Sunday, July 18, 2010

How to Teach History

This is Part Three of a series on how we learn and teach history. Part 1 is here, part 2 is here. If these posts haven't been your favorites, don't worry. I'll be returning to other topics with the next post - a rant about Monsters Inside Me and ignorance of global realities (yes, really). So stay tuned!

There was a gap between this post and the last for a few reasons. First of all, my vacation ended. Sad face. But secondly, when I got back to the area I'm working in (a rural area on the East Coast about 20 minutes from a small city and 2 hours from major cities), I found a local magazine that really made me want to just give up and become a hermit far far away from everyone else.

I picked up this local magazine (I might even call it a zine) in a Chinese restaurant while waiting for my order. It was a collection of jokes, riddles, and funny stories, most of which I'd heard before. Included in this 20-page magazine were three jokes/comments about illegal immigrants ("why can't the government support our troops instead of lavishing social services on illegal Mexicans?"), one horrific "story" about a white man yelling at a burqa-clad Iraqi woman in America who dared to question the Iraqi war, telling her that he'd buy her plane ticket home (all who heard this, of course, cheered for the white man), and one morality tale about Communism which is AT LEAST ten years old and substituted "Obama's socialism" for communism.

You know, the quickest way to convince me that you have no idea what you're talking about is to blindly equate socialism and communism. The second way is to call Obama a socialist. I'm a socialist. Obama is not a socialist.

Anyway, this little magazine was stuffed full of local advertising. Every page was ringed with ads, and some pages were entirely ads. So this was by no means someone acting in isolation - the magazine had the support of local business.

I spent some time being very depressed by this. As most of you probably know, combating racism often feels like repeatedly throwing yourself against an immovable wall. But then I got angry - really angry. And I began to think again about the role history plays in our understanding of race.

So how do we educate children to have a complete, nuanced, and compassionate view on race? I have four suggestions.

1. Expose children to alternative viewpoints

Unless the student is a dynamic learner with a good teacher, often students are passively taking in information without questioning it. This leads to a singular viewpoint on any subject, provided by the teacher's authoritative voice. Usually, this singular viewpoint is the conventional one, eliminating the contributions and experiences of POC, among others.

To combat this, it's ok to give students contradicting sources. A lot of teachers shy away from introducing alternative views because they don't want students to become confused. And, to be honest, when children are small they have a limited capacity to see grays - everything for small children is black and white. Small children can be distressed when there is not one singular answer to a question.

But even small children can understand that different people see things in different ways. By gradually introducing more and more grays into their world, as they grow and become more capable of considering these grays, we can prepare them for the realization that alternative viewpoints exist and are valid.*

For example, take my own education. I grew up in an upper-middle class majority white first-ring suburb of a major urban area in the Midwest. The area I lived in was quite liberal - often people are shocked to find out how liberal. I was definitely exposed to alternative views in my education.

In second grade, on Columbus Day, I was given a coloring book about Columbus landing in America. This is probably a pretty common occurrence. However, this coloring book was a little different - it was told from the perspective of the Taino Indians who lived on Puerto Rico when Columbus arrived. It was not flattering to Columbus. It included descriptions of how Columbus' arrival destroyed the native way of life, and how Columbus exacted tribute from the Tainos by forcing them to bring gold or cotton. If they failed, their hands were cut off and they bled to death.

The book was only the story, with big blank areas for students to draw their own pictures. I clearly remember drawing a big pile of cut off hands, with someone standing by, his arms ending in bloody stumps.

At the time, I certainly didn't think that this was over my head or age-inappropriate. Children are capable of more nuanced understanding than they are often given credit for, and I definitely got the message that there were two different viewpoints to this historically documented occurrence - Columbus', and the Taino's.

I'm not sure I want my own children exposed to so much violence at that age. But neither do I want them to be fed the standard story of the hero Columbus "discovering" America. We must at least tell children that there are two sides to the Columbus story, as well as to all of history.

2. Put children in the shoes of others

Because children - and adults - are inherently pretty self-centered, putting children in the shoes of others is a very effective way to nurture a sense of compassion. I believe that compassion is essential in creating an anti-racist. Without compassion, I don't care that my race is the one on the top. I don't care that others are disadvantaged. I don't care that the world is more fair for me than for other people.

I have another story from my own childhood about being put in the shoes of others. Along with the above story, it probably explains a lot about my adult self. When I was in fifth grade, we did a unit in Social Studies about Central and South America. We spent a lot of time talking about the Caribbean, and the unit culminated in a project where we worked in groups to design our own Caribbean island communities. On huge pieces of white paper we drew our islands, drew the people who lived there, the streams and forests, the animals, the homes and villages. We spent at least a week on this project, which is a long time when you're 11. We even came in before school to work on this.

At the end of the project, we all laid our lovingly created paper islands in a circle on the floor of the classroom. We were going to have a feast - we were so excited! In the center of each island was a pile of Jolly Ranchers, and we waited for our teacher to give the word that we could eat them. The teacher stepped out of the room...

And returned dressed as a Spanish Conquistador. Yelling at us in Spanish, she stomped across our islands, literally ripping them apart. She demanded that we give her all our Jolly Ranchers. We sat in stunned silence amidst the wreckage of our torn, crumpled, stained islands, our feast and happiness destroyed. I remember at least one kid crying. The teacher left, and returned in her normal clothes to sit with us and talk about what had happened. She explained that this was what had happened to the Native Americans - their societies and families demolished by the arrival of Europeans.

The teacher did this every year, swearing each class to secrecy so they wouldn't ruin the surprise for the next class.

This certainly ripped me from my complacent little world and gave me compassion for the suffering of others. It was an incomplete compassion - a week spent drawing an island and a handful of Jolly Ranchers is nothing like having your family and world brutally taken from you - but it was a compassion that my 11 year old mind could comprehend. I never thought of the European conquest of America as a peaceful or just process, and it was all because of those two teachers and their bravery in showing us an alternative perspective.

Without compassion, without anger at injustice, there is no anti-racism.

3. Include alternative voices in class

Instead of ghettoizing POC by relegating their history to specific months, why not put their history where it belongs? In our history, in all of our histories, because there is no such thing as a history of POC that is separate from white history. Segregating Black history, Hispanic history, women's history, just reinforces the idea that there is History, and then there is Other History. That's crap.

In addition to this, POC within each class should be invited to speak about their experience and their background if they wish. As a white teacher, it's ridiculous for me to speak about living on a reservation while there are people in my class who have actually lived on a reservation. This is a delicate balance. It is not the job of POC to educate everