FOR THE WEEK OF FEB. 24, 2020
Black history instruction gains closer attention -- and changes
Read a new or archived black history article and list two facts.
Can you spot news about a school, teacher or district in your state? What's the topic?
Now look for other education coverage and tell why it's in the paper.
Black History Month lessons are evolving, and the observance each February may be at a turning point in some schools as educators focus on current events as well as the past. Teachers across the country wore "Black Lives Matter" T-shirts this month during presentations on black history and race issues, including in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago – the three biggest U.S. school systems. That approach was suggested by the National Education Association, a teachers' union. "he goal of Black Lives Matter at School is to spark an ongoing movement of critical reflection and honest conversation in school communities for people of all ages to engage with issues of racial justice," its website says.
But mostly, elementary, middle school and high school students hear this month about the same few historical figures: Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, George Washington Carver, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Jackie Robinson and Barack Obama. Lessons often end at the victories of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965), and then jump to Obama's victories in 2008 and 2012. LaGarrett King, an associate professor of education at the University of Missouri, says black history instruction in schools is "steadily improving, yet still stagnant." In a recent Time magazine interview, he adds: "When we have more contemporary movements such as Black Lives Matter, [students] are largely unable to make sense of it because we skipped the war on drugs with Reagan and the targeting of black communities by police. Their last conceptions of black citizenship are tied to this idea that we all had a dream, we overcame, and Obama was elected president."
There's also the issue of slavery, a topic in history and social studies classes that's not confined to February. How slaves are described – sometimes as "immigrants" and “workers” – can be inaccurate or misleading. A 2018 survey by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that only 8 percent of high school seniors identified slavery as the central cause of the Civil War. (See video below.) An analysis by CBS News, reported this month, found that curriculum standards in 16 states list states' rights as a cause of the Civil War. Seven states don't directly mention slavery in their teaching standards and eight omit the civil rights movement.
In a special Sunday magazine section last summer, The New York Times noted: "The United States still struggles to teach children about slavery. Unlike math and reading, states are not required to meet academic content standards for teaching social studies and United States history. That means that there is no consensus on the curriculum around slavery, no uniform recommendation to explain an institution that was debated in the crafting of the Constitution and that has influenced nearly every aspect of American society since."
Now there are signs of change. Seven states have commissions to oversee mandatory black history lessons in public schools, and Illinois requires public colleges and universities to offer black history courses. To meet the rising demand, at least six black history textbooks are on the market, as well as lesson plans on websites. Ursula Wolfe-Rocca, who teaches black history lessons year-round at a mainly white high school near Portland, Ore., says educators must become better-informed to teach the subject. "The answer to why do white kids need black history is that it is history and it’s their history too," the social studies teacher says. "It's a shared collective past."
Student says: "People still discuss slavery as if it wasn't a big issue. Young children are shielded from the truth. They need to understand America's history, even if it includes topics that make them uncomfortable." — Kynzie White of Lubbock, Texas, responding to New York Times article
African American reporter says: "By the time I got to 10th grade, I wondered: 'Well, why don't we just talk about these things [all year] in our U.S. history class? Why don't we just talk about these things in our English class?'" – Bryce Huffman, Michigan Radio
Author says: "When we instruct our children, we should be instructing them in truth." – Ibram X. Kendi of American University in Washington, D.C.
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