Teachers weaving today's news into Black History Month lessons

Teachers weaving today's news into Black History Month lessons

When Courtney Fleming teaches U.S. History, a course that covers events since the end of the Civil War, she challenges her high school students to make connections to today's news.

In classes where the treatment of immigrants in the 1920s and lynching of black men in the South are broached, students are able to examine parallels to recent cases of anti-immigrant fervor and police brutality, she said.

"I'm always really impressed with the maturity they bring to the table and the interest," said Fleming, who has been teaching in Baltimore County schools for 11 years. "Any time you're infusing current events and giving background information, it piques interest and engagement."

Blending contemporary headlines into history classes is helping some teachers amplify lessons being taught during Black History Month, which starts today.

"It's a really interesting time to teach it," said Fleming, who has been at Catonsville High School for the past two years.

In the past five years, Fleming said she has noticed issues of race being taught more frequently, crediting additional resources and students' access to social media, where stories of national strife and debate over race relations have become more frequent.

Baltimore County follows state standards on social studies and there is no mandate on how current events are presented in the public schools, leaving it to teachers to decide if and how to implement race-related issues, such as the "Black Lives Matter" movement, and compare them to events of the nation's past.

Mavis Sanders, a professor of education at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in Catonsville, said some teachers embrace linking current events and historical milestones.

"Teachers who are most comfortable discussing these issues ... see them as vital to create a generation of students who are prepared to be productive citizens in a multicultural society. They tackle these issues immediately," Sanders said. "It's just a part of their curriculum and how they engage. They don't wait for a special month."

Recent events typically are not covered in high school history classes because the curriculum is taught chronologically, said Brian Schiffer, the school system's director of social science, fine arts and world languages.

Topics in the coursework include the end of slavery after the Civil War, reconstruction, the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and segregation, with the lessons examining contributions and experiences of African Americans, he said.

"There's only so far you're going to get, especially when you're going deep into history, in a year," he said. "There's a lot of history in there."

Tony Fugett, the president of the Baltimore County branch of the NAACP, has noticed that black history topics are being taught more often than just during Black History Month, which had its start in 1925 as Negro History Week and was expanded to a monthlong commemoration in 1976, according to a Library of Congress report.

"It's great to have the month but I think if it's woven into the culture of America, that's kind of where we want to be at the end of the day," Fugett said.

Fugett wants the focus of February to be on historical achievements, so they don't become forgotten, he said.

"Current events take care of themselves," he said.

A 1969 school board policy, revised in 2013, encourages the teaching of controversial issues — defined as "a problem, subject, or question about which there are significant differences of opinion, no simple resolutions, and for which related discussion may create strong feelings among people" — as long they are related to instructional goals and presented in an impartial, objective manner.

Schiffer said the school system recommends teaching using an inclusive approach, making sure underrepresented voices are part of the narrative.

Traditionally when World War I is taught in high school classes, for example, the lessons examine how the nation entered the world stage for the first time, said Dani Biancolli, the school system's coordinator of secondary social studies.

In Baltimore County, the curriculum goes into the impact the 1914 to 1918 war had on African American soldiers, she said. The treatment they had abroad was the precursor to the Harlem Renaissance, the Great Migration of blacks from the south into cities and other regions and ultimately the civil rights movement.

"What we very rarely get in that whole discussion is what the experience of having gone to Europe did for African American soldiers and when they came back," she said. "It's not found in a typical narrative."

Local lessons

At Catonsville High School, where about a third of the 1,737 students are black, principal Matt Ames said many of his teachers have brought up contemporary issues of race in classes, when appropriate. The important thing, he said, is that teachers are prepared.

"We certainly want our teachers to have the freedom to make those decisions when they see it appropriate," he said. "They know their kids."

"I think the thing we don't want to do is ignore what's going on that's affecting our kids," he said. "We have to be very mindful of how we do these things."

Fleming, the chairwoman of the school's social studies department, stresses the importance of the teacher's comfort level with sometimes controversial topics and keeping an open line of communication with parents, in case they are uncomfortable with what's being taught, and allowing students to opt out.

Schiffer, the county schools' director of social science, said he hasn't received complaints about the approaches to black history education.

That wasn't the case earlier this year in neighboring Howard County, where a high school English teacher was placed on administrative leave after giving an assignment to high school students to write a "slave song" as part of a lesson on abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The Howard superintendent called the assignment "outrageous" and noted it was not part of the official curriculum. The widely reported episode sparked a vigorous debate, bringing a mix of support and criticism for the teacher.

In Baltimore County schools, contemporary issues, such as the demonstrations in Baltimore that followed the death of Freddie Gray in 2015, are not in the curriculum, Schiffer said.

Schiffer said instruction is moving away from a "heroes and holidays" approach and toward year-long integration.

A new science unit being offered this year to fifth-graders in county schools features the achievements of Benjamin Banneker, a free black man living in Baltimore County in the 1700s.

The unit, which is about the motion of objects in space, is being taught to about 400 students in 24 schools this year, with full implementation set for next school year, said Eric Cromwell, the school system's coordinator for elementary science.

Banneker, whose achievements are on display in a Catonsville musuem, was selected because he brings a local connection to space, a topic not local by nature, Cromwell said.

A lesson at the end of the unit focuses on Banneker, known for writing almanacs and for his interactions with Thomas Jefferson over slavery and racial equality.

While some of the math behind Banneker's work could be complicated for a fifth-grader, there's plenty they can learn from what he did, said Justine Schaeffer, director of the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum, a 142-acre site devoted to his life and contributions.

Schaeffer said she was pleased with the unit, but would like to see a mandatory field trip for fifth-graders to the museum so they could gain more knowledge about Banneker and astronomy.

Banneker may not be as prominent as other famous African Americans in Maryland's history, such as Douglass or Harriet Tubman, Schaeffer said, but she believes Banneker has a place in the history of African American contributions.

"This is an African American from Baltimore County who did really remarkable things that we're still talking about a couple centuries later," she said. "It's definitely a story that is worthy of our time because it's a story that everyone can relate to."

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