Illinois students are required to learn Black history. But what’s being taught varies.

Students sit in a classroom wearing different color masks. On the wall to the right, there is a photo of a Black person rising a fist towards the camera.
Illinois schools are required to teach a unit on Black history, according to a 1990 state law. But what’s being taught, and when it’s being taught, varies from school to school. Some teachers in the state have recently created their own Black history lessons, inspired by material like The 1619 Project. (Alexandre da Veiga for Chalkbeat)

Ashley Kannan, an eighth grade history teacher at Oak Park Elementary School in District 97, had long thought about piloting a Black studies course. He even created a lesson plan during the summer of 2020. Then, a conversation with a student convinced him to take the leap. 

The student liked his lectures, she told him, but thought the history class that Kannan normally teaches was boring. 

That inspired Kannan to run with the course that fall. Students in his Black Studies course learn about topics such as the Black church, the Great Migration — when Black Americans migrated from the South to the North for jobs and other opportunities — and Black political figures such as Fannie Lou Hamer, a civil rights activist from Mississippi.

Not long after he started to teach the class during the 2020-21 school year, Kannan said, he noticed his students were more engaged with the material.

“I have much more buy-in. I love how my Black students, in particular, can’t tell the difference between my African American studies class and my American history class,” said Kannan, who teaches a diverse group of students. “Like they just see it as one in the same and it’s so beautiful.”

In Illinois, a 1990 state law requires schools to teach a unit of African American history. But more than 30 years after the Illinois law passed, gaps in the teaching of Black history remain. The law lacks an enforcement mechanism, and does not include a way to track when Black history is taught during the school year and what students are learning about it; there are no required textbooks or curriculum.

All that has left teachers like Kannan to create their own lesson plans and to push their districts to strengthen the curriculum to include key points in Black history. 

Still, the Illinois law represents a sharp contrast to what is happening in Republican-led states such as Florida, Tennessee, and Texas, where legislators have passed so-called “anti-critical race theory” bills that limit how race and gender issues are taught in classrooms. 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, for example, has spoken out against the College Board’s new Advanced Placement course on African American studies, calling it “indoctrination.” DeSantis has labeled plans to incorporate topics such as Black queer studies, the abolition of prisons, and intersectionality “a political agenda.” 

In his State of the State address in February, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker pushed back against DeSantis and others seeking to limit the teaching of African American history. Pritzker said a virulent strain of nationalism across the country is leading to pushes for censorship and attacks on school board members and librarians.

“It’s an ideological battle by the right-wing hiding behind the claim that they would protect our children,” said Pritzker, “but whose real intention is to marginalize people and ideas they don’t like.”

Illinois requires Black history in schools

In Illinois, the teaching of Black history has been encouraged rather than limited. In 2021, the state updated its law on Black history to include topics such as the history of Black people before enslavement, the reasons why Black people were enslaved, and the American civil rights movement.

The Black History Curriculum Task Force — created by the Illinois general assembly in 2018 — also recommended in 2021 that Black history be woven into U.S. history courses, and asked for clear guidelines on what should be included in a mandated curriculum.

In addition, the task force asked the state to find a way to enforce the mandate without standardized tests, and to set up a committee of educators from every grade level to create an assessment. 

Task force member Bryen Johnson, the state affiliate political organizer with the Illinois Federation of Teachers, said ensuring that districts comply with curriculum mandates has to be a priority. 

The report from the task force in April 2021, features survey results asking districts to report how they are teaching Black history. Out of the 617 districts in the state that completed the survey, 77% reported complying with the state law requiring a unit on Black history.  

“The topics included in history courses shouldn’t be dependent on where you live or what district you attend,” said Johnson. “Complying with this law isn’t optional and those tasked with making sure districts are in compliance should reflect that.”

Champaign teacher turns to The 1619 Project

For Kim Tate, a fifth grade teacher in the Champaign Unit 4 school district in central Illinois, the importance of teaching Black history came into greater focus in 2020, due to the coronavirus pandemic and the uprising against police brutality following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the death of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky. 

As a Black woman watching the Black Lives Matter protests during the summer of 2020, Tate felt people devalued Black life because they do not understand the history of Black people in America. 

