Figuring out how to teach Black history in a way that goes well beyond sketches of Martin Luther King Jr or Rosa Parks is something Marcus Belin, who is African American, has given a lot of thought to as principal of a mostly white high school in the far northwest suburbs.
Belin, principal of Huntley High School, was part of the Black History Curriculum Task Force for the Illinois State Board of Education. The group was tasked with conducting a statewide audit of the teaching of Black history in Illinois schools.
Belin wants students to connect history with more recent events like the civil unrest following the murder of George Floyd. Sometimes that means his personal story is part of the lesson. Belin sat down with WBEZ to talk about Black History Month at his school. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
WBEZ: You’re in a district where the diversity is growing, but the student population is predominantly white. So what does Black History Month look like at your school? Sometimes you’re part of the lesson. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Marcus Belin: I have the fortunate ability of being able to share some of my lived experiences growing up as a Black boy on the South Side of Chicago. And there was some lived experiences that I went through. There was some challenges that I faced with race.
It’s not about going into a classroom and specifically teaching them one way or the other what they should think or what they shouldn’t think. It’s giving them a different perspective. Because the students here at Huntley High School have not had a Black principal or a Black leader. So being able to share my story and be able to inspire them and give them a different perspective is what I’m going to use.
It was culture shock for me being a principal, coming into a predominantly white school and being able to lead. Naturally, when race comes about, people are going to look for some guidance. So I listen to their stories and listen to their perspective to see where they’re coming from, but try to find the moments in which they can challenge me and I can also challenge them. So being able to pop into a classroom and engage in conversation with them and teach has been fun. It’s been great to be connected to that work, but also a critical moment in which I want to make sure we utilize opportunities that they could potentially face when they leave Huntley High School, and how they should handle it.
Talk about the different lessons students get from hearing the experience of their own principal versus something they might just read in a textbook.
That’s critical for me because if I gave you just the bullet points of “I was a Black male growing up on the South Side of Chicago, taking public transportation to school, some days walking to school,” people could draw on what they think of Chicago right now and the landscape of violence and begin to craft their own story.
That was not something that I came from. I came from a very positive upbringing. I had a family that’s deeply rooted in education. I didn’t come from a bunch of money, but a middle class home. My story is not that unique of “I came from the slums of Chicago, and I’m looking at where I am now.” That’s not the story in which I want our young people to always think we need to gravitate toward. Sharing those lived experiences gives them the perspective that I wasn’t immune to just because of my upbringing. I wasn’t immune to what was taking place in the city, but it affected me and impacted me a little bit differently.
How has it resonated with students to hear from you and about your experience?
I was just in an English classroom with seniors. And seniors, they’ve hit senioritis. They’re thinking of graduation, they got a countdown going, they already are thinking about prom. To sit and have some open dialogue for them to be able to hear from me? The bell rang, and we didn’t even realize. They were sitting there like, “We want more.” They want me to come back, and I actually want to go back because just the interactions that I had with them and the questions that they were asking were awesome.
They were experiences they would never be able to hear or learn about growing up in the suburbs of Chicago out in Huntley. This is a vehicle in which I’m able to expose them to something a little bit beyond the classroom.
Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @soosieon.