How I Updated my Unit on African American Literature and History

I was lucky to inherit a pretty good 8th grade language arts unit on African American history and literature when I started my current teaching job. I was glad to see that I would be able to dedicate a good chunk of our time on such an important issue, and that we had class sets of books about the Black experience by Black authors. The original curriculum had students reading “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” by Frederick Douglass, and “March: Book 1” by John Lewis. I was looking forward to exploring these texts and developing the curriculum a little bit each year as I learned more.


However, like many Americans, the death of George Floyd and subsequent racial awareness and awakening in our country made me realize how urgent the topic was, and the outpouring of advice and ideas helped me to understand where I could do better, and update my curriculum.

It’s important to note that I am a White teacher teaching a predominately White class. Considering this lens, one of my favorite resources for helping to frame how to look at my curriculum was, “Why White Students Need Multicultural and Social Justice Education” by Sheldon Eakins.


I want to emphasize that this unit is far from perfect, and I plan to continually update it as I learn more. I am hoping what I have learned over the years, and this past year in particular, might help others make some changes to their own curriculum. If you have suggestions or feedback for me, I am always willing to listen and learn. Please use the “Contact” section of my website.


Set Clear Ground Rules and Establish Vocabulary


Before we did a single activity, I turned off the chat box (I was teaching this unit in the Fall of 2020), and let my students know that we were about to embark on a very rich, interesting, and serious unit to learn about the history of African Americans, and emphasized the importance of their maturity in this conversation as this history is often violent and upsetting.


Although students get to have a lot of say in how we norm our class, for this unit I gave very clear and explicit ground rules that I reviewed at the start of each lesson.


Be empathetic

“Remember this is a historical unit and all the people we discuss were and are real human beings just like us, with families, and favorite foods, and hopes and dreams...

Accept emotional supports “Reach out to me, our counselor, or your parents when you are experiencing difficult emotions related to this topic…

Have academic conversations “We are not going to get into political debates, but rather have fact-based discussions….

No harmful words “Although in our texts we will see African Americans referred to with terms like “negro,” “colored,” and the “n-word,” these are harmful words and we will use the terms “African American” or “Black” in our discussions.

At this point I also like to show this video by Hank Green where he discussed the reason why we might censor “violent language” like the “n-word*.”


*When I was in school, I remember a lot of teachers gave students the option to say the "n-word" if reading allowed a text where it appeared. I think this was to try to honor the original text/time period that it was written. I’ve done a lot of research on this and ultimately feel like my top priority is to create a safe space in my classroom, and eliminating violent language from our class discussions is part of that.


I also introduce a couple of other key vocabulary words that we will be using throughout the unit, including:

-Racism

-Anti-racism

-Ally

Finally, we establish a goal of using the texts in our unit to become empathetic ant-racists and allies.


Start Before Slavery

This next piece is based on a quote I read by Kerry Washington where she explains the importance of starting Black history before slavery. She says, “I think it’s really important that we start to introduce the idea of race with a Black history that begins before teaching kids about what Black people were told they couldn’t do.” She goes on to talk about how important it is to humanize Black people before discussing all the ways in which their human rights were restricted.


In my classroom, I did this in two ways. First, we read a short Anansi story and discussed its history and origins in West Africa. We also used this story to practice annotating and summarizing (skills we would use when we began reading).


Then, one of the first activities in the unit was to explore African history and achievements. Groups were given one of the following topics (suggested by Washington in the same interview), and asked to do research and create a Google Slide to share with the class about their key findings.


Topics:

Maasai Warriors

Kingdoms of Ghana

Queen Nefertiti

Pyramids of Egypt

History of Mathematics


I also read the book “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You” by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Renyolds (which is fantastic! I can’t recommend it more highly as a class text or supplementary text, depending on the age of your students and the flexibility in your curriculum. This text would be ideal for a high school hishligh - combination history and English - class).


