How to Celebrate Black History Month in Health and Physical Education

Each year in February, we celebrate Black History Month to recognize and pay homage to the contributions made by Black Americans throughout history. This year’s theme, according to the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), is Black Health and Wellness, which ties into the content areas of health and physical education.

If you are a health and physical education teacher who would like to celebrate Black History Month in your classes, take a look at the five ideas below. Also, recognizing that Black history is American history and therefore should be celebrated year-round, you could also incorporate any of these activities into your health and PE curriculum throughout the year.

Share Facts About Black Health and Wellness

Since February is also American Heart Month, take time to share facts and open up a discussion about heart health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cardiovascular disease causes 1 in 3 deaths and high blood pressure is the leading cause of heart attack and stroke in the United States, but Black Americans are at a higher risk.

I want to be clear that sharing facts about health statistics relating to Black Americans or other minority groups needs to be followed up with additional discussion. It’s important to have age-appropriate discussions with your students about how culture can affect health behaviors such as eating choices, physical activity, and even when to see a doctor.

Individual motivation isn’t the only thing that affects one’s health; factors such as access to healthy food choices and medical care can also affect health and increase risk factors for chronic diseases.

Once you share facts with your students, be sure to debrief with questions for discussion about hearth health. You can have students move with a partner and answer the following questions or use the questions to guide discussion at the beginning or end of a lesson.

Grades K-2:

  • What are ways that we can move our body that improve our heart health?
  • What kinds of foods can we eat that are healthy for our heart?
  • What kinds of foods do you eat at home?

Grades 3-5:

  • What are some examples of cardiovascular exercises?
  • What are ways we can eat healthier that improve our heart health?
  • How do your parents or caregivers affect your food choices?

Grades 6-8:

  • What are examples of cardiovascular exercises that you do daily?
  • What are healthy habits to consider as you get older to maintain heart health?
  • How can family influence your ability to take care of your health?

Grades 9-12:

  • How can you add more cardiovascular activities to your day? Be sure to implement them.
  • What are examples of health behaviors that might increase your risk for cardiovascular disease?
  • How can someone’s culture affect how they might take care of their health?
Residents in some lower income neighborhoods may be living in a food desert,” with limited access to affordable and nutritious food.

When I was a physical education teacher in Washington, DC, I taught in a more affluent, predominantly white area of the city, but lived in an area where the residents were of a lower socioeconomic status and were predominantly Black.

In my 10- to 15-minute commute across the city, I could see the differences in the types of fast food chains and restaurant offerings, grocery stores, and other resources. On one intersection in my neighborhood there were three or four liquor stores within a block of each other.

If you are teaching older students in health education class, another activity idea would be to have them compare the stores, restaurants and health facilities that are available in neighborhoods of higher and lower socioeconomic status. For example:

  1. Identify a higher income neighborhood and lower income neighborhood in your region or state.
  2. Have students search both neighborhoods using Google Maps. They should zoom in to see the types of stores, restaurants, and medical facilities that are available. They can also use street view to see what the area looks like.
  3. Have students note how many of each facility they see in the two neighborhoods:
    • Grocery stores
    • Restaurants
    • Parks, gyms, or other opportunities to be physically active
    • Other kinds of stores
    • Health care facilities or hospitals
    • Schools
  4. Use the following questions as suggestions for discussion:
    • What grocery stores are available in each neighborhood?
    • What types of restaurants are available? (Compare price, type of food, etc.)
    • What kinds of facilities are available to be physically active?
    • What kinds of medical facilities are nearby?
    • What other differences do you notice?
    • What are the demographics of the people who live in each neighborhood? (e.g., white, Black, Hispanic, Asian)
    • How can these varying circumstances affect someone’s ability to make positive health choices?

To take this discussion a step further, work with a social studies or government teacher to discuss how redlining created segregated neighborhoods and how this has had an effect on health and wellness for people of those communities.

Share Stories of Black Americans to Highlight Health Inequities

Black Americans have faced health disparities and discrimination since the first enslaved Africans were brought to North America. Enslaved people and Black Americans were often used for medical experiments and research against their will or without their consent.

One example is that of Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were taken without her permission during a biopsy and used to make huge medical advancements. Here are some ideas for incorporating this into health education:

  1. Have students read about Henrietta Lacks.
  2. Open up discussion using the following questions:
    • Why do you think Dr. Gey decided to take cells from Henrietta Lacks?
    • Should Dr. Gey be celebrated or admonished for his work regarding HeLa cells?
    • In the last sentence of the article’s fifth paragraph, it says, “At that time it was not uncommon to study patients and their tissues without their knowledge or consent (see Tuskegee syphilis study*).” Who do you think most commonly were the kinds of patients this happened to?
Henrietta Lacks (HeLa) Timeline by National Human Genome Research Institute

Use Sports Stories to Talk About Discrimination

An easy and natural way to discuss Black History Month in health and physical education is through Black American pioneers in sports. Reese Ryzewski, SHAPE America’s 2020 Midwest District High School Physical Education Teacher of the Year, used the story of Jesse Owens to discuss discrimination in athletics. Here’s what she did:

  1. Shared the background information about Jesse Owens with students.
  2. Showed students a 16-minute video about Jesse Owens.
  3. Provided an opportunity for follow-up discussion in small groups:
    • How would you feel being a Black American traveling to Nazi-controlled Berlin in 1936?
    • What stood out to you most from the video?
    • What issues do you believe Black athletes faced 80 years ago compared to today?
    • Do you think Black athletes face some of those issues today? Why or why not?
Jesse Owens. Berlin Germany, 1936. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Teachers can use this format to discuss other Black athletes such as Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Serena Williams, or Wilma Rudolph.

