Blacks gain attention in curriculum

February 28, 1994|By Kris Antonelli and Carol L. Bowers | Kris Antonelli and Carol L. Bowers,Sun Staff Writers Sun staff writer Andrea F. Siegel contributed to this article.

Two decades ago, Anne Arundel County educators recognized that the contributions of blacks were worth much more than a one-month crash course in February.

If you want to know how well the educators have succeeded in incorporating black history into daily studies, and why it's important, ask the group most affected -- the students.

"Mostly, we learn about black history during Black History Month, not all year long," said 12-year-old Samaria Colbert, a seventh-grader at Annapolis Middle School. "There's more to history than Abe Lincoln and George Washington. I think black history should be taught all year."

When she does hear about the contributions of black men and women, said Samaria, "it makes me feel proud of their achievements and makes me want to go out and do important things."

At Benfield Elementary, several students said they believe learning about black history is an important step toward improving race relations and preventing racism. "A long time ago, the blacks and the whites were not good friends," said Zahra Kolahdouzan, 10. She said she has learned about the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson -- a man she said wants to "make peace with the white people."

Those remarks represent progress since the 1970s, when high school students staged protests so that black history would be taught at school. One of those protesters was Carlisa Finney, now a county school board member who thinks there's still much work to be done.

"We protested because we wanted to have black history," she said. "Now, we're talking about training and multiculturalism and diversity -- and we're discussing the disproportionate numbers of African-American children and boys who are being disciplined. The system's still calling for change."

It's not that teachers want to avoidthe subject, said Mrs. Finney. "It's their frames of reference."

Another reason to change the curriculum came to light in 1989, when a study indicated that the county's curriculum didn't sufficiently address black issues.

"The report alarmed me," said Dennis Younger, the school system's director of curriculum. "I went to work on my program to see what existed and why the task force came up with those findings."

What he found was that there were many implied instructions in the curriculum, but little to show teachers specifically how to teach the subject.

Based on those findings and a national trend to teach about other minorities as well, the Board of Education revised curriculum requirements to reflect a multicultural approach.

But even though the emphasis once given to Black History Month is giving way to year-round education on the subject, Mrs. Finney said, it's too soon to give up that special time of recognition for the very reasons cited by Samaria.

"When my daughter was in third grade, she asked her teacher what color Egyptians were," said Mrs. Finney. "The teacher told her they had their own color. Now we know that anybody who lives that close to the equator has to be some shade of brown. But the teachers don't have enough information to give accurate answers."

Also, she said, black history often is taught beginning with slavery and is sometimes taught incompletely.

"If you're talking about African-Americans' contributions and we start with slavery, what kind of image is that?" she said. "And in teaching about Malcolm X, the message is often negative. There's enough information out there now to present a more balanced view. "

The problem of providing information is one that has become subtle enough to influence even students' college selections, she said.

"I was visiting a high school, and there was this bulletin board," she said. "There were posters of colleges in Maryland. There was Coppin State. There was no Bowie State. There was no Morgan State. But from that bulletin board it would appear that only those colleges [predominantly white in student population] on it were acceptable."

Of the county's 12 high schools, two offer an elective in black history: Old Mill and Annapolis. A third, Benfield Elementary, will offer it next year.

Overall, however, black history is "neglected for the most part," said Nadine Dow, who teaches the black history elective offered at Old Mill, called "The Struggle for Black Equality."

This is the first semester the course has been offered, and Ms. Dow said that even the course's title is a misnomer.

"There's one white student taking my class now, but I think that's going to change," she said. "I've been talking to various classes, explaining that the course is not just about blacks. There weren't only blacks in the civil rights movement. There's all these other people who have been struggling for equality too, including women. The class should really be called 'Struggle for Equality.' "

In many parts of the county, though, students have been taught quietly about black history by teachers who incorporate the subject into their curricula.

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