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Teachers say curriculum update to include more black history

February 12, 2018

WORCESTER, Mass. (AP) — Public schools have come a long way in trying to incorporate the full breadth and significance of the African-American experience in their U.S. history curriculum. But many teachers, students and state and local education officials agree: There’s still more to be done.

With a long-awaited update to the state’s history and social science curriculum framework on the horizon, local districts now have the opportunity to take a big step forward. According to initial feedback from school administrators and teachers, the new standards appear to be more inclusive of African-American history.

But obstacles also remain in the way: a lack of professional development opportunities for teachers, limited funding to hire more humanities instructors, and competing curricular priorities all play a role in restricting just how deep history classes are able to get into the subject, experts said.

Even so, some professionals in the field still believe it’s ultimately a matter of will on the part of school officials and the communities they serve to improve, especially as the state further opens the window allowing African-American history to be a bigger part of schools’ curricula.

“There is an opportunity to do better than we’ve done,” said Ousmane Power-Greene, a history professor at Clark University who has worked extensively with educators and adult students on the topic of African-American history. “It’s a new moment, with new possibilities and new expectations, and it needs to be made a priority.”

A lot has happened in the field of history since the state last updated its history and social-science curriculum frameworks 15 years ago, both in terms of scholarship and pedagogy, said David Buchanan, who works in the state education department’s Office of Literacy and Humanities. History education today is trying to move past the old tradition of “teaching kids about names, dates and facts, and nothing deeper,” he said, as well as focus more on the histories of native peoples around the world.

“Right from the early grades up to high school,” he said, the state’s new standards try to “bring in different perspectives, particularly bolstering the content around African-American history.”

The revised framework includes more primary source documents to paint a more complete picture of African-American experiences in early American history, for instance. The fifth-grade curricular standards include a reference to the 1754 slave census in Massachusetts, for instance, while U.S. History 1 at the high school level suggests covering “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano,” an 18th-century African slave who bought his own freedom and wrote a book about his experience.

In general, the updated guidelines also seek to introduce more parts of African-American history in earlier grades, Mr. Buchanan said; the fifth-grade standards, for example, now cover the civil rights movement. The high school curriculum framework, meanwhile, delves deeper into issues like the creation of the METCO program in Massachusetts and Boston’s busing desegregation.

In addition, the new standards’ increased emphasis on civics has led to the creation of a new eighth-grade course that will cover a number of landmark court cases and constitutional amendments relevant to civil rights, according to Mr. Buchanan.

Lastly, developers of the new framework “tried to broaden the array of historical figures from African-American communities,” he said, “so that African-American history isn’t just about Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman.”

“I think there’s a particularly solid feeling among educators, including our panel (that developed the new standards), that there’s more to be done to teach this content well,” he said. “And that’s what we’ve tried to do with our revisions.”

Some educators and students, meanwhile, feel that current history curriculums are shortchanging the subject.

“I do know they try to incorporate it into the curriculum, however, I don’t think they’re doing enough,” said Morufat Bello, a sophomore at Clark University, where she belongs to the campus Black Student Union, and former student at Worcester’s Claremont Academy, who found classes often focused too much on well-known parts of African-American history when they did cover the topic. “I wish they would go more in-depth.”

Asked if she felt represented in her history classes, Ms. Bello, originally from Nigeria, said, “Not really.”

“I think they have a good understanding and appreciation, and are more sensitive to these topics,” Daryl Robichaud, the history department head at Leominster High School, said of this current generation of students. “They know what’s going on.”

There can be negative consequences if the history of African-Americans is not adequately taught to them. A recent report from the Southern Poverty Law Center that makes the case the country’s schools are largely failing to teach the history of slavery, for example, found that 8 percent of high school seniors surveyed did not know slavery was the main cause of the Civil War.

“Understanding American slavery is vital to understanding racial inequality today,” Hasan Kwame Jeffries, a history professor at Ohio State University, writes in a preface to the report, titled “Teaching Hard History.” ″Our narrow understanding of the institution, however, prevents us from seeing this long legacy and leads policymakers to try to fix people instead of addressing the historically rooted causes of their problems.”

Updating the state’s curriculum framework is only part of the equation, however, according to Mr. Power-Greene, who said there is “no question” the state’s standards make plenty of room for African-American history already. The fact that many schools don’t spend enough time on the subject, he said, can be blamed on other factors as well, chiefly a lack of training for teachers.

“The interest is there. The question then ... is where’s the investment, in terms of time?” he said, referring specifically to the dedication of professional development time to African-American history. “Many (teachers) haven’t taken even an intro course to have the confidence to put together a curriculum.”

“It’s not easy for teachers to admit” they don’t have the knowledge to teach the subject, he added, “especially white teachers,” who in Worcester make up around 85 percent of the district’s total teaching force.