Another suggestion could be to discuss Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics:

  1. Share background information about American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who won medals for the 200-meter race at the 1968 Olympic games. During the award ceremony, Smith and Carlos protested against racial discrimination by going without shoes on the podium and bowing their heads during the national anthem while raising a fist with a black glove.
  2. Have students watch the NBC documentary about the 1968 Olympics or read this article. The video is over an hour long, so you may want to only show a portion of the video or have students watch it on their own prior to class.
  3. Provide an opportunity for discussion:
    • What are some things that stood out to you from the video/article?
    • Have you seen the image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos before?
    • Why did Smith and Carlos protest at the Olympics?
    • What happened to Smith and Carlos after they protested?
    • Are there examples of athletes protesting today? Are there any similarities in the risk that Tommie Smith and John Carlos took compared to the athletes of today?
    • How can you be an ally to or show your support to those who protest?
American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the award ceremony at the 1968 Olympics.

Learn About Black History in the HPE Profession

Black History Month provides an opportunity to highlight Black Americans who have made amazing contributions to HPE and related fields. One place to start is with “The ‘Hidden Figures’ of Physical Education: Black Women Who Paved the Way in PE,” an article published by SHAPE America in the Winter 2022 issue of Momentum magazine.

The article shines a spotlight on several Black female educators whose contributions to the physical education field deserve broader recognition.

Create a Black History Fitness Trail

Physical education teacher Amanda Amtmanis in Middletown, CT, created a “fitness trail” in her elementary school that included information about notable Black Americans. Here’s what she had to say about the process.

How I started:

  • First, I bought Black history cards from Urban Intellectuals, which I incorporated into games. Then, I came up with the idea to make a Black History Fitness Trail throughout the school that students could browse while walking the halls. Classroom teachers could incorporate the trail into extra movement breaks while walking their class to and from the cafeteria or special classes, and parents would see the various stations during parent-teacher conferences.

How I put it together:

  • I chose 10 questions from the Black history trivia deck that I thought might be of the most interest to my elementary-age students and typed them into a Google Doc. I then added images and information about each possible answer (both correct and incorrect) from their Wikipedia entries. Here’s my template if you’d like to try it.
  • I then cut 10 large sheets of paper from the craft rolls we use for bulletin boards and pasted one question to the top of each and then laminated. Next, I pasted the accompanying answers to the outside of file folders with the folded edge oriented as the top and the information about the answers inside so that when someone lifted the folder, they would reveal the information and learn whether the answer was correct or whether they needed to try again.
  • For each incorrect answer, students were directed to do a particular exercise or movement before trying again. Students were directed to do a 10-second celebration each time they discovered the correct answer. The folders were laminated and trimmed and then affixed below each question using duct tape.
  • Once all 10 stations were created, I decided on a prominent, central location to hang up the welcome/introduction and question 1. Then I followed a path around the school, hanging the questions up at varying intervals and locations so students could find them all in order if they wanted to.
An example of one of the correct answers and its accompanying movement.

How it was received:

  • Without any formal introduction, students were naturally curious and wanted to play and interact with the stations. I spotted students playing together before school or stopping to read as they walked through the halls.
  • I introduced the fitness trail at a faculty meeting, during which my colleagues broke into teams and completed the whole trail. This helped them become familiar with the trail in case they wanted to incorporate it into their classes and helped them experience and recognize the power of connecting movement with learning. Most importantly, it allowed them to learn more underrepresented history, which can help to erode unconscious biases.
  • Our busy superintendent accepted my personal invitation to visit our fitness trail, where he was welcomed by a select group of students who served as tour guides for his visit. These were students who I thought might benefit most from this opportunity.
  • Going forward, I’m planning to make this an annual event with new questions each year. I can also envision similar installations recognizing the achievements of other underrepresented and marginalized groups. (For example, September is Hispanic Heritage Month, October is Native American Heritage Month, and June is Pride Month.)
Superintendent Michael Conner visited the Black History Fitness Trail created by physical educator Amanda Amtmanis. Students served as tour guides.

Creating a Safe Space for All Students

It’s important to have conversations with all students about the experiences of marginalized groups. It helps students to understand each other’s differences and learn how we can connect with one another despite any differences.

These conversations also help create a space where students feel valued, safe, and appreciated — a place where they belong. And as educators isn’t this what we want?

How are you uplifting and celebrating Black History Month and how do you plan to keep it going throughout the year? Tag me on Twitter @HPEmichelle and let me know!

Additional Resources

Michelle Carter

Michelle Carter is director of educational content and programs at SHAPE America. She is a former health and physical educator for District of Columbia Public Schools. Follow her on Twitter @HPEmichelle or email her at