Closer Readings Commentary

Black History Month and the Common Core

This week, in honor of Black History Month, we offer several suggestions for teachers looking to incorporate the best open-source—i.e., free—digital humanities resources on African American history and literature into their classrooms while meeting the demands of the Common Core English Language Arts Standards.

The Big Picture

A major goal for many teachers is integrating African American literature and history across the curriculum and throughout the year. However, finding the time to pull together the best resources to do this is not easy.

According to Achieve the Core, the Common Core’s English Language Arts Standards will shift the learning emphasis to frequent student engagement with reading complex informational texts and their academic vocabulary. What this means in practice is supplementing the textbook(s) with an array of digital books, articles, and websites.

Here are some suggestions from EDSITEment that will help you solve the complex text and vocabulary challenge:

  • Invite David Walker, Henry “Box” Brown, Harriet Jacobs and six other African American entrepreneurs who lived during the era of slavery into your classroom with Crafting Freedom, which provides easy-to-use lesson plans, videos, PDF slide shows, teachers’ tools, and student handouts;
  • Play Flight to Freedom, an immersive video game about Lucy, a 14-year-old slave in Kentucky, and her journey on the Underground Railroad. Assess students’ historical understanding with the Think Fast about the Past! app;
  • Bring Frederick Douglass and the other abolitionists into class with short videos from the recent PBS film. Follow up with either our unit on Douglass's 1845 autobiography or our interactive version of his greatest speech, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?"
  • Have students carefully observe and analyze Augustus Saint-Gaudens monumental Shaw Memorial as a prelude to discussing the impact that African American soldiers, particularly of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, had on the Civil War;
  • Have students explore segregation from the end of the Civil War to the dawn of the modern civil rights movement with a lesson on the controversial film Birth of a Nation and the protests organized against it by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People;
  • Focus on the NAACP’s lobbying efforts on behalf of anti-lynching legislation in the 1920s and 1930s;
  • Use the poetry of Langston Hughes to examine the concept of “voice” in poetry. Through journal entries, class discussion, analysis, and expository and creative writing, students can explore what qualities have made Hughes’s work a favorite of so many people;
  • Introduce students to the protest music of the civil rights era as a lead-in to a lesson on how Freedom Riders used songs as a motivational force in their struggle for equal rights.

And don’t forget: EDSITEment’s Guide to Black History Month Teaching Resources, a comprehensive collection of NEH-supported and vetted websites and EDSITEment-developed lessons arranged roughly by historical period. These resources bridge the gap between the expanding academic scholarship of the black experience and the need for this history to be more widely taught at the K–12 level.

Help build your students’ historical knowledge of the African American quest for full and equal citizenship by giving them regular practice with these complex primary and secondary sources, and two of the fundamental learning shifts called for by the Common Core English Language Arts Standards can be met.