Joseph Almaoui teaches science to sixth- and seventh-graders at Forest Park Middle School, but he weaves Black history into his classes during Black History Month. How he does it is indicative of how Black history is taught in District 91 from preschool through the eighth grade.
“I want readers to know,” he began, “that not just Black history but any kind of subject can be taught to any age level if it is taught in a way appropriate to how old they are and their level of development. You can teach Black history to a kindergartner if you break it down for them. Neither do you give them as much information as you would my 11- to 13-year-old kids.”
When George Floyd was murdered in 2020 both teachers and students were talking about it, so Almaoui engaged with the subject but not to the depth or in the detail that high schools might discuss the incident.
“We talked about not basing how we see things just on emotions,” he explained, “but to reason things out. We are very big on respecting everyone, even if what they do is wrong. I tell the kids that we have to look at both sides of every issue.” His comments in class were neither anti-police nor pro-police. The emphasis was understanding both sides and respect.
He added that the topic of lynching does come up in the research his students do, but at their age he does not focus on it.
Jennifer Novak, who teaches preschool at Garfield, agrees.
“I teach my preschool students [3- to 5-year-olds] about Black History Month using books, visuals, songs and crafts that are appropriate for young learners.”
She focuses on stories about individuals like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Simone Bile. She does not discuss violent events or current events that are publicized in the news unless it directly affects her students. “We explore, investigate and learn about Black History Month,” she said, “in a child-centered way.”
Michelle Choice teaches second grade and has been in front of a classroom of 6- to 8-year-olds for 14 years. She is on the same page as her colleagues.
“Discussions on subjects such as George Floyd or even lynchings may be talked about if students bring them up. I try to allow my students to lead in these conversations.
“I’m not sure,” she added, “how much my students are exposed to at home, so there are times I don’t want to overstep. When my students bring up these subjects, I listen first. If they have any questions that I am capable of answering, I answer them. The discussions go as far as the students take them until I feel we’re leading into an area where it’s not my place to discuss and it’s up to the parents to give more details.”
Amy O’Connell has been teaching for 23 years and presently teaches first grade.
“We have discussed slavery,” she said, “but I do not go too deep. I tend to let the students lead conversations. Some have a lot of knowledge.”
Like Novak, Almaoui has his students learn about Black history by looking at individual historical figures, but in more depth. Because he is a science teacher, he integrates the two subject areas by having his early adolescents do research on one of the Black scientists or entrepreneurs from a list he gives them. A student might choose to do research on Madam C.J. Walker who became the first Black woman millionaire in America through her line of hair care products for Black women and then present what they learned to the class.
Boys in his sixth-grade class might pick Brice Everhart who at the age of 8 started making bow ties, and that small start evolved into a clothing line called Vallaire’s for Men.
“By researching Black historical figures students are interested in, they are motivated to learn history. What’s more, they are seeing models of who they might become.”
One way she approached Black History Month this year is to ask her first-graders who they wanted to learn about, and her students brought up names like Michael Jackson, Tim Anderson (from the White Sox), basketball stars Steph Curry and Lebron James, and Barack Obama to familiar figures like Rosa Parks and Dr. King. Every day the class would listen to a book or watch a short video that would help the students learn about the people they had picked.
Almaoui’s teaching objectives are cognitive as well as affective. The cognitive stuff includes pulling information out of sources so they understand it, shaping it into their words and then presenting it to their classmates in a way that they can understand. The affective objective ends with putting into words how their subject inspired them and what they would like to achieve.
Choice added, “I would say, at the primary level, we most definitely focus more on the values side but may include some historical facts as well. In my class, I try to focus on Black culture. I believe our history is very important and should be discussed, but I also think it’s just as important for my students to hear about, read about, and discuss current events and the reality of Black culture now.”
She uses her own story as a kind of living document. “When we discussed Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, we talked about how things were separate for Blacks and whites. We discussed how there was a time when I would not have been able to be their teacher because I’m Black or how Black and white students wouldn’t be able to be in the same class together. I talk about the fact that we have grown from that point but there are still disparities.
“Then I share my personal experience of how when I taught in Indiana, I had families who expressed to me that I wasn’t good enough to be their child’s teacher only because of the color of my skin.”
All three teachers work hard to offer students multiple ways to learn. Novak uses “books, visuals, songs and crafts that are appropriate for young learners to highlight some of the African Americans who have made significant contributions to our country.” Almaoui prefers hands-on activities such as games.
“Kids understand a subject better,” he said, “when you repeat it, but in different ways. I have to mix it up, and it’s a challenge sometimes to think outside the box.”