Teaching Black history better

Legislation promises inclusive curriculum

"Social studies has always been my least favorite subject," state Sen. Kimberly Lightford told Illinois Times last October. That was back when hearings about the "Black Agenda" were ongoing. Lightford, a Democrat from the Chicago suburb Maywood, was the primary Senate sponsor of the education package that passed the General Assembly earlier this month.

Lightford said she was introduced to the terrors of enslavement from a young age. She remembered being eight years old when the miniseries Roots came out in 1977. Her family gathered together to watch the story of a young man kidnapped from his home in Gambia, his subsequent enslavement and the plight of his descendants. The violence represented the suffering so many endured. "And I just remember me being in a ball and crying, completely traumatized," said Lightford.

Later on, in social studies classes, she'd feel there was something missing. "I really didn't learn of all the positive contributions and what it meant to be Black in America until I arrived in college." As a student at Western Illinois University, she said she felt she was finally taught a fuller picture. Lightford said she ended up with a minor in African American studies by default – her curiosity led her to take classes in the department each semester. It was in college that her pride for her identity as a Black woman truly developed, she said.

"I know that we have to do better in elementary-level, leading up to middle school and high school. No children should have to wait until they're 18, 19 years old to begin to learn the true history of who they are and where they come from," said Lightford.

click to enlarge Kimberly Lightford is Senate Majority Leader and chair of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus. - PHOTO BY LEE MILNER, 2019
Photo by Lee Milner, 2019
Kimberly Lightford is Senate Majority Leader and chair of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus.

Part of the new legislation, which awaits a signature from the governor, would call on schools to teach pre-enslavement Black history. Black history units would also have to include information about why African Americans were enslaved, as well as information about the civil rights movement. It was just one piece of the hefty agenda created by Black legislators and their allies. The legislative Black Caucus put forth four pillars aimed at building a more equitable state – in the wake of a summer of unrest due to the police killing of George Floyd and regular demonstrations in cities such as Chicago, calling for widespread justice. In addition to education, the four pillars included criminal justice reform, economic access and health care.

Like the criminal justice bill, the education omnibus was full of measures that would take time and investment to implement. Some of the efforts were years in the making, and sponsors said it was time to capitalize on the moment and the public's growing awareness about the myriad ways systemic racism causes injustice. Among other things, changes are aimed at making college and advanced programming more accessible, increasing the number of diverse teachers and addressing learning loss – due to the pandemic. Proponents say the legislation is a historic achievement in clearing the path to success for students who have been on the losing end of the achievement gap.

Tiffani Saunders, a sociologist and professor in the African American studies department at University of Illinois Springfield, said her experience as a teacher echoes Lightford's sentiment about young people being eager to learn more about the truth of our nation's history. "Students are asking for this. When I get them in college and I'm exposing them to things in history, so often they're asking why they weren't taught this before they got to college." Saunders said the contributions of marginalized people can be woven in through a variety of subjects throughout the school year – not just in a separate unit for February because it's Black History Month.

The measure is a step in the right direction, Saunders said. "One component that's going to be really important though is how we're training teachers." Saunders said teachers currently can supplement textbooks with primary sources – autobiographies and resources from the Library of Congress, for example. But time spent making history lessons more inclusive can be extra work for teachers. Educators don't always go into classrooms knowing how to address racism.

Crafting curriculum change

A recent meeting of the Black History Curriculum Task Force offered a look at what the state's official stance on teaching the subject might be. The task force, overseen by the Illinois State Board of Education, was a result of 2018 legislation sponsored by state Rep. La Shawn Ford. It charged the state with auditing each school district to see what current curriculum looks like. The report isn't due out until later this year, but drafts reviewed during the meeting on Jan. 29 showed many districts that self-reported still rely on McGraw Hill and Pearson textbooks to teach the subject in elementary through high school.

In 2015, McGraw Hill was widely criticized when an excerpt from one of its texts went viral. It stated: "The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations."

click to enlarge Lawmakers met in January for the lame-duck session, much of which included four pillars addressing systemic racism, put forth by the legislative Black Caucus. - PHOTO BY LEE MILNER
Photo by Lee Milner
Lawmakers met in January for the lame-duck session, much of which included four pillars addressing systemic racism, put forth by the legislative Black Caucus.

Many criticized the framing of enslavement as a matter of immigration, and enslaved people as "workers." McGraw Hill subsequently announced it would change the language and recategorize the migration accurately as being forced, according to The Atlantic.

The blunder is an example of how history written through a Eurocentric lens can leave many students wondering what is missing from their education. While it's unlikely the task force will result in a specific suggestion for where curriculum should come from, it does plan to answer what ISBE's position is on teaching African American history.

A draft summary states that Black history is integral to an accurate telling and understanding of our nation, and that students who participate in "ethnic studies" see better outcomes in terms of test scores, GPAs, attendance, earned credits and civic engagement. "Effective Black history education connects to events today and progresses beyond learning about Black Americans to learning from Black Americans," the draft reads.

Part of the education measure legislators passed earlier this year would create the "Inclusive American History Commission." Ford said the report from the Black History Curriculum Task Force would lay groundwork for the new commission. "We're going to go further, because now we're going to know what school districts are using to teach history," he said.

