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Black-Focused Content Matters: Incorporating Black Canadian Perspectives in the Classroom

Natasha Henry

Black history, when and if taught in Ontario classrooms, generally receives marginal treatment and is laden with American content – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, American slavery. There are no specific learning expectations in the Ontario curriculum on African Canadian history, leaving the possibilities of what to teach wide open, which can be overwhelming for teachers not familiar with the content or seeking more Canadian-based subject matter. A large part of my work as an educator is developing resources to fill the gap in African Canadian content for teachers and students and facilitating workshops on teaching Black history. One question I consistently get from teachers who attend my workshops is whether I can recommend any good resources to incorporate the Black Canadian perspective into their classrooms. I gladly provide a long list of resources to those who ask and I am thrilled to add the new Sankofa Black Heritage Collection to my list of recommendations.

I learned about this trailblazing anthology when I was asked to contribute two titles – Firsts and African Diaspora – and was immediately excited about its potential. The books in the collection are not text-heavy and are appropriate for the target audiences of grade 4 to 8 students. Sankofa includes a wide range of text forms: interviews, profiles, fiction, timelines, biographies, infographics, poems, articles and folktales. There is a good balance of historical and contemporary content. Early Civilizations of Africa features African kingdoms across the continent. There are profiles of African Canadians such as John “Daddy” Hall, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Elijah McCoy and Viola Desmond. The struggles by people of African descent in Canada, the United States and other parts of the world are explored in Freedom and Rights and Equality. Places of Black settlement in Canada during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries such as the communities of Birchtown, Africville, Buxton and Amber Valley are included. Contemporary topics include hip hop culture and its global reach, racial profiling, fashion blogging, Afrofuturism and the use and impact of various forms of media by Black youth. The collection presents diverse perspectives and experiences of people of African descent, linking Blacks in Canada to Black peoples globally.

The books are very informative for teachers and students looking for valuable information on various aspects of Black history. The array of topics covered in the series helps teachers effectively integrate more African Canadian experiences across the curriculum in a meaningful way. There are curricular connections to language, social studies, history, geography, science and technology, math, sports and the arts.

Sankofa enhances critical literacy instruction through its supportive features. It incorporates questioning throughout each book. Each title opens with an “Essential Question” that encapsulates the big idea and provokes relevant inquiry. The “Think About It” activities raise questions to connect students’ prior knowledge to the content in the book. The range of text genres provides opportunities for students to participate in deep authentic discussions and to engage with the text. The “Connect It” feature invites young readers to further explore topics through independent or group activities. The “Scaffolding” supportive feature assists in moving students through certain texts and developing stronger comprehension.

The Sankofa Black Heritage Collection, authored entirely by writers of African descent (many Ontario-based teachers), was intended to engage readers, especially (but not only) Black learners, through culturally relevant and responsive literature. African Canadian students can see themselves and aspects of their cultures, identities and realities positively reflected in materials used in their classroom. In their research, African Canadian sociologists Dr. Carl James, Dr. George Dei, Keren Braithwaite and Dr. Patrick Solomon have noted at length that Black students are often marginalized or excluded from the curriculum, which can negatively impact their learning. They experience feelings of disconnection and persistent exclusion that have been linked to the underachievement of some Black students in Ontario schools, evident in the 23 per cent dropout rate among youth of African descent in Toronto alone and the consistently low test scores of Black children in Ontario public schools. For non-Black students, the series creates a space to learn more about people of African descent and challenge stereotypes and myths perpetuated in the media that influence how Blacks are viewed in society.

This anthology is an excellent resource for making curriculum more relevant to students. It will support teachers in embedding the principles of inclusion, diversity and equity into their teaching program with the diverse representations of people of African descent and the examples of the significant roles that Black men, women and youth play in every facet of Canadian society. The series easily reduces the amount of research that a teacher may undertake to be more inclusive in their planning and program delivery.

The title of this high-quality series appropriately depicts the state of teaching African Canadian history in Ontario, and more broadly, in Canada and aptly outlines the goal of the 15-book series. Sankofa is a Twi word of the Akan in Ghana that means “go back and get it.” As it relates to Black history, it calls for a return to the past to reclaim narratives that have been lost, forgotten or silenced. In so doing, a deeper awareness of present-day circumstances is cultivated, which can then help to shape the future. The collection captures a wonderful assortment of stories and information connected to people of African descent and makes them accessible to junior/intermediate level learners. This effort was recognized with the first three books of the collection – Firsts, Belonging and Freedom – winning the 2014 Gold Medal Moonbeam Children’s Book Award for Multicultural Non-Fiction. The Sankofa Black Heritage Collection was a finalist for the “Relate” category in the 2016 Revere Awards’ Beyond the Classroom competition.

There is a need and a demand for wellwritten, student-friendly books on African Canadian history. The Sankofa Black Heritage Collection is long overdue and worth the wait. It will definitely be a valuable addition to school libraries and classrooms.

Natasha Henry is a member of the Peel Occasional Teacher Local