Class reveals rich history

African-Americans: Heritage of Excellence teaches youngsters lessons that go far deeper than study of slavery.

March 12, 2003|By Laura Shovan | Laura Shovan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

For many people, African-American history is the story of slavery in this country. But Marilyn Miles is out to change that view.

Miles coordinates Heritage of Excellence, an educational series for middle school children that focuses on African-American contributions in the local community and the world. It is run by and meets at the Howard County Center of African American Culture, where Miles is assistant curator.

"There are a lot of other portions of our history other than slavery," Miles said. "There are so many other contributions that we've had, so many achievements. We try to give them [pupils] an overview of a lot of the other things African-Americans have contributed to this country."

Thirteen-year-old Malcolm Harris, a seventh-grader at Bonnie Branch Middle School, is among those attending the program. "I wanted to take this class because I want to learn more about our ancient culture and way of life ... the history of our ancestors who came from Africa to here," he said.

To teach children like Malcolm about African-American culture, past and present, Vera Wilson began the Heritage of Excellence program in 1998. Wilson, who co-founded the center, asked Miles to coordinate the Heritage of Excellence course.

The class runs for eight Saturday mornings each fall and spring. It is open to all Howard County middle school children, though younger children have participated.

Because schoolchildren return to the program, each session has a different focus, such as performing arts, science and invention, medicine and medical fields. Of the eight meetings, five are traditional classes with guest speakers and assignments. The other three Saturdays are reserved for field trips. Because the topic this spring is American history, the group will visit Washington to see Cedar Hill, the home of abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

Miles decided to start the session on history at 1492, not with slavery, so that "the kids know there were people of African descent with Columbus, pre-slavery. These kids are fascinated with the information they get, people they've never heard of."

Herbert West, a social sciences teacher at Wilde Like High School, was guest lecturer last weekend.

"I was really impressed with their attentiveness and their grasp of it ... how they were able to comprehend and make some good analysis for themselves - how to use history," West said.

Ten-year-old Ibrahim Harris was particularly interested in learning about abolitionists. "I decided to take this class to learn of some people I've never learned of before. I've come to learn," the Ilchester Elementary fifth-grader said.

Douglass is Ibrahim's topic for the Heritage of Excellence closing ceremony, which is held after each session. It is an opportunity for the children to share their research in a creative presentation.

"We thought still there was a need to continue to enrich the knowledge of the students," said Wylene Burch, co-founder and director of the center. Particularly in the elementary and middle schools, she believes "the younger children are not getting enough training in the field of African-American studies."

Miles agreed. "I think it's a very, very important part of our history that's missing from the mainstream curriculum in the lower grades. I think as we progress over the years that African-American history is being incorporated, but we still have a long way to go."

Mark Stout, coordinator of secondary social studies for the public schools, said, "We do integrate some local Howard County history in our program and do use some of the museum's resources to accommodate that." To that end, middle school team leaders will visit the museum in May. They plan to discuss with the curators how the museum's resources can be used in the classroom.

The center has worked with the school system before. The school's curriculum office helped it create a curriculum guide for including local African-American history in the elementary classroom.

West said it is important to teach history because "I would like them to use it as a motivation vehicle to prompt them to realize they have a responsibility on them. ... When they succeed, they set the tone for others to succeed."

Information about Heritage of Excellence: 410-715-1921.

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