As Native American Heritage Month approaches, we wondered to what extent, if at all, you celebrate heritage months in your classroom. While there are great advantages to participating in heritage months, including building cultural awareness among students and enabling elementary teachers to include social studies content in their classrooms, there are obvious downsides as well, including the suggestion that these groups are not naturally integrated into the larger national story or that their contributions require acknowledgement only once per year.
What is your take on heritage months?
Do you acknowledge them in your classroom? Why, or why not?
If you do, what approach do you take and what activities have you done that have been particularly successful?
I also think this is a sticky issue.
A recent article in Social Studies and the Young Learner discussed the pitfalls of elementary level Thanksgiving celebrations and their representations of Native American life and encounters with colonists present, which, the authors argue, sometimes provide an image of the event and its participants that is “overly simplistic, stereotyped, and perhaps inaccurate” (Christie and Montgomery, Social Studies and the Young Learner, pg. 27) http://www.socialstudies.org/publications/ssyl.
Yet is it worse to discuss heritage groups primarily once per year and in isolation from the larger stories of history and social studies, or risk not recognizing them at all? Tough call.
I find that Heritage months are typically too simplistic and lack depth within their focus. My school has often celebrated Black History Month by highlighting a famous African American each day or week through our student news program. I find that this method skims the surface and lacks the connecting information of key historical events to explain the importance of the person's role in our history. The students don't really walk away from the month having learned much beyond names and simple views of contributions. Or we often tend to focus WAY too much on one particular person's achievements....
I personally do not celebrate or acknowledge heritage months within my curriculum. I think it is much more meaningful to learn about the Native Americans contributions in building this nation as well as how they were treated in return within the context of the events and alongside other people. I find that my students have a much better understanding of Abigail Adams when I teach about her within the unit of Colonial American and the American Revolution. If I waited until March and talked about her during Women's History Month, then I'm glossing over her contributions b/c I'm trying to introduce my students to as many people as possible. And I find that very inefficient and ineffective.....Just my two cents! :-)
Thanks for your thoughts. You make great points about providing context to build student understanding. You make the point, too, I think, that we are past the moment when we risk not acknowleding the contributions of these groups outside of these celebrations (in response to Jenny's point). Is that true for the teachers you know, in addition to being the case in your classroom? It's an interesting thought, too, given the interest in national museums that speak to specific groups--but that may be a separate conversation!
Also, although you don't acknowlege them, I wonder if you think there is any way to make something useful out of heritage months (thinking along the lines of the writers from Social Studies and the Young Learner, which Jenny referenced--their ultimate argument is not to do away with Thanksgiving celebrations, but to make them more meaningful, appropriate, and historically accurate). Perhaps they could be a chance to return to any figures (like Abigail Adams) for reinforcement, or if there is any merit to touching on some (maybe lesser known) historical events, issues, or figures you might not get a chance to discuss at other times of the year? Just curious/thinking out loud!
As an aside, as I thought about this issue, I came back to my experience as a young intern at the Smithsonian, working on an African American history conference scheduled for February. In the process of contacting Dr. John Hope Franklin for a speaking engagement, I learned that, at least toward the end of his life, he did not prefer to participate in programs organized in February for a black history month theme. His mission had long been to integrate African American history into the larger national story; by declining those engagements, he made the argument in action as well as in his writing, that black history is American history and should be taught and celebrated year round.