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Black History Month Has Left Mark on Curriculum, but to What Extent?

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LaConya Gilbert conjures up all the indignation she imagines her heroine felt that day more than 40 years ago when, weary from a long day's labor, she was told to give up her seat to a white man and sit in the back of the bus.

"Don't miiiiiinnnnd me, Mr. Bus Driver. I done paid my fare," the 11-year-old recites with all the conviction Rosa Parks unleashed in her now-famous stand for civil rights:

"Now get outa my way
I gonna sit over there
Ain't no room in the back
and I'm too tired to stand."

LaConya will repeat the dramatic reading of the poem, "I've Just Gotta Sit Down," by Delores Dickson Lakey, many times this month for her classmates, school board members, church groups, and others. At the Costano School in East Palo Alto, Calif., where LaConya is a 5th grader, students are taught the accomplishments of prominent African-Americans all year long. But, as in thousands of schools throughout the country, February warrants a special emphasis on the black leaders and events that have shaped history.

While there is disagreement over how significant an influence Black History Month has had on what students learn, most educators and experts agree it has affected school curricula.

"Black History Month has in fact, especially in recent years, dramatically changed school curricula from the very beginning all the way through graduate school," said Richard Newman, a researcher at the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for Afro-American Research at Harvard University.

LaConya Gilbert concurs. "In most schools, they study just one person--Martin Luther King Jr. Black History Month lets you study a lot of other people and go more in depth."

In the more than two decades since the month was dedicated to black history, teachers have seen it as an opportunity to supplement textbooks with biographies, literature, and music by and about black people. During February, classrooms and hallways are lined with posters featuring black inventors, writers, activists, and educators. Students watch videos that document the lives of Dr. King, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and others. Teachers assign book reports, essays, and projects that teach students more about how the experiences and actions of black heroes have influenced history. And they put on plays and musical productions celebrating that rich heritage.

"Schools love any kind of occasion that can inspire learning," said Joy Hakim, an author in Virginia Beach, Va., who has written A History of US, a 10-volume series of books for elementary students. "We teach about the Pilgrims because there's Thanksgiving. This [month] gives them a focus for teaching about black history."

Observance Varies

The observance of Black History Month varies from district to district and even classroom to classroom. While one class may jump headlong into an extensive exploration of the history of blacks in America, another may simply read Dr. King's historic "I Have a Dream" speech. Still others do nothing at all.

"Some schools do a fantastic job making sure that black history is ... an active part of what is taught," said Lois Harrison-Jones, the president-elect of the Washington-based National Alliance of Black School Educators and a former Boston superintendent. "Others are ruled by the false assumption that it is simply a time of reflection and education for African-American students."

Consequently, the month has yielded only partial fulfillment of efforts to infuse cultural diversity into the curriculum, some experts say. Too many places focus on just one or two superheroes, said Peyton Williams, a deputy state superintendent in Georgia. "We don't get at all those heroes who are not quite as famous but who left indelible marks on the landscape of this country."

And much of the information presented receives merely a cursory review and suffers from a lack of context, said Asa Hilliard, a professor of educational psychology at Georgia State University who has helped create Afrocentric curricula. "If you have to wait until February to crank up the initiative, you probably are going to get more of a trivial pursuit than anything of substance."

An Institution

Black History Month's roots stretch back to 1926, when Carter G. Woodson, a Harvard-educated historian, established Negro History Week in an effort to disperse information about the accomplishments of African- Americans. In 1976, it was expanded to a monthlong event celebrated by schools, government agencies, and businesses.

"Celebration of Black History Month has grown increasingly throughout the years," said Irena Webster, the executive director of the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History Inc., the Washington-based organization that Mr. Woodson founded and that sponsors National Black History Month. "It has become an institution." The association has sold thousands of kits that supply educators with materials to teach more about black history.

In many places, the teaching of such history has pushed well beyond the boundaries of the calendar's shortest month. At Idlewild Elementary School in Memphis, home of the blues and the Civil Rights Museum, administrators and teachers decided several years ago that setting aside a block of time devoted to black history was not serving the needs of their diverse student body. More than half the 672 students are black.

Although there is a sharpened focus on black history this month, all lessons at Idlewild are influenced by the contributions of diverse figures in history, science, and literature, according to Pam Rumage, whose 2nd grade class has spent the year producing a videotape on Dr. King's life. The proliferation of resources--books, films, and Internet sites--on the subject has left few excuses for not using racially varied materials, Ms. Rumage said.

Integrating the history of various groups throughout the curriculum has been promoted by history scholars in recent years. The voluntary national history standards, published in 1994, recommend teaching history from a variety of perspectives.

"Black history is joined at the hip with white history," said Gary B. Nash, a professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, where the controversial standards project was based. "Therefore, every month should be a study of the role of race in America," said the co-director of the standards project.

Evidence of how schools celebrate the month is mostly anecdotal, but it is widely believed that schools and districts with large black populations undertake a more comprehensive and enthusiastic observance. Proponents, however, say that all schools should take it more seriously.

"We shouldn't neglect the study of black history in other months," said John Pyne, the social studies supervisor for the West Milford, N.J., district, where 94 percent of the 4,500 students are white. But this month is an opportunity to revisit the subject in greater depth, he said.

"African history has been so much a part of the traditional history course today, [that] you can't really have a history course without it," Mr. Pyne said.

Lessons From Hollywood

How much inclusion has been debated for years. Taking a more multicultural approach to teaching history, some educators argue, cuts into the amount of time that can be devoted to more-traditional curriculum fare. Yet, most historians agree that a greater emphasis on history in general is needed.

"I've been waging a battle for 10 years to get more history taught in the early grades, so if [Black History Month] does that, great, said Diane S. Ravitch, a senior research scholar at New York University and a former assistant U.S. secretary of education under President Bush.

Many historians now believe that the information that had been omitted from textbooks in the past is an essential ingredient for a well-rounded education.

"This is really about raising consciousness to the fact that Afro-Americans were significant players in American history," Mr. Newman of the DuBois Institute said.

But the record presented to schoolchildren is still drastically abridged, Mr. Hilliard maintains. The current blockbuster film "Amistad" is a case in point, he said. Before the movie's release late last year, most schoolchildren had never heard of the slave mutiny and court proceedings that followed as Cinque, an African who led the uprising, fought for his freedom and that of his fellow captives.

"Many of the major events in African-American history we find out through Hollywood, not in school," Mr. Hilliard said. "It's a shame that academics didn't bring them to our attention."

Educators, though, envision a day when Black History Month is unnecessary.

"Once the truth is better told, there will be no need for Black History Month," Mr. Newman argued.

But that time may not come in the foreseeable future.

"At the moment," Mr. Hilliard said, "people are out to lunch on this."

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