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: https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200197495/
      • 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

Community Engagement at Christmas

In a school gymnasium in São Paulo, I find myself in the middle of a capoeira circle twisting into unique inversions. Capoeira is a popular Brazilian form of dance fighting with roots in Africa. My teacher is eight-years-old, bright-eyed, and clearly has bones made of rubber.  I always learn something new when I visit schools and Colégio Magno, a private school in the middle of the city, is home to all matter of creative classes. Today isn’t an ordinary day at Colégio Magno though. If fact my friend Luiza who coordinates the High School and Middle School programs has invited our team to join them for a special community engagement project.

An enthusiastic group of children are pining for sausage and boiled egg.  Their middle school “pizza tutors” look at me and laugh as children crawl over my lap to get to the cheese and other toppings. A tiny boy of maybe four, tugs my arm and asks “Posso comer um ovo?” (May I eat some egg?) Having no authority in this space, I tell him, “Sure!” Within two minutes all of the egg in the bowl has evaporated. As a foster-adoptive mother and as a former inner-city school teacher, I know about working with hungry kids.

Children’s Rights are Human Rights

Globally over 900 million people experience food insecurity. A majority of these people are children. For the 154 children visiting today from Reviver Recica, security, food or otherwise, has often been tumultuous.  Colégio Magno has had a long standing partnership with Reviver Recica, an NGO that started in 2005. Their website says, “Com muito amor e dedicação, proporcionamos às crianças da comunidade a oportunidade de um futuro longe das drogas e do crime. Fazemos transformações na vida desses futuros adultos através do processo de aprendizado…”(“With much love and dedication, we provide children of our community with future opportunities away from drugs and crime. We are transforming these futures through a process of learning.”) Some of the children at Reviver Recica are orphans, some are homeless, some have families that can’t provide care right now, or can’t provide care before or after school.

Her name is E—–. Just like my daughter she wears bright-colored glasses and has the kind of hair that won’t stay in a ponytail. Also like my daughter she asks a million questions and is seven-years-old.  The families at Colégio Magno have collected and stuffed backpacks full of gifts for each child from Reviver Recica. E—– asks me to open her backpack with her. The enthusiasm and joy on her face is unforgettable. Almost all the children receive new shoes (which they put on immediately), art/school supplies, and a toy. E—– and I organize all of her new markers, crayons and paints no less than 7 times. We trade glasses for a few moments, laughing as she models my huge reflective sunglasses and I her tiny bright red frames. She grabs my phone and asks me to take the photo reposted here with permission.

Big Ideas and Bigger Hearts

Reviver Recica was founded and continues to be run by Vanessa, a woman with a great idea and an even bigger heart. I had the joy of meeting her at this special event.

And although I know this, I am struck again by the power of hope, love, and creativity. These forces can truly change the world for others.

Reviver Recica does not receive any government funding and is completely run by volunteers and donations. Their goal is to transform the local community through love. They currently serve 250 children ages 1-14. In talking about the organization, a teacher tells me, “Oftentimes children just show up.” All the children receive three meals a day, plus a snack. They also receive homework help and additional lessons in art, culture, sports, literacy, languages, music, dance, capoeira, and theater. There is no cost to the children or their families. Most importantly these children are loved with a kind of love that says I see you, I want to keep you safe, and believe you can have a different future.

A Kind of Noel

The word noel comes from the Latin natalis meaning “relating to birth.” It has obvious connections to Christmas in the Christian tradition and is now most frequently used simply to refer to a Christmas carol. During the event, we sit in a classroom with children and adults singing the Hallelujah chorus. One child plays the violin and another a half-sized cello. Our voices join in an awkward beauty that makes me pause and appreciate the fact that I am experiencing something so true and special with others.

I think today was a kind of noel for all of us. On the drive back we share personal stories. Each of us has our own story to tell from the day: stories of the children we met, our own connections to poverty, or caring for those in crisis. We brainstorm how we can support and stay connected with Reviver Recica, we feel grateful for Vanessa and the volunteers, and we appreciate the ongoing relationship that Colégio Magno has with this organization. Their relationship is built on reciprocity; students and staff from Colégio Magno visit the children at Reviver Recica and the children from Reviver Recica also come to Colégio Magno for events like the Christmas party today.

Standing with Love

Can the world be transformed through partnerships such as these? While I consider this question, I think of E—–‘s enthusiasm, the middle school students’ laughter, the strength of community, the beauty of voices raised in song, the invitation to blur boundaries across socio-economic status and circumstance, and of course the power of love.

This holiday season and always, may we all look for ways to stand with love and action on the side of children.

With hope, Dr. KFW

If you are interested in donating to Reviver Recica, please follow this link to their organization.

The School Leadership Compass

Recently our school launched a new middle school leadership program. This meant we had to reflect on (1) what leadership is and (2) what values we want to nurture in our student leaders. Because great leadership requires the same skill set at all levels in school organization, thinking through how to teach leadership taught me some important lessons about how I want to practice leadership.

