Black History Month and PBL: Ideas for Educators

About George Cassutto

George Cassutto is an award-winning, 34-year social studies teacher in northern Virginia. In the 1990s, he helped bring the Internet to schools in Maryland. Since then, he has been webmaster at Cyberlearning-world.com. The child of Nazi Holocaust survivors, their experiences are told on his website. Cassutto believes in "living the lesson plan." As building representative for his school with the local union and NEA, he has been politically active since 2012. Cassutto has three grown children whom he raised as a single dad. When not teaching or writing, he enjoys photography, basketball, and Ultimate Frisbee. He also has a cat named George Jr.

As we enter February, 2018, schools across America will engage in activities celebrating Black History Month in the United States.  There is a strong current in secondary education today where the goal is to move classroom activities away from teacher-centered activities toward “project-based learning” or PBL. This trend has specific criteria that ensure rigorous learning takes place in the classroom largely directed by students’ own decision-making. Project-based learning requires that learning touch on the basic elements of the curriculum while offering a challenging issue or problem that students must consider.  Projects that augment traditional lecture-discussion must qualify as “authentic,” which means students must be engaged in real-world, realistic problem-solving that relates to their lives. Moreover, students must have some “voice and choice” in the development and execution of the project, and they must have an opportunity to reflect on their own learning and the final product, which should be shared with an audience outside of their own classroom. For more on Project Based Learning, visit the Buck Institute for Learning’s website on PBL at https://www.bie.org/about/what_pbl.

This month, teachers across the curriculum must consider how to incorporate concepts and issues dealing with African-American History into the structure of their own curriculum. Elementary level teachers will be looking at ways to introduce figures as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks into their social studies lessons, while secondary level teachers in History, Government, Civics, and Language Arts will want to lead students into a deeper appreciation of the role of African-Americans in the weaving of the American tapestry while facing such difficult issues as slavery, prejudice, stereotyping, segregation, and discrimination.

Teachers across the curriculum must consider how to incorporate concepts and issues dealing with African-American History into the structure of their own curriculum Click To Tweet

When teachers design instructional units on Black History, they can structure their lessons on basic building blocks of knowledge that they provide, and then they can have their students conduct independent research with the goal in mind of sharing some sort of product with the class, the school, and the greater educational community. The Internet allows for such global communication of student achievement, though reaching a wider audience is not limited to the online world. Community centers, plays, posters, lawmakers, and broadcast media are also option for sharing student work.

Projects on black history can be wide ranging or specific. In fact, the lessons of Black History should be applied to creating understanding within the broad expanse of ethnic, cultural, and minority groups within American society, so students should be encouraged to research the struggle for equality among women, Native Americans, immigrant groups and (for some communities, higher grades can explore the struggle for equal rights among the LGBTQ community, though this topic is still taboo in some school systems). What might these projects look like? Some ideas to consider:

The Life and Work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Students should be given a chance to read, hear, and discuss the iconic “I Have Dream Speech” of 1963, but they should be allowed to conduct deeper research into its vocabulary, meaning and historical context. There are many concepts and passages in the speech we rarely hear in the mainstream educational media.  Dr. King wrote:

I have a dream today.  I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists,  with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and
nullification; that one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black
girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. 

How many students can relate this passage to the racist policies and actions of Governor George Wallace, who eventually reconciled with the Black community, or do they understand King’s reference to the Nullification Crisis of the 1830s, where states acted to nullify federal laws? King’s speech is replete with these types of historical, biblical, and literary references. Students should be encouraged to explore and discuss them in their own interpretation of what might be one of the greatest speeches ever given. In the debriefing of this project, all students should be asked, “Is Dr. King’s dream still alive? What must be done to help America to make his dream come true?” Students should also be exposed to the many other writings and speeches of Dr. King such as the “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” and “the Drum Major Instinct.” Dr. King’s birthday is now seen as an opportunity to conduct some form of community service. Students may want to develop a community service project as an outgrowth of their study of Dr. King’s life and work in the classroom.

Other Ideas for Black History Month Projects

The Civil Rights Movement, and the struggle for equality for the African-American community is America is rich in multi-media that can be located on-line and incorporated into student projects. Students can exercise their own “voice and choice” by selecting topic and modality in which they wish to operate as long as a clear set of criteria is provided to them in the form of a checklist or rubric. Students can choose among the following project formats:

  • Photo Essay
  • Interview with Witness
  • Podcast of discussion, interview, or reading
  • Sketch timeline
  • Movie Review
  • Formal essay
  • Trivia Game or Quiz
  • Creation of their own on-line Newspaper
  • Original Poetry With illustrations
  • Rap song, poem, or play
  • Maps of Historical Events with analysis
  • Letter to lawmaker on a current issue
  • Review of web links
  • Biographical sketch
  • Fictional short story
  • On-line Debate
  • Documentary or video
  • Virtual Field Trip to African American Museum of History and Culture (https://nmaahc.si.edu/) or the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (https://www.ushmm.org/) or any other museum that deals with relevant topics.
  • Power Point presentation

The aggregate product of these projects can be collected into one website as shared with the online community or physically displayed within the greater community at large. Students should be encouraged to respond to the public through social media, panel discussions, or public fora (foums) where they are considered the experts on their topic. Projects can also be shared with the public in the form of a student fair or public display in public libraries, school lobbies, or community centers.

For an example of the online version of a collection of Black History projects that spans three years, visit the author’s website at http://www.cyberlearning-world.com/nhhs/project/civrts.htm

Black History Month offers teachers of all levels and of many curricular areas an opportunity to explore the rich diversity of America while facing the challenging aspects of our collective history. As educators, we have an opportunity to teach students how to develop a hypothesis, conduct research, present their findings, and support their thesis while meeting the students where they are in their interests and their own story in the context of our nation’s history. Students are also offered a chance to study the causes of hatred, prejudice, and discrimination in American society with the intention of resolving conflicts and increasing understanding between ethnic groups through greater understanding. Project-based Learning and Black History Month are made for each other, and when these two educations current meet in the classroom, students grow as consumers of historical content, and members of the multicultural American landscape, and as human beings.

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About the Author:

George Cassutto is an award-winning, 34-year social studies teacher in northern Virginia. In the 1990s, he helped bring the Internet to schools in Maryland. Since then, he has been webmaster at Cyberlearning-world.com. The child of Nazi Holocaust survivors, their experiences are told on his website. Cassutto believes in "living the lesson plan." As building representative for his school with the local union and NEA, he has been politically active since 2012. Cassutto has three grown children whom he raised as a single dad. When not teaching or writing, he enjoys photography, basketball, and Ultimate Frisbee. He also has a cat named George Jr.

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