'Decolonizing' Unalaska's Classrooms: Local Teachers Discuss Black History Month

Feb 26, 2021

High school teacher Hannah Vowell said she consistently seeks out work and examples from diverse voices and authors, no matter what subject she is teaching—whether that be math, science, Spanish or photography.
Credit Courtesy of Hannah Vowell

February is Black History Month, a time when schools, libraries, and organizations across the nation often pause to celebrate Black history and recognize the United States' violent and unjust treatment of Black people.

But in Unalaska, many teachers aren't doing anything special in their classrooms this month because they are working to include Black history and perspectives in their lesson plans year round.

"It's kind of like we're saying your history isn't history, and your literature isn't literature, and your art isn't art, unless it's February—the shortest month of the year," said fifth and sixth grade teacher Greta Eustace. "And that just never seemed right to me." 

Eustace teaches language arts and social studies on the island, and while she acknowledges Black History Month with her students, she said she tries to consistently highlight work from Black Americans throughout the year. 

According to Eustace, one month of recognition is not sufficient, but she said the month is necessary to help ensure that people acknowledge Black history and that teachers include Black voices in their curriculum.

"I just don't think [Black History Month] should be a necessary thing, and unfortunately, it is," Eustace said.

Discussing Black history and racial inequality, as well as including diverse voices are all inherent parts of her classroom and teaching style, she added.

"It's important to consider the fact that social justice belongs in every classroom and that cultural sensitivity in classrooms promotes connection and equity with students," she said. "And you have to consider presenting the world from the perspective of your students and the perspective of underrepresented people, in addition to what we would call the 'classics.'" 

Eustace calls this approach "decolonizing" her curriculum. By providing her students with diverse texts from diverse writers, she's giving them the tools they need "to form an educated opinion of the world around them and not just regurgitate what they've been told over and over in their lives." 

High school English teacher Jacob Collins-Wilson echoed Eustace's sentiments, and agreed that Black history should be included year round.

"Isolating it, I don't think is the healthy way, or the way that I want my classroom, or my life, or the world to be," said Collins-Wilson. "Black history is not isolated to one month, or one subject, or one kind of conversation. I think it's inherent in everything no matter what we're reading or writing." 

Excluding Black history throughout the year and then highlighting it in his lessons in February feels like a "cop out," he said. Instead, Collins-Wilson makes sure to include essays, stories and ideas from people of diverse backgrounds from the beginning of the year.

"My whole teaching from the get go has been much more infused with women and people of color and a big focus on international writers as well," he said. "Basically, to use English class as a way to explore not only language or writing, but also identity and culture."

The recent Black Lives Matter movement has helped facilitate more conversations with his students about racial injustice, police violence and Black history in general, he said. The movement and its social media presence has encouraged people—his students included—to think more diversely.

"As an English teacher, I love that because then we get to read such different stuff," Collins-Wilson said. "And it's harder for a student to say, 'this is irrelevant.' When, if we look at our nation right now, we're having tons of conversations around race and identity and culture and language and equality and treatment and power dynamics. So it's really important to talk about that and to read different perspectives that relate to those different topics."

English and social studies teachers are not the only ones incorporating discussions about race dynamics and injustice into their classrooms. Hannah Vowell said she consistently seeks out work and examples from diverse voices and authors, no matter what subject she is teaching—whether that be math, science, Spanish or photography.

While she has included some specific lessons in both her Spanish and photography courses this year to celebrate Black History Month, Vowell said she considers it her general responsibility to make time in her classroom to address conversations about things like diversity and culture.

 

"I think it's my job to lead discussions and provoke critical thinking about what's happening in the world," she said.

In a school district with a teaching staff that does not mirror the diversity of the student population, Eustace, Collins-Wilson and Vowell—who are all white—said they recognize that conversations about race and inequality can be very complicated. 

While Eustace said she finds the lack of diversity in the teaching population on the island disappointing, she considers it her responsibility to provide kids with a diverse education that always includes Black voices and perspectives.

"The kids who need you the most are the ones who need an activist, ones who need people to fight for them to be represented and heard and seen in the world," she said. "And if you're not an activist, you're not really helping the kids who are most in need." 

Since 1976, every U.S. president has officially designated the month of February as Black History Month. Other countries around the world, including Canada and the United Kingdom, also devote a month to celebrating Black history.