Teaching African American History

Teaching African American History

by Joan Hodges
Yokota Middle School

Editor’s note: Stripes Okinawa is partnering with DODEA Pacific in February to present the insights of educators on teaching African American history. If you have a teaching/learning moment on black history you’d like to share, email it to: Okinawa@stripes.com

YOKOTA Air Base – The big question for the year in my classroom is “Why is it important to accept diversity?” Throughout the year, students in sixth grade language arts at Yokota Middle School learn about the contributions of a wide variety of Americans during special events including Black History Month. One man in particular stands above the rest as an important contributor to the history of African Americans, and that man is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I like to expose my students to the nonviolent approach Dr. King used to promote social change to lead into Black History Month.

We begin this study by building a background. What do the students already know about Dr. King? I find that most of them know a lot about his “I Have a Dream” speech or at least they’ve heard the words. We listen to the speech and follow along with print copies. I ask students to highlight any words or phrases that stand out as particularly striking or important as we listen. We begin to create a class word wall using the student’s highlighted notes.

After listening, we discuss the six principles of nonviolence as outlined in Dr. King’s “Stride Toward Freedom.”

Next, I show the students a variety of photographs of people engaged in nonviolent action such as sit-ins, strikes, boycotts, or marches. Each student receives a copy of “The Day Martin Luther King, Jr., was Shot: A Photo History of the Civil Rights Movement” by Jim Haskins. We discuss how photos, as primary resources, show evidence of the principles discussed previously. We also discuss what we cannot see in the photos including bravery, threat, and more.

The students generate rich discussion as they strive to understand these historic events that today seem ludicrous to them. Why would anyone want to keep another person from having freedom? Because our military children have largely been surrounded by great diversity for most of their lives, they often can’t understand how things have not always been this way.

The third step in this weeklong process is to read parts of King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” We discuss the events that led to King’s arrest, the New York Times article that stimulated his letter, and the revelations of King’s writing. We use a Question/Answer/Response (QAR) approach and do the reading orally. Students consider some of King’s most famous quotes and are asked what these words mean today for each of us living in the U.S., or overseas today. Again, students add words to our word wall, exploring what they find to be most important or meaningful.

Finally, we investigate the link between Dr. King’s writings and the influence of Gandhi. We compare and contrast their ideas and practices, recognizing the differences between protest and opposition. The idea is exposure. I don’t try to teach students the history of the Civil Rights Movement in a week. I seek to allow students to explore the life and work of a great, African American leader and to make connections to their own lives.

After all the reading, listening, and viewing are complete, I return to the word wall. I ask students to consider all they have seen and learned, and then I ask them to create a poem using the words from the word wall. The poem may be about anything that sticks with them including Dr. King’s work, a photograph they saw, or a certain phrase that resonates with them. These poems are shared in class and a bulletin board is erected in the 6th grade wing called “Words fit for a King” that remains up during Black History Month. The students share what they’ve learned in a personal way, and the entire school benefits from their newfound knowledge.

Poems from Yokota Middle School


By Hallie Baker, sixth grade

Today, I went to lunch.
Today, I was not served.
Pleading for freedom like a dog pleads for a stick that will never be thrown.
Today, I was called terrible names, “filthy excuse for a human” and many more.
Today, I was soaking up the bitterness of all of them.
To them, I am just another Negro suffering in a land of injustice. Yet, I am much more.
Today, I had food thrown at me.
Today, I was treated like an unworthy animal.
The demonstrations of racism performed today hit me like being stabbed a thousand times.
Today, it felt like it would never stop.
But today, I fought for human rights.
Their dedication; they were ruthless. Insults coming at me like a wild bull. But I mustn’t lose faith.
Today, I did not fight back.
Today, nonviolence overcame discrimination.

The Flame of Freedom

By Peter Cope, sixth grade

“I have a dream!” he says.
It echoes through my mind
like a fork in the road,
not knowing which path to take.
He talks of discrimination and injustice.
“A broken promise!” he says.
It is exciting to hear,
but along with the love
there is hatred in the air.
But I cannot here the screams,
for I am inspired.
The man is a flame,
a great warm fire,
giving off a bright light
overcoming the darkness,
giving off warmth
overcoming the coldness.
I realize now
we must stand up
for freedom, rights and equality now.
The man is right,
and now we will have rights,
but it will take time
to turn on the light.
Thank you MLK
For what you have done.
Thank you Martin Luther King,
we are glad you have come.

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