Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Do We Really Need Black History Month?

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.

6 comments:

Justin Dale said...

We always go back to hanging the niggers, and burning the jews.

Anonymous said...

I am sad that you are able to call yourself an “educator”. I do realize that there has to be a line draw with all these separate recognitions. Maybe in your district that you teach in it is different, but where I am from (Wisconsin) people know little about black history (whether they are white, black, etc.) and when I was in school (I am only 19) we never talked about black history (other then that day when we briefly discussed slavery) or any other ethnic background other than good ole white people. If you think that times have changed that most people “understand” about race, just take a look at the other comment on your blog, he sounds really educated at his age. PLUS, I attend a predominately white college and feel confident in saying that a majority of them are ignorant when it comes to understanding anything about race. Another reason, which you did not mention is that one reason Black History was enacted was to help “payback” for the past treatment of blacks in this country. Did Jews or Italians suffer as much in this country as blacks or Native Americans? If you answer yes, please return your degree back to your university, because you suck when it comes to knowing history and you are NOT intelligent. Stop complaining, there are many school districts that don’t even recognize these events across this country, go and teach there and shut up about.

elementaryhistoryteacher said...

Yes, you are correct. You are only 19 and your lack of comprehending the points I was making in my post confirms your age.

Thank you very much for your "drive-by comment", however, any person who is a regular reader of my efforts here at History of Elementary understands that I am extremely well versed at what I do in the classroom and with my efforts outside the classroom. African American history is taught in my classroom, but I do it within the context of each era of history not in isolation. African American events did not occur in isolation. Several factors come into play with every historical event. If I isolate them I am not giving my students a clear picture.

Please understand that when my state dictates to me to teach American History from the Ice Age to to Reconstruction I do not have the luxury of time to take a month here and there to teach each racial history in isolation.

Is is more important for students to be taught every January repeatedly for 12 years which African American invented the traffic light or all the different things George Washington Carver found out he could do with peanuts....OR is it more important to find out the whys behind African Americans finging it necessary to begin predominately Black universities or why George Washington Carver had to enter by way of the kitchen door in many hotels when he spoke to various groups?

You see, by the time my students get to me (fourth grade) they have done all the cute activities, the book reports, and the songs associated with elementary education and Black History Month. However, they still don't know about certain events and don't understand the whys behind them.

My class is the first opportunity they have to experience history chronologically....instead of isolated, disjointed snippets here and there. Since it is the first time I strongly feel that the treatment of Native Americans, African Americans, Catholics, and Jews, as well a women and other groups should be incorporated into the times we are studying. Context is very important for the historian to understand why certain things occurred througout history. If we can understand the context, perhaps we can keep things from being repeated.

I'm very sorry you don't feel as if you or your contemporaries were taught enough about African American history to fully appreciate the contributions of such a proud race to our great nation. Don't blame me for it.....the folks you should be directing your ire to are your former teachers. It is a shame that my nine year old students probably know much more than you so far, and we are just beginning the American Revolution when we return after the Christmas break. Luckily you seem fairly intelligent and the Internet has many resources you can use to get up to speed.

When I was in grade school there were no resources to teach with and most teachers had never been taught integrated history themselves. As I stated in my post there is a wealth of materials available today for educators and teachers to use. Every lesson in my fourth grade textbook focuses on various ethnic and/or religious groups appropriate for the time period and bring out notable people and events including examples of racisim. There is no need to do cute activities for one entire month when we are working on African American history all year long, as well as women's history, religious history, etc.

As for my previous commenter to this post I'm sure you realize though you are only 19 that there is a certain element in society who wish to remain ignorant and insultated within their own familiar settings. Unfortunately they have their right to their opinion just as you have yours.

Thanks for commenting Anonymous. I hope you visit History Is Elementary again soon. Your comments are always welcome.

ET said...

I agree with you, history is history, why separate it into groups for different months?
Also, I don't think offensive group name calling does anybody any good.

Tiffy said...

I understand the and agree with what you are saying. It is alot easier and much better to incorporate the history and contributions of all people through out the year. I grew up abroad so I have only been to DOD Schools for them it is better when you are younger to have celebrate different ethnic groups in different months. To the person who complained that they didn't learn enough about the different ethnic groups you can't just blame it on your school. You parents/guardians should be you first educators and if not they you should want to read and better educate yourself. Too many times we blame the school for our problems of lack of knowledge but the school can't be with you 24/7 nor can they cover everything.

EHT said...

Thanks for your comment, Tiffy. You make a good point about the mix of parents and their own responsibility regarding teaching their children.