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Black history: best taught in February or all year long?

This month at Walter Payton College Prep High School in Chicago, history classes will cover urbanization - specifically, the changes to the city's culture and music that resulted when Southern blacks migrated north.

In English classes, meanwhile, students will be reading Toni Morrison and studying the Harlem Renaissance. And the high school's African-American Club will host an annual school-wide assembly featuring black poetry and music.

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The Chicago school is one of many across the US that gears its February curriculum toward exploring black Americans' contributions to society.

The idea that students are enriched by learning about the heritage and role of African-Americans is widely accepted among most US educators. What's now debated is whether such lessons should be confined, some say "segregated," to one month or, instead, be incorporated into class work all year long. Earmarking a single month to recognize black achievement, this camp argues, is not enough in a society built on the contributions of many racial and ethnic groups.

The notion of a dedicated time for black history instruction dates from 1926, when educator Carter Godwin Woodson created Negro History Week in a bid to promote a better understanding of the contributions of blacks. In 1976, Congress changed the week into a full month.

The Walter Payton school is one that prefers this approach. "It is better to have a full month to have a larger focus so the students can see how things fit together," says Ken Mularski, the school's curriculum coordinator.

Some school officials, though, argue that weaving black history, along with other minority contributions, into lessons throughout the year is better.

"We are pretty doggone white," says Chris Willis, an assistant vice principal at Zionsville Community High School in Indiana, of the student population at his school. "I feel as though the challenge is stronger for us to overcome because there isn't diversity."

His district was recently criticized when it opted to hold classes on Martin Luther King Day - a traditional school holiday. It defended that decision, noting that its conscious effort that day to focus on the achievements of the civil rights leader, that include starting the morning at the high school with a broadcast of the full 15-minute "I Have a Dream" speech. There were also several displays, including one with black artists and their work.

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During Black History Month the school doesn't rely on specialized activities, says Mr. Willis. Instead, teachers are encouraged to include information about black leaders and history throughout the year. "It's not something that we do just once a month," says Willis. "It's something that we think about, and it's how we operate all year."

Many other schools emphasize diversity by celebrating multiple cultures. Orange County, California, has a Hispanic minority and only a tiny black population. Marine View Middle School, in Huntington Beach, reflects the demographics of the region.

"It's not about one color, but respecting all cultures," says Elizabeth Williams, principal of Marine View. "So when it comes to Martin Luther King Day or Black History Month, it becomes part of what we do the whole year."

To that end, the school also teaches units on several other cultures, including the native American and Mexican cultures that are well represented in the Western United States.

"We need to be respectful of all groups," says Ms. Williams. "By focusing on the big picture and teaching kids compassion and empathy, we can teach our part of the world to be patient and tolerant of everyone."

Multiculturalism is also the theme at the Bowles School in East Springfield, Mass. But the school also embraces the concept of Black History Month. Principal Sandra Vella sets the tone by emphasizing black history all month, focusing on contributions that usually go unnoticed, such as the presence of black cowboys in the old West and the fact that black surveyors assisted in designing Washington, D.C.

The school's music department also gets involved, teaching the roots of jazz, Southern hymns, and rock 'n' roll.

But the East Springfield school's worldview is not black and white. "Black history is important for all cultures," says Ms. Vella. "Children need to know that all cultures contribute to the history of the United States."

So every month of the school year the student body learns about a different cultural group. "People really need to know their ethnic background and be proud of it," Vella says, "but we need to accept that all cultures make up the world."

Dr. Woodson envisioned a day when the history taught in schools was inclusive and no longer needed to be presented through a special week - a desire shared by modern-day educators.

The Glenwood Elementary School in East Springfield, Mass., marks the month with activities and community speakers. Judy Viamari, who teaches third grade there, says she understands why the month is important. "Recognition has to happen and it might not otherwise, but [Black History Month] segregates it."

Black history should be a standard part of school curricula, she says. "These are folks who impacted our lives, regardless of race," says Ms. Viamari. "The focus should be on the contributions."


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