[Episcopal News Service] While some may plan special celebrations or speakers, Episcopal schools don’t confine teaching African-American history and culture to Black History Month each February. Educators across the nation describe curricula designed to teach African-American history—and the history of other races and ethnicities—throughout the school year.
"We have Black History Month here every month at Iolani School," said Russell Motter, who teaches African-American studies and a course on the history of the 1960s, including the civil rights movement, at the K-12 Episcopal school in Honolulu, Hawaii.
"I also teach a U.S. history course here, and I do quite a bit of African-American history in that course, too," he said. "My approach is not necessarily to pitch it as African-American history. It’s American history, and I’m hoping that we reach the point where we won’t need … Black History Month."
The history department also offers courses in Hawaiian studies, Asian-American studies and Asian studies at a school launched in 1863 that educated students of Chinese ancestry when other schools didn’t. "The school really took it as its mission from the very start to educate people that some of the other schools were not educating," Motter said. "That legacy is with us today."
Many Iolani students have Chinese or Japanese surnames, he said. Many are of mixed ancestry. Students may share African-American and native Hawaiian or Filipino forebears. "When I teach about that one-drop rule, it baffles them. It’s hard for them to get their heads around it," he said, referring to the classification of people as "black" if they have "one drop" of African-American blood.
"At the same time, I think a lot of Americans also forget that there are very few black people in this country who don’t have some measure of European ancestry as well," he said. "Yet we categorize them as black people, and they also categorize themselves as black people, and I think this is a legacy of racism and slavery in this country."
Himself of German and Italian ancestry, Motter grew up in Atlanta and became interested in African-American history in college. "Part of it probably has to do with being interested in my own history, the place where I grew up. And, of course, you can’t understand the South unless you know something about African-American history."
When he conceived the idea for an African-American studies course at Iolani, he said, "I thought, ‘This is something important that students need to know about.’ And I really want to make sure that they’re not looking at African-American history as something that is different or exotic or odd, that it’s American history, and that as Americans they share the legacy. The music that they listen to, even the way that we carry ourselves physically as Americans, the way that we speak, the way that we define freedom and liberty – those things we owe in part to African Americans."
Exploring Culture through Music
In Oakland, California, students at St. Paul’s Episcopal School are preparing to celebrate that musical legacy at the 23rd Annual African American Cultural Celebration on Feb. 17.
"The purpose of the evening really is to commemorate and to celebrate the contributions of African-Americans to music and just to our culture in general," said Guy de Chalus, music department coordinator and world-percussion teacher. The school’s former music program director, who was instrumental in starting the concert, "felt like the contributions of African Americans to our music culture … is unprecedented and felt that there should be an evening that honored their contributions in a specific way."
De Chalus works history into his music lessons, for the concert and throughout the school year. The drum ensemble’s repertoire for Feb. 17, for example, in part will celebrate the Ebo, "who are a nation from West Africa that refused to be enslaved," de Chalus said. "The kids understand the history of the Ebo. … It’s very, very serious information, but the kids have taken to it really well, and it’s a very festive music. It’s celebratory music. And it celebrates, really the integrity of Africans to resist enslavement."
De Chalus said his role at the school "is to provide most specifically a history of world percussion and African-influenced music on the musics of our popular culture here. So kids are generally getting heavy doses of Africa and African history through me. I feel like music is one of the safest ways of exploring culture in a way that children can experience some of the fun of other cultures without having necessarily to say whether they agree or disagree with them."
In St. Paul’s third-grade classrooms, youngsters research and write a biography of a notable African American. Teacher Susan Grossberg provides information about various "lesser-known individuals so that the kids realize that it’s not just Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, [but] that there are many, many other notable African Americans that are really important to study and understand."
The curriculum also includes literature about African-American children.
The African-American focus forms just one unit in the school year.
"I don’t do it until March. I’m not trying to mirror Black History Month," Grossberg said. Other units focus on Asian literature, Hispanic literature and Native-American stories, particularly concerning the Ohlone who inhabited the Bay area.
Most students at the K-8 school identify as people of color and generally are of mixed race, de Chalus said. "I think that throughout their experience here at St. Paul’s they really get to touch on a lot of cultures."
Diversity in the Curriculum
Casady School in Oklahoma City is less racially diverse – about 20 percent are people of color – but it’s no less committed to teaching about diversity. Three years ago, the school formed a committee to ensure the curriculum focuses "on diversity in general and specifically on African-American issues in every division, so that we are educating our kids to become diverse thinkers," said Headmaster Christopher Bright.
"We have a fairly diverse student body," he said. "It’s a fairly expensive independent school. Our challenge is always to find a way to broaden that diversity as much as we can. We have a hard time attracting teachers of color, which makes it even more difficult."
The school has sent four teachers to weeklong summer diversity workshops, then invited them to participate in the conversation about diversity at the school, he said.