The SPLC’s report found, for instance, that while 90 percent of teachers surveyed claimed they felt comfortable discussing slavery in their classes, their responses to open-ended questions revealed “profound unease around the topic.”

Worcester school officials said a lack of teachers in general is another issue. The district has only one high school history class, an elective course offered at Claremont Academy, dedicated specifically to African-American history. Adding more, they said, would require additional instructors that the underfunded school system currently can’t afford.

There’s also the overarching responsibility of adhering to the entire state curriculum framework, not just the African-American history component, to think of, those same officials said. Some teachers said they feel there just isn’t enough time to get to everything; even Kathleen Moylan, a history teacher who previously taught Claremont’s African-American history course, said she usually could only get to the civil rights era by the end of the class.

“I never got done everything I wanted to get done,” she said, adding her general philosophy is to go in-depth in a few areas, rather than skim the surface of many.

In addition to that, if part of the thinking for spending more time on African-American history is to make African-American students feel more represented, the same thinking also must apply to the district’s other students of color, including the district’s largest population, Latinos.

“We want to make sure everyone’s background is being highlighted,” said Colleen Kelly, a history and social science liaison at the Worcester schools. “I think our approach to teaching history in general has changed as the student demographics have changed.”

Yet Ms. Kelly and other educators in the region say they are actively working more African-American history into their curriculum — especially more local African-American history. New this year, for instance, 11th-graders at several Worcester high schools are visiting the Worcester Art Museum to see the William Bullard exhibit, which features hundreds of photos of African-American families who lived in the area around the turn of the 20th century.

In addition to showcasing Worcester’s own African-American history, the field trips address another recent objective of the district’s history curriculum, officials said: to highlight the ordinary lives and experiences of African-Americans throughout history, instead of just focusing on the more celebrated stories.

Mr. Power-Greene calls that sort of effort “moving beyond the hero narrative” that has pervaded African-American history education. “We like to grab onto examples of individual achievement, without any of the historical context,” he said.

Thomas Doughton, a senior lecturer at Holy Cross’ Center for Interdisciplinary and Special Studies and member-at-large on the executive committee of the Worcester NAACP, meanwhile, said modern African-American history scholarship has also sought to focus more on “the bigger diaspora of African peoples” in history and the unique “blended heritages” of many African-American people and communities, as well as giving African-Americans more agency in their own history.

On that last point, he said, older history tended to describe “thing happen(ing) to African-American people, as if they were passive agents.” It’s important to show, oppositely, “how African-American people have been agents in producing their own experiences,” he added.

Kayla Avellino, a history teacher at South High Community School who took her class to view the Bullard exhibit recently, said she participated in a special training workshop, made possible by the Worcester Education Development Foundation, over the summer to prepare for the program.

“I’ve had students ask me, ‘Why don’t we focus more on African-American history?’” she said. “When this opportunity came up, I jumped on it.”

Ms. Avellino believes a key component to teaching African-American history is knowing how and where to look for those sorts of supplemental resources. “The textbooks just don’t do it justice, unfortunately,” she said.

She and other teachers also said it’s important to incorporate current events into their African-American history curriculum, particularly recent news items that connect directly to the issues their courses cover, such as last year’s debate about tearing down old Confederate statues.

“There’s always something happening in the news we can weave into the conversation,” said Ms. Moylan, who added it’s critical to make sure African-American history in general is not treated as if it’s a separate part of the curriculum. “It can’t just be, ‘Here’s our unit on slaves.’ ”

The district’s curriculum leaders, meanwhile, are carefully looking over the state’s proposed history standards update to see how the subject needs to be treated in the near future. The state is in the middle of a public comment period on the revisions; the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is tentatively slated to vote whether to adopt them in June.

“From what we’ve seen, there’s a lot of inclusion in general,” said Magdalena Ganias, Worcester’s director of curriculum and professional learning. “We’re very excited by that.”

Mr. Robichaud, in a recent experiment, said he counted the times “African-American” was mentioned in both the current standards and proposed replacement: he counted eight in the 2003 framework, and 43 in the latest version.

“It’s a pretty ambitious document,” he said. “I think we do a very good job (teaching African-American history already), but I think the new framework is giving us a much larger platform on which to speak about these events.”

But while Ms. Kelly said the state’s curriculum framework is “somewhat prescriptive” in nature, Mr. Buchanan said the education department’s intent is not to force districts into a specific curriculum.

“We see it as more of a guideline ... the intention is for them (districts) to have some flexibility,” he said, adding how schools teach African-American history “is really a local decision.”

That decision doesn’t just rest with educators, Mr. Power-Greene believes. “At some point, it does go back to the parents,” he said, to advocate for what they want to see their children learn in school. “It starts with families in our community being aware there are new standards, and getting teachers and administrators to make sure they are up on this.”

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Online: http://bit.ly/2EnU8xy

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Information from: Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, Mass.), http://www.telegram.com

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