Published February 6, 2024
Before arriving at UB to pursue her PhD, Dawnavyn James taught elementary students in Missouri for seven years. Here, 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,” she said of her new book, Beyond February: Teaching Black History Any Day, Every Day, and All Year Long, which took two years for her to perfect. The book began to take shape after she wrote a blog post referencing her experience teaching Black history. From this post she met her editor, who encouraged her to turn her ideas into a book. This fall, James’ guide to teaching Black history was published, just one year after she began pursuing her PhD at UB.
Drawn to UB by the Center for K-12 Black History and Racial Literacy Education, where she is a fellow, James is studying 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 said.
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,” James said. “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, they are: 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 performing in her church’s Black history program in Kansas City, Missouri. “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, Missouri, 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, PhD, director of UB’s Center for K-12 Black History and Racial Literacy Education, at his Teaching Black History conference in Columbia, Missouri in 2018.
“From that first year, I went back every year to present and collaborate with other people who attended the conference,” James said. She says she enjoyed his work in the field so much that, when King, who called James “one of the foremost scholars in Black history education, especially at the early childhood and elementary levels,” enticed her to come to Buffalo, she said “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, a graduate course called Improving Elementary Social Studies and now 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.
But her mission to teach Black history expands outside of the classroom–James uses social media to respond to tough topics such as banned books and inadequacies in racial education. She also runs a Black history club for young historians and is a featured Saturday school “Nerd” at the Center for K-12 Black History and Racial Literacy Education.
“Seeing her do those things during her spare time impresses me,” said King, “I knew she was a hard worker, and we share the same values as it pertains to Black history education.”
James’ passion is not confined to the classroom, but she’s certain her research work within the Graduate School of Education at UB will play an integral role in her future. “I would love to teach teachers. Whether they’re practicing or pre-service, I want to help support them, especially with their Black history instruction,” she said. And she’s already making a difference; King says “Beyond February” will be required reading for elementary teacher education courses at UB.
James hopes her book can help other teachers to see how Black history can be implemented outside of Black History Month, and across more subjects. “Black history doesn’t have to just be taught as just a social studies topic, it can be brought into literacy, math and science,” she said.
“Dawnavyn will continue to do great things here at UB. She is an already established expert in the field,” King said. “We look forward to seeing how her research unfolds around the country.”