As a kid, my friends and I believed that the designation Black History Month in February was due to a racist conspiracy because it was the shortest month of the year.
Thankfully, I learned as an adult that Dr. Carter G. Woodson chose to designate Negro History Week as the week of Frederick Douglass’ and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays because of the role these men play in the liberation journey of Black people.
For Woodson, Black history was as much about the retelling of American history in a culturally informed way as about revisiting the past and present accomplishments of Black peoples throughout the US and the African diaspora. Those lessons carry forward into the classroom.
Critical race theory (CRT) is the debate du jour in America, and current efforts are underway in several states to pass bills that ban CRT from school curriculum. Many of these bills restrict lessons on Black history, but some of the bans extend to a broader set of concepts related to racial diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Studies show that teaching Black history in its proper context is beneficial, if not essential, to the success of Black children in school. According to sociologists Brian Wright and Sheretta Butler-Barnes, et al., Black kids excel inside and outside the classroom when they develop a positive view of their own racial-ethnic identity.
Rather than wade into the muddy waters of CRT, however, educators might consider pivoting toward another acronym to address the history of race in America: CRP. That is, culturally relevant or responsive pedagogy, which seeks to connect past sins with present problems to craft future solutions.
According to American pedagogical theorist Gloria Ladson-Billings, CRP rests on three propositions: student learning; student awareness of their own culture, history, and experiences (as well as that of at least one other); and student sociopolitical consciousness, or awareness of how their knowledge applies to real-world problems and the solving of those problems.
CRP is about empowering students to frame for themselves how they can use what they learn to confront injustice in the world and defeat it.
What does CRP look like for Christian teachers in particular? To learn how to treat Black history as American history and to teach it with accuracy and integrity, we need not look any further than the pedagogical example found in the person of Jesus Christ.
The Bible portrays Jesus as a master teacher, dating back to the age of 12 years old when he held court at the synagogue (Luke 2:46–47). But we find the nucleus of Jesus’ teaching methodology in John 13:34: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”
In this command, we see three things: Jesus knew his disciples, Jesus loved his disciples, and Jesus was the model for his disciples. His approach to teaching rested on those three premises.
First, Christian teachers must know the audiences that are entrusted to them by being culturally fluent and aware of the experiences of their students.
Second, the teachers must genuinely love their students, such that their needs take priority over whatever discomfort the teachers may have with lessons and conversations about race.
Third, these teachers must serve as models for their students by becoming students of Black history and liberation. You cannot teach what you do not know yourself.
We can further look to Jesus’ teaching style to find three specific strategies Christian teachers can employ during Black History Month.
Jesus often taught by telling stories and parables.
Storytelling is a culturally responsive teaching tool.
National data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study program shows that storytelling is particularly important for developing early literacy skills in Black children, stemming in part from the cultural and historic influences that have fostered a preference for orality among African Americans.
When teaching Black history, tell the whole story of the history makers—not only the what or the how but also the why. Cultivating an educational environment of storytelling can make teaching and learning Black history feel more natural.
Jesus’ teaching related to the people of his day.
When Jesus taught in parables, he often used illustrations that were familiar to the experiences and environment of his audience.
In his lessons, Jesus referred to everyday first-century objects and people, like a lamp (Matt. 5:14–16), sewing and garments (Matt. 9:16), farmers (Mark 4:1–20; 12:1–12), servants (Mark 13:34–37) and fishermen (Matt. 13:47–50).
In the same way, Christian teachers must utilize what their students are most familiar with to teach them the skills and competencies they need to know. Christian teachers can imitate Jesus by relating lessons to their students’ backgrounds.
In the case of Black History Month, they can teach and explain the impact of Black history makers on students’ individual lives and on society as a whole.
Jesus taught parables with a higher purpose.
Parables are stories that illustrate a greater biblical or kingdom principle.
For example, the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt. 18:23–35) was a riveting story that captured his audience’s attention. But the moral of the story was that we must forgive our debtors as God has forgiven our debts (Matt. 6:12) or we risk suffering the same fate as those we chose not to forgive.
Likewise, when teaching Black history, it isn’t nearly enough to simply teach names, places, and events. Christian teachers must integrate their Black history lessons with biblical objectives that acknowledge and defend Black humanity—because if not, the sin of racism threatens to consume us all.
Had I encountered this kind of education as a K–12 student, perhaps I wouldn’t have been tempted to believe that Black history in February was simply a racist conspiracy. For starters, I am not sure whether my grade-school teachers had the wherewithal to prove me wrong.
But perhaps these lessons can benefit the next generation.
This year and every year, Christian teachers have the privilege of incorporating Black history into their lessons throughout the school calendar, not just in February.
Above all, they have the chance to be good models for their students by loving Black people in their personal lives and not just when they stand at the front of their classrooms. The benefits of doing all this are far-reaching—not only for Black children but for all children.
Christian teachers who implement the instructional strategies rooted in Christ’s example can go a long way to support the critical work of Black History Month.
Rann Miller is director of anti-bias and DEI initiatives as well as a high school social studies teacher for a Southern New Jersey school district. He’s also a freelance writer and founder of the Urban Education Mixtape, supporting urban educators and parents of students in urban schools.