4 Powerful and Purposeful Inquiry Questions for Teaching Black History
2020 was a year of monumental change. It was a year of activism, strength, and inspiration. It showed everyone what courage, collaboration, and determination looks like. Furthermore, it provided students around the world with a starting point from which conversations, questions, and inquiries about civil rights, black history, and equality could stem from.
Black History Month provides an excellent opportunity for teachers and educators to foster a sense of the importance of black culture and contributions within our students. While our efforts to be more inclusive and diverse in the classroom may be moving in the right direction, we should take note of the questions, gaps, and misconceptions that many students still have when it comes to black history. The fact that many students can’t name a black author, or believe the Underground Railroad was a literal railroad that ran underground, speaks to our duty as educators to provide more opportunities for incorporating black history, authors, artists, and change-makers into our lesson plans. Below are some ways to infuse your lessons this February (and throughout the year) with inquiry-rich black history ideas.
Question: How have black inventors shaped our modern world?
1. Students explore the contributions of African-American inventors, educators, scientists, and all-around heroes by reading books (suggestions below), browsing articles and newspapers, and having conversations with peers and family members.
2. Help students generate further questions they have about the contributions of African-Americans. For example:
- How did their early life shape their interests and career paths?
- What impacts did their invention have on the United States / Canada?
- How were their inventions received at the time?
- What barriers did they overcome?
- How did the social climate affect the level of success they achieved?
3. Students dive into their inquiries by answering their questions, and recording information, their thoughts, and their wonderings. Teachers help students consider the best way to present their information. Furthermore, discuss with students why it is significant and meaningful to the broader conversation of black history. This may take the form of an infographic, a timeline, a short video, or a presentation.
4. Students share their findings with the class, school, or wider community. Encourage students to focus on the impact their inventor or invention had on the world, and what challenges they faced at the time of their contribution. Also consider having students reflect on what the world would be like without these inventions, and how they were able to create change. It is important that students can make these connections, as this gives meaning to their work.
Question: What roles did black people play in historical events?
1. Students generate a list of conflicts from the past few centuries. This can be done as a class, in groups, or in pairs. Some (but not all) examples include the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War, and both WWI and WWII. Discuss the impact of these events and how they shaped our modern world. Finally, students choose a historical event to investigate, focusing on the specific contributions of African-Americans.
2. Through research and conversations, students piece together the contributions of African-Americans in the conflict of their choice. There is opportunity for students to reach out to museums, art galleries, and historical organizations to speak with representatives, donors, or members of these places. Through these conversations, students may gain further insight into the role African-Americans played in their chosen conflict. Additionally, students may be put in touch with people who could provide first-hand or second-hand accounts of these events through direct personal involvement, familial ties, diaries, or other primary source documents.
3. Teachers facilitate the discovery process and meet with students one-on-one to discuss how best to present their findings. Perhaps students would like to create a historical scrapbook or an interactive timeline. Moreover, students may prefer to design an online museum exhibition, or create a documentary-style video showcasing the results of their inquiry. There is a lot of room to be creative here!
The Great Book of Black Heroes (published in 2021)
Question: How did black Canadians contribute to the creation of Canada?
1. Students engage in a variety of lessons surrounding the history and creation of Canada. Radio Canada International has a page all about black Canadians who contributed to the building of Canada. Discuss notable Canadians who shaped the political, economic, and/or social progress of Canada. Finally, students choose one person or organization who they would like to focus their inquiry on.
2. Through research and conversations, students piece together the contributions of black Canadians to the development of Canada. Explore the ways their selected person or organization impacted the laws, culture, or society in Canada. Their research can focus on the development of Canada as a country, or the development of a specific place within Canada. For example, students may wish to investigate Black Nova Scotians in Canada and the founding of Africville. Another inquiry route could be to explore the work that the BC Black History Awareness Society has done to create an awareness of the history of black people in British Columbia. More examples of black contributions to Canadian history can be downloaded from the Historica Canada document (PDF).
3. In terms of sharing information, students have lots of choice. Some options include a physical or virtual timeline or small exhibit, a diorama, a digital scrapbook, or a short documentary. Regardless of presentation, students should be encouraged to reflect on the impact that black Canadians had on the formation of Canada, and ask themselves the following questions upon completion:
- In what ways did black Canadians shape Canada economically, politically, socially, or culturally?
- What might Canada look like today without these important contributions?
- How does recognizing and honouring these contributions help all Canadians?
- What does it truly mean to be Canadian?
Question: What is the relationship between oppression and resistance?
1. Students begin by discussing the definitions of oppression and resistance. As a class, or in groups, students investigate the relationship between oppression and resistance. Discuss as a class that resistance often follows oppression, and throughout history there have been several instances of this power struggle, particularly for minority groups. To begin this inquiry, students can choose to focus on one specific instance where oppression led to resistance, or they can compile several events where this relationship was evident. Additionally, students can choose to explore the Black Lives Matter movement, and analyze it through the lens of oppression and resistance.
2. There is tremendous opportunity during the investigation stage for students to include various voices from within their school, neighbourhood, and community. In particular, if students are investigating the Black Lives Matter movement, teachers should encourage them to reach out to members of their community to gain their perspective. Students should be made aware that not everybody will view the protests as positive, and that some opinions may challenge their own. Although this might be shocking or unsettling for students, they need to understand that not everyone will see things the way they do.
3. Creating a presentation that is both informative and inclusive, as well as sensitive to their peers and wider community, might pose challenges for students. For example, sharing the results of a community dialogue surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement might reveal undertones of racism that could make students feel angry or offended. It is important in these cases to confront racial privilege and challenge bias about the history of black people. To quote educator Emily Chan, “everyone gains when we broaden the lens through which we see ourselves.”
It is important that teachers recognize and celebrate the many achievements and contributions of the black community. Hopefully the ideas above gave you some ideas and inspiration for exploring Black History Month in your classroom! If you have any other ideas to share, please leave a comment below, or join the discussion on Instagram!