Black History Month: How One Michigan Teacher Uses Books to Inspire the Next Generation

Chrysantha Norwood’s living room is no longer the place she relaxes in after a long day of teaching. 

“This is my classroom now,” Norwood said, laughing. “But this is life and we’re all making the best of it.”

Norwood, a sixth-grade teacher at Distinctive College Prep-Harper Woods in Harper Woods, Mich., has turned her living room into a space filled with learning. She’s within arm’s reach of at least 75 books from her remote learning desk and will often grab one during a conversation to illustrate a point.

During Black History Month, Norwood’s English Language Arts lesson plans feature several books by African-American authors that she hopes will ignite a passion for reading among her students.

“I want to encourage them to read, read, and read some more,” Norwood said. “I want them to think of books not just as something related to learning, but as related to living. How you can go anywhere in the world by just opening up a book.”

Chrysantha Norwood is a sixth-grade teacher at Distinctive College Prep-Harper Woods in Michigan.

That escape through literature has been especially needed during a year of quarantine and remote learning. Without actual places to visit, books have helped open her sixth-graders’ eyes to the world beyond their Detroit-area neighborhood. 

“You want students to have a bigger picture of who they are in the world and what they can accomplish,” Norwood said.

Norwood enjoys choosing books that will teach her young African-American students about the past iconic faces of the civil rights movement while also inspiring them about their future. That’s why she enjoys Kwame Alexander’s The Undefeated, a poem that connects the struggles of previous generations with the perseverance and resilience that remains on display in today’s ongoing push for racial equality.

“When I shared this book with them, I said, ‘You have to remember that no matter what we come up against, we’re undefeated,’” Norwood said. “You never sit down, fear, or worry. You keep going and you do the work.”

Norwood has taken a similar attitude into her remote teaching experience. There have been days where things haven’t gone as planned, where a Zoom link didn’t work or her lesson plan wasn’t shared correctly. But despite being “Zoomed out,” Norwood can’t wait to go to bed Sunday night so she can get up on Monday morning and log on to see her students’ faces on her computer screen. 

Norwood, who said Monday is her favorite day of the week, loves to reconnect with her students at the start of each week and hear what they have to say. Those morning chats have included some powerful conversations over the past year about the racial uprising that has taken place across the country. 

“It’s been a challenging time, but we’ve been able to find joy along the way,” Norwood said. “We’ve had conversations about everything because they see everything we do. This year has shown the resilience of the human spirit and how tough kids are despite everything that’s going on.” 

Norwood believes there will someday be books written about this current moment in Black history and she encourages her students to closely follow the progress being made. But above all else, Norwood’s goal is that when her students leave her classroom – whether virtually or in-person – they will do so with a book in their hand.

“If I can get you to learn how to love to read, then that’s the most powerful thing I can do as an educator,” Norwood said. “If I can get you to want to read a book and explore something new, then I’ve done my job.”

About the author

Summit Learning
Summit Learning is a research–based approach to education designed to drive student engagement, meaningful learning, and strong student–teacher relationships that prepare students for life after graduation. Created by teachers with experience in diverse classrooms, Summit Learning is grounded in decades of research about how children learn. With Summit Learning, students gain mastery of core subjects like math, history, English, and science, while also carefully developing the skills and habits of lifelong learners. Summit Learning is independently led and operated by the nonprofit, Gradient Learning.