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Going Beyond MLK Day: Tell the Whole Story

Last month an anti-racism PSA video from the Cartoon Network went viral. Its message was simple: tell the whole story. The short clip depicts a teacher lamenting the incomplete picture the students were taught about the invention of the lightbulb. Did the name Thomas Edison just come to mind? And that’s the problem the teacher tries to shine a light on. The history most of us have been taught has erased the accomplishments and contributions of Black leaders and creators such as Lewis Latimer, the inventor of the filament inside the lightbulb.

With Martin Luther King Jr. Day approaching and Black History Month around the corner, this is an excellent time to reflect on our teaching practices and ask ourselves if we’re telling the whole story. The book Beyond Heroes and Holidays was first published in 1998, but more than 20 years later, many students are still only learning about Martin Luther King, Jr., Ruby Bridges, and Rosa Parks. Of course, students should learn about these people, but limiting our study of the Civil Rights movement and racism to only its key figures allows much to be overlooked, giving kids not just an incomplete story but also the wrong messages.

Here are some ways that we’re not telling the whole story in the classroom:

  1. Students often learn that because of these people’s actions, racism is over. I remember telling my elementary students that because of Dr. King, we could all be in the same class together. That narrative made it sound as if the problem of racism was no longer an issue.
  2. The contributions of these people are also explained in ways that are one-dimensional or overly simplified. Students in elementary school or even middle school are almost never taught about the other writings of Dr. King aside from his “I Have a Dream” speech. They rarely hear about Rosa Parks’ activism before her famous moment on the bus, nor about the people who resisted before her.
  3. Have we talked about how our schools are even more segregated now than after Brown v. Board of Education, the decision that led to Ruby Bridges attending that school in Little Rock, Arkansas?
  4. Schools often only celebrate or acknowledge contributions from BIPOC and other marginalized groups during their designated month: Women’s History, Black History, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage, Hispanic Heritage, or LGBT History. Do their stories and experiences not matter the rest of the year?

Limiting our curriculum to these heroes, or to a month, is harmful because it sends the message that these people or groups are outside of the regular curriculum, marginalizing them even further. When we only highlight a few champions, we’re leaving out the everyday experiences of BIPOC people and making it easier to ignore the racial issues that still plague us today.

One of the first steps we can take to tell more of the story is to look at our curriculum across the year and ensure that Black experiences, history, and voices are included not as an extra but as an integral part of learning. But that’s just the first step! There are other important ways we can reflect and revise our practices to go beyond teaching “heroes and holidays” to providing transformative learning experiences. Where, as Paul Gorski states, “new materials, perspectives, and voices are woven seamlessly with current frameworks of knowledge to provide new levels of understanding from a more complete and accurate curriculum.” 

Here are some of my favorite resources about teaching Martin Luther King Jr. and Black History in way that helps us to tell the whole story:

Teaching Tolerance: This site is a treasure trove of resources for K-12 teachers.

Equity Literacy Institute

What are some ways you’re telling the whole story? If you found this article insightful, please share it on your favorite social media network. 

You might also like these:

#abar #diversity #antiracism #MLKday #BlackHistory

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