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Chicago school’s ‘African animals’ assignment for Black History Month reflects a ‘failure’ of training, expert says

The homework given to kindergartners at Sutherland Elementary outraged parents.

Sutherland Elementary School, 10015 S. Leavitt St.
Sutherland Elementary School, 10015 S. Leavitt St.
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The idea for the “African animals” Black History Month project that caused uproar at Sutherland Elementary School this week appears to have stemmed from a Chicago Public Schools curriculum that was never intended for use as a stand-alone assignment to teach black history.

Parents at the Beverly school were outraged their children were sent home with a letter from three white kindergarten teachers explaining the assignment that, in many cases, came attached with a picture of a monkey for them to color.

Several parents called the project racially insensitive and tone deaf, and criticized the lack of forethought. But parents, for the most part, didn’t believe there was any ill-intent.

As it turns out, a CPS curriculum about African and African American studies lists a unit in its science section about animals from the continent, along with African weather and clothing. But that curriculum was written for interdisciplinary use — meaning teachers are ideally supposed to use it to incorporate lessons about African and black culture into everyday lessons, not as a lone assignment.

And especially not as a Black History Month assignment, said Lionel Kimble, the vice president for programs at the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.

“I see this as part of the failure in the training of some teachers in how to teach in urban schools,” said Kimble, an associate professor of history at Chicago State University.

“Folks who are not black see Black History Month as this one-off, so we have to talk about black people or black issues or Africa during February,” Kimble said. “If people were thinking about how we could talk about this diverse curriculum throughout the year, I think we could have completely avoided this.”

Though the animals project was the Sutherland kindergartners’ first take-home Black History Month assignment, they had been learning in class about black inventors, black literature and black dance, according to the school’s principal, Margaret Burns. Students in other grades have also worked on much more appropriate assignments, parents have said.

“Throughout this month, the children have been engaged in thoughtful, reflective and meaningful activities that support their understanding of the tremendous sacrifice and great works of our African American heroes. This was not one of them,” Burns acknowledged in a letter sent home to parents this week.

For parents, it was the choice to study African animals at all that was upsetting, because the topic has nothing to do with black American history, they said.

“We can use this for anatomy. We can use this to count. But to ever think it’s OK to display a monkey next to very prolific African Americans who suffered, is offensive,” Valeisha Manning, whose daughter received the assignment, said Thursday. “That has nothing to do with the suffrage of black people, and it has nothing to do with systematic oppression.”

Kimble, the history professor, said there are plenty of age-appropriate assignments that would work for kindergartners, like studying black scientists “to get kids thinking about black accomplishments and not just animals.”

“We know much more about the diverse environments and economies of the people of Africa,” he said. “I think focusing on the wildlife of the continent doesn’t do much to advance our cultural understanding of people outside the United States.

“This is a teachable moment,” Kimble said. “This is an opportunity, instead of making excuses, for the principal to make amends and have a real, real conversation and actually do something for her school.”