Originally Published: January 16, 2023
Pittsburgh Post Gazette
It’s been 59 years since the August 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his now famous “I Have a Dream” speech, but there’s no doubt in Baldwin-Whitehall teacher Dan Shaner’s mind that the reverend’s message needs to continue ringing loud and clear today.
This year, posters bearing the words of Mr. King were plastered throughout the hallways of the district’s school buildings, featuring quotes from his letter written in the Birmingham, Ala. jail and from his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. Pictures of signs that were marched in the aftermath of Mr. King’s assassination in 1968 also dot the walls, showing the legacy and impact he left behind.
But the district is seemingly taking it a step further from the civil rights lessons that have typically been taught in schools for years.
Eighth-grade students will further dissect the “I Have a Dream” speech by comparing Mr. King’s words to the Declaration of Independence and answering in-depth questions about the complicated history surrounding the nation’s founding fathers and slavery. High school students are making videos about what Mr. King and his influence means to them.
“We have a very diverse population,” said Mr. Shaner, who during the 2020-21 school year was named the Holocaust Educator of the Year. “We have students from literally all over the globe that have come to Baldwin and if we only talk about one group of people then those students have nothing to frame for themselves. … If I see that people who look like me and live my life have risen to greatness then I can do the same thing.”
Heightened awareness over how race is taught in schools has occurred over the past several years, largely sparked by the May 2020 murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, by a Minneapolis police officer. His death set off protests across the country calling for police reform and leading to broader discussions around race.
While conversations in schools have varied – with some across the country wanting to limit how racism is taught in K-12 schools – others for years have been calling for expanded lessons on Black history that dive deeper than slavery and highlight Black figures who played an important role in history but who are not often recognized.
“I think schools need to really bring more African American history into the curriculum and not just about slavery. … Black history is American history so it should be very much embedded in the culture and let’s face it this country was built on the backs of Black people, literally and figuratively,” said Carlos T. Carter, president and CEO of Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, a social service and civil rights organization.
At Baldwin-Whitehall, the goal is to make Black history part of the regular curriculum while working to “intertwine the stories of those forgotten people in history and intertwine the stories of those disenfranchised in history … into the standard curriculum,” said Anthony Barbano, a social studies teacher at Baldwin Middle School.
“How history has been taught in the past and how your parents learned about the founding fathers, it’s not the entire story,” Mr. Barbano said. “We teach history from a holistic standpoint.… That’s really what it should be.”
As things currently stand, eighth-grade students learn about the early colonial period and the founding era. Conversations focus heavily on slavery and its ongoing impacts.
Around the time that MLK Day falls, students have begun learning about the Declaration of Independence, which “fits like a perfect glove because we are able to look at Dr. King and listen to his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,’” said Mr. Barbano. In his speech, Mr. King drew directly on the promises made in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
During that lesson, students will have conversations about what the Declaration means today, how history could have been different if a clause condemning slavery had been included in the document and what it means that Thomas Jefferson wrote that “all men are created equal” while being a slave owner himself.
“It’s really powerful,” Mr. Barbano said of those discussions. “It’s definitely thought provoking.”
As students move into Black History Month, they will learn about famous Black figures during the founding era like James Armistead Lafayette, who was born into slavery in 1760. He later received permission to serve in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and after petitioned Congress for his freedom. Students will also learn about Richard Allen, who was born into slavery in Philadelphia. He went on to co-found the Free African Society and later founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first independent Black denomination in the U.S.
“We try to get these kids at a ripe age of 12, 13, 14, exploratory ages, to understand the nuances of the evolution of history and growth of a nation and the impact Black people had on that foundation,” Mr. Barbano said.
Educators in the district will also use teachings from the LIGHT Education Initiative, which was founded by a Shaler Area High School teacher. The organization, which stands for Leadership Through Innovation in Genocide and Human Rights Teaching, encourages anti-hate and antisemitism.
The organization, Mr. Shaner said, works “to stop hate as we see a rise in crimes and a rise in antisemitism by having inclusivity and having understanding at an early age. The goal is to stomp out and prevent hate, racism and antisemitism as much as we can by having educated, wholesome and real individuals. If we teach our students to love and not to hate, we can hopefully make a better world for tomorrow.”
Other school districts across the region are also planning events for Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Black History Month.
At Sto-Rox Upper Elementary, activities for MLK Day will be incorporated into social studies lessons. Older students at the school will focus on a research project for Black History Month. While a theme has not yet been set for this year, students in the past have created a Black history wax museum, a periodic table and a quilt, among others. Parents are invited to view the project when it is finished and participate in the school’s Black History Celebration.
At Hampton Township, students with the Black Student Union and the Multi-Cultural Student Association, will have a morning announcement Tuesday talking about MLK Day. They will also have a table in the cafeteria where students can write messages or drawings about what the day means to them. Students will then take those messages and create a mural, which will be displayed throughout Black History Month.
Mr. Carter of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, noted that while great strides have been made over the years, there is still plenty of work to be done.
But, he said, it only takes one person to start a movement that could create further change.
“You may not be in a spot like other people, but it’s one person, one block, one community at a time to realize the impact that we have to create change. … We often romanticize these larger than life figures but we can make a very powerful impact for social justice, for economics, to make a positive change,” Mr. Carter said. “I think people need to be reminded of that power that they have.”