In Teaching Multicultural Literature in Grades K-8, author Violet Harris evokes the image of the traditional African storyteller, or griot, to describe the work of modern African American historians. Such modern historians, who retain and share knowledge of group history, are heir to the "spiritual legacies and creative powers associated with village storytellers and griots."1 Harris cites children's author Walter Dean Myers in particular. His early literary explorations of questions specific to African Americans place him in the "vanguard" of "culturally conscious literature," says Harris, noting that Myers' work simultaneously seeks "universal truths" about the human condition.2
Myers is the author of Now Is Your Time!: The African-American Struggle for Freedom,3 a textbook now being used in the middle school program at P. K. Yonge, the University of Florida's K-12 Developmental Research School. Now Is Your Time! is the basic text for the school's semester-long African American history course, and is a major resource for its year-long U.S. history course. This curriculum project stems from a lecture Myers gave at the school in 1994 as part of a visiting author program. The book's appeal rests on Myers' explanation that in it he wanted to depict African Americans as people trying to take charge of their lives rather than as victims.
Now Is Your Time! is Myers' own narrative of the African American experience. It begins with the arrival of African slaves in Virginia in 1619, and concludes with the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s. The book includes Myer's personal exploration of his own family's past as it intertwined with that of the Dandridges of Virginia. The narrative incorporates social history along with political and economic issues relevant to the times; addresses major court cases that proved to be turning points in African American history; and focuses on significant male and female African American leaders. The book is also rich in historical sources-drawings, photographs, documents, letters, advertisements, and excerpts from speeches, song lyrics, poems and essays-that invite student analysis.
Myers' book is useful for the articulation of goals for the middle school history curriculum at P. K. Yonge. That curriculum calls for students to understand the unique nature of the African American experience, and the contributions that African Americans have made throughout U.S. history. It calls for all students at the school-themselves a culturally and ethnically diverse cross-section of North Central Florida's population-to develop personal interpretations of what it means to be African American in this country.
This middle school curriculum likewise emphasizes the struggles of African Americans to fully realize the rights and benefits of U.S. citizenship. And, it encourages all students to become more committed to building racial harmony in their personal lives as well as in the larger society.
Harris states that Now Is Your Time! "broadens the scope of traditional history" and provides an opportunity for extending the study of African Americans beyond "Black History Month."4 Perez-Stable and Cordier describe the book as "well-documented" and as a "well-rounded portrayaquot; of African Americans' historical struggle for dignity and freedom.5
Outline of the Curriculum
Once Now Is Your Time! was chosen as the primary text for the middle school courses, a curriculum was developed to accompany the book. In particular, social studies teachers developed a set of questions to guide daily class discussions and activities. The latter were extrapolated from recent research on "historical thinking" that emphasizes the importance of teaching students to use a variety of primary and secondary sources, become familiar with the types of questions and methodologies used by historians, empathize with historical figures, and analyze and evaluate historical issues and problems.6 The questions developed were of four general types, exemplified as follows:
Supplementing the question sets in the P. K. Yonge middle school curriculum are various research projects. For example, students prepared informational posters on prominent African Americans that were displayed in the school library and entered in the social studies fair at the local community college. They also researched the content and historical context of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, then watched and discussed footage of the event.
Students also viewed two films related to the African American experience. In their study of Glory!, each student followed one of five major characters and kept a record of that character's thoughts, feelings, actions, and experiences. Concurrently, students wrote a journal entry from their character's point of view at five points in the film's narrative: at the outset of the Civil War, after the creation of the 54th Regiment, during training at Camp Meigs, after the first battle in North Carolina, and before the attack on Fort Wagner. In their journals, students included drawings and diagrams that helped to describe their character's experiences.
The class also watched The Long Walk Home, the story of a friendship between an African American housekeeper and a white housewife in Montgomery, Alabama, during the 1950s bus boycott. After viewing the film, students drew upon their previous historical knowledge to make comparisons between the living circumstances of African Americans following the Emancipation Proclamation and during the 1950s. Students concluded that relatively little had changed over time in terms of the political disenfranchisement and economic hardship facing many African Americans.
