Cultivating Curiosity in the Classroom

When she was six-years-old, we took our daughter to Point Reyes, CA. Here is an excerpt from a poem I wrote about exploring tide pools along the shore.

She uses the base of my tripod to test for magnetic fields along the beach. With delight, she suspends purple particles above the shore, pretending to be an astronaut testing gravity on the moon.

At six-years-old she is curious about all the mysteries of the universe simultaneously: Want to hear something interesting? Ladybugs have four stages in their life cycle. When they are born they don’t look like ladybugs, they’re larva. Tell me about larva. Without taking a breath, she continues, Did you know giraffes have purple tongues?

How many galaxies do you think we’ll discover in my lifetime?  Mama, is it unusual to find whole sand dollars? Before I can respond to any of this, she beams and places a perfect sand dollar in my palm. I look up with surprise, she is already racing down the shore.

I share this story to illustrate a common truth: children love to wonder. They are constantly asking creative questions and imagining new possibilities. Children also need to wonder. Actually, we all do. How can we encourage young people to keep their sense of wonder as they move into middle school, high school, and then adulthood?

Skills You Can Cultivate

As the Director of Academic Affairs for a global school district, I visit with a lot of teachers and school leaders (both domestically and internationally). In these visits, educators share that they know critical thinking, problem-solving, reflection and leadership matter; however, they aren’t always sure how to cultivate those skills. In fact, sometimes they are not sure these are skills you can cultivate. They are and like most worthwhile skills, developing them requires intentionally and practice.

The educators I meet with are reading in the Common Core standards and the Next Generation Science standards. They see the call to encourage problem-solving and making interdisciplinary connections. They tell me these are good ideas and also that they feel pressure to implement them. However, they aren’t sure what that looks like in the classroom.  These teachers aren’t alone in their confusion.

Make no mistake, the teachers I meet with are among the most compassionate, creative, and driven educators I’ve ever known. They care deeply. They prepare. They have strategies to differentiate in reading, writing, and math. They also have resources, training, and curricula that help them in these subject areas. We don’t give teachers the same resources when it comes to the more ambiguous and just as essential skills of wonder, curiosity, and imagination.

A Familiar Best Practice

This is a gap we need to fill in our curricular cannon. In the meantime, I recommend we start with a familiar best practice—meeting students where they are. Encourage your students to ask big questions. Use these questions as a springboard to inquiry. When a six-year-old shares that she wants to know more about larva, launch a science investigation. When she asks a tricky question about galaxies, take the question to her peers, and work together to unpeel the layers and chase down answers.

Wonder (as both noun and verb) is an interdisciplinary framework that we can use to wed critical thinking with agency. Encourage the young people in your classrooms to imagine and to act on the questions and observations that lead us to both purpose and possibility. Don’t do this when you have time, once everything else has been finished after the standardized tests have been sent off. Instead, start here and then bring these student-centered inquiries back to your math texts, your science texts, your language arts texts.

Measure What Matters

Can we measure the outcome of this practice on standardized tests? Sure. Maybe. Is this the right question to ask? What about, can we measure the outcome of this practice on child development? Or can we measure the outcome of this practice on community engagement? Absolutely.

Our world needs thinkers and dreamers such as these. Best of all, they’re already there in our early elementary classrooms. For those of you working with young children, nurture their curiosity, encourage their imagination, invite wonder into your classroom. For those of you working with older children, remind them of the wonder they felt before we taught them there was one right answer or algorithm or rubric.  Ask them what they would want to learn if they could learn anything. Ask them what questions keep them up at night. Ask them what they think the most pressing issues are facing our world and how they would solve them. Meet these older students where they are, too. Connect their questions to the peer communities, work together to unpeel the layers of their inquiries, plan action projects and experiments to make learning meaningful.

Create space for students to play with possibility and chase down answers. Perhaps in doing so, we can cultivate continued curiosity about all the mysteries of the universe.

