Meghan Cox Gurdon's second-grade son has to do a poster project for Black History MOnth. Anyone with children in the public schools has gone through this as February rolls around. She is so exactly right to talk about how such projects force kids to notice racial differences that they really hadn't been aware of before. I well remember my daughters' elementary school and the posters they'd put up every year. It always amused me how lame the group of people were that they were supposed to learn to admire. Almost all of them were sports and entertainment figures. I just don't see why we have to be teaching children in school to admire Michael Jordan. Jackie Robinson was a historical figure, but Jordan? Give me a break. If I were black, I would have found those posters so demeaning and patronizing.
Once, at a parent open house night early in the year when I taught 8th grade, a black mother came up afterwards and asked if I was going to teach black history that year. I wasn't sure what she wanted, but I told her that it would be impossible to teach American history without talking about blacks in our history. But I did not believe in teaching it as a separate subject, but preferred to integrate (forgive the pun) that history into every era of American history. We don't have separate black and white history. She didn't look happy, but didn't say anything else. Her son was a very enthusiastic and informed student. But sure enough, when February rolled around, he wanted to know why I hadn't done anything for Black History Month. I pointed out that we had just spent about 6 weeks on slavery, the events leading up to the Civil War, the War itself and Reconstruction. It seemed to me that we had done plenty of black history that month. He seemed surprised as if it hadn't occurred to him that American history, by its very nature was also black history. He was just so used to those phony canned units that teachers drag out every February and patronizingly assign to students for a few weeks before they go back to whatever else they were doing.
Which brings me to another of my many pet peeves about how schools teach history. History is taught so poorly in the elementary and middle school levels that kids have no idea really of what these black heroes did to deserve admiration since they don't have any understanding of the historical context. They end up with some confused idea that lumps Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King, Oprah Winfrey, and Michael Jordan into one big group of people that all did poster-worthy things at some time, probably within weeks of each other since they're all up on the wall at the same time. No wonder, that most of my students entered my class with social studies (Gosh, I hate that term - but that's another rant) being one of their least favorite subjects. What a shame that is. History should be one of children's favorite subjects. All those great stories! Instead they spend forever coloring in maps and flags and learning the official languages and exports of countries around the world. They'll sing a few little songs and maybe eat some fake ethnic food. Forget the flags and fake authentic food. Teach them the history!
When I was in sixth grade we had to do reports on Russia, our unit that month. All the kids did little reports and brought in food and colored pictures. I came in and told the story of Rasputin and the repeated efforts his enemies made to kill him. The class was spellbound, if I do say so myself. I think even then, I knew how fun it would be to be a history teacher. It used to grind my innards to hear kids talk about how boring their 6th grade social studies class was. Sixth grade is when they do Europe in North Carolina. My gosh. If you can't get kids' attention with the French Revolution and kings getting their heads chopped off you should lose your teaching license. I remember helping my daughter study for a test for which she had to learn the items that Portugal and Spain exported. I almost fell asleep quizzing her. What teachers come up with such an idea? I don't care what the curriculum calls for. She could have been learning about the brave Portuguese and Spanish guerrillas fighting against Napoleon or the Spanish inquisition or the war to expel the Moors. Instead she learned about the exportation of olive oil. Such is the state of "social studies" in our schools. Heaven help us!