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Black History Month in ELA: Celebrating Black Authors, Artists, & Activists

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Black History Month in ELA is here, and while it’s vital that we celebrate Black poets, authors, leaders, playwrights, and activists all year long, this is a great time to put a special focus on spotlighting all the wonderful Black voices in the ELA world. There are so many to choose from!! So today, I want to share some easy ways to do that, today, tomorrow, all through February, and all year long.

You can listen in to episode 172 below, click here to tune in on any podcast player, or read on for the full post.

Showcase Black Authors with a QR Code Display

This easy display lets students explore the life and work of greats like Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison alongside contemporary figures like Jason Reynolds, Trevor Noah, and Michelle Obama. You can use the QR codes for bellringers and other activities throughout the month, and send early finishers over to explore. You can grab a free copy here! Consider printing on cardstock for more durability.

Print Posters from Amplifer

Yeah, I know I bring up this incredible resource a lot. But that’s because it’s INCREDIBLE. Amplifier has free poster downloads for educators, and many feature Black activists and role models. You’ll find a huge range of wonderful options on their site right here.

Author Spotlight: Jason Reynolds

There are so many ways you can bring the National Library of Congress’s ambassador for Youth Literature into your classroom! Let’s talk about five.

You can advocate to use one of his books as a book club or whole class text. Consider Ghost for middle school (and the whole track series that follows is amazing!), Long Way Down for 9th/10th grade, and All American Boys for 12th grade/A.P.

You can check out his series of THIRTY writing prompts for kids, the “Write. Right. Rite.” series at the National Library of Congress. Each one kicks off with a video from Jason.

You can bring Ain’t Burned all the Bright in as a mentor text for a multi-modal project, as a text in a graphic novel book club, or as a featured book in your independent reading program.

You can let Jason Reynolds read the first chapter of Ghost to your middle schoolers for First Chapter Friday.

You could integrate pieces of the audiobook (read powerfully by Jason Reynolds) from Stamped into a unit around issues of social justice and race in America, or use the entire book as part of nonfiction book clubs or a nonfiction study.

OK, ah, one more! I can’t keep myself to five. You could play the film version of Reynolds’ long poem, “For Everyone” as a writing prompt, a model for creating a multimodal text, or a piece of your poetry unit.

Or you could DO THEM ALL.

Author Spotlight for Black History Month in ELA: Trevor Noah

Of course I could do so many author spotlights. If you don’t know Angie Thomas, Nic Stone, or Nicola Yoon, check them out! But I also want to feature Trevor Noah here because I have yet to hear a teacher say “Nope, kids didn’t go for it.” Instead I hear story after story of kids LOVING Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, and there’s a young adult version that cuts out any language that might be too intense for student readers. So this is another great option for your whole class curriculum or for book clubs, but certainly at least for your choice reading shelves!

Black History Month in ELA

Black Leaders & Activists Carousel Project

When students get to combine modern tools with their research skills, they have a chance to showcase their knowledge in an inviting, exciting way. You might remember that in episode 163, veteran teacher Jane Wisdom and I talked about her success in class with my research carousel project. This simple twist on the research paper invites student to dive into a topic, then translate it into a series of swipeable square images for Instagram, combining visuals, statistics, and explanation in their own words to drive curiosity and learning from their audience.

Why not give this project a special focus for Black History Month? Invite students to choose a Black artist, leader, author, or activist to research and feature in their own carousel project.

Black History Month in ELA

Dig into Rhetorical Situation with Whitney Houston’s Super Bowl Performance from 1991

When Whitney Houston took the stage at the 1991 Superbowl to sing The Star Spangled Banner, she stood at the intersection of two huge national issues.

First of all, she was rising to incredible pop fame at a time when Black artists were not being recognized by the music machine. MTV was refusing to feature Michael Jackson’s music, and Whitney Houston was having to battle her way through the industry despite her obvious superstardom with six number one hits.

Second, the United States had just declared war. Superbowl attendees were surrounded by military blockades near the stadium, jets streaking overhead, and serviceman. The threat of a terrorist attack hung in the air, as well as the incredible anxiety of a nation entering a war and seeking comfort in crisis.

To watch Whitney sing the song WITHOUT knowing these things is to have a drastically different experience of the performance than to watch it with all this context. It’s a perfect opportunity to teach the rhetorical situation alongside ethos, pathos, and logos.

Black History Month in ELA

Want to try it? I’ve got all this curriculum ready for you as a free download – you can sign up right here.

Explore Picture Books by Black Authors

Have you read Kwame Alexander’s stunning children’s book, How to Read a Book? It’s so lovely. This could make a great mentor text for a multimodal project, a beautiful classroom read just to talk about the joy of reading, or a springboard for a project in which students create some kind of “how-to” text. I’m excited that he’s bringing out a new one soon in the same style, “How to Write a Poem.” I have a feeling that one’s going to have a ton of possibility for the classroom too.

Then there’s one of my daughter’s favorite books, Hair Love, a beautiful story of a Black father and daughter getting ready to welcome what seems to be the daughter’s mother home from the hospital. Not only is it a lovely, joyful story, but it has a companion short film that won an Oscar. If your students are going to explore video creation or how to move a story across genres, this could be neat model to share.

Feature Contemporary Poets

Let’s start with poetic superstar / youth icon Amanda Gorman. There are soooo many options to choose from when it comes to teaching Amanda Gorman’s poetry, and no reason I can think of not to do it! If you’d like a full lesson plan laid out for you, check out episode 156 with Mel Alter Smith, “How to Teach Living Poets.

Or, you could teach one of her popular favorites like “A New Day’s Lyric” or “The Hill we Climb” in your own way, or explore her poem about climate and the environment, “Earthrise.”

When it comes to powerful spoken word poets out there, you’ve got so many choices! Performance poetry is a marvelous way to help students connect to poetry and feel its relevance in their own lives. I have repeatedly found that leading with contemporary performance poets and then moving backwards in history to classic poets will make the study of older poets work.

Here are a few powerful poems to consider integrating into your next poetry unit (or poetry moment!).

Smokey Robinson: “Black American

Rudy Francisco: “My Honest Poem

Joe Davis: “Show Up

Marshall Jones: “Touchscreen

Maya Angelou: “Still I Rise

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I'm Betsy

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