Genius Expert: How Schools Can Celebrate Black History Month (And Why It Matters)

young black student raises her hand in class

Nikki Williams-Rucker is an instructional coach at Black Teacher Collaborative. BTC seeks to ensure that all Black children have challenging, affirming and innovative learning environments staffed by Black educators, who are equipped to push students' academic growth and socio-emotional wellbeing through their shared racial identity. With 16 years of experience as an English teacher, Williams-Rucker also founded My Sister's Keeper, a nonprofit that has helped 2,000 girls get to and through college.

We asked Williams-Rucker a handful of questions on how to celebrate Black History Month in schools. Check out her answers below!

black teacher collaborative nikki williams-rucker headshot
Nikki Williams-Rucker
SignUpGenius: What are some tangible values that come out of celebrating Black History Month in schools?

Williams-Rucker: Some of the tangible values that come out of celebrating Black History Month in schools are sociopolitical consciousness, awareness, racial identity and the inclusion of Black people in history. When Black children see themselves as members of their school community and are accepted as members who are not just included but who actually belong, the results on academic achievement and closing the achievement gap are huge! Black children want and need to feel that the education system is liberating them and not oppressing them. Celebrating Black History Month is just one step in the right direction. These are all outcomes if the celebration is done intentionally and with fidelity.

SUG: How have you seen students benefit from more diverse teacher representation, along with school subject matter that covers wider cultural worldviews?

Williams-Rucker: When I taught AP Lang, I taught to an audience that did not look like me. I taught it from a very diverse lens in terms of the voices that were being represented in the classroom. Having a teacher who did not look like them nor came from where they lived gave them a worldview that allowed them to converse about topics they would not have otherwise been privy to. We were able to ask good questions free from bias and stereotype, they were able to recognize the implicit bias they may have been operating in and they learned to respect the lived experiences of others. This is not unique to the students and me, it is a fact for any classroom where there is diverse teacher representation. It allows more voices to be heard in the room and creates critical thinkers who strive to make connections in the world with diverse populations.

photo of Black Teacher Collaborative women wearing Bet On Black t-shirts

SUG: What are some practical ideas for anyone to celebrate Black History Month? Any resources to share?

Williams-Rucker: One year for Black History Month, we turned the entire school back to 1950 and segregated everything from the water fountains to the stairwells. We facilitated staff training where we talked about bias and racism prior to the students' arrival and allowed teachers to first reflect and process before the activity began. We used the colors pink and yellow instead of actual skin color and the students were able to experience the impact of segregation and racism firsthand. We watched documentaries, heard from dynamic speakers and debriefed with the students. It was an amazing way to look critically at a horrible time in history but also allow students to wrestle with the implications that time had on their current views and experiences in education.

We also gave a Black History Month fact per day over the announcements and had contests to encourage students to provide additional information by the end of the day. Teaching Tolerance has some great resources and activity examples.

SUG: How can schools and educators teach Black history and equip students to mobilize and create their own ways of honoring Black History Month?

Williams-Rucker: Mikva Challenge is all about students' voices and empowering students to truly "be the change they want to see in the world." They are a great resource for mobilizing students all year long and creating an overall school culture of student voice and action. Mobilizing students should not just be something that happens during Black History Month but should be a part of the school culture. If we are going to truly create spaces where students belong, Black History Month should be in addition to what is already being done and highlighting those celebrations that are happening in classrooms. We have to change the curriculum to truly reflect the students who are sitting in front of them. Read different texts and hear different voices as authorities on practices and academic concepts. Black students need to first see themselves as the geniuses they truly are, and they have to start seeing themselves reflected in the school and classroom environment.

Many thanks to Nikki Williams-Rucker for sharing her insight on creating diverse and inclusive spaces beyond February. For more ideas, check out our list of 22 Ways to Celebrate Black History Month.