Encouragingly, Dr. KFW

Community-Based Teacher Education

How to Support Pre-Service Teachers with Projects Outside the College Classroom

There are 50+ future teachers in my Tuesday/Thursday university class. In the semester we spend together, I try to help these future teachers ready themselves for the arduous privilege of serving young people.

On the first day of class, we lay out dual purposes for our time together. First, we tell these bright-eyed sophomores, that our course lays a foundation for understanding the structure, history, and issues surrounding schools and teaching. Second, and this is where the course gets real, we tell everyone that we will investigate the complicated and challenging nature of what it means to teach in a diverse world.

By this point, I am so excited for another semester learning with future teachers that my enthusiasm startles everyone from my partner teacher to the scholars scattered across the lecture hall. I go off script, laying the groundwork for what it means to be a culturally responsive teacher. I announce that while our syllabus is dense, it can be summarized with two main ideas: relationships and representation.

I close that first day with a thought experiment asking everyone to remember the teacher who made the most difference for them. We share stories that are often emotional about educators who saw us, believed in us, made us feel included and valued as both learners and human beings.

It all comes back to relationships and representation.

The cornerstone project for the class asks everyone to closely examine their biases, connect with cultural gatekeepers in our local community, and to enter new spaces to learn with groups they haven’t engaged with previously. Sometimes this looks like students attending a Friday service at our Jewish Center on campus, coaching basketball with the Special Olympics, attending a parent group for rainbow families, meeting with a high school GSA (gay-straight-alliance), serving children food at an afterschool program for under-resourced youth, etc.

This is delicate work. How do we prepare 50+ future teachers to enter these spaces and to engage in these conversations in ways that honor reciprocity, build bridges, and humanize everyone involved? This is the central teaching question of the class.  We do a lot of pre-work. We all attend Safe Space training with the LGBTQ Center. I bring in countless guest lecturers and panelists who engage us with story, research, and conversation about the dangers of deficit thinking, the power of high-expectations, and the realities of racism. I connect them with my friends who run non-profits in the community, sponsor student groups, and teach religious studies classes at the high school.

And then at a certain point, we have to set the pre-service teachers out on their own learning paths. While I hope they are ready, I also know some mistakes will be made. Someone will use incorrect pronouns, enter the mosque through the wrong entrance, or forget what I’ve taught them about people first language. We talk about how to recover, how to apologize immediately, and then try again the right way. What a great lesson to learn on your path to becoming an inclusive teacher.

Ground Rules for Community-Based Teacher Education Projects

As we think together about how to learn beyond our Tuesday/Thursday lecture hall, I offer my class the following guidance:

  • Space is often scared. Marginalized people do not always have the same access to safe spaces. When you enter these new spaces, remember you are a guest.
  • Relationships matter. All learning happens through connection.
  • Center reciprocity.  Seek ways to give as much (or more) than you receive. Express gratitude. Find ways to be helpful in the moment and beyond.  
  • Seek to understand more than be understood. We are engaging in this work to listen more than to be heard.
  • Stretch outside your cultural comfort zone. You neither learn nor grow when you play it super safe. We have to risk being uncomfortable to improve. This is true in everything from math to teaching.
  • Leverage and extend your current experiences. Many of you are participating in service learning, field experiences, or other projects in the College of Education. View those experiences from the perspective of our class to find additional opportunities to extend your learning. Can you give a lesson? Host a family night? Attend home visits? Set-up an event?
  • Engage in courageous conversations. With hope, along your journey you will meet many educators who you might not have realized were teaching you. Remember, wisdom is ubiquitous. You can learn important lessons from everyone you meet. Listen to young children. Listen to support staff.  Listen to those who are hurting or whom you might have ignored.
  • Serve at an organization. Engage in this work because you want to make a difference. Teachers are powerful change agents. You don’t have to wait to start serving others and you will never learn more about relationships and representation than you do when you learn through service.
  • Attend events.  We are part of a vibrant campus community where there are constantly meaningful events happening. When you attend one of these events, be fully present. Arrive on time. Stay the whole time. Put your phone away. Look for ways to be helpful and engaged.
  • Read constantly.  Literature, story, and dialogue are great places to begin this work. Read stories and research by people in the communities you want to learn more about. As you read these works: make connections, ask questions, and consider your takeaways as both human beings and teachers.
  • Consider additional communities where you already have rapport. You belong to many communities already. Perhaps you play a sport, attend a house of worship, or belong to Greek Life. Think about how you can leverage the communities to which you already belong to meet new people, serve, and build bridges.
  • Learning is a journey. You won’t complete that journey in our 16 weeks together or even before you graduate. With hope, we are always journeying, always learning new ways to make connections, to be of service, to be more effective teachers and human beings.  I don’t expect you to have this all figured out by the end of the semester; instead, my dream is that you will have made some progress and put together some plans to keep making progress.
  • Remember, you represent our university, the College of Education, our class, and the teaching profession. When we go into new communities, we bring our communities with us. Make us proud.

