WESLEY CHAPEL — A drawing of Abraham Lincoln dominated the board in Josh Arnold's classroom, beside the enlarged text of his Gettysburg Address.
"Four score and seven years ago," the John Long Middle School seventh-graders recited, "our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
"How do we tie this into the Black History Month?" Arnold asked his students after they finished reading the speech.
Michelle Dowling cautiously raised her hand.
"All men have the same rights?" she answered, with a questioning tone in her voice.
"Yeah," Arnold responded. "The first person to write about that (for the United States) was Thomas Jefferson. … Lincoln is now saying at the end of the war that there is freedom for all — and that includes slaves."
A broader context
Like many social studies teachers across Pasco County, Arnold dedicated his Thursday lesson to the 16th U.S. president, who was born 200 years earlier. He also wove in African-American history, which he argues is simply American history that must fit into the broader context, regardless of whether there's a special month set aside to teach it.
"I tell the kids it's because it's an underrepresented portion of our history," he explained. "I want them to know more than Martin Luther King Jr. and his 'I Have A Dream' speech because there's so much more than that."
Florida law requires schools to teach African-American history. A Tallahassee civil rights group recently filed a complaint with the state Attorney General's Office, contending that not enough schools cover the topic. It pointed to a state Department of Education report suggesting that just 19 of 67 school districts had students enrolled in black history classes in 2007-08.
Department of Education officials said that while not all teachers present the information the same way, they were confident that schools do teach black history — if not as a separate class, at least as part of one. (That's what the law requires anyway.)
Students in Arnold's class confirmed that confidence.
"Ever since I've started school we've done it," seventh-grader Brandyn Perdomo said. "We honor the black people who have done good for people. … We learn about it whenever it comes up."
Lessons about the recent presidential election, for instance, offered many opportunities to focus on black history. Arnold's classroom is filled with stories and photos of Barack Obama.
An important lesson
Other area schools have similar experiences.
Chasco Elementary students have learned about the Underground Railroad and written essays about their African-American heroes. Gulfside Elementary similarly focused on the heroes aspect of black history.
Hudson Middle School history teachers had their students conduct research for reports, skits, films and discussions of slavery, including the passage to America, the enslavement experience, abolition and the contributions of African-Americans to society. They've also had a Black American Scavenger Hunt and an ongoing discussion of the historic nature of the 2008 election.
Over at Pasco Middle, teachers intersperse 15-minute lessons on black history throughout the day. The morning news also features a daily biography of a famous African-American.
"Every day is something different," said Jonathan Dell, a seventh-grader at John Long Middle.
"We need to know about the history of our people and how they made life possible for the rest of us."
Classmate Julio Peña called the lessons "really interesting" and said the message is obvious.
"Don't be racist," he said. "It doesn't matter the skin color."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.