Leaders manage deadlines, problem-solve, and work collaboratively with teams of people, some of whom “push their buttons.” Given these demands, how can we make sure our leadership decisions are serving our school community?

The Leadership Compass

We need a well-calibrated leadership compass to point us in the right direction. Electronic compasses are calibrated using location data. This means we have to know where we are to make sense of where we are going. The same is true in leadership. What maps and data do we use to determine where we are?  And how do we chart our progress on going to where we want to go?

What do you base your leadership decisions on? Do you use test data, budget reality, or educational legislation? While standardized scores, funding, and state and federal mandates certainly matter in schools, they shouldn’t be the drivers of our decision-making. What if there was another way to calibrate your leadership compass, one that led to stronger communities, more creative solutions and didn’t compromise on achievement? What if the secret to success in our quantitative measures comes from first valuing qualitative factors?

Before we had digital compasses, our compasses were calibrated by the earth’s magnetic field. I think of this as our steady core values.

Calibrating Your Leadership Compass

A mentor once told me “There are two ways to lead. You can lead with fear or you can lead with love. Both work in the short-term, but only love works long-term.” While I recognized the wisdom in this idea, it wasn’t until I became a principal that I truly understood what she meant.

In thinking about how to calibrate your school leadership compass, love is a good place to start. From there, we can use our core values to give us more specific direction.

The following reflective questions can help us identify those values.

  • What qualities do you want to foster in your school or classroom?
  • What are your long-term goals as a school or class?
  • What are your school or class community’s greatest strengths?
  • What are the most important messages you want to communicate?

Your answers to these questions set your priorities. You can use them to choose the path that honors those qualities you want to foster, that helps your school continue in the direction of your goals, that plays to your communities’ strengths, and that communicates the values you hold. When faced with a tough decision, the leadership compass has yet to let me down. In fact, this model has positively altered how I think about student support, teacher autonomy, student-led initiatives, and second chances.

This all sounds pretty soft

I’ve been thinking about the theoretical tension between soft and hard approaches to leadership. The connotation seems to be that soft is calibrated with a concern for feelings, hard is calibrated with a concern for results, and these two are mutually exclusive. I disagree.  Leaders can be concerned with both feelings and achievement. It comes back to what we value and how we set our priorities.

By using the leadership compass, do I sometimes lean further to the side of generosity, connection, and community? Enthusiastically! Yet because I am basing my decisions on clear values I feel confident in most of the decisions I make. And typically our results bear this out. Our students are engaged in service, learning, and creating amazing work; our teachers are engaged in instruction, learning, and creative support models. Together, we are all rethinking leadership from a values-based approach.

To finish the metaphor, we are finding our way through a complex forest of demands, enthusiastically geocaching toward stronger and more effective learning communities.


Encouragingly, Dr. KFW

Wired for Inclusion

Lessons from our early-elementary classrooms

I recently spent a morning working with and learning from first, second, and third graders at my daughter’s elementary school. As a high school and middle school principal, it’s been awhile since I’ve asked someone to sit criss cross applesauce or posed a question and watched as every hand in the room shot up. There’s nothing quite like that enthusiasm.

I also believe that young children are wired for inclusion. Throughout my career in education, I have been constantly inspired by the ways young children are quick to make friends with peers who are different from them.

This doesn’t mean they don’t see differences, it just means that these differences seldom impact who they choose to color with, kick the ball with, or build a huge tower out of multicolored blocks with. It also doesn’t impact who they choose to give a hug to or receive a hug from.

I have been thinking a lot about inclusion, elementary education, and the lessons we
can learn from neurodiverse student populations. My first teaching position was in an
early elementary classroom for students with disabilities. This position taught me
everything I know about teaching. When we launched our program, I was teaching in
what is called a “self-contained” classroom. The idea was that all of my students’
learning would “be contained” inside this classroom.

I had other ideas.

Learning should never be contained to the four walls of a classroom. I also didn’t want
our class to be isolated from the broader school community. Therefore, I sought out
every opportunity possible to make sure my students were included with their peers in
the general education first-grade program and that those first graders were reciprocallyincluded in our classroom.

Thanks to some critical colleagues who partnered with me on this endeavor, we
adopted new collaborative approaches to managing our class rosters. We said yes to
huge integrated projects like painting a mural or recording a CD together, and we took
numerous field trips to learn outside of the classroom. These experiences made us
better educators, and with hope, they made us better human beings too.

Do you want to learn more about inclusion? Spend time with a diverse group of young
children, preferably during free play or art.

Will young children ask questions about why their friends are different? Of course.
They ask questions about everything. Maybe they haven’t yet had a friend with
physical disabilities or a friend who uses assistive technology. However, their curiosity
is usually satiated with a simple, straightforward answer. This helps me talk; these help
me walk; this helps my weaker eye grow stronger. A few words saying this is who I am
and what I need is usually all it takes for children to get back to the important business
of playing, learning, and making friends.

That we could we all be so wise.

With hope, Dr. KFW