As my class of 12th graders settled into their seats, I pointed to the civil rights legend John Lewis whose face was projected on the front board and asked my students, “Can anybody tell me the name of this man?” The sound of crickets was deafening. My class, composed primarily of African American kids, could not put a name to the face in front of them. I was shocked.
The lesson I had planned for my students centered on the federal legislation that removed barriers for voting. John Lewis’ presence and position as the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the historic 1965 march from Montgomery to Selma, infamously known as “Bloody Sunday,” was vital to the lesson. That march helped contribute to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a landmark law that outlawed a host of discriminatory voting practices. How can my students truly understand and appreciate U.S. history if they don’t know and are not taught about the many great Black Americans who have contributed so much to it?
The need for culturally inclusive curriculum and teaching, particularly in relation to history, is urgent as the majority of K-12 public school pupils in the U.S. are students of color. In Pennsylvania, where I teach, students of color make up 36% of the public school population.
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In my own teaching, I make it a point to talk about the pivotal Black leaders who have impacted our nation but tend to not have a strong presence in most textbooks. Over the years, I taught lessons that have highlighted U.S. constitutional law tactics crafted by Charles Hamilton Houston, examined the civil rights and women’s suffrage movements through the lens of Ida B. Wells, and analyzed the birth of a political party through the writings of Bobby Seale. I rely on great resources to incorporate creative and diverse ways to address issues of social justice in the classroom.
Teacher preparatory programs must prepare the next generation of social studies teachers to become well versed in the culture and history that have helped shape the Black communities that those teachers may serve. Courses must exist in these programs that provide aspiring social studies teachers with pedagogy to both design and facilitate lessons that adequately examine the multitude of supporting Black actors who have made movements such as the civil rights movement a success.
It is crucial that teacher preparatory programs form partnerships with local educational organizations that have an established expertise in culturally responsive practices and are already addressing issues of social justice in Black communities. In Philadelphia, one such organization is the Center for Black Educator Development, a nonprofit that is actively recruiting and training quality educators to advance social and racial justice through culturally responsive practices. The Center for Black Educator Development provides professional support in a multitude of areas to support teachers, one of which includes cultural pedagogy. Teacher preparatory programs can sign up for professional development that exposes their students to curricula and instruction deeply rooted in the Black community and its culture.
It is inconceivable that students entering the last year of high school would not be able to recognize John Lewis, a historic figure who was a Freedom Rider, chairman of SNCC, speaker at the 1963 March on Washington, U.S. congressman for 17 terms, and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Teacher preparatory programs must look within their programs to examine if they are preparing their educators to provide Black students with a quality education that mirrors their culture. How can we expect our next generation of future leaders to cause “good trouble” if they have no idea of the creators who have already laid the foundation?
Ross T. Hamilton Jr. teaches 12th grade government and civics at Building 21 High School in Philadelphia. He is a 2021-2022 Teach Plus Pennsylvania Policy Fellow.