Walking in Rosa's Shoes, Part I
For Black History Month, we're pleased to present the first of a two-part series, taken from a chapter of teacher and SEED staff member Judy Logan's book Teaching Stories. In it, she asks, "Just what is a multicultural and gender-inclusive curriculum?" and answers from her own experience. Please come back tomorrow to read the second half.
"Walking in Rosa's Shoes," Part I, from Teaching Stories
Just what is a multicultural and gender-inclusive curriculum? Each year I learn something new. While I am uncomfortable with isolating February as Black History Month, or March as Women's History Month, I find that such things do provide me with community support for particular projects. For example, my class researches and writes essays on women from history in order to participate in the NOW essay contest. Because these essays have to be submitted in mid-December, however—even though the reception for the winners doesn't take place until Women's History Month—we begin working on them in the fall and thus their focus covers more than half the year.
In February I especially focus on Black History. I have asked students to choose one African American person, to research his or her life completely, and to come to class as that person in order to tell the story of his or her life. Students are encouraged to use photographs, illustrations, costumes, props, music, drama and/or video tapes in order to make the person's life real to the class. I provide a list to choose from which students can add to. Last year I noticed that while all the boys chose males to report on, two girls chose to be males (Gordon Parks and Martin Luther King). I was uncomfortable that females chose to be males while males did not choose to be females. I began to wonder what I could do to help all students feel comfortable exploring both male and female lives. This year I modified my usual Black History Month assignment so that each student was required to do two reports—one on a male, and one on a female.
Initially, I was surprised that not one student objected to doing two reports, or to "becoming" a person of the opposite gender. All of their questions were about whether or not they could extend my list. By this time in the semester they know that I like them to collaborate and alter my assignments. But as they raised their hands to say, "Could I be Janet Jackson?" or "Could I be Bill Cosby?" I realized that they saw this assignment as an opportunity to become one of their heroes from the sports or entertainment field. Instead of saying no, I said yes to each request. Then I asked them to look at the list they had constructed on the board. We had only athletes and entertainers. "This is a great list," I said, "but it is not black history. In fact, I would be embarrassed to have this list leave the room as our concept of black history, because, even though these great people are an integral part of black history, they are not the whole picture. How would you feel if I said we were going to study white history and then we only studied movie stars and sports heroes? I know that you don't know yet about the people I put on the list, but trust me, they have interesting lives, and you will like getting to know them." Slowly hands were raised and students began trading their heroes for names unknown. By not saying no to them in the first place, we as a class were allowed to confront our limited perceptions of black contributions to society.
Once I had accomplished the above, my job as teacher for the next several weeks was to bring a lot of material to class. We watched the PBS series on Getting to Know Me, ten half-hour dramatic programs on a black family, each of which celebrates some aspect of black culture. We watched segments of programs on Black History. We read poems, listened to music, read stories. Each day I would say, "Class, who in this class is Alice Walker?" Pauline would raise her hand. "Pauline, you wrote the poems I will be reading today." And Pauline would smile. Or, "Who in this class is Malcolm X?" David would raise his hand. "David, you will be making a very important speech in today's video, watch carefully." And he would. Or, "Who is Bernice Reagan Johnson? . . . Keishon, you wrote this music, and you will see yourself in this tape." Of course, I also provided them with library time so they could research independently.