Yes, there is a lot of ground we can cover inside the four walls of our lecture class, particularly when we enhance that space with our own lived experiences, decades of research, and the power of the internet. However, there is also a lot we simply cannot cover within the four walls of our classroom.

If we want to prepare teachers to teach in diverse communities, we simply have to spend time in diverse communities.

I am grateful for all of the organizations, houses of worship, classrooms, and after-school programs that have invited my college students in. I know the lessons these future teachers have learned in these spaces will help them build bridges in their own classrooms. The old adage is right, it really does take a community to raise a teacher.

Encouragingly yours, Dr. KFW

Each semester, the college students I learn with, inspire me, challenge me, and give me hope for our future classrooms.

Women’s History Month: A Classroom Guide

Girls and women make up 51% of the global population. Yet women’s stories, accomplishments, and experiences are too often left out of the curriculum. Women’s History Month is an important opportunity to engage in dialogues about equity, representation, and inclusion. The following resource is part of our series on culturally responsive teaching and includes activities and ideas for celebrating women’s history month in the middle and high school classroom. For some more history on Women’s History Month, see this student-friendly article published by Time magazine.

The theme of this year’s  (2019) National Women’s History Project is Visionary Women: Champions of Peace and Nonviolence. As you and your students read stories, create art, watch videos, and complete projects, try to tie those activities back to this theme.

Guiding Questions 

  • What can we learn from the visionary women of today and yesterday?
  • How have women changed the course of history through the use of peace and nonviolence?
  • How can we all be champions of peace and nonviolence?


Ask your students to respond to the following questions:

  • What do you think it means to be a visionary?
  • What are some examples of visionary women from history or your own life?
  • Why is it important for women to champion peace and nonviolence?
  • How can we be visionaries who champion peace and nonviolence?

These questions are a springboard for exploring how women have used peace and nonviolence to instigate radical, visionary change. The National Women’s History Alliance notes that “the drive for nonviolent change has been championed by visionary women. These women consciously built supportive, nonviolent alternatives and loving communities as well as advocating change. They have given voice to the unrepresented and hope to victims of violence and those who dream of a peaceful world.” You can find more information about this year’s National Women’s History Project theme on the NWHA website.

In talking about visionary women, women’s history, activism, and non-violence your classes will certainly explore feminism. Students (and adults) often carry a lot of assumptions and misinformation about feminism.  The following chart might give your students some common language around feminism.

The following two videos by Chimamanda Adichie and Emma Watson will further help dispel these myths and explain why feminism is important for everybody.
Watch these videos with your students:

  • Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian activist and author, gave this widely-watched TED talk called We Should All Be Feminists.  She later published a book with under the same title. Both the talk and the book can be excellent stage-setting pieces for your class.
  • Emma Watson gave this speech at the United Nations launching the “HeforShe” campaign. In this speech Watson discusses the way our gender stereotypes limit us.
    • You can also print out a copy of the transcript for your students to follow along.

