Teachers make connections during Black History Month
By Sue Tiffin
Published March 6, 2018
During Black History Month, two teachers in Haliburton used unique methods to help students learn in an interactive way that connected history to modern day news stories and issues.
Paul Longo, who teaches history, civics and law at HHSS, said black history is naturally a part of the classes he teaches, but that the noted observance in February does serve as a reminder while planning classes.
“Maybe we’re doing a little bit more than we normally do, because it is Black History Month,” he said. “I’m more aware of it, or I’m making a conscious effort to do more, but the black story in Canada is everywhere in pretty much all the courses we teach.”
His law class students studied racial profiling by discussing CTV journalist Marcie Ien’s opinion piece in The Globe and Mail this week, in which she details being pulled over three times in the past eight months, traffic stops she alleges were due to her race.
“I try to make a conscious effort to make connections all the time,” said Longo.
In both Grade 10 Canadian history and Grade 10 civics classes, students have been studying the stories of Viola Desmond, Lincoln Alexander, Donovan Bailey, Sam Langford, and other influential black Canadians. One assignment has students doing a presentation on black Canadians they think have been an inspiration in Canada. A bulletin board honouring Black History Canada month near Longo’s classroom has had students say it’s made them stop and think of the biographies of black Canadians who made significant contributions. Meanwhile in American history class, students engaged in a debate on compensation to the descendants of black slaves in America, to better understand the slavery reparations movement.
“In American History, the black story, it is America,” said Longo. “But I’m always trying to connect what happened in the States with what happened in Canada, kind of at the same time.”
Longo’s lesson on slavery has been extended to study black slavery in New France (the Code Noir).
“Anything I see, and I’ve been definitely more aware of it this month, anything I can tie to black history month or black history in Canada, I jump on it,” he said.
His message within these lessons is similar: “The responsibility of a democracy is how you treat your minorities, the treatment of minorities,” he said.
Students have responded enthusiastically to the topics, and though they aren’t always bringing questions to class, they’re getting involved in discussions, according to Longo.
“In the last 10 to 15 years, I find [students], at least in here, they’ve been certainly more open to minority issues, whether they’re black issues or Indigenous issues or gay rights issues,” he said. “I just feel like we’re more tolerant, more accepting in our school.”
Mike van den Hengel, a Grade 8 teacher at J.D. Hodgson Elementary School, said he was looking at ways to teach students about poetry and literacy devices through music, and tied that into Black History Month.
“It kind of became something where, all the kids had been looking at different artists: Billie Holiday, Sam Cooke, Stevie Wonder and modern rap, dissecting them using literary devices, analyzing them,” said van den Hengel. “They looked at poems as well by Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou, so it’s just kind of a way to teach them through the music, through poetry, but to also talk about black history as well.”
Students have been receptive to the topic and content of the lessons, according to van den Hengel, who said that studying, for example, the lyrics of Strange Fruit, which protest racism, is one way to learn about history.
“I don’t know if many of [the students] have been exposed to that kind of music or artists that are from that far back, it’s been interesting,” he said. “A lot of them have taken it on and made it their own personal project, so it’s been pretty cool in that regard.”
Another project that van den Hengel has brought to the classroom has been a “Fakebook” assignment in which students choose from a list of notable figures including politicians, activists and athletes, and create a social media profile based on research. Completed assignments are coming in, and van den Hengel said they’re creative.
“How do you use the point of view of someone in the ‘60s, then put it into a medium that wasn’t around until the 2000s,” he said. “Some of the stuff they’ve handed in has been pretty impressive.”
Black History Month in Canada has been officially recognized since December 1995.