Backers, skeptics debate African-focused education

November 11, 1990|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Sun Staff Correspondent

ATLANTA -- One bulletin board displays Egyptian art; another, entitled "Free at Last," is devoted to Nelson Mandela. In one classroom Wallace Mapp is teaching his fourth-graders the creation myth of the Bosoko tribe; in another, Marie Brown is teaching reading by teaching folk tales.

This is Continental Colony Elementary School in southwest Atlanta, and its program can be summed up in one word: Africa.

Continental Colony is not alone. At schools around Atlanta, and in Indianapolis and Detroit, teachers have embarked on a new African and African-American curriculum, one designed to raise the achievement of urban youngsters, to give them a sense of their place in the world, and to de-emphasize the role of Europe in American schooling.

It is a curriculum that cities across the country -- including Baltimore -- are preparing to follow.

Advocates of the new curriculum say the goals are twofold: pride and truth. They say that until now schools have presented a distorted -- even dishonest -- emphasis on Europeans and the descendants of Europeans in the United States. They say schools have slighted the achievements of Africans and African-Americans. Moreover, they argue, schools have given black children little reason to want to pursue an education because the typical program has little bearing on the lives and heritage of most urban youngsters.

Among some historians, the new curriculum has aroused charges of "ethnic cheerleading" and "history as therapy," but school systems desperate for ways to reverse the failures of urban education appear to be embracing it with little resistance.

In Maryland, only Baltimore has committed itself to an infusion of African culture in the curriculum. A task force that is to make recommendations for change in all subject areas was set up this fall and is to report by next spring. Its leaders declined requests for interviews.

Other systems in the state are attempting at least to deal with the question of curriculum. Montgomery County commissioned a study of its schooling of non-white children earlier this year; the study criticized the current programs and strongly recommended that the county undertake changes in the curriculum. Prince George's County has appointed a task force to pay particular attention to the problems of black male students. Baltimore County administrators are looking into ways the county's largely white teaching force can do a better job with the growing number of black students.

The new curriculum, as carried out in Atlanta, crosses virtually all subject areas. Teachers typically interweave history, geography, literature and even mathematics in their lessons. The allusions to Africa range from the mundane -- a discussion about the equator uses Africa as a reference point -- to the emotionally inspirational, as students learn of the triumphant kings and queens of antiquity.

On a bright fall day here, Mrs. Brown, a friendly teacher with a soft voice, is using folk tales as a means of teaching her fourth-graders about plot and characters and climax. She pauses suddenly to ask them, "Where do you think these folk tales came from?"

"Slavery," call out several of her students.

And why, Mrs. Brown asks her class, did slaves need to invent folk tales?

"To amuse the master's children," one student says.

"To make themselves feel better," another says.

"Where did slaves come from in early America?"

"Africa," the class replies.

"Where is Africa?" Mrs. Brown asks, gesturing toward a map of the world. "What's this?" she asks, pointing to the Atlantic Ocean.

She picks up a book of folk tales called "The People Could Fly" and tells her youngsters how the slaves in America -- sometimes sold into slavery by their own people -- had used folk tales and animal stories to help explain the often bewildering and violent world in which they found themselves. She talks about how the stories have endured, orally and in print.

"This is an edition of African-American folk tales that were created by your ancestors," she tells her class. "You can be very, very proud."

In Mrs. Brown's class, the 28 students pay close attention as she reads them a story, in dialect, called "Little Eight John." She and other teachers at the school say that students' interest in their studies is much higher this year and that their parents are growing more interested in their schooling, as well.

Yet what is taught in schools reflects, in a fundamental way, a nation's beliefs about itself -- and far away from the shaded low brick houses of southwest Atlanta the African curriculum has stirred deep passions and vituperative debate.

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