Concluding the Unit
The idea for how to culminate the African American history course derived from two sources. First, it drew upon the concluding reflection in Now Is Your Time! on what it means to be an African American. Myers ends the book by invoking the metaphor of the ancient Sankofa bird in the kingdom of Ghana to point up the importance of drawing upon the past in order to determine one's identity and direction in life.
The curriculum guide also revisited Jean de Crevecoeur's 1782 essay, "Qu'est-que c'est un Americain?" ("What is an American?") in Letters from an American Farmer. Although Crevecoeur's "melting pot" metaphor may now seem outdated, his question remains relevant and invites thoughtful speculation. Consequently, the culminating activity for the course was for students to write an essay directed to the question, "What is an African American?"
This question yielded a number of insightful responses in which students synthesized the information and understandings they had gleaned from the course. Most of the students' essays incorporated factual details in support of their statements, including references to the African American religious heritage, cultural roots, and ancestry. A number of the essays cited African American leaders and role models, especially figures from the recent past such as Langston Hughes, Rosa Parks, and Maya Angelou. One student wrote about Joel Buchanan, a local resident, who was the first African American to integrate an all-white school in Gainesville.
Most notably, many essays emphasized the students' perception that African Americans maintain a strong sense of their history and identity as a group. Some representative comments from the essays include:
"The African American heritage is never forgotten, no matter how hard the whites have tried."
"African Americans have strong roots leading to their past; they are proud of who they are and where they come from."
"An African American is someone who did not forget his hopes and dreams of finding freedom, even when white people said it would never happen... African Americans are people who would not give up their fight for freedom. That is what makes them so special. They believed in themselves and in the end won their freedom."
"An African American is someone who knows where he is going and where he has been... They are people whose ancestors... were laughed at because of the color of their skin instead of seen for what was in their hearts."
"An African American is someone who respects his people and ancestors. They have spirit, they have joy."
Finally, one African American student concluded:
"An African American is a black man of many sufferings and pain...of knowledge, sacrifice, and self-respect...a person who is equal under the laws and in his rights. An African American can stand on solid ground alone. An African American is me!"
1. Violet J. Harris, Teaching Multicultural Literature in Grades K-8 (Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon Publishers, 1992), 57.
2. Harris, 85.
3. Walter Dean Myers, Now Is Your Time!: The African American Struggle for Freedom. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991).
4. Harris, 99-100.
5. Maria A. Perez-Stable and Mary Hurlbut Cordier, Understanding American History through Children's Literature: Instructional Units and Activities for Grades K-8 (Phoenix: Oryx Press, 1994).
6. Linda Levstik and Christine Pappas, "Exploring the Development of Historical Understanding," Journal of Research and Development in Education 21 (1987): 1-15; Matthew Y. Downey and Linda S. Levstik, "Teaching and Learning History: The Research Base," Social Education 52: 336-342; Samuel S. Wineburg and Suzanne M. Wilson, "Models of Wisdom in the Teaching of History," Phi Delta Kappan (September 1988): 50-58; David A. Welton, "Teaching History: A Perspective on Factual Details," Social Education (October 1990): 348-350; Samuel S. Wineburg, "On the Reading of Historical Texts: Notes on the Breach between School and Academy," American Educational Research Journal 28 (1991): 495-519; David Kobrin, Ed Abbott, John Ellinwood, and David Horton, "Learning History by Doing History," Social Education (April 1993): 39-41; Margaret G. McKeown and Isabel L. Beck, "Making Sense of Accounts of History: Why Young Students Don't and How They Might," Teaching and Learning in History, edited by Gaea Leinhardt (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1994), 1-26.
Elizabeth Yeager is Assistant Professor of Social Studies Education at the University of Florida.
Frans H. Doppen is a secondary social studies teacher at P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School, University of Florida.
David Middleton teaches sixth and seventh grade geography at River Ridge School, Pasco County, Florida.