A resolution has recently passed the United States House of Representatives that calls for the month of January to be designated as Jewish History Month. The representative who sponsored the resolution, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, envisions classroom instruction, public ceremonies, and broadcast announcements similar to Black and Women’s History months in February and March.
Currently many educators across the country are asked to observe at least seven different ethnic observations during the school year. Early in the school year Hispanic heritage is recognized from September 15th to October 15th and Native Americans have their month in November. January is usually filled with events surrounding Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. while February and March are reserved for black history and women’s history respectively. Jewish Heritage Week is observed the last week of April or the first week of May while the entire month of May is reserved for Asian-Pacific heritage. A quick search of the Internet reveals that many Italian Americans would like to celebrate their culture during the month of October to coincide with Columbus Day.
Black History Month or African American History Month as it is also known began in the 1920s by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, a college professor, who realized that many aspects of American history was being left out of textbooks and classrooms. To begin his work Dr. Woodson established the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History as well as the Journal of Negro History. The second week of February was chosen by Dr. Woodson because the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln were celebrated during that week. At the time the professor did a brave and wonderful thing. Many inaccuracies existed due to omission and blatent predjudice. For example, many Americans have learned in school that Virginia Dare was the first English baby born on the shores of North America during the English attempts to colonize Roanoke. Many Americans don’t know that the first black baby was born to indentured slave Anthony Johnson and his wife in 1619. Historians have proof that Africans were exploring the Americas several hundreds of years before the Vikings and Columbus. Sculptures of African heads have been found among Olmec ruins in Mexico that date to 700 B.C. Estavanico, a former African slave traveled to the Americas with the Spanish and explored present day Florida, Arizona, and New Mexico before being murdered by members of the Zuni tribe in 1539. Bass Reeves, Clint Eastwood’s inspiration for his role in “Hang Em’ High”, was the first Black commissioned United States Marshall west of the Mississippi. Reeves served until statehood when he lost his job when whites declared blacks could not be law enforcement officers. Many other contributions of African Americans were left out as well. Dr. Woodson began a process that unfortunately took over fifty years before the week long and finally month long observance became well known and commonly observed. Woodson said he hoped the week could be eliminated when black history would become fundamental to American history.
So, do we still need special observances like Black History month and should we as educators be mandated to stop the regular curriculum to have month long add-ins?
Special recognition that separates and spotlights a culture is meant to build understanding and tolerance towards the members of that culture however it can also have the opposite effect. More and more cultures want to have their special time as well. Many teachers report receiving nasty notes from parents wanting to know when their family’s particular culture will be recognized in the same manner. Many times the tension that has been exhibited at home is then brought into the classroom. Students repeat things they have heard their parent’s say at home. This can cause discipline problems for the teacher.
As mentioned above currently seven months of the school year could potentially be filled with observances and special lessons focusing on one particular culture. This schedule leaves two full months to complete nine months worth of state mandated regular curriculum. Special recognition of particular cultures interrupts the regular flow of content that is best completed in chronological order for third through fifth graders. Students in these grades are receiving information about American history for the first time. They already have a hard time dealing with time concepts and discussing events that occurred so many years ago. It is very confusing for them to stop talking about the American Revolution in January because it’s time to recognize Dr. King with an assembly, a video (the same one every year), a few worksheets to color or an art activity, and a timeline of the Civil Rights Movement and a week later bounce right back into the Boston Massacre and the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Special month long observations should be stopped simply because Dr. Woodson’s goal has been met. In the last fifteen years great strides have been made to create classroom materials that have a complete multicultural panorama and contains accurate information. Teachers have a wide range of websites, tradebooks, videos, posters, pictures, and other types of information to use as resources when planning their units that incorporate various cultures and their input into our American story.
Doesn’t it make more sense to teach about a particular culture as it fits into the curriculum? For example, some fifth graders learn about Teddy Roosevelt and the U.S. expansion into the Pacific. Students also learn about World War II. These are perfect times to learn about the people of the Pacific nations they will be discussing in class like the Phillippines, as well as learning about the Navajo Code Talkers and the Tuskegee Airmen. Fifth graders also learn about the second wave of immigration after the Civil War. What better time to discover where these people came from and facts about their cultures. Students can explore how the immigrant cultures blended with the American culture. Fourth graders learn about explorers. If this isn’t the hit parade for famous Spanish and Italians and their contribution to American history I don’t know what is. During March take the particular time period being studied at that time and incorporate important women into the unit.
There is a way to make this work without everything grinding to a halt for what I see by many educators as a half-hearted once a year effort.
Do what you want, but for me and my class we will incorporate Black history and every other kind of history into our studies continuously all year long.