'Huge wake-up call': Protests spark discussion about how Black history is taught in Wisconsin schools

’Huge wake-up call’: Protests spark discussion about how Black history is taught in Wisconsin schools

GREENDALE, Wis. (CBS 58) -- The unrest following the death of George Floyd is sparking conversations in schools districts about how the history of African Americans is taught in schools. In a state in which a large majority of teachers are white, many school officials acknowledge there is a lot of work to be done.

In her Greendale Middle School social studies classroom, Erin McCarthy has a philosophy, and that philosophy is likely what helped her win the title of 2020 Wisconsin Teacher of the Year during a very unusual school year.

"What I do in this classroom is to help kids feel like they're a part of history, to see themselves reflected in the story (and) to understand that obstacles that people have overcome in the past are things that they can still overcome today," she said.

She wrote a submission for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction during Black History Month discussing her mindset while teaching her eighth grade students.

"I definitely don't feel that Black History Month should be just one month. It's throughout the entire year that we talk about stories of Black history... So instead of trying to explain like, 'We're going to talk about black history now,' it's just a matter of us saying like, 'This is history. It's what it is. This is everybody's history,'" McCarthy said.

The protests and unrest following the death of George Floyd has inspired some teachers and school district officials to take a closer look at what they're teaching in classrooms.

"It's a horrible incident, and it's a huge wake-up call to Wisconsin to the country, and it shows the need for students to understand things," said Kris McDaniel, social studies consultant for DPI. "The Wisconsin Council for the Social Studies is looking at some professional development for teachers this year in regards to equity and BLM, which I think is fantastic."

The state revised its social studies standards in 2018. State law requires each school board to provide instructional programs that give students "an understanding of human relations, particularly with regard to American Indians, Black Americans and Hispanics." Human and civil rights, as well as historically marginalized groups are considered "topics for exploration" by the state.

However, school districts have control over individual curriculums. 

"We have never been a state that has a checklist of names and dates and places that districts must comply with. We have never done that, (but) we did talk about it for these standards," McDaniel said.

A spokesperson for the Milwaukee Public Schools said changes to the district's history curriculum is always ongoing. The district is hoping to expand curriculums involving ethnic studies and the Black Lives Matter movement.

"We want the students to really have a voice. We want them to be able to understand ... how Black history has evolved and things that have happened, but then letting them know that they do matter in society ... We're looking at protests. We are a part of the conversation. We want to tackle some of those serious issues," said Nuntiata Portis-Buck, district curriculum specialist for MPS.

Milwaukee school board members recently approved more ethnic studies teaching positions for courses that could start in the 2020-2021 school year. Twelve total positions have been approved, which would allow ethnic studies programs to be expanded to every high school and one middle school.

"We had the opportunity to create a place in our curriculum that really was intentional on teaching Black lives," Portis-Buck said.

McCarthy said she hopes recent demands from protesters, such as more Black teachers in schools and increased ethnic studies programs, will be closely examined. She said certain time periods are covered better than others.

"I also don't know why we learn about Black people through the Civil War and kind of Reconstruction, and then we don't hear about them again until the Civil Rights Movement. Like, what happens for 80 years?" McCarthy said.

She said it's not just a question of what schools choose to teach but how teachers teach it.

"You have to strike a balance between the tragedy that is slavery and systemic racism, but then also all of the triumphs of people who've overcome that," McCarthy said.

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