Area schools to test budget, curriculum limits this year Afrocentric focus included in lessons

September 01, 1991|By M. Dion Thompson

Is someone born a slave?

Supporters of Baltimore's push to bring information about Africans and African Americans into the curriculum think not. For them, "born a slave" implies that slavery was some sort of natural state, rather than one imposed upon people.

The distinction may not seem important, but it indicates one of the small changes that will take place this year as information about Africans and African Americans is infused into all areas of the city school curriculum, beginning with the fifth grade.

Some of the information has been taught previously, usually by teachers taking it upon themselves, said Douglas J. Neilson, school spokesman.

Last year, the school system joined United Artists Cable for a special showing of the film "Glory," which depicts the contributions of black soldiers to the Civil War, as part of a lesson.

The new push, however, will make teaching the contributions of Africans and African Americans part and parcel of the whole curriculum.

For instance, a class about early humans would note the anthropological findings made in East Africa.

An examination of the European Renaissance might also mention the University of Sankore at Timbuktu, which flourished as a center of learning between the 15th and 17th centuries.

A lesson on popular music might mention pioneers such as Scott Joplin and Eubie Blake.

"All of this stuff helped shape the world as it is," said Alice Morgan-Brown, assistant superintendent of curriculum development.

In October 1990, the school system appointed a task force that spent a year researching the achievements and contributions of Africans and African Americans. Molefi K. Asante, a nationally known expert on Afrocentric education and a scholar at Temple University, was a consultant to the task force, whose report cost the city $28,000.

Last month, the school board accepted the task force's recommendations. Among those recommendations was a request that teachers be sensitive to "pejorative" comments used in various texts and lessons.

"For example," the report stated, "use of the term 'discovery' to describe visits by Europeans to long enduring nations and peoples; references to 'bushmen' or Pygmies in stead of to appropriate cultural group names. . . . "

Though some of what will be taught already is available in school texts currently in use, Mr. Neilson said it is not nearly enough.

"In most cases, it's so surface that it really doesn't do it justice," he said.

But the school system is not looking to buy any new textbooks just yet. Instead, teachers will use biographies, films, music, literature and other material to support their class instruction.

Though the new approach will be limited to fifth-graders this year, school administrators plan to expand its use in elementary grades next year, into middle schools in 1993 and into high schools in 1994.

The effort is expected to cost about $350,000 for the elementary schools alone, including at least $30,000 for the fifth grade.

While the task force's report often refers to its focus as being Afrocentric, city school administrators are quick to point out that the overall curriculum will not be centered on the contributions and accomplishments of Africans and African Americans.

What is happening, they say, is the beginning of a multicultural curriculum that eventually will include the contributions of all ethnic peoples.

In Baltimore, where 80 percent of the 109,000 students are black, school administrators decided to start with information immediately relevant to the majority of students.

"They need to know that they made a contribution, too," Mrs. Morgan-Brown said.

"It may make them feel good, but just talking about it is not going to make them feel good. Knowledge makes them feel good."

Information about other ethnic groups will be added to the curriculum in the coming years. Mrs. Morgan-Brown said she hopes school officials will know enough about establishing a multicultural curriculum that they won't have to appoint a task force.

"We need to learn from our mistakes," she said. "We want everybody to be learning about all people, all of the time, not just for one day or one month."

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