As a former elementary school teacher and long-time parent volunteer in the classroom, I have been privileged to be part of some very unique and heartwarming Black History Month events. These are not financially burdensome, and are worth the effort to give a different aspect to honoring African American leaders and heroes in the classroom. Some may be modified for older or younger groups, as most of these themes and ideas have worked very well in elementary school classrooms.
1. A favorite program is entitled “Art Through the Ages”, during which parent volunteers research and ‘present’ outstanding pieces of arts – literally through the ages – in the classroom, serving as both ‘teacher’ and interpreter of the artwork. Each year, our school district made a special presentation of “Art Through the Ages” during February, Black History Month, in which we focused on African and African-American painters, sculptors and photographers. Gather a group of willing parents – at least six for the averaged sized American classrom – and ask that they group together to select and research African and African American artists. Each parent volunteer would be responsible for at least four but no more than six artists. Parents then are scheduled to visit each classroom during a set day for an hour and a half presentation.
The parent volunteers will bring with them reproductions or photographs of the artwork to be discussed. These may be shown in the front of the classroom, and hopefully circulated throughout the classroom for each child to view. The volunteers then make a brief report on each piece of artwork that they present: its history, the artist, the artist’s background and schooling, the time during which the work was produced, and what external factors possibly or did influence the artist in his work. Ideally, the children should be drawn into the presentation by asking them questions as to what they themselves think of the work, what ideas or images it conjures up for them, and what significance that they think the work has in history.
The parent volunteers should also distribute, at the end of their presentation, a brief typed report of their presentation and the art work discussed and displayed for the children to take home with them. The report should also further draw the children into the continuation of the presentation by asking them to write out how they might have painted, photographed or sculpted the work, and why. Another question would be to ask the students which piece of art was most important to them, and why. These ‘reports’ should not necessarily be considered as homework, but rather a written reminder to the students of what they saw and discussed, and hopefully intrigue them to research out the artist(s) in question further themselves.
2. We have been fortunate enough to hire some fantastic African American performance artists over the years. Again, this does not necessarily have to be a costly proposition. Check around or Google in your local area for African American story tellers or dance groups. Check with your local dance troupes, local community theater groups, local community colleges, etc. for suggestions and ideas on hiring someone at a relatively inexpensive cost to bring African American performing arts to life on a stage or in a gym for the students. Dance troupes or story tellers who present an interactive program for the children are highly desirable in bringing the African culture to life.
3. Host a ‘dinner party’ in your classroom! Break your class into groups of four to six students each; assign each student a prominent African American or African leader, performer, artist, designer, playwright, etc. over a four-schoolday session. You can host one (or two, depending on the number of students in your classroom) per day; have the students dress in character if they can, or even provide them with “Hello! My name is _____” labels to wear. Surround a front desk or table by four to six chairs; the students in each group sit at the table (which can be set with bottled water, cheese chunks, grapes, crackers, or other nonperishable finger foods) and discuss with their fellow group members who they represent, what contributions they made, when they lived, where they are from.
You can also introduce a quick study on ‘dinner party manners’ and the art of communicating at a ‘party’ with the class beforehand. If things stall or tend to drag, this is where the teacher steps in and guides the dinner guests along. Make it as much of a mixed bag of African and/or African American leaders as you can, just as you would invite a diverse group to a dinner party held in your home! It would be fantastic if parent volunteers could prepare food that is specific to the characters at each dinner party; ask for volunteers and suggestions as to what foods they would like to bring into the classroom for each group’s ‘party’.
4. Check with your local community college or community theater group to see if they have scheduled any special performances for Black History Month. If money allows, take the classes to see a live performance (negotiate for group rate prices!)
5. Since Valentine’s Day is also during the month of February, assign your students a “I (insert large heart here) ___” as their special “Valentine” for the day. Each student selects an African or African American citizeen as the individual they most admire. Have the children write an essay or composition (short or several paragraphs) on a large red paper heart as to why they selected that person. Ask the children to either find a picture of that person or draw a picture of that person on the heart as well. This is a fun activity that is usually held before or after February 14th, so that the honored “Valentines” will not be lost in the excitement of Valentine’s Day itself, a problem with younger children. Help them learn that their special citizen is worthy of a separate “Valentine’s Day” just for them!
6. Check with your local public library to see what activities they may have planned for Black History Month; if permitted, take one or several classrooms to that program (which is usually free and consists of a story and a craft in most instances). While you’re at the library, check out their ‘suggested viewings’ for Black History Month for tapes or DVD’s that can be played in the classroom as well.
7. Of course, you’ll have at least one wall in your classroom filled with photographs and pictures of prominent African Americans. Each day, have the children pick out one of these leaders for a classroom discussion: who they are, what they did, where they lived/live, what their contributions are/were.
8. Always remember that there African American heroes and leaders need not be just politicians or authors! Have your class research a living African American citizen of prominence (Spike Lee, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Donovan McNabb, Halle Berry, Morgan Freeman, the list goes on and on). Have a ‘birthday’ party celebration for these living African American heroes, with their photographs displayed and each child assigned research on what makes their assigned person so very special.
9. Consider having your students research great African American playwrights and their works. Select a portion of one paricular play (one that the students can select by voting on it), and have students read selected portions from this play each day, continuing throughout the month. This works better for older students,especially if they can read/hear a part of the play every day, and follow the story line along until its end.
10. Ask your students to research a famous (or not so famous) African American humanitarian. Let the children, in groups, present their choice for favorite, and why they selected him/her. You can hold one or more sessions on favorite humanitarian a day; at the start of the program, ask that the children consider donating (pennies, nickels, dimes, whatever) to the charity of the best-presented African American humanitarian.
Perhaps you’ll think of other ideas to introduce and honor Black History Month from those ideas above; again, they can all be modified to classroom size and age group. Whatever your class budget – time and/or money – the truly important thing is to honor African Americans and African citizens for their contributions to mankind, both now and in the past.