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Teacher Pat Porter holds teaching poster
Saundra Sorenson
Published: 23 May 2019

A workshop to prepare educators to teach Portland Black history is now accepting applications.

Now in its second year, “Civil Rights and Civil Wrongs: Teaching Portland’s Black History Through Primary Sources, an Educator’s Workshop” is the result of years of collaboration between teachers at Cottonwood School of Civics and Science, local Black history experts and equity consultants. Cottonwood is a charter elementary school in southwest Portland.

Facing History Directly

“We have two main goals with the curriculum: To teach Portland history through an African American lens, and to teach students how to be historians,” educator Sarah Anderson said.

“So how to use primary documents in order to put together stories, instead of just being told a story by your teacher.”

Anderson said that although the curriculum is geared toward middle school students in Portland, the materials can easily be adapted for other grades, and for other regions of the state. Last year’s workshop attendees included a large representation of third grade teachers, she added.

 Darrell Millner, professor emeritus and former head of Black studies at Portland State University, reviewed the evolving curriculum for accuracy.

“The first thing you have to do is correct mistakes that have been inherent in what we’ve done before,” Millner said.

black history workshop medEd Washington spoke mainly about his experience as a child in Vanport, interviewed by Joyce Harris
“An example illustrative of this: Generally speaking, when you look at textbooks and curriculum material that deal with Oregon history, when they talk about the pioneer generation, they talk about the Donation Land Act. It was the motivation most had in coming to Oregon; it was a form of affirmative action. When you look at textbooks, generally, they’ll say things like ‘Everyone who came to Oregon got free land from the government if they settled for a number of years.’ That’s not true. When you look at the act itself, it restricted (ownership) to White settlers. I recommend instead of giving an interpretation, you use the Donation Land Act itself. I think middle school students are able to see the discrepancy between the way it’s described and the actual language of the law.”

He added, “You expose them to that. You avoid interpretation and kind of manipulations of that history, and let them face that history in a direct way.”

Education consultant Joyce Harris was consulted on both the content and the structure of the teacher training.

“I felt like it was important to have the beginning piece really focus on how this came about, and providing some context, providing some language that would be important to help contextualize that history,” Harris told The Skanner. “Initially they wanted it to be a short training and we said no, it needs to be at least three days. The project itself, the curriculum itself, had a place-based approach. I thought it was important to devote a whole day to that, and have teachers practice application work.”

The workshop is supported in part by a grant from the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources Western Region Program, and draws heavily from Library of Congress photo and document databases.

“One of the misconceptions that many people in the educational community have is that accessing Black history or any kind of nontraditional history is difficult and it requires a great deal of searching and energy, but it's really not,” Millner said. “Black history is an intimate part of American history, not only important and useful to people of color, but that everyone should have access to and benefit from. And it’s available and sometimes fairly straightforward. So any teacher or system that is interested in this kind of effort or material, they’ll never have any problems finding materials -- it is there.”

Anderson said that she and sixth grade teacher Lisa Colombo, who are both White educators, became interested in overhauling lesson plans for local Black history in response to the lack of relevant educational resources organized around such primary resources.

“We’re a place-based school, so we try to connect all of our curriculum to something local,” Anderson said. “We’re trying to find what was happening around Portland around (certain periods of history), and at that time, we couldn’t find anything for middle schoolers or any students on this topic. When I was teaching it, I started not being a Portlander and not being familiar with Portland history and hoping I could pull something up on the internet at the time. I went to PSU and talked to (Prof. Millner), and he’s the one who started us on that track.”

Being a Detective

Harris said she brought her own lived experience to refining the curriculum -- an exercise that compelled her to unearth old newspaper clippings and other resources to support events in local Black history that may otherwise have been overlooked.

“When you’re doing history, you almost have to take the approach of being a detective,” Harris said. “And sometimes, you become a detective just to document the things that you know happened, that people may have forgotten.”

The workshop includes a more than 200-page overview of lesson syllabi, which are aligned to state and national standards, as well as guidance for educators learning the curriculum themselves. It also includes tips for creating a safe learning environment that supports uncomfortable conversations likely to arise around Portland’s race relations. Topics include White supremacy and exclusion, housing discrimination and redlining, the Black community in Albina, school segregation, and police and the Black community.

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“My approach to Oregon history and history in general, when you're in a teaching and learning environment, is that as the teacher you have to anticipate the questions the students might have, what might be most useful and interesting to them,” Millner told The Skanner. “For example, you start with the reality your students see every day. In Oregon, that means they don’t see many people of color, and the ones that are in or are pretty much located in one area. How do you address that? You provide information that helps them understand why there's so few and why they live where they do. Fortunately that's easy to do, very straightforward looks at Oregon history and public policy.”

The group also worked with equity consultants John Lenssen and Hector Roche, a focus group of Portland Public School teachers, PPS multicultural curriculum curator David Martinez, and consultants Kendra Hughes and Victor Cato to refine the curriculum and align it with state and national standards.

Millner said that seeing this effort come out of a Portland charter school was heartening.

“I think the fact that Cottonwood is not an educational location in the ‘Black’ community -- if we have one anymore -- and the fact that most of the students are not students of color, and most of the teachers are not teachers of color, but they still understand that this is very valuable information they need to be exposed to. It’s very positive,” Millner said.

The workshop will be held Aug. 13-15. The deadline to apply is May 31. For more information and to apply to the workshop, visit thecottonwoodschool.org/pbe-professional-development/.

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