True Role Models: Elementary Students Encounter Familiar Stories in a Customized Curriculum That Helps Them Understand the Bigger World.

Article excerpt

A few years ago, elementary students in Detroit Public Schools didn't even have a social studies curriculum. Now, as 55,000 K-2 students in this diverse city start to learn about their surroundings, histories and their own cultures, they are given their own role models and sense of identity in the district's innovative, customized K-2 social studies program. The textbooks used are created specifically for Detroit, and they show pictures of youths in the city, American Indians in their native dress, explanations of holidays such as Kwanzaa and descriptions of families in Africa. The allure for students is that these books are anything but run-of-the-mill texts that explain what can be considered typical white traditions.

"You have to be an owner of history to enjoy history," says Dahia Shabaka, a former teacher who became director of the district's social studies curriculum seven years ago. "If you never see yourself in history, especially in the earlier grades, it's hard for you to buy into that concept."

In a district where 92 percent of students are African-American, Shabaka says, "I wanted the kids to understand that ... they live in a world that is not [primarily] African-American. How do you live together and how do you learn to live with others? They have a rich legacy and history. But there are other cultures. And we learn to respect this kind of stuff. That's what we hope they get from this."

CUSTOMIZED CURRICULUM

The textbooks were published by Metropolitan Teaching and Learning Company (materials tailored to www.metrotlc. com), an African-American-owned publisher of textbooks and instructional urban students and teachers from pre-K to middle school. Formerly named Curriculum Concepts, the company has been around for 25 years but only recently discovered the importance of such tailored books for urban kids, says Reginald Powe, Metro's president and CEO.

"Three years ago, we looked at the greatest need we perceived in education and that was the achievement gap between urban kids and the rest of the country. Reading and math were the big ones," Powe says. Metro books are now found in many urban districts, including Chicago, New York, Houston and Atlanta.

Introduced in September 1999 in Detroit, the curriculum combines a research-proven, step-by-step learning approach. "This program is the first customized social studies program in the country developed specifically for urban kids," Powe says.

"You're motivating [children when they see] images of themselves and their surroundings," Powe says. "If you don't have children of color or very few of them in the books, and they don't see themselves in their own environment, it's difficult to relate to. They want to see kids that look like them and environments that look like theirs."

For example, in the "Family" textbook program, a family is headed by the grandfather. "It reflects the real family," Powe says. "Every school district has a right to get the kind of books they want and need for their children. ... [This] reflects the city of Detroit, their curriculum and the Detroit objective."

LEARNING MORE THAN SOCIAL STUDIES

Shabaka remembers that when she first became social studies director, the district had nearly ignored teaching social studies and didn't even have a core curriculum or text materials for the subject. On top of that, major publishers failed to prioritize elementary social studies, Shabaka says. "Even though we said they were taking social studies, they were not."

So, she and staff members, along with a committee of Detroit educators, worked with the state to develop core curriculum objectives to match the state's social studies standards. …