During 2020, Tate had informal conversations with her colleagues about developing a Black studies curriculum for her students; while the state requires a unit of study, there isn’t a guideline for what students should know. One of their main debates: “What should Black studies include?” 

The uprisings against police brutality that took place across the country, and Tate’s district’s plans to update social science curriculum in the fall of 2020, motivated her to apply to write a unit on Black history. She applied to be a part of The 1619 Project Education Network by the Pulitzer Center in 2022. 

During Tate’s time in the program, she wrote a lesson plan based on The 1619 Project, an examination of the legacy of slavery by New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones. 

The project, which takes its name from the date the first enslaved African arrived in the British colony that is now Virginia, has become a flashpoint in the conservative attacks on the teaching of race and Black history.  

“I really thought her work was so powerful for really offering a different narrative than we had typically heard about history and the importance of black people to this nation’s story,” Tate said.

Tate started to teach the curriculum to her fifth grade class early this year. The unit she developed is called “No Longer Silent: The Genius Within Us.” In the unit, Tate’s students read books by Zora Neale Hurston, a Black American writer, anthropologist, and filmmaker who wrote about issues facing Black people, and became a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance. 

Hurston’s work especially resonated with Black girls in Tate’s classroom.

“My Black girls last year connected with Hurston’s work during the Harlem Renaissance and her colorful personality,” said Tate.

But Tate has noticed all of her students engaging more in the material. 

“I’ve noticed that the students’ ability to engage in perspective-taking and to have empathy has increased,” Tate said. “So I have fewer conflicts and personal conflicts and fewer behavior issues.”

Chicago teacher struggles to use district’s history curriculum

While Tate had a smooth transition teaching Black history, some Illinois teachers struggle to incorporate Black history into a strict district curriculum.

The National Teachers Academy in Chicago had a robust Black history curriculum for several years, according to sixth grade social science teacher Jessica Kibblewhite. The curriculum examined Black history in America and across the globe by including topics such as how African explorers contributed to the creation of currency in the Middle East. 

However, after Chicago Public Schools rolled out the $135 million Skyline curriculum in 2021 and created new standards for each grade and subject, Kibblewhite said her school’s lesson plans have taken a back seat.

Kibblewhite, who sits on the district’s Skyline social science review committee, said she thinks Skyline’s Black history unit lacks depth and breadth.  

As a white teacher who works with Black students, Kibblewhite said it’s important for students to see themselves in history books. 

“Students don’t learn anything unless they’re deeply engaged,” said Kibblewhite. “If students don’t see themselves in characters in text or historical figures that look different from them, they’ll be less likely to be engaged.” 

In a statement to Chalkbeat Chicago, Chicago Public Schools said it is committed to providing a culturally responsive social science education throughout the school year. The district said Black history is taught across all subjects, not just in history.

“This work is also at the core of CPS’ Three-Year Blueprint which aims to ensure that CPS students are not only academically prepared to succeed after high school, but also socially, emotionally, and culturally prepared to be successful members of our Democracy,” said a spokesperson for Chicago Public Schools.

What’s next for Black history in Illinois

Next year, Oak Park and River Forest High School will be one of the first high schools in Illinois to pilot the AP African American studies course, as part of the College Board’s national rollout of the program. 

But in the meantime, teachers such as Kannan are finding ways to teach Black history in their classrooms. 

Kannan, in his 26th year as a teacher, said it was easier for him to create a curriculum than other teachers because of a supportive school district and his lengthy experience. However, he said it would be more difficult for younger teachers who lack professional development and mentoring.

“The state needs to make a considerable financial commitment to investing in induction paths that lead to mentoring and that allow our teachers of color to not only be not only be recruited but to thrive,” said Kannan. “I don’t think there’s any other way for this to happen.” 

Tate, the teacher in Champaign, has heard from white colleagues who feel uncomfortable teaching Black history. Since the state’s teacher workforce is over 80% white, Tate said that the state will need to find a way to support teachers in educating students about Black history.

“We got to figure out a way to bridge that gap, because each year we’re not teaching students about Black history and about the legacy of Black people in this country,” said Tate. “We are really robbing all students of important knowledge that can help them be better citizens.”

Samantha Smylie is the state education reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering school districts across the state, legislation, special education, and the state board of education. Contact Samantha at ssmylie@chalkbeat.org.

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