Discussion questions:

  • What surprised you about these speeches?
  • How do these speakers define feminism?
  • How is their definition similar or different from what you thought feminism meant?
  • Which examples do you think are the most important or powerful in their speeches?
  • What evidence can you see of persistence in these speeches?


  • #MeToo Movement: Tarana Burke, a social activist, was the first person to use this hashtag on social media in order to call attention to the issue of assault and harassment against women. In 2017–2018, it gained viral global attention and has now been used by hundreds of thousands of people. Many famous people in the media, including actresses and singers, have shared their own stories using this hashtag. Writers in the #MeToo movement want to let victims know that they are not alone. This hashtag has also been translated into many languages, encouraging people all over the world to share their stories and put an end to violence against women. The #MeToo movement is a powerful example of the global impact of a peaceful and nonviolent protest.
    • Hold a socratic seminar around the #metoomovement where students discuss their impressions of the movement, how social media can be used as a political tool to bring about change in a peaceful and nonviolent way, and their proposed call to action to make their local communities safer for women and girls.
  • Diversity in the United States House of Representatives: The 2018 midterm election in the United States was a pivotal moment for women in politics. In the House of Representatives, 102 women were elected to office. Significantly, two of these women are Native American, two are Muslim, and two were 29-years-old when elected, making them the youngest women elected to Congress.
    • Discuss with students what challenges these women might face in office (gender discrimination, scheduling/childcare challenges, gendered dress-code discrepancies). Also discuss what issues might be a priority for these newly-elected women (gun control laws, family leave, racial injustice, immigration, education, LGBTQ issues, domestic violence, etc.). Ask students what types of changes these visionary women might make to promote peace and nonviolence.
    • Policy Outline – Recognizing the potential of the most diverse House of Representatives in history, have students write a policy outline that they think could get passed around peace and nonviolence.  As an extension opportunity, students can send their policy outlines to local or national legislators.
    • Rutgers: Teach a Girl to Lead offers additional reading, articles, books, and questions to extend your class discussion about women in politics.
  • Using Nonviolence to Instigate Social Change: Watch Jamila Raquib’s TED Talk, “The Secret to Effective Nonviolent Resistance.” In this talk, Jamila Raquib gives an example of how twelve ordinary citizens used Facebook to help spark a nationwide movement that led to the resignation of the members of Guatemala’s corrupt government. Note: This talk offers complex and critical thinking about how to organize non-violent resistance that is a better fit for high school learners. Please do preview this talk ahead of time as the speaker refers to a mature euphemism used in this nonviolent campaign and you will be the best judge of whether or not this is appropriate in your class.

Carol Gilligan’s Theory of Moral Development:  Educational psychologists often talk about two domains: a cognitive domain (thinking) and an affective domain (feeling). Much of the early work on affective development was conducted by men. Since the 1980s, several women scholars have criticized the linear and hierarchical models for understanding feeling, emotions, and the moral choices we make. Two people who were at the center of this first debate were Carol Gilligan and Lawrence Kohlberg.

Carol Gilligan worked as a research assistant for Lawrence Kohlberg. While both scholars worked on affective development, Gilligan criticized Kohlberg’s insistence that advanced moral development was always characterized by rationality in predictable patterns. Instead, she suggests that there is “a different voice” to our moral/emotional development. This voice includes historical context and relationships. Gilligan published her critique of Kohlberg, In a Different Voice (1982) to much acclaim. This work opened up new conversations about psychological and moral development.

  • Join the dialogue around affective development. Below are some of the questions Carol Gilligan wrestled with. Invite students to explore these as well.
    • How do your relationships with others impact the decisions you make, particularly moral or ethical decisions?
    • How does historical context impact emotional development and decision-making process?
    • In what ways does care and compassion encourage people to make different choices? How does the absence of care and compassion impact our choices?
    • Is it ever possible to develop a completely predictable algorithm for emotional development? Why or why not?


