Educators Reflect on the Lessons of Juneteenth
Juneteenth, a contraction of “June” and “nineteenth,” commemorates the day in 1865 when 250,000 enslaved people in Texas were among the last to be given their freedom. It is also known as Emancipation Day, or Freedom Day. By June 19, 1865, two years had passed since President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation declaring freedom for enslaved people in the Confederacy. The order paved the way for the Thirteenth Amendment, which would make the abolishment of slavery the law. Yet, a quarter million people in America were still enslaved. On June 18, 1865, the Union army arrived in Galveston, Texas, and the next day it was finally announced that enslaved Texans were free by order of the President of the United States. Juneteenth, declared a state holiday in Texas in 1980, symbolizes the end of slavery in America—and is now a federal holiday.
How are teachers honoring Juneteenth in their classrooms? To find out, we invited two accomplished educators to share their ideas and perspectives. Here’s what we learned:
Prioritizing Untold Stories
by Ricardo Vela
Ricardo teaches U.S. History in the White Plains Public School District in New York.
During Black History Month this year, I conducted a lesson on the Harlem Renaissance, introducing my students to Langston Hughes and his poem, “I Dream a World.” In it, Hughes describes a world where racism doesn’t exist and Black and white folks live peacefully together. I explained to my middle school students that this poem provided inspiration for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ‘s “I Have a Dream” speech. The lesson concluded with my students writing their own “dream” poetry.
While I was teaching this lesson, our school’s social studies curriculum coordinator stopped by to observe. Impressed with the work students were producing, he was eager to explore ways to build in meaningful lessons that acknowledge the achievements of Black Americans. He asked how we might do more to embed the history and culture of our Black and brown students in our curriculum. It’s a question I spend a lot of time thinking about, and I come back to it now as Juneteenth approaches.
Holidays and awareness months are important entry points, but integrating diverse stories and voices all year long is essential. As a history teacher, I bring to my students untold stories and biographies that highlight the struggles, aspirations, and achievements of notable Americans of all backgrounds. Bass Reeves, the first Black deputy U.S. Marshall west of the Mississippi River, is one such example. Most American history classes focus on well-known figures like Wyatt Earp. Because Earp and Reeves were contemporaries, their biographies highlight the history of the West at the same time, but from two different vantage points. My students find these lessons compelling.
Though Juneteenth has gained prominence, not everyone is aware of its historical significance. Many consider it a second independence day. The topic naturally lends itself to discussion about the experiences of Black Americans, from the founding of our country to the present, and how the work of creating a more equitable and accepting society continues to this day.
There will always be stories missing from curricula, but educators have a unique opportunity to find them and bring them to light. We can start with stories that already exist in our own classrooms, creating a safe place for students who wish to share what it means to them to be Black, Asian, Latinx, Native American, Jewish, Muslim, LGBTQ+…. Students can take on the role of educator, teaching classmates about prominent figures, past and present, who inspire them. Giving students a voice helps them build confidence, trust, and empathy, while making our classrooms more enlightening and enriching places for all of our students.
Making Space for Student Curiosity
Tomika is a teacher in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Public School District in North Carolina, where she has taught a range of K-12 subjects.
Juneteenth is an opportunity to highlight resilience. It is a day of celebration, but also an acknowledgement of the strength of the human spirit. Slavery ended less than 200 years ago, which means that some people who are alive today had great-grandparents who were born into slavery.
June is a time of winding down—and for some districts school has already ended for the year. For this reason, and so many others, teaching about Juneteenth and other historic dates and events should not be confined to a specific day or month. I weave in stories about overcoming adversity to help my students develop resilience in their own lives all year long.
For many students, I am their first teacher of color. I make an effort to meaningfully introduce them to facts and stories that they may not have been aware of before. For example, we can introduce students to Black musicians in honor of African-American Music Appreciation Month, which is also in June. Sharing information, inviting others to learn, and bringing them into the experience is a celebration of Black culture.
There are so many different months, weeks, and days of celebration, and I see each as an opportunity to bring awareness. In my experience, the best way to reach students is to provide opportunities for them to discover what interests them, like making available books and other resources about Black history, biographies of people of color, and books by authors of all different backgrounds, and leaving them on the shelf for students to explore.
Making space for students to wonder and ask questions can be more meaningful than delivering explicit lessons. When students apply what they learn in creative ways, such as producing digital stories, coding a project on BrainPOP, or making their own books, they flex their critical and creative thinking muscles.
My district is proactive about sharing new ideas and encouraging conversation. We have “Social Justice Wednesdays,” when our media specialists share books that are relevant to the topic. We then leave it there and create space for the kids to discuss and form their own perspectives.
This Juneteenth, there are many ways to honor the day. You can read books, share news articles, or watch BrainPOP’s Juneteenth movie. Invite students who celebrate to describe their family traditions, such as attending ceremonies, having picnics, raising the Juneteenth flag, and more!