The combined efforts could lead to a standard for education in the state that contains more perspectives and less bias. Ultimately, the framing of history in schools can dictate whether or not kids learn to internalize messages of "white superiority," said Ford. More inclusion of marginalized identities such as women, Native Americans and Black people is important, he said. Last year, an Illinois law went into effect that requires the inclusion of LGBTQ history in public schools.

Regarding representation

Roy Gully teaches for Springfield Public Schools, where administrators and teachers have been discussing related changes to curriculum. Gully is a social studies teacher and varsity football coach at Springfield High School. He's on a committee where members are considering changes to make lessons more inclusive throughout District 186.

The new legislation is "a long time coming to have it mandated," Gully said. "But I'm certainly glad that it has been adopted and hopefully it'll make an impact and a difference." Gully said he has made it a point to highlight diverse figures in each unit he teaches. "For a lot of history teachers, it won't make that big of a difference," said Gully, because they are already making the effort to teach inclusive history lessons. Making sure District 186 has textbooks that better represent diversity would be a step forward, he said.

click to enlarge Roy Gully coaches varsity football at Springfield High School. He's part of a "Grow Your Own" - committee that's looking at ways to hire more diverse teachers in the district. - PHOTO BY BRANDY FLETCHER, COURTESY OF ROY GULLY
Photo by Brandy Fletcher, courtesy of Roy Gully
Roy Gully coaches varsity football at Springfield High School. He's part of a "Grow Your Own" committee that's looking at ways to hire more diverse teachers in the district.

District 186 Supt. Jennifer Gill said the legislation could provide support for ongoing efforts. "We need to look at what our African American curriculum is in District 186 – see if there is a place where we could provide a very specific textbook that covers all of the standards that we want to address in the future," she said. Analyzing current curriculum could also result in finding online resources and other supplements, Gill said.

According to ISBE, more than half of students in District 186 were nonwhite in 2020 – with 40.7% of them Black, 12.8% of two or more races, 3.6% Hispanic and 2.4% Asian.

But those numbers aren't reflected by who is teaching in the district. For the past 10 reported years, the percentage of Black teachers has been between 7-9%, with the lowest percentage, 7.1%, just last year. If you glance at the teacher page on Springfield High's website, Gully's photo stands out as being the only apparent African American. Gully said, last he checked, he was the only full-time African American teacher at Springfield High School. Of the numerous committees he is on, one is focused on the recruitment and retention of diverse candidates.

Gully is originally from St. Louis. While in high school, his family moved to a small town in Iowa where he said he was the only Black student. For 15 years he taught in Galesburg, where he said he was the only African American teacher at the middle school. "I recognize the importance of being able to identify with African Americans who have grown up in similar circumstances that I have. And the ability to see someone who looks like you go to college and get a degree and give back, coach, teach and educate is important," said Gully. "Because if you don't have those people to look to for that guidance and direction, it's easy to lose hope."

In 2020 only 20.5% of District 186 teachers were male. Part of the new legislation passed by the Illinois General Assembly would set aside funds in the Minority Teachers of Illinois Scholarship Program to prioritize male minority candidates. Meanwhile, there's an overall shortage of teachers. Finding more diverse candidates is going to "require us to think outside the box and do some traveling," said Gully. "We're very dedicated to growing our educator pipeline," said Gill. "Our joint committee with the union is something brand new ... where we're saying we need help, we can't just recruit individuals alone."

Community collaboration

Partnerships are indeed key to needed change, according to Laura Jordan and Julie Hoffman, co-chairs of the Springfield Education Association's equity committee, which aims to dismantle racism within the context of education. The SEA is the union representing District 186 staff and teachers. Jordan is also part of a team based at the Faith Coalition for the Common Good also focused on supporting the district with curriculum changes. Hoffman is on the education committee for the local NAACP chapter. Both are teachers.

"Right now our committee is working on educating ourselves," Jordan said of the teacher union's effort. One top goal is to figure out how to support teachers and help them implement an anti-racist perspective into their lessons, she said.

"This is 400 years plus of systems in place that are woven into the fabric of our history," said Hoffman. Providing resources to the district is a shared goal of many community activists who want to work with the administration and educators, Jordan and Hoffman said.

Springfield has a plethora of local history to draw from – such as a walking tour of markers updated in 2018, an effort by the city and the NAACP, which describe the events of the 1908 Race Riot, a massacre by white people against Black residents which helped inspire the founding of the NAACP. And there's much to learn about the contributions of Black Springfield residents. Places like the Route History museum and Springfield and Central Illinois African American History Museum offer valuable lessons about local history.

Regardless of state law, change is needed, the two say. It's time for a more accurate telling of the Black experience. "Our whole district, as far as curriculum, needs an overhaul," said Jordan. Students should see books that depict a variety of different races, religions and nationalities. Curriculum should not relegate Black history to a single unit or chapter in a book, Jordan said. Black history "needs to be fully embedded into the whole entire curriculum," echoed Hoffman.

Contact Rachel Otwell at rotwell@illinoistimes.com.

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