  • Hold a science panel “inviting” women scientists who have changed the world. Assign students to work alone or in small groups to research famous women scientists. Some names to get you started include:  
  • Case Study on Temple Grandin: Watch Dr. Grandin’s TED talk, “The world needs all kinds of minds.” Dr. Grandin is a scientist who was recently inducted into the Academy of Arts of Sciences for her work in the humane livestock handling industry. As a person on the autism spectrum, she has used her ability to think differently to make a huge difference in the treatment of animals. If students are interested in learning more about Dr. Grandin’s work, there is also a semi-autobiographical HBO film about her called Temple Grandin.
    • Discussion questions:
      • What surprised you in this talk?
      • How is Dr. Grandin a visionary woman?
      • What does Dr. Grandin’s story and work teach us about inclusion and representation?

Social Sciences

  • Suffrage:  Watch this video about the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the United States. One striking quote from this video is the statement, “Courage in women is often mistaken for insanity.” Discuss with students how this false idea affected the women fighting for women’s right to vote in the video. Bring this question up again after the students complete their oral history project. Also remind students that women were not permitted to vote in the United States until 1920 and discuss how recent that is within a larger historical framework.
    • Assign students to work alone or in small groups to create a 3- minute oral history on a key figure in the suffrage or the ERA movement. Students may either report on that person or write a script and present as if they were that person.
      • Suffrage Movement
        • Sojourner Truth
        • Susan B. Anthony
        • Elizabeth Cady Stanton
        • Julia Ward Howe
        • Lottie Rollin
        • Lucy Stone
        • Lucy Burns
        • Dora Lewis
        • Alice Paul
      • ERA Movement
        • Alice Paul
        • Shirley Chisholm
        • Martha Griffiths
        • Betty Frieden
        • Kate Millett
  • Equal Rights Amendment: While women now have the right to vote, they are still not guaranteed equal rights under the Constitution. The Equal Rights Amendment, which states, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex,” passed in Congress but still needs the vote of one more state to become the 27th Amendment to the Constitution. This video explains the ERA and why women need its protection.
  • First Ladies for Social Justice: Although the role of the FLOTUS (First Lady of the United States) has never been officially defined, many women have used the position to make a difference on issues that matter to them. Divide students into three groups (or more) to research the initiatives of different first ladies. If you break the class into three groups we recommend having students research  Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford, and Michelle Obama. Students should address these questions:
    • How was this first lady a visionary woman?
    • What were her passions and interests?
    • What initiatives did she start and lead?
    • How did she use her position to make a positive difference for others?

First Ladies for Social Justice: Although the role of the FLOTUS (First Lady of the United States) has never been officially defined, many women have used the position to make a difference on issues that matter to them. Divide students into three groups (or more) to research the initiatives of different first ladies. If you break the class into three groups we recommend having students research  Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford, and Michelle Obama. Students should address these questions:

  • How was this first lady a visionary woman?
  • What were her passions and interests?
  • What initiatives did she start and lead?
  • How did she use her position to make a positive difference for others?

Encourage students to pay particular attention to social activism, women’s rights,
health, and poverty. Have each group present their research to the rest of the class. After the presentations, facilitate a dialogue on the role of the FLOTUS and how students see that role changing in future administrations.

  • Intersectionality: Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to explain how our multiple identities (e.g. race, class, gender, ethnicity, etc.) intersect to create complex and compounding experiences in social space. For example, what it means to be a Black woman in America is different from what it means to be a Black man in America or a Latina woman in America. Ask students to make identity maps exploring their various personal identities.
  • Proposals: Challenge to write proposals for which woman who should be featured on the new $20 bill.  
  • Explore mental health: Charlotte Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”: Encourage students to research treatment options for mental health, particularly for women, around the time this story was published (1892).
    • Extension opportunity: Students can also compare and contrast mental health treatment and/or stigma from the 19th century to today.


  • Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden: Visit this page on that discusses Katherine Johnson’s contribution to NASA’s Apollo 11 mission to the moon. There is also an interview with Christine Darden, who worked as an aerospace engineer at NASA for 40 years. After reading about and discussing these women’s invaluable work, students can calculate a diagram of Apollo 11’s flight plan.
    • Just in time for Women’s History Month (2019) NASA Independent Verification and Validation Facility in Fairmont, West Virginia, has a new name. It’s now the Katherine Johnson Independent Verification and Validation Facility. You can read the official article here.
    • You can find additional curriculum resources on the NASA website:
  • Organize a Women in Math Event: In 2018, Brigham Young University came under scrutiny after their advertisement poster for an event on Women in Math featured only men.
    • Imagine that your class is hosting a Women in Math event (that features women mathematicians). Divide students into groups and assign them (or have them choose) a woman whom they would like to research. Have students create their own Women in Math poster with their featured mathematician. Students’ posters should include biographical information, contributions to mathematics, and any obstacles the mathematician had to overcome in order to persist in her professional path. Students can then present their poster to the class at your women in math event. Possible women mathematicians include:
      • Hypatia
      • Sophie Germain
      • Mary Somerville
      • Ada Lovelace
      • Sofia Kovalevskaya
      • Florence Nightingale
      • Emmy Noether
      • Dorothy Johnson Vaughan
      • Marjorie Lee Browne
      • Katherine Johnson
      • Svetlana Jitomirskaya
      • Maryam Mirzakhani

Language Arts

  • Literature Studies – Study the works of Lydia Maria Child, Dorothy Day, Dorothy Thompson, Susan B. Anthony
  • Host a socratic seminar on Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers.” Use this opportunity to stretch your students’ thinking on the connection between the story and this month’s theme.  This may take some support on your part.
  • Read “Making Peace” by Denise Levertov and create a class poem: Read this beautiful poem and analyze with students this poem’s message about peace. Discuss how writers, poets, and artists can help create a world of peace and nonviolence. Create a class poem by asking each student to complete the sentence “Peace is __________.” After students have written their line of the poem, have them stand in a circle around the classroom and go around the room reading their line of the poem. Consider creating a poster of the class poem and hanging it up in your classroom.
  • Organize a Women’s History Month Book Club:
    Possible titles include:
  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
    Discussion Guide:
  • I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
  • We Are Displaced: My Journey and Stories from Refugee Girls Around the World by Malala Yousafzai
  • Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose
  • Girls Resist!: A Guide to Activism, Leadership, and Starting a Revolution
  • by Kaelyn Rich
  • Create a spoken-word poem. Watch this spoken-word poem for peace. Assign students to write their own spoken-word poem about peace and nonviolence. Organize a poetry slam where students can perform their poems.
  • Study the works of women poets including Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou, Rupi Kaur, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Gwendolyn Brooks, Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, Mary Oliver, and Audre Lorde.  Analyze these poets’ work for our themes of persistence, personal storytelling, mental health, and representation.
    • Extension opportunity: Have students memorize or create a reader’s theater on their favorite poem from this study to perform at a class celebration. For inspiration watch Sarah Kay’s performance of “If I should have a daughter.
  • Additional resource: The podcast Text Messages: Recommendations for Adolescent Readers has an episode on feminist books for teens.


  • Women Artists/Photographers – Read article, “Middle Eastern Artists & the Quest to Build Peace” and watch the video on an art exhibition by women from 12 Middle Eastern Countries called, I Am: Contemporary Women Artists and the Quest to Build Peace. Article: Video:
    One purpose of this exhibition was to “to build understanding and peace among the cultures of the Middle East and the West through visual art” and to “dispel stereotypes about Eastern women” while highlighting “the strength and creativity of these women and the contributions Middle Eastern women artists are making to the global culture” (Close). The video notes that, “We all live in a world where there are certain narratives imposed upon us. … We all look through a filtered lens, and that is not of our own creation. It’s made for us – with the media, with the world, with history, with whatever it is. I think that if it’s left to us without all the noise that we would see that we are more similar than not.” These women artists are visionaries who are championing peace between cultures with their art. How can we do the same?
    • Using whatever medium they choose (paint, colored pencils, charcoal, collage, etc.), have students create a piece of art that communicates a message of peace between two groups of people who are often seen as more different than similar.
  • Collage – Provide students with magazines that they can go through to cut out words and pictures to create a collage that celebrates peace and nonviolence. Collages should include images, text, and a call to action.
  • Artist Study – Violet Oakley described herself as a “pilgrim seeking peace.”

