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UB Doctoral Student Publishes Guide to Teaching Black History in Elementary Classrooms 

This article originally appeared on University at Buffalo’s website and is reprinted with permission. 

Before arriving at UB to pursue her Ph.D., Dawnavyn James taught elementary students in Missouri for seven years, where she learned that young students are a lot smarter — and a lot more ready to learn about Black history — than we give them credit for. 

“It all started in the classroom,” James said of her new book, “Beyond February: Teaching Black History Any Day, Every Day, and All Year Long.” The book began to take shape after she wrote a blog post referencing her experience teaching Black history. Through this post, she met her editor, who encouraged her to turn her ideas into a book. James’ guide to teaching Black history was published this fall, just a year after she began her doctoral studies. 

Drawn to UB by the Center for K-12 Black History and Racial Literacy Education, where she is a fellow, James studies how elementary teachers use picture books to teach Black history. “I’m really looking at how teachers analyze picture books and teach Black history based on what they know about Black history,” she explains.  

Armed with her own experience teaching kindergarteners in a challenging educational landscape, James decided to construct her own guide, to be used by teachers and those studying to be teachers.  

“I’m excited to see what people do with it,” she says. “I’m excited for people to take what they’re reading and actually use it in their classroom because I don’t want it to just be something that they read and don’t do anything with.” 

While the book itself is too advanced for elementary students to read, their instructors can find five sections — Beyond the People, Beyond the Books, Beyond the Curriculum, Beyond the Month and The Work Doesn’t Stop Here — each of which includes important Black figures, over 100 picture book recommendations to accompany lessons, and holistic and read-aloud lessons to introduce students to the concept of race.  

James found her passion while performing in her church’s Black History program in Kansas City, MO.  

“I didn’t learn much about it in elementary school; I learned about Martin Luther King Jr. during his birthday and that’s truly all I remember,” James said. “I don’t remember celebrating Black History Month and I learned the most at home.” 

From there, she studied education at Stephens College in Columbia, MO, where she would begin her career as a teacher. “I didn’t want my students to share my own experience without Black history, so I made it a point that it would be highlighted in my classroom year-round instead of once a year during Black History Month.” 

James collaborated with other professionals who shared her passion for teaching Black history. She met LaGarrett King, director of UB’s Center for K-12 Black History and Racial Literacy Education, in 2018 at a Teaching Black History conference King had organized in Columbia. 

“From that first year, I went back every year to present and collaborate with other people who attended the conference,” James said.  

She said she enjoyed his work in the field so much that when King, who calls James “one of the foremost scholars in Black history education, especially at the early childhood and elementary levels,” enticed her to come to Buffalo, “it only made sense to come work with him.” 

James started as a graduate assistant at the Center for K-12 Black History and Racial Literacy Education the following fall, when she also began her doctoral program at UB. As a student in the Department of Learning and Instruction, James began teaching fellow UB students — first with a graduate course called Improving Elementary Social Studies, and now with an undergraduate course called Introduction to Education.  

“Dawnavyn has added great value to the center, most obvious is adding our focus to the younger grades. I routinely bounce ideas off her, so she has been valuable in developing our mission,” King said. 

Read the full version of this story on University at Buffalo’s website. 

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