Progressing beyond Black History Month

Classes: A pioneering school-museum partnership produces a new state curriculum in African-American studies.

November 30, 2004|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

To teach her fourth-grade class how history is passed down, Flo Falatko told the children about African-American story quilts and had them make their own. To show them how personal feelings and political views can be expressed, she asked them to write blues songs based on their life experiences and current events.

Falatko, a teacher at Cromwell Valley Elementary School in Towson, is one of 118 teachers in Maryland public schools who are teaching a comprehensive new curriculum in African-American studies. Starting next fall, elementary and middle schools across the state will integrate the African-American experience into history, art, music, literature, geography and economics - in short, nearly everything they do.

Falatko said she was eager to participate in the pilot program because teaching African-American heritage shouldn't be limited to Black History Month in February.

"I'm a strong believer that all history should be taught together," she said.

The new curriculum stems from a partnership between the state education department and the new Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture. Educators believe the partnership is the first of its kind in the nation.

Charles Christian, a University of Maryland professor who chaired the task force that wrote the curriculum, is one of many who expect the new lessons to have broad implications for race relations and minority student achievement.

"When these young black boys and girls begin to see themselves reflected in the lessons, they not only do better in school, they feel pride in who they are," Christian said yesterday before a ceremony to celebrate the partnership.

Designed as a multi-year, multi-course study, the curriculum covers African-American work, family, community, and arts and entertainment from 1600 to the present. The 41 lessons - 21 to be covered in elementary school and 20 in middle school - offer a national perspective with an emphasis on Maryland. One lesson, for example, is called "African-Americans and the Seafood Industry of the Chesapeake Bay."

Students will learn about famous and not-so-famous African-Americans from the area. Besides studying about Harriet Tubman and Thurgood Marshall, they'll learn about Josiah Henson, an abolitionist from Port Tobacco and Tom Miller, a Baltimore man who turned old furniture into art.

The museum, scheduled to open early next year at Pratt and President streets in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, will provide a cadre of experts in African-American art, culture, history and contemporary life to help teachers bring the lessons to life.

Students will take field trips to the museum, and traveling exhibits will visit schools. Museum staff will provide lessons that children can watch live on television screens in their classrooms. For children in Baltimore, the museum will also offer after-school and Saturday programs.

The curriculum was three years in the making, said state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. She appointed a task force of scholars, teachers, education department staff and museum staff that spent two years writing the lessons, which were then reviewed by a national panel of experts. The teachers testing the curriculum this year will offer their feedback before it is adopted statewide next fall.

Grasmick said she surveyed Maryland's public school systems and found that only one in five was significantly covering African-American studies. She said the subject was most notably absent in late elementary and middle school grades. The curriculum is designed for grades four through eight, although Grasmick plans to eventually have a K-12 curriculum.

This month, Grasmick spoke about the initiative at a national conference of social studies teachers. "I hope we will set a standard and a model for the rest of this nation," she said.

The ceremony yesterday, at the Gordon Center in Owings Mills, was the first of several organized by school districts around the state to promote the partnership and its resulting curriculum.

Baltimore County Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said he got emotional as he sat on stage and thought about how far society has come. As a black child growing up in Florida, he attended segregated schools.

Hairston said he hopes African-American children will take to heart the virtues of hard work, discipline and self-reliance as presented in the curriculum, as they must embody all three to close the minority student achievement gap.

He said he also hopes the new curriculum will give white children, teachers and parents a better appreciation for their African-American peers.

According to Falatko, that seems to be happening at Cromwell Valley Elementary, where the student enrollment is 23 percent black.

"It's been pretty amazing," she said. "The whole class has just really embraced this."

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