How one MN educator brings Black History Month to the classroom

A teacher in a classroom.
Derek Francis teaches a class of fourth and fifth-grade students at Jenny Lind Elementary.
Elizabeth Shockman | MPR News

Derek Francis makes time to get in the classroom whenever he can. The manager of counseling services for Minneapolis Public Schools trains and supervises counselors in Minnesota’s third-largest district.

In February, he tries to find ways to incorporate lessons centered on Black History Month.

“I know we have lessons in our counseling curriculum around diversity and inclusion, and so I figure, why wouldn’t I go? I have the skillset, and I’m a person of color kids see,” Francis said. “So I invite myself to schools and say, ‘Hey, here’s a topic I can come cover.’”

On a recent morning, Francis stopped into a classroom at Jenny Lind Elementary. He spoke with students who soon will transition to middle school.

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A teacher in a classroom.
Derek Francis manages counseling services for Minneapolis Public Schools.
Elizabeth Shockman | MPR News

Francis started with a game to get students talking, this time about their favorite candy and movies. Then he shifted the conversation to making new friends — especially with people who seem different than they are.

“When you get to middle school, look for ways you can get to know people. Find things that you have in common,” he said.

Francis has seen the ways that an inability to relate to people can hurt his students. He said racist incidents have affected students in the schools where he worked, and he’s seen the damage rippling out.

According to a recent report from the American School Counselor Association, almost half of U.S. schools lack diversity, equity and inclusion programs. But in those schools where there are anti-racism efforts, nearly 41 percent saw an improved school climate.

“Our world is so divided racially. This is a time we need to beef up the work of saying, ‘Hey, this is how you treat someone of a different background. Here’s what happened historically that we don’t want to do again,’” Francis said.

The counseling manager thinks it’s important to talk about how some parts of history can continue to make it hard for his students to have healthy relationships with their racially diverse peers. But he confesses that it can sometimes be difficult to talk about.

A teacher in a classroom.
Derek Francis and students at Jenny Lind Elementary.
Elizabeth Shockman | MPR News

“I get nervous still about someone not liking what they’re hearing, kids feeling bad about themselves, bad about what’s happened,” Francis said. “It’s not to make anyone feel bad, it’s more like, ‘Hey, we still see traces and remnants of some of these historical things, so let’s make things better.’”

When Francis moved from talking about making new friends in middle school, he brought up Juneteenth, a newly designated federal holiday.

Juneteenth marks the day federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, a full two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and informed the people living there who were enslaved that they were free.

As he played a video for students, Francis drew attention to the ways Black Americans in Texas originally celebrated their freedom over 150 years ago. Then he asked the class how they would celebrate the holiday. One student suggested fireworks or grilling outside. Others mentioned serving macaroni and cheese or egg rolls.

Francis suggested one way to celebrate Juneteenth is to be mindful of how they treat other people.

”We’re celebrating this day because now all of us are free — not just white people, not just some Black people, all of us,” Francis said. “How do we take what we know happened and say, ‘We don’t want to do any of these things again.’ It starts even in your own personal life, too. How are you taking the opportunity to build unity in the community you’re in?”

Francis said he never got these sorts of history lessons when he was a K-12 student. But he hopes he can start changing that for his students.