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Maine Educators Seek to Integrate Black History into Curriculum
03/14/2013   Reported By: Samantha Fields

March is not Black History Month. That distinction goes to February - when students are typically introduced to civil rights activists such as Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King. In some classrooms, discussions might even branch out to include Malcolm X. But, now, as Samantha Fields reports, some Maine educators think it's time to be more inclusive, that African American history should be taught throughout the school year.

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Catherine Anderson with Hughes book

King Middle School teacher Catherine Anderson introduces her students to the poetry of Langston Hughes.

Edwige Charlot still remembers the day in fifth grade that her class learned about slavery. "I happened to be sitting in the back of the classroom and everyone turned around," she recalls. "You know it's like that was my first experience seeing myself being reflected in the history books."

She was the only black student in the room. It was the first time African American faces had appeared in her textbook. "And then we disappeared again after the Civil War. And then we don't come back again until the civil rights movement."

Rachel Talbot Ross, president of the Portland chapter of the NAACP, says that most school curriculums nationwide are heavily Euro-centric, and that what is taught about African Americans and other minority groups tends to be relatively superficial. That, she says, is detrimental to all students.

King Middle School students Joy (rear) and Mercia (foreground)."What it does is give you an erroneous understanding about history and place and time and contributions," Talbot Ross says. "It gives a false sense, it's an inaccurate sense, for everybody in that classroom to think that there's only one group of people responsible for all of the accomplishments in the world."

Charlot says it's a trend that persisted throughout her education, including at Maine College of Art.

"I started MECA as a graphic designer and I didn't learn about any designers of color," she says. "The only woman I heard of who was a designer was Paula Scher. So at the end of my time in graphic design, I was like, 'Wow. So there are no black printmakers. Which is the farthest thing from the truth!'"

Charlot graduated in 2010, and she's now involved in fostering conversations at MECA about issues of race and diversity and representation. Last month, she and another recent graduate helped put together an exhibit at the college about race.
But Elizabeth Jabar, assistant dean and director of public engagement at MECA, says she doesn't want the exhibition to be a one-time event, or the end of the conversation.

"Because then it becomes optional, right?" she says. "We can pat ourselves on the back and say, 'Oh yes, we celebrated black history, so we're doing all the right things.' So I want to keep pushing to go the step beyond that."

For Jabar, "going a step beyond" means having regular conversations about diversity and representation in the curriculum and in the community. And it means getting administrators and teachers to think consciously about the works that they're teaching and the speakers they're inviting to the school.

Brian and Catherine AndersonIt's something that has become a priority for Catherine Anderson (left, with student Brian), who teaches reading at King Middle School in Portland.

"I make certain that pretty much all of the texts that I read have some connection to characters of color, or an author of color, or a setting or a time period where civil rights was an issue," she says. "And it doesn't have to be in this country."

Anderson, who is white, is often in the minority in her classroom. She's also a minority in her own household. Her adopted son is African American, her other son is biracial. Both her sons, and the diversity of her classroom, have made her more committed to teaching material by and about people of color.

"On so many layers it's important because I want all of my students to feel that their experience is just as important as the child next to them," Anderson says.

On this day, Anderson is having her students grapple directly with questions of race and the African American experience using a novel called "Witness," set in rural Vermont in the 1920s, and the poetry of Langston Hughes.

"This content's really difficult," she says. So to say, 'Oh she's terrified and he's feeling amazing.' Because I think often with black history we just leave kids with these bombs and off they go. And we're not showing them all the amazing things that were happening, like the Harlem Renaissance. And all the joy, and everything that came out of these moments."

Anderson says she has a lot of freedom when it comes to selecting books, and planning lessons. In Portland, curriculum development is primarily done at the school level, though there is a move toward the creation of more district-wide guidelines.

But David Galin, the chief academic officer of the Portland Public Schools, says the district has moved beyond the study of "dead white men." Over the past year and a half, he says Portland has been teaching big-picture concepts, like what happens when two cultures collide, or when a group of people is oppressed.

"One of the pieces that we'll never - and no school system will ever - really be able to do is a deep rich study of any one culture, let alone all the cultures that have gone into making America America, Maine Maine, and Portland Portland," Galin says.

Catherine Anderson says she agrees that schools can't "do it all." But she says that doesn't mean they can't do more to ensure that the history and experiences of people of color are integrated into the curriculum.

"When my son gets to this school, I want people to say, 'I see you. I see you as a young black man. And this is what your experience might look like. And this is how I'm going to make sure that your learning is a reflection of your experience in the world,'" Anderson says.

That is what Edwige Charlot wants, too - for all young people to see themselves as part of the story. That, she says, sends a subtle, but powerful, message - that they can do, or be, anything: a doctor, an artist, president.

Photos by Samantha Fields.


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