Watch this video about the beautifully striking murals she created and her artistic vision for peace. Create a class mural that depicts your students’ visions of peace.

Additional Resources:

  • The National Education Association (NEA) offers resources and lesson plans for Grades 9-12 and 6-8.
  • The National Women’s History Museum has an extensive library of resources for students and teachers, including biographies, lesson plans, posters, and electronic field trips.
  • The website Science NetLinks contains lesson plans that study the achievements of women in STEM fields.

Co-Authored by Jill Clingan and Kathryn Fishman-Weaver

Celebrating Black History Month in the High School and Middle School Classroom

“What are we doing for Black History Month?”

One of our classroom partners asked us this question and it is an important one. While Culturally Responsive Teachers honor and affirm their students’ cultures every day; there is a long social justice tradition of intentionally making space and time to celebrate and affirm specific marginalized populations.

For more information about the historical origins of Black History Month check out this student-friendly article.

In our own classrooms, we have found that Black History Month is a rich opportunity to foster dialogues about representation, justice, and equity. Further there are so many interdisciplinary connections to draw on.

So, what are we doing for Black History Month?

Below are a few activities and resources we encourage you to use to celebrate Black History Month in the High School and Middle School classroom. Feel free to add more ideas to the comments below.

Language Arts and Social Studies

  • Professional Meet and Greet. “Invite” famous African Americans to a professional meet-and-greet. Prepare a list of invitees and ask students to draw one of these names, conduct independent research, create a business card on their person, and then introduce themselves as that person at your professional meet-and-greet.
    • Here is an incomplete list of people you might include: Benjamin Banneker, Phillis Wheatley, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Satchel Paige, Thurgood Marshall, Jesse Owens, Rosa Parks, Ruby Bridges, Jackie Robinson, James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Tina Turner, Maulana Karenga, Mae Jemison, Muhammad Ali, Angela Davis, Zora Neale Hurston, Condoleezza Rice, Oprah Winfrey, and Barack Obama.
  • Compare and Contrast the messages and theories of W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington. You can even host a mock debate between these two famous thinkers. Include plenty of time to debrief how context may have contributed to their philosophies.
  • Literature Studies. Here is an incomplete list of writers you might include in your literature studies for Black History Month: Phillis Wheatley, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Arna Bontemps, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Lorraine Hansberry, Richard Wright,  Alex Haley, Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Mari Evans, Nikki Giovanni, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sonia Sanchez, Ralph Ellison, Angela Davis, and Zora Neale Hurston.
  • Record a Reader’s Theater on Angelou’s, “On the Pulse of this Morning.”
  • Hold a Socratic Seminar around Dr. King’s Blueprint.

Science and Mathematics

  • Host a Hidden Figures watch party and discussion.
    • Journey’s in Film has created a free curriculum around this film, which illuminated the contributions of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, along with many other men and women who worked behind the scenes to advance the US space program.
  • Organize a mock science fair: Have each student present on the works of an African-American scientist or inventor. Here’s another short (and incomplete) list of potential people to get you started: Washington Carver, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Thomas L. Jennings, Mark E. Dean, Madam C. J. Walker, Dr. Shirley Jackson, Charles Richard Drew, Marie Van Brittan Brown, George Carruthers, Dr. Patricia Bath, Jan Ernst Matzeliger, Alexander Miles.

