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A typical project for February’s Black History Month is a report, poster, or presentation about a famous person. In a quick check of popular lesson plan websites for teachers, I found dozens of “projects” like this. Students pick a famous Black American, from writers to soldiers to civil rights movement leaders to artists and pop stars, look up some information about them and (usually) just copy it, then display their artifact to the class.
I put “projects” in quotes because these kinds of assignments, while valuable to an extent, should not be confused with project-based learning. Students might learn something about their topic, but there isn’t much critical thinking in these “dessert” projects, or any of the six features of High-Quality PBL: Intellectual Challenge and Accomplishment, Authenticity, Collaboration, Public Product, Project Management, or Reflection.
Defined Learning’s U.S. History Performance Tasks
I’ve recently written some performance tasks/projects, along with Kristy Taylor, for Defined Learning’s new MS/HS United States History II course. The course covers the late Industrial Revolution up to the present, and the tasks are aligned with the C3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards for grades 6-12. Prior to this course, Defined created several other tasks that connect to Black history.
In each task, students are given the “GRASP” framework: Goal, Role, Audience, Situation, and Products. Their role is career-focused, and their audience, situation, and products are authentic to the real world. They are also provided with research questions and resources, the requirements for 2-3 products, and assessment rubrics. Teachers are given extensive notes about how to facilitate the project, such as how to launch it with an entry event, use formative assessment, coach students to evaluate the quality of their sources of information, and extend the project to include connections to real-world experts and public audiences.
I’ll explain the details for one MS/HS U.S. History task I wrote, which is about Black history, including the “GRASP” and some of the teacher notes. Then I’ll summarize five additional tasks on the topic offered by Defined.
“Historian: Black Americans Move North: The Great Migration”
This project is a great vehicle for teaching an important part of Black history–and it focuses on what ordinary people experienced, not the usual “famous people” approach to Black History Month. It connects the Reconstruction and Jim Crow South era to a major development in U.S. history during the 20th century: the migration of Blacks from the South to other parts of the country from roughly 1910-1970.
The Great Migration may be used as a launching point for exploring many aspects of Black history and the civil rights movement. For example, students could study the Harlem Renaissance; the music of jazz and the blues; Jim Crow laws and anti-Black violence in the South and also in Northern cities; segregation and redlining; the roles of Black Americans during the World Wars; and the return of some Blacks to the “New South” in recent decades. Teachers could also consider a local history project if their students live in a place with direct connections to the Great Migration; students could interview family and community members old enough to have memories of it.
If teachers wish, they can use the following to guide student inquiry, discussion, and reflection:
- Essential Question: Why do people migrate?
- Big Idea: People migrate to find economic opportunities and greater freedom.
- Driving Question: How can we tell powerful stories of people who experienced the Great Migration?
Here’s the GRASP framework for this task as it is explained to students:
Your task is to tell stories about a part of Black history in the United States that many people don’t know enough about: The Great Migration and how it shaped our country today. You need to do research and choose what topics or events you think are interesting or important, then write stories about the people who experienced these events.
You are a historian who wants people to know more about the Great Migration.
You will write stories or create a graphic comic for a general audience, to be shared online or perhaps with an audience to be determined.
Today, there are many Black residents of U.S. cities such as New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburg, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, Oakland, Portland, Seattle, and others. How did the Black population come to be there? After the Civil War, most Blacks lived in rural parts of the Southern states where they and their ancestors had been enslaved. Beginning around 1910, many Blacks moved to Northern, Central, and Western states to find economic opportunity and to escape oppression. This became known as the Great Migration. You have decided more people should be aware of the stories of the people who experienced it.
- Written historical fiction story
- Graphic comic or story
As an optional culminating activity for the project, students could make a public presentation where they read their stories for an audience. The audience could be history experts, community members, parents and other students. Students could also make their work public by sharing their stories online with a wider audience.
Additional Projects Connected to Black History
K-5 Art Integration: Fine Arts and Literature course:
- Artist: Faith Ringold & Story Quilts
Students learn about the Black American painter and narrative quiltmaker Faith Ringgold and write a compare and contrast report about her and her work. They read the short story “Tar Beach,” and make a paper quilt about it, and create “community quilts” to give away to others.
- Artist: Elizabeth Cattlet’s Fabric Prints
Students learn about the Black American sculptor and graphic artist Elizabeth Cattler and make a presentation about her and her work, and create a t-shirt print or sculpture that sends a positive message to others.
MS/HS United States History I course (colonial era to late 19th century):
- Civil Rights Attorney: Battle Over Reconstruction
Students learn about the aftermath of the Civil War as they choose and annotate political cartoons from the time, create Instagram posts about the Plessy vs. Ferguson Supreme Court case, and/or make a presentation about social change agencies then and now.
- Activist: Supporting Equal Opportunities After the Civil War
Students explore the fight for land equality, voting privileges, and equal access to education during the Reconstruction Era as they create a presentation about the Black Senators who were elected then, an infographic about the right to a quality education, and/or a social media campaign about an issue in today’s society that has its roots in the Reconstruction.
MS/HS United States History II course (late 19th century to present):
- Legal Researcher: Separate But Equal
Students learn about the 1954 case of Brown vs. Board of Education and the 14th Amendment right to equal protection as they write captions for political cartoons of the time, create compare & contrast Instagram posts, and/or write opening & closing arguments for the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court hearings.
A final note…
I hope you’ll check out these projects and teach one or more not only in February but anytime in the year, since Black history should be interwoven throughout a course, not relegated to a special month. The projects are effective and engaging for students, fun to teach, and in-depth … so they’re not just for dessert!
John Larmer is a project-based learning expert. In his 20 years at the Buck Institute for Education/PBLWorks, he co-developed the model for Gold Standard PBL, authored several books and many blog posts, and contributed to curriculum and professional development. John is now the Senior PBL Advisor at Defined Learning.