The PreK-12 school straddles the border between a very affluent and a very poor African-American part of Oklahoma City, which Bright called "very segregated."
"It’s very easy here in Oklahoma City to grow up and really not encounter people who look different than you do," he said.
During Black History Month, students hear speakers on topics such as civil rights and African-American history during morning chapel. The curriculum includes literature such as "Black Like Me" and "To Kill a Mockingbird"; a debate series on civil-rights issues; and history lessons concerning African-American history and Oklahoma-specific events, such as the Tulsa race riots.
"I think there was the longest continuously occupied boycott or sit-in here in Oklahoma than anywhere else in the country," Bright said. "I grew up here in Oklahoma, and I knew nothing about that."
In the upper grades, the school is initiating "affinity groups," which gives students an "opportunity to gather according to whatever their ideas and interests are based on cultural experience and heritage."
"You have to be able to talk about your whiteness or your blackness or your heritage with others who share that similar heritage in light of the diversity you’re trying to improve on," Bright said. "If you can’t talk amongst yourselves about that, then you’re not going to be able to talk together."
Beyond the "Big Names"
At the PreK-8 Advent Episcopal School in Birmingham, Alabama, African-American history is part of the curriculum but receives special attention during February.
"Of course, during Black History Month, because of Birmingham’s place in the history of the civil rights movement, there is no way we’re not going to make a big deal about it," said Wanda Williams, who teaches sixth- through eighth-grade English.
In general, she tries to incorporate black history throughout the year, through news items, poetry, writing and reading, said Williams. Her students annually visit the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Each year, they participate in the African-American Read-In, a national event where individuals are encouraged to read something written by an African American.
"They need to understand that black history doesn’t have to be relegated to one month of the year," Williams said. "I try my best to make sure that it’s just as natural as anything else we’d talk about."
Other teachers employ a similarly diverse curriculum. Fifth-graders are reading "Huckleberry Finn" and a biography of George Washington Carver written in verse. Later, they’ll visit the Tuskegee Institute. Eight-grade social studies pupils study themes of democracy, freedom and equality, and look at examples of people who overcame obstacles to succeed such as C.J. Walker, who started a hair-products company and became the first African-American millionaire.
"We try to make sure that we focus on some people other than the big names," Williams said. "Every child knows Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks."
A former community-college instructor, Williams is the only African-American faculty member in the school, where most students are Caucasian.
"I just think it’s important for all ethnic groups to see that all of us can do a lot of different things," she said. "I think it’s important for the black children to see me as a teacher. I think it’s important for my white students to have that experience."
And she’s able to provide insights into the civil rights era that her students never experienced. "I lived through the ’60s," she said. "I woke up every day hearing somebody talk about a bombing and the marching. I witnessed the children being taken to jail."
It’s important to learn the lessons of the past, even if they’re painful, and for young people to appreciate the sacrifices others made, she said.
Underlying all these lessons are the Episcopal school’s values, she said: "treating people humanely; honoring and respecting that we are all part of God’s family."
That message resonates with Amani Garzin, an African-American eighth-grader at St. Philip’s Academy in Newark, New Jersey.
"History isn’t just for a certain race," she said. "History shouldn’t be biased, because in the end we’re all human."
As part of Black History Month at the school, Amani was completing an essay on Jimi Hendrix. "He’s really awesome, and I love his music. Because he was black and because he faced some troubles, he actually left America and left for England. That was really cool, because he left America and then he came back. It’s fab. It was like he was strong, and that was cool."
Other February activities include black trivia contests, movies and a sale of items such as workbooks and pens to benefit the NAACP, she said.
"We’re an urban school," said Associate Head of School Mark Shultz. "We’re 98 percent, probably, black or African American, but there’s a lot of diversity within that."
While the school celebrates African-American history this month – called the February series – it addresses black history throughout the year, he said. Students learn about the issues, concerns and contributions of different nations for the school’s United Nations Day and celebrate a multicultural night in the fall. Teachers raise up African-American role models in their different disciplines. "There’s a conscious effort to make sure we remain diverse and sensitive to issues of color and people of color in everything that we do."
Shultz invites parents into his sixth-grade social studies class on Fridays to discuss how they contribute to the community. The school also hosts a distinguished speaker series. "Having something they want to share with our kids, that’s the primary criteria," he said. "They are often people of color. We try to invite alumni back."
Eighth-grade honors seminars provide "mini courses" in various areas, including civil rights and the history of Newark, he said. "Right after the inauguration [of President Barack Obama], we did a course on the importance of having a black president and just being involved in the political process and civil service and how important that is. We really wanted to take advantage of the aspirations that one can achieve and what led to Obama’s success."
He concluded, "There is not an aspect of world or U.S. history that doesn’t involve people of color. So I think we try to make sure that we’re aware of that because we have a diverse population."
Sharon Sheridan is an Episcopal News Service correspondent.