Ebele Azikiwe was in the sixth grade last year when February came and it was time to learn about Black history again. She was, by then, familiar with the curriculum: Rosa Parks, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and a discussion on slavery. Just like the year before, she said, and the year before that.

Then came George Floyd’s death in May, and she wrote to the administration at her school in Cherry Hill, in New Jersey’s Philadelphia suburbs, to ask for more than the same lessons.

“We learned about slavery, but did we go into the roots of slavery?” Ebele, 12, said in an interview. “You learned about how they had to sail across, but did you learn about how they felt being tied down on those boats?”

Her letter went from the principal to the superintendent and then began to make headlines, leading to pledges to include fuller Black history courses.

In the months since Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis, educators say they’ve heard a demand from students for fuller Black history lessons beyond what was already offered. And states and lawmakers have passed or begun implementing bills calling for more inclusive instruction.

The previous generation of courses focused on cultural awareness. What schools found, according to Maurice Hall — the dean of the College of New Jersey’s arts and communications school and a social justice scholar — was that students still had socioeconomic, cultural and racial blind spots.

Growing up with a majority point of view could mean thinking that the way a particular culture sees the world “is in fact the right way,” Hall said.

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Connecticut implemented a law in December requiring high schools to offer courses on Black and Latino studies. New Jersey, where learning standards already included some diversity education lessons, last month became the latest state to enact a law requiring school districts to incorporate instruction on diversity and inclusion.

A handful of other states have pending legislation that would make similar changes, including Washington and Virginia, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The pandemic is partly credited with the response to Floyd’s death while pinned by a white police officer, a confrontation that was caught on video and beamed into homes where people were isolating. The effect spilled over into schools, said Michael Conner, the superintendent in Middletown, Connecticut. Students held rallies and helped put race at the top of educators’ consciousness.

African American and other non-European history tends to focus on how those societies were marginalized, while Europeans get portrayed as culturally competent, Conner said, something he calls a “deficit” context, as opposed to an “asset” context.

Like 12-year-old Ebele, he pointed to learning about the same handful of prominent African-American figures.

“When I look at my education, the only time I learned about Black history in school was during the month of February,” he said. “I learned about my culture at the dining room table with my mother and grandmother.”

Districts adding diversity to their curricula now have to determine how to do it and what that …read more

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