Black woman at protest

Last week I googled “Black History Month projects” and guess what I found.

Same stuff I saw last year. It’s what you get whenever you search for any kind of “…project” – websites from commercial publishers and teachers sharing materials that are called PBL but aren’t of high quality. They’re “hands-on,” “engaging” and “fun!” according to the labels, but rigorous and authentic? Not so much, as we always point out.

Besides the fact that they’re not really PBL, these materials, and most of the projects I hear about in February, tend to be about the same content: famous Black Americans and the usual events. Frederick Douglas, the Underground Railroad, the Tuskegee airmen, Louis Armstrong, Brown vs. Board of Education, the “I Have a Dream” speech. They also tend to be about feel-good stories of progress toward improved race relations and better social and economic conditions for everyone in our society.  

Students doing these projects typically pick someone to research, say, W.E. B. Du Bois or Rosa Parks, do some reading and writing, and then create a trifold display or PowerPoint slide presentation. Or perhaps they create an infographic, video, or digital product to explain their famous person and their importance.

Sometimes students assemble their research projects in a public exhibition, open to other students, parents, and the community. A variation of this idea is the classic “museum project.” I’m sure there are many “Black History Museums” on display in history classrooms this week. 

More below on projects like this and how to move beyond them, but first let’s pause to reflect on a fundamental question.

Should there even be a “Black History Month” at all?

My colleague Laureen Adams questions the whole idea: “I think we are at a point in time where we should be celebrating and infusing Black history throughout the year.”

This recent post in Edutopia makes a similar argument: “Teaching Black History in Culturally Responsive Ways.” So does this one on at Teaching Tolerance: “Do’s and Don’ts of Teaching Black History.” And this article in Education Week Teacher points out the pitfalls of making Black History month a special program: “Is Your School Affirming Institutional Racism During Black History Month?

I would make a similar argument for celebrating the history of all groups in our society throughout the year, rather than during their (lesser-known) months:

  • September: Latinx Heritage Month
  • October: LGBTQIA+ History Month
  • November: Native American Heritage Month
  • March: Women's Heritage Month
  • May: Asian and Pacific American Heritage Month

All of the ideas below for learning about Black history could apply to projects about any people’s history.

When designing PBL units on Black history, for any time of year, consider these 3 ideas.

1.  Have students explore lesser-known Black history, investigate deeper issues, and answer complex questions.

Research assignments about famous people and events in Black history have their place, but they’re limited. The examples mentioned above may be engaging, particularly if students have a choice of who to research and how to present their work. But if the goal is simply to share information, an opportunity has been lost. Instead, make the goal to think like historians, understand underlying forces and trends more deeply. Ask students to do research in the service of answering a deeper question.

Design driving questions for projects that will engage students and provoke them to think critically, then share their answer by creating a written or media product, or by presenting it aloud. Here are some examples:

  • Should we have “Black History Month”? Has its founder Carter Woodson’s vision been fulfilled?
  • What forgotten people, events, or aspects of Black history should America remember?
  • How would the story of ____ (insert historical event) be told from the Black perspective?
  • How much should police power be limited?
  • Should we require an “ethnic studies course” for graduation?
  • Should there be reparations for slavery?

2.  Connect national history to local and contemporary history.

Seeing how the past connects to issues in their communities and in the nation or world today is a great motivator for students. Connect the work of famous civil rights leaders to local leaders and groups that students identify, tell their stories and join their efforts. Consider local artists and writers and businesspeople, too, not just political leaders.

Here are some examples of this kind of project from the PBLWorks collection:

  • Marking History, Making History (3-5): How can we as historians uncover and share stories about our community?
  • March Through Nashville (7). How can we as historians design a virtual civil rights museum app that will preserve the story of Nashville's influence on the Civil Rights Movement? 
  • History in Pictures (6-12): How can we as historians design an interactive digital tool for a [local museum, historical society, or archive] that demonstrates our local community’s influence on a period in history?

3.  Have students become agents of change.

Ask them to find an issue they care about and take action on it -- persuade a particular audience, or advocate for a cause. Send the message that Black History is not something from the past, it is still happening now, and whoever we are, we can contribute to it. Partner with local or national organizations to up the authenticity, find experts, and communicate with outside audiences.

Here are some examples of this kind of project from the PBLWorks collection:

Have you done or heard of some good projects about Black history or the history of other marginalized groups? Please share them on Twitter at #pblworks.

John Larmer, Editor in Chief
John is editor in chief at PBLWorks, where he has helped create professional development workshops and PBL curriculum materials. He writes for and edits the PBL Blog, and is the co-author of several books on PBL.