Samantha A. Utley

When engaging in the work of implementing a focused and holistic approach to teaching about African American history, it is also necessary to recognize that districts may face potential obstacles with the rollout. The obstacles should not dissuade any efforts or initiatives but should be discussed with all active voices to ensure they are met with solution-based efforts.

This blog is part of a series that breaks down the most important points of our webinar on Strengthening Black History Education in Districts with added insight from guest writer, Samantha Utley, Coordinator for Equity, Inclusion, & Justice at the Falk Laboratory School of the University of Pittsburgh.

Implementing Black History Education through a Holistic Approach

As we continue as educators to evolve in our way of practice and engagement with this current generation of young learners, we should be in a position of reflection and growth. When I reflect back on my experiences as a first-year educator, teaching social studies and history, I used what my district provided me with the curriculum and textbook. At the time, it covered United States history spanning Indigenous cultures to modern day America. There was one chapter that focused on the enslavement of Africans and two chapters on the Civil War. Through this curriculum, the history of African Americans in this country was told through a lens of deficit and struggle with minimal discussion on resilience and strength. 

When students in our classrooms are presented with incomplete histories, they can be left with holes in their knowledge. When presented with histories told through a deficit lens, that view can be adopted into present day belief structures and opinions. I share this personal anecdote along with a quote attributed to Ms. Maya Angelou, “When you know better, you do better”. I know that to continue facilitating lessons embedded in equity, strength, and honor we must engage in presenting lessons that share complete histories, acknowledging the struggle, and celebrating the endeavors of those who paved the way for truth and empowerment. For those of you teaching or thinking about teaching African American history, be reflective in your practice, responsible in what you share, and respectful of the entirety of the history and the narratives that accompany it. Read on to delve deeper into five common challenges and proposed solutions for strengthening Black History in our schools. 

The Current System Teaches Black History through an Oppressive & Narrow Framework

It is critical to encapsulate the full African American experience when teaching. History textbooks and curriculums omit pivotal pieces of events, people, and places, contributing to the general lack of knowledge about history and culture. Brian Knowles states that this results in the teachings being approached from an oppressive and narrow framework-i.e., beginning the history of African American history with the Middle Passage and slavery. 

How can educators reframe the teaching of Black History?

  • Introduce slavery through the lens of resistance. 

      • While the atrocities and harm committed against enslaved peoples should not be minimized, there should be recognition and celebration of those who resisted and fought the system.
  • Recognize contributions that less familiar African Americans have made to society.

      • Extending the general knowledge outside of the familiar faces and stories to include more of the diaspora ensures a more in-depth understanding. In addition, the conscious reframing of Black history as American history, and not isolated, helps to create a more unified approach.
  • Show how power and agency exists outside of oppression. 

    • When telling stories of people who have been marginalized, it can be conducted through a deficit lens and how they triumphed through oppressive states.

Integrating Diverse Perspectives in Curriculums

Over the past couple of years, public discourse has been surrounding topics and curricula taught in schools. Within these discussions, there is a presence of discomfort that permeates the tone of the conversations resulting in stagnation and the continued acceptance of the status quo and what is perceived as comfortable. History is honesty, and recognizing that there are parts where discomfort is present is something we must address head-on. When considering the multiple perspectives and lived experiences of others, offering opportunities to learn with one another yields positivity over reactivity.

Reframing Exclusive Professional Development

The typical implementation of professional development in a school district has a teacher-centered approach. Educators are mandated to attend sessions with predetermined curricula and materials, with the expectation that their training will result in attaining something beneficial for the students they serve or their professional practice. When considering the adoption of curriculum, professional development should be reframed. It is encouraged that to build capacity and support, both district and school leaders should participate in the professional development. There needs to be a collective understanding of its importance; and that arises from a unified position from all stakeholders within the district. 

It is also recommended that professional development should be open to community members and students. By doing so, you can engage in community with others and implement a collaborative, rather than top-down, approach to learning; reciprocal relationships will emerge.

The inclusion of student voice in professional development is a powerful and yet overlooked tool. Inviting students to provide feedback about the content, and share in the ways they learn best allows for trust and innovation in practice.

Measuring Implementation

With the adoption of any curriculum, there is the consideration of ensuring it is being taught with fidelity. Schools and districts have adopted criteria, checklists, and coaches with the intent of guaranteeing its appropriate teaching. This falls into the familiar path of status quo expectations with expected results.  Revisiting a point made above, before critiquing educators on how it is being presented, administrators must be aware and have an understanding before they can set expectations for those under them.

It is also recommended that the adoption of African American curricula follow a framework and have connection to state standards and expectations. This facilitates accountability and guidance towards the culminating goals of student achievement. There should also be input from the teachers in implementation, rollout, and expectation. If the expectation is that teachers are going to effectively present curricula and lessons, they should be able to provide context and feedback in real time, not after the fact.

Daunting & Worthwhile Work

To summarize the words of Brian Knowles, this work can be daunting. The outcome of developing curricula around African American history is worthwhile and benefits everyone; however, the obstacles that some schools and districts must navigate can be tiring and frustrating. Continue to lean on one another and build a community that is dedicated to ensuring full histories are presented through a lens of triumph, honesty, and pride.

How EVERFI Helps Districts Overcome Common Challenges in Schools

  •    Free online, standards-aligned resources to teach Black History

      • The 306 suite provides teachers with turnkey and inclusive black history lessons that broaden students’ understanding of the people and events that have shaped our country.
  •    Free professional developments and curriculum alignments

      • A dedicated EVERFI representative is always available to provide you with the resources and support needed to meet your needs.
  •    A professional learning community for district and school administrators

    • The District Advisory Council provides leaders with the opportunity to learn from and network with educational leaders on topics like leadership, curriculum, and community engagement.
      • Watch this learning session with Florida’s African American History Task Force on Strengthening Black History Education in Your District.

Learn more about how EVERFI supports districts and schedule a call with your district’s dedicated EVERFI Lead at 

Samantha A. Utley serves as the Coordinator for Equity, Inclusion, & Justice, as well as the Director of Student Services for grades K-5 at The Falk Laboratory School of the University of Pittsburgh. Samantha is currently pursuing an Educational Doctorate in Social and Comparative Analysis in Education from the University of Pittsburgh as she works with The Falk Laboratory School’s students, faculty, and families to ensure equitable learning opportunities are available to all, as well as cultivate the celebration of all identities. Twitter: @MsUtley86

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