Magazine article Black History Bulletin

Contributions of African Americans: Teachers Can't Teach What They Don't Know

Magazine article Black History Bulletin

Contributions of African Americans: Teachers Can't Teach What They Don't Know

Article excerpt

Black History Month is celebrated annually in the United States in February, which marks the birthdays of two men who greatly influenced the African American population--Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. This annual event, originally established as Negro History Week in 1926 by Dr. Carter C. Woodson, was expanded to a month-long celebration in 1976, as the nation reached its bicentennial. For more than 30 years, this event has sparked an annual debate regarding the continued usefulness of a designated month dedicated to the history of one ethnic group. The questions surrounding this debate center on two main issues--that four weeks do not provide sufficient opportunity to recognize significant contributions to society made by people with African heritage and that segregating African American history hinders its full integration with American history. Regardless of one's position in this debate, one point is clear--if there is ever to be a time when the American history taught in public schools adequately reflects contributions of all groups involved in its formation, then teachers must be well-informed as to the role played by these groups.

As teacher educators, we conducted a study to answer the following question: Do future teachers have content knowledge of famous African Americans and the Civil Rights Movement? Approximately 100 (n=97; 92 female and 5 male) preservice elementary teachers from an institution in southern Alabama were anonymously surveyed in an attempt to answer this question. Although participants' ages ranged from 19 to over 50, the majority (62) were 19 to 24 years old. While 75 participants classified themselves as White, other ethnicities were represented--African American (19), Native American (2), and Asian American (1).

All participants responded to a Black history quiz developed by the authors. This 20-item multiple choice quiz contained 10 questions pertaining to famous African Americans and 10 questions pertaining to the civil rights movement. The first 10 questions examined knowledge of twentieth century African American athletes, politicians, scientists, and entertainers, while questions 11-20 addressed the Civil Rights Movement from slavery through the 1960s. Each question was followed by a list of three possible responses with the correct choice for each question being the middle option (letter B).

Findings revealed that the Black History knowledge of these future teachers varied greatly. Total number of correct responses ranged from 3 to 20, with an average of 9.39 with African American participants' average number of correct responses (M = 12.42) substantially higher than White participants' average number correct (M = 8.47).


Further, these future teachers were significantly (t (1,99) = 6.84, p<.05) more knowledgeable regarding civil rights (M = 5.40) than contributions of African Americans (M = 4.11), not surprising taking into consideration that many noteworthy events surrounding this movement occurred in the state in which they reside. Similarly, 100 participants (98%) correctly identified the city in which Rosa Parks became famous as Montgomery, AL. The only other item answered, either correctly or incorrectly, with over 90% agreement was the consensus by 96 participants (94%) that the Emancipation Proclamation was the decision issued by President Lincoln in 1863 declaring all slaves in rebellious states to be free.

Unfortunately, one result of this study is that future teachers do not have adequate content knowledge of contributions of African Americans to American history. Subsequently, we urge teacher educators to reevaluate their social studies methods courses with a focus on content and instructional strategies to prepare teachers to be culturally competent. We have included our Black history quiz and answers for you to administer to your students to determine a knowledge baseline.

A tool that we recommend for broadening the knowledge base of preservice teachers and teacher educators is, The Making of African American Identity (Volumes I-III), online collections of primary resources by the National Humanities Center. …

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