Music and Arts

  • Organize a research concert
    • Working in pairs, ask students to research an important song from the list below (or one that you provide) and then present their findings along with the song to the rest of the class.  Below are some possible songs and artists for your research concert:
      • Formative songs/performers of jazz, blues, and rock-and-roll include:
        • “Maple Leaf Rag” by Scott Joplin
        • “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday
        • “Take the ‘A’ Train” by Duke Ellington
        • “Hound Dog” by Big Mama Thornton (and by Elvis Presley)
        • “How High the Moon” by Ella Fitzgerald
        • “Hello Dolly” by Louis Armstrong
        • “Respect” by Aretha Franklin
        • “I Got You (I Feel Good)” by James Brown
        • “I Got a Woman” by Ray Charles
        • “The Christmas Song” by Nat King Cole
        • “The Star-Spangled Banner,” performed by Jimi Hendrix
        • “How Blue Can You Get” by B.B. King
        • “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis
        • “What’s Going On?” by Marvin Gaye
      • Other important musicians include:  Thelonious Monk, Cab Calloway, Josephine Baker (dancer), Fats Waller, Berry Gordy (producer), Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, The Temptations, Lionel Richie, The Jackson Five, The Commodores, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Stevie Wonder, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker
      • The National Library of Congress is a great resource for Spirituals and Gospel songs from the African American tradition:
      • Extension Options:
        • Research the traditional blues song template; challenge students to write their own blues song lyrics.
        • Challenge students to identify common themes across the songs at your research concert. Why might these themes have emerged across this work?

An Interdisciplinary Harlem Renaissance Project

  • In small groups, assign students different facets of the society and culture of the Harlem Renaissance.  In teams, students can prepare a 5-8-minute presentation based on their topic. The presentation should include a demonstration of the topic (i.e. actual food, recorded music, artwork, etc.)  Students will need a few days to research and prepare their demonstration.
    • Optional Extension: Ask students to individually prepare an analysis of their particular cultural facet, analyzing the characteristics and impact(s).
  • Potential topics include:
    • Food – Research popular dishes of the time and place.  What is involved in the making of the dish?  What is the recipe?  What is the reason it’s a popular dish?  What is its significance?  Was it new to the time period, a rendition, or an old favorite?  Does it represent something (Hint:  perhaps watch clips from the movie “Soul Food” for some ideas.)
    • Music – Research the musical trends at the time, particularly focusing on the jazz movements, including ragtime, hot fives, and sevens, Tin Pan Alley.  What does it mean?  What are its influences and its current offshoots?  Who are the popular musicians of the time?  Why?  Where is the music happening?
    • Dance – What are the popular forms of dance at the time?  Are they new?  If so, how were they invented?  What are the dance clubs at the time, and what are they like?  Who are the popular dance performers at the time?
    • Art – What sculpture, drawing or painting techniques are most often used?  What are some new techniques being tried out?  What are some of the famous works of the time?  What are the themes?  Who are the popular artists?  Why?
    • Theatre – Who are the stage actors that are making it big?  What plays are being produced/written?  What are they about?  Who are the big directors?  What theaters (buildings) are famous and why?
    • Cinema – Who are the screen actors that begin to make it big?  What movies are being produced/written?  What are they about?  Who are the big directors?  How does cinema play a part?
    • History – What are some of the famous speeches being made?  Who are the leaders of the movement politically?  Of the country?  What’s going on in the world during this time period?  What is the social status and overall feeling?  What are the warring groups of the time, and what are their main issues?
    • Literature – What types of literature are being written, and by whom?  What major themes are being discussed?  Compare and contrast the literature being produced by writers in the Harlem Renaissance and the popular mainstream literature of the time.

Want more ideas?

  • The National Education Association has a list of Black History Month lesson plans and activities for high school and middle school.
  • Teaching Tolerance also has a catalog of free resources for Black History Month. You can find them here.
  • Additional artists you might study:  Archibald J. Motley, Jacob Lawrence, William H. Johnson, Palmer Hayden, Lois Mailou Jones, Aaron Douglas, Gwendolyn Bennett, and Augusta Savage

How do you celebrate Black History Month in your classes? We’d love to hear about it! Leave a comment below.


This post is co-authored by Kathryn Fishman-Weaver and Brian Stuhlman