Holly Hill, a first grade teacher at Guy E. Rowe Elementary School in Norway, reads to her students about basketball star Michael Jordan’s childhood. Supplied photo

NORWAY — Black History Month began in the United States 1970 and its observance has since has spread to Canada and the United Kingdom.

Its origins date back to 1926 when Black historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History designated the second week of February (President Abraham Lincoln’s Feb. 12 and abolitionist/statesman Frederick Douglass’ Feb. 14 birthdays) to focus on Black history.

In Oxford Hills, educators of all grades have integrated recognition of Black experiences and achievements into their overall curriculum.

“During Black History Month there is always emphasis on teaching it,” said Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School social studies teacher and civil rights team advisor Travis Palmer. “But in my own practice I try to deviate from teaching (it) just during Black History Month. I feel like in our department as a whole we try to integrate studies of Black history and other racial groups throughout the entire year.”

Palmer teaches world history, social studies and sociology to 10th, 11th and 12th grade students. He includes the study of other cultures, countries and races in all of his classes, starting with Indigenous history in Maine and throughout the continent.

One unit covered the American, French and Haitian Revolutions, historic events that impacted those that followed. Palmer say the Haitian Revolution was really interesting to the students, being one they had not heard that much about but learned how it was connected to some of the issues they saw in France and America.


“We discuss how race has worked it’s way into policies and practices of the U.S. government, at least in my classroom,” he said. “throughout the year in world history, we try to break outside Europe.

Travis Palmer, social studies teacher at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School, works on lesson planning for Black History Month. Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

“I teach about Asia during the Middle Ages, about world religions. We talk about how different religions are around the world, how they are practiced and compare and contrast the major ones: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism.”

Having just wrapped up study of the American Civil War, Palmer is now teaching a unit on the African American experience, which covers from postwar Reconstruction to the 20th century’s Civil Rights Movement.

“With the Reconstruction era, it’s talking about policies that were enacted then and historical events led to it being impacted, like the Compromise of 1877,” Palmer said. “We talk about not just negative experiences, but also positives like the Harlem Renaissance and civil rights.

“We want to have the students think critically about the world around them. Ultimately we’re teaching history but we give students the tools and guidance to think critically about their past and why things are the way they are today.”

Currently focus is on the Freedman’s Bureau’s responsibility to integrate the Confederacy back into the union as wells as 4 million newly freed people. that includes hard topics, like the rise of counter-organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, movements and policies to disenfranchise Black men from voting—poll taxes literacy tests and violence to keep people of color away from the polls.


“Broadly, throughout this unit we’ve talked about the issue of slavery and racism is a national thing,” Palmer stressed. “It’s not isolated to the south or any state. It’s a really difficult thing to try and pinpoint the areas.

“there were plenty of abolitionists in the north but also some in the south. there were some anti-abolitionists in the north. It’s complex, it’s not A or B as some historians have painted it as. that’s my goal.”

Next up for Palmer’s students is to study Black history in Maine and its contributions to the state.

“I attended an online Lewiston Public Library lecture and got me thinking how I had never really learned that much about it myself,” Palmer said. “…. I want to expand that for my students. In a predominantly white state, people of color have also had great victories and contributed to it. In rural areas it’s hard to see that history.

One part of Black Maine history that tends to be hard to teach is about the Underground Railroad. Not that much is known about it in Maine

“We talked about it, but it was supposed to be secret,” Palmer said. “And you have to focus on what you can actually cover in a year. What you dedicate your time on depends on your strengths as a teacher and what you want the students to get out of within one year.


“Some aspects we have not closely highlighted but that’s not to discredit the other work we’ve done. We’ve done a phenomenal job highlighting the African American experience in the United States and fine turn it to give students that perspective.”

Over at Guy E. Rowe Elementary School in Norway, educators frame Black History Month lessons through books that demonstrate diversity and accomplishment, and art.

“One of our learning standards is for students to be able to identify the moral or the lesson of a story. the last couple of weeks we’ve done read-alouds, fiction mostly, that are diversity-based and with messages of self-empowerment,” explained first-grade teacher Holly Hill during an interview in her Rowe classroom last week.

She is using those books as the lead-in to focus on Black History Month and adding biographical stories of Blacks who became role models in their fields.

“the kids took a lot away from the storybook biography of Mae Jamison, who was the first Black female astronaut to travel into space,” Hill said. “Mae Among the Stars focuses on when she was young and she wanted to be an astronaut, her teacher told her ‘oh no, that’s not for you. You should be a nurse.’

“It’s interesting to see the reaction of first-graders to that. You can see them bristle. We talked about their reactions to the book and what they thought the author was trying to teach us and make us think about.”


The message of Mae Among the Stars is not just about race, but of a child who follows her dreams and refuses to be limited by what she is told.

Among the other nonfiction books Hill is incorporating into Black History Month are the stories of singer-songwriter Aretha Franklin, professional golfer Charlie Sifford and businessman and former NBA star Michael Jordan.

Holly Hill, a first grade teacher at Guy E. Rowe Elementary School in Norway, reads to her students about basketball star Michael Jordan’s childhood. Supplied photo

Art teacher Suzi Allen partnered with third-grade teacher Kristen Porter to use art and literature of Beautiful Blackbird, an adaptation of a Zambian tale published by author and illustrator Ashley Bryan.

Bryan, who recently passed away, had a long association with Maine as an island resident and was associated with Portland schools and the Portland Museum of Art.

“Kristen read the book to her students and talked about the author, and then in my class we created a collage for Beautiful Blackbird, which celebrates the beauty of being Black, and feeling positive about your own color,” Allen said. “the lesson is that Black is beautiful.”

“Ashley Bryan took folktales and stories and created his own art based on them,” said Porter. “He’s done the Saints come Marching In, He’s got the Whole World in His Hands—taking traditional songs and creating these masterpieces of art.

“Kids need to see themselves in books but they need to see others in books. People who don’t look like them, places they’ve never seen before. My approach for Black History Month has been to introduce them to a single person every day.”

Some figures are well-known, like Martin Luther King, Jr., Ruby Bridges and Rosa Parks, others are people they might not otherwise know, like aviator Bessie Coleman, jazz musician Louis Armstrong and children’s author Jacqueline Woodsen.

“It’s important to give all the kids positive influences with people of color for all the kids,” said Allen. “It’s not just the (bad) things that happen to Black people, but to lift those kids up to see that (Blacks) can be heroes. To see that ‘I can be a hero.’”

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