center at Columbia University Teachers College, includes pre-K-12 lessons aligned with the state’s language arts and social studies standards, designed to be used throughout the year. If it proves successful in an ongoing evaluation, the collaborative plans to roll it out to more schools in New York and other states.

Dawn Brooks DeCosta, the deputy superintendent of the 6,500-student Harlem Community School District 5, said its 23 schools piloted units of the curriculum this year across different grades.

Harlem District 5 recruited elementary and secondary teachers with backgrounds and interests in Black studies. They met biweekly with researchers from the Black Education Research Center at neighboring Teachers College, Columbia University to design curricular standards and units, as well as professional development needed for teachers.

“As teachers were contributing and helping to refine and design the lesson, … they didn’t understand what it means to co-design,” said Rodney Hopson, acting education co-dean and professor at American University, who is leading an evaluation of the curriculum. “It wasn’t just like, ‘Here’s a [curriculum] package, run with it,’ ... we were actually trying to collaboratively build this thing together.”

For example, Samantha Chung, a Teachers College doctoral researcher, helped design a unit for 5th grade in which students read and listen to Black poets and discuss the literary form’s use in advocacy.

“Black studies started out with a pedagogical mission, not just content,” said Joyce King, the chair for Urban Teaching, Learning and Leadership and an education policy professor at Georgia State University, during the discussion at AERA. “… That includes inspiring people to learn deeply and critically about the African diaspora histories and contemporary social formation, to recognize and affirm our peoplehood—that we are a people across many different cultures.”

In New York, that’s particularly important, according to Linda Tillman, chairman of BERC’s advisory board. Tillman said teachers and researchers worked to incorporate Dominican, Puerto Rican, and other Black students’ cultures into the curriculum “to combat misconceptions about the history of African Americans and Black people throughout the global diaspora.”

For example, in one of the earliest units, kindergarten students explore the meanings and origins of their names, and talk about the importance of pronouncing names correctly. Studies find name mispronunciations are often one of the earliest and most common alienating experiences, particularly for children of color.

Beyond ‘Critical Race Theory’ debates

The curriculum offers a holistic way for teachers to discuss the role of culture and race in American and world history at a time when many educators face restrictions on how they can approach the subject. As of 2023, at least 18 states have passed bans or limits on how teachers can discuss race or gender in class, and the research firm RAND Corp. found half of K-12 teachers nationwide said they face state and/or local restrictions on teaching about race.

Yet in a nationally representative survey this fall, more than 8 in 10 registered voters told the Black Education Research Center that public school students should learn both about the history of racism and slavery in the United States and how it affects students and communities today.

“Students should gain skills in biology and chemistry, physics, business, et cetera, and then use their Black studies knowledge, the curriculum, to gain an understanding of the significance of a role of those subject areas in the development of the Black community,” said Kofi Lomotey, the chancellor and professor of educational leadership at Western Carolina University.

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