Although I would like to incorporate more of this text into the curriculum, this year I used it to highlight some key points before we began:


  1. What we know about human migration, suggests that all human life began in Africa.

  2. There is no scientific basis for race. Based on our DNA, all humans are the same. A White person might have more similar DNA to a Black person than to another white person and vice versa. We are all made of the same stuff.

  3. However, the enslavement of Black people led to enormous financial gains for White people, so White people needed to justify enslaving others.

  4. The idea that Black people were “animalistic” and “inferior” was designed and perpetuated to justify enslavement, despite the fact that there is no scientific evidence to support it.

  5. Religion was also used to justify slavery, that Black people needed to by “saved” by White Christians.


Diving into the Texts


With all the historical context given, we then jump into our texts:

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass

The Life of Frederick Douglass: A Graphic Narrative of a Slave's Journey from Bondage to Freedom by David F Walker

March: Book One by John Lewis


In between reading Frederick Douglass and March, I give a short lesson on the period of time between Slavery and the Civil Rights era, but I really need more time and another text to span this wide gap.


Each text has a corresponding vocabulary list that students use prior to reading to learn and practice using the words they will see appear in the text.


There is a suggested reading schedule for students to follow to stay on track, but I am pretty loose about when they complete their reading, as long as it is done by the due date.


For whole-class novels I follow a lot of the practices suggested by Ariel Sacks, in her book Whole Class Novels, including:

  1. Literal, Inferential, and Critical annotations Students must annotate each chapter they read and include a letter (L, I, or C) representing what type of thought they are expressing.

  2. Round Robins at the start of each class Sometimes I ask students to (unmute their microphones) tell the class about one of their thoughts or annotations, and sometimes I use Jamboard and ask each student to type one of their annotations on a sticky note for the rest of the class to see.

  3. Creative or reflective writing assignments to correspond with the reading. These are typically short writing prompts they complete in their Writer’s Notebook that relate to the previous day’s reading assignment.

Socratic Seminars and Selma


Once we finish reading, annotating, and discussing our texts we have an all-class, student-led Socratic Seminar discussion (to facilitate this online, I use a tool called Parlay) and then we watch the movie Selma by Ava DuVernay.


In researching the movie I have read some criticism about the historical accuracy and even portrayal of some of the characters, but what I like about it is it is directed by a Black woman, and many of the scenes in Selma are also depicted in our text March. Plus, it is age appropriate and my students always love it and get incredibly emotionally invested in the film.


Although I’d like to come up with something a little more creative for the future, currently I have them fill out a reading guide (that I found online and adapted) during or after we finish watching.


Legacy Project


Next, we conduct a research project on the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights era. I emphasize to my students, that despite the happy Hollywood ending to “Selma”, the African American struggle did not end in the 1960s and is still very much alive today.


Throughout our unit some of the key words we’ve used in discussion are “freedom” and “equality.” I ask students to choose one of the following topics and research the question: “Have African American achieved equality in _____ today?”

  • education

  • housing

  • wealth

  • policing

  • incarceration

Through this project, students conduct research, write a claim, then use facts they’ve collected to support their claim in a final project (essay, video, or infographic).


As we share our findings, we have a conversation about what we can do to increase equality in our country and change the legacy of our history. I like to ask students to reflect in a Flipgrid video discussion.


Black Excellence


I wanted to end our unit on a high note, so the very last thing we do is celebrate Black excellence.


Despite all the incredible inequities, Black Americans have still been able to achieve incredible things. Similar to the activity that we started the unit with (on African history) I allow students to explore a website called Black Excellence, choose a person to learn about, and then share their key findings with the rest of the class at the end of the lesson.


I also love to show this Academy Award winning short film, Hair Love by Matthew Cherry.

As you can see, this is a very extensive unit and took us about six weeks to complete, and even that felt rushed. I will continue to update this blog post as I learn more and update my curriculum.


Fight on/teach on,


Emma