February 1, 2005
Anyone know what happened during the "Red Summer" of 1919? How about the literary importance of Richard Wright? What was the Kerner Commission? And who was Septima Clark?
These aren’t trivial, esoteric factoids, but important people and events in black American history.
Today marks the beginning of Black History Month, though in some East Valley schools there will be nary a mention.
Many educators say that’s a direct result of pressure to improve standardized test scores, with social studies becoming one of the casualties. Others say it’s a reflection of the area’s increasingly multicultural demographics. And some educators worry that emphasizing black history for one month gives short shrift to an integral part of American history.
"African-American history is American history," said Cliff Moon, diversity specialist for the Mesa Unified School District. "My hope is, it’s not just about February, but throughout the entire school year."
East Valley teachers say black history is woven throughout the social studies curriculum. In addition, there are workshops, clubs, assemblies, training opportunities and special guests that teach diversity and tolerance. Schools and communities this month will celebrate a variety of events, including Unity Day, a cultural fashion show, a regional Unity Walk and a Diversity Festival.
"It’s more about respecting one another and our individualities than it is just learning about one group of people," said P.J. Sessoms, director of human resources and diversity director for the Gilbert Unified School District. "I’d rather see it in the curriculum rather than, ‘Let’s do it this month.’ "
But even when black history is taught as part of American history, too often it focuses on "the celebrities and the superstars," said Ron Glass, associate professor of graduate studies in the College of Teacher Education and Leadership at Arizona State University West.
"There’s very little attention to the fact that the civil rights struggle was a movement," led by ordinary, working-class people, he said. "It’s very hard for (students) to connect. . . . It seems like it’s these amazing people doing amazing things, rather than people like them."
Glass said a more integrated approach to American history would include racial history, rather than focusing on one ethnic group or another. The civil rights movement spawned the American Indian movement, the Chicano movement and the gay rights movement, he said. All of these struggles are connected, and all of them have supporters who are neither black, American Indian, Chicano or gay, which can help students better relate to them, he said.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne was there in August 1963 when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech to more than 250,000 people near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. About onefifth of the crowd was white, according to the State Department.
"It’s something I take a particular interest in," Horne said. "We’ve worked very hard to tighten up the social studies standards . . . to make them much more content-rich."
Horne convinced the state Board of Education to revise high school history standards in 2003 to cover the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. At the time, some teachers worried that it would give them less time to spend on the civil rights movement, the Vietnam era and other more contemporary history lessons.
"You have to choose what’s important rather than cutting off a whole era," he said Monday. "Certainly the founding of the country is as important as anything can possibly be in history."
Diversity is now being taught in preschool, with "Sesame Street" character Elmo part of a fledgling training program in Gilbert schools. The notion is to have children at a very early age understand that differences are not only OK, they’re cool.
Counselor Irene Gamez had the habit of making tortillas for students at Rhodes Junior High as a way to help them better understand Mexican traditions.
"I’d have kids come in and roll tortillas, so they could see the labor . . . and taste the difference between store-bought and homemade," she said. "It helps kids to see the humanness or people, instead of, ‘Oh, she’s just a Mexican.’ "
Gamez is coordinating Unity Day, set for Feb. 25 at Rhodes, which will include a variety of assemblies, videos and breakout sessions that cover everything from white supremacy groups to how Mesa got an annual parade honoring King.
During the year, each grade studies a different aspect of cultural diversity, with stereotypes in seventh grade, racism in eighth grade and hate crimes in ninth grade. About two dozen students also are chosen to participate in the annual Youth Summit at Centennial Hall. Last month, those children toured the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, which is dedicated to the dynamics of racism and prejudice in America and the history of the Holocaust.
Although Horne said students cannot do well on Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards, or AIMS, without a solid background in social studies and science, educators continue to voice concerns that testing has given them less time for lessons that are critical to a child’s success in life.
"The focus is just on passing these tests now," he said. "There’s nothing about justice or community or citizenship on the AIMS test."