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The Importance of Student Stories: Celebrating Black History Month and Beyond

by Ayanna Cooper |

This February marks the 46th year of the United States officially honoring Black History Month. Other countries have also acknowledged Black history, including Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Ireland. This is a time when students are learning about contributions Black people have made across various fields, including education, law and policy, government, science, and medicine. All of us benefit from these contributions!

As this year’s Black History Month comes to a close, think about what new and affirmed learning took place for your students. What topics/ideas/skill sets will be extended and further developed as a result?

Teaching Students About Black Stories

As part of teaching Black history year-round, I would include as many biographies and trade books that depict Black characters as possible. It is imperative that students see themselves in the curriculum, including in their classroom materials. For students learning English, this is especially important because language and culture are interrelated. How students engage in language learning, specifically English, can be either accelerated or delayed depending upon the quality and relevance of the experience.

In a recent conversation with the author of Qiana’s Braids, Chanda Austin talked about the need for racially diverse books, in particular children’s literature. In her book, she tells the story of Qiana, a girl who is going to wear her hair in braids, also known as “cornrows.” The significance of wearing braids is explained as not simply a hairstyle but also having cultural and historical ties. For example, in Africa braids have been used to mark tribes, wealth, marital status, and the like. As part of the transatlantic slave trade, enslaved Africans would hide rice and seeds in their braids. Braids would also be worn as a form of communication, showing routes to freedom.

In the United States, President Biden recently nominated Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court. If approved, Brown Jackson would be the first Black woman to serve in this capacity. This appointment is significant for a number of reasons but especially for women and Black people. In the 200+ year history of the high court, there has never been a Black woman. For ELs who are Black females, they now have someone who looks like them in a prestigious position.

Here are a few ways to help students think and learn about notable Black figures:

  • Reading bio/autobiographies
  • Listening to podcasts
  • Visiting museums and attending arts shows and other performances
  • Conducting research about individuals and related events, and hosting a symposium to showcase their findings
  • Interviewing someone of influence, a friend or relative, as a way to document and share their story

Helping Students Tell Their Own Stories

As we think about how language, culture, civics, and history are taught, we cannot help but think about the overlap between these areas. This illustrates the importance of how intersectionality is affirmed within our learning communities. A way to foster, celebrate, and affirm student experiences is to help students, of all ages, to capture their own stories, either through writing and/or oral storytelling. Student narratives can be included across a number of disciplines, and students can learn to develop their identities across those disciplines. For example, in the article “Developing Mathematics Identity,” students are supported to develop their mathematical identities, which contributes to the multifaceted aspects of learning language and content simultaneously. Students may be drawn to certain subjects, hence learning language associated with those content areas faster than subjects they have less interest in.

Here are a few ways to help English learners develop their identities across the curriculum, which will in turn help them celebrate who they are and where they came from. Have students

  • write their own autobiographies.
  • compare and contrast their own lived experiences and past/current events.
  • write the stories shared with them by family members, friends, or peers.
  • practice and engage in oral storytelling before writing.
  • listen to the stories of others and ask follow-up and clarifying questions.

The importance of helping students, especially Black English learners, who have historically had less focus placed on their cultural and historical pasts, affirm who they are now and who they want to become in the future undergirds the importance of celebrating Black History year-round. It’s an opportunity for students to celebrate now and in the future.

About the author

Ayanna Cooper

Ayanna Cooper, EdD, is a consultant, author, keynote speaker, and advocate for culturally and linguistically diverse learners. As owner of ACooper Consulting, she provides technical assistance to state departments of education and other clients with the goal of improving outcomes for students. She emphasizes the importance of building capacity to develop and sustain English language programs, use English language proficiency data, and improve instructional practices. She is currently serving on the TESOL Board of Directors.

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