Museum to bring black experience into the classroom

June 23, 2005|By Charles M. Christian

IT'S NOT JUST what's inside Baltimore's new Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture that makes it so special. An innovative program will soon bring the museum into classrooms across Maryland and help cement the state's reputation as a national leader in teaching the black experience.

It's vital that we take creative steps like this. A full appreciation of our nation's story is a critical social anchor, and you simply don't know American history if you don't know the black experience.

Based on recommendations of a task force that I chaired for the Maryland State Department of Education, students in selected elementary and middle schools statewide took part in a pilot test this past year. They were taught lessons geared to themes and material in the museum. These were built into almost all of their classes - history, art, music, language arts and more - because African-Americans have made important contributions in all these areas. In the fall, the curriculum will be implemented statewide.

It is part of a creative tradition in Maryland schools that is slowly making the African-American experience a substantive, integrated part of our children's curriculum - not simply an add-on to be dusted off every February. The Harlem Renaissance, for example, is not simply a black era - it's a vital part of an American era that shaped our nation's cultural history.

Over the past dozen years, I've worked with Maryland elementary and middle schools to develop Black Saga, a rigorous statewide competition that tests students' knowledge of history, geography, economics, politics and other aspects of the black experience in America. With help from families and teachers at schools across the state, the children fit in study sessions before and after classes, during lunch and at home and learned more about the black experience than 85 percent of the American public.

Baltimore County has taken a lead integrating the material into school programs, making it more than an extracurricular activity. The impact may have shown up in this year's statewide elementary school competition, where half of the top 10 teams were from the county, including the top three spots.

When our schools find innovative ways to bring the African-American experience to their students, it makes a difference. Just take a look at Samantha Master, a high school student in Columbia who has trained to serve as a docent at the new museum. She spent two years competing in Black Saga and says the information has been "imprinted" on her. "It opens your eyes to a new and exciting world beyond what is taught in school about the black experience," she says. Now she'll be able to share her love of history with other young people who visit the museum.

Often, students who take part in Black Saga end up knowing more on the subject than their parents or grandparents. That's a reflection of the failure to teach the black experience adequately in the past.

Maryland schools are taking a national lead in fixing this situation, and these nontraditional approaches may help teach our children the fullest possible account of American history. Our country's story includes all of its people. That's what our students should learn.

Charles M. Christian is a geography professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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