Black History: Best Taught in February or All Year Long?

By E. Jeanne Harnois Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, February 1, 2005 | Go to article overview
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Black History: Best Taught in February or All Year Long?


E. Jeanne Harnois Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


This month at Walter Payton College Prep High School in Chicago, history classes will cover urbanization - specifically, the changes to the city's culture and music that resulted when Southern blacks migrated north.

In English classes, meanwhile, students will be reading Toni Morrison and studying the Harlem Renaissance. And the high school's African-American Club will host an annual school-wide assembly featuring black poetry and music.

The Chicago school is one of many across the US that gears its February curriculum toward exploring black Americans' contributions to society.

The idea that students are enriched by learning about the heritage and role of African-Americans is widely accepted among most US educators. What's now debated is whether such lessons should be confined, some say "segregated," to one month or, instead, be incorporated into class work all year long. Earmarking a single month to recognize black achievement, this camp argues, is not enough in a society built on the contributions of many racial and ethnic groups.

The notion of a dedicated time for black history instruction dates from 1926, when educator Carter Godwin Woodson created Negro History Week in a bid to promote a better understanding of the contributions of blacks. In 1976, Congress changed the week into a full month.

The Walter Payton school is one that prefers this approach. "It is better to have a full month to have a larger focus so the students can see how things fit together," says Ken Mularski, the school's curriculum coordinator.

Some school officials, though, argue that weaving black history, along with other minority contributions, into lessons throughout the year is better.

"We are pretty doggone white," says Chris Willis, an assistant vice principal at Zionsville Community High School in Indiana, of the student population at his school. "I feel as though the challenge is stronger for us to overcome because there isn't diversity."

His district was recently criticized when it opted to hold classes on Martin Luther King Day - a traditional school holiday. It defended that decision, noting that its conscious effort that day to focus on the achievements of the civil rights leader, that include starting the morning at the high school with a broadcast of the full 15-minute "I Have a Dream" speech. There were also several displays, including one with black artists and their work.

During Black History Month the school doesn't rely on specialized activities, says Mr. Willis. Instead, teachers are encouraged to include information about black leaders and history throughout the year. "It's not something that we do just once a month," says Willis.

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