Opinion
Social Studies Opinion

A Recipe for Young Historians of Black History

Creating a Black history club calls for five simple ingredients
By Dawnavyn James — February 24, 2021 3 min read
Black kids ride a hot air balloon while looking through telescopes and examining Black history

In every classroom I’ve taught in, I have created space to engage children in the histories of Black people. But I found myself still looking for more communities and outlets for this celebration and research over the years. To solve the problem, I created a Black history club. I wanted to share what I know about the accomplishments, beauty, struggles, successes, determination, activism, fight, injustices, and persistence of Black people with elementary-age students who will go on to share it with others.

The kids meet every Thursday to talk about Black histories they’ve found and want to explore. That’s all they do. For an hour every week, they discuss everything from defining what Black history is to wondering who the Black Panthers are to learning about the origins of hip-hop.

This didn’t happen overnight or after one meeting. It has taken time and space to create opportunities for them to be who they say they are: young historians.

The recipe for creating a young historian is pretty simple. It takes just five ingredients—resources, time, opportunities, space, and students—and a bit of preparation. But it’s one of those recipes that you’ll want to write down on an index card and save.

There are a number of different resources out there for both you and your students. When gathering materials to share with them, remember the importance of exploring those materials yourself before handing them off to your students. In order for you to teach, you must know.

I have a “toolbox” of resources that includes children’s literature, photographs, websites, and songs. This is how I would encourage you to think about each one of these tools:

Select children’s literature that promotes critical thinking and accurate information about the person or event your young historians have chosen to study.

Share photographs, especially photographs in color, to help your students relate to the historical moment. Children often see “history” in black and white and dismiss it as something that happened a very long time ago.

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Image of Carter G. Woodson
AP Photo and Getty

When choosing websites for your students to use in their research, or for your own research, make sure they are credible. Explaining how you chose the websites to your students provides a great opportunity to model for them how to examine and gather accurate, fact-based information.
Songs can be another great resource as well as an opportunity to teach students how to analyze the lyrics to get a sense of what the songwriter is after. When we learned about Negro spirituals during one of our Black History Club meetings, we analyzed Louis Armstrong’s recording of “Go Down Moses.” My students knew from previous research that Harriet Tubman was called “Moses,” so we were able to use that information to decipher the code within the song.

Our next ingredient is time—you’ll need a lot of time. Not only do young historians need time to research, but you, as the teacher, need time to plan. Our Black History Club meets Thursday evenings, and I teach kindergarten Monday through Friday, so I use my weekend mornings to plan. With planning comes research. I explore websites, look through children’s books, listen to music, watch videos, connect with experts, and decide how I am going to teach what I want my young historians to know. Just like you’ll need time to plan, your students will also need time to do the work.

When it comes to creating opportunities for students to be young historians, be creative. Give them the same opportunities that a historian would have to gather or share information. For example, after learning about the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Okla., through the lens of the residents who lived there, the young historians created a newspaper to share what they had learned about “Black Wall Street.” As we get deeper into the 20th century, the Young Historians will have the opportunity to do another deep dive into history by conducting their own investigation of the Black Panther Party.

With these learning opportunities, you are creating an important space for your historians. You are providing an outlet, a community, and the time for these young people can flourish as historians. They will collaborate and feel empowered to question what you or others say. They will support each other during a trivia game or debate the decisions of students during a sit-in. This space that you’re helping them create won’t be for you, it’ll be for them.

Your final and most important ingredient is your students. Listen to them; they have a lot to say. Learn from them; they will guide your teaching. Lead them to the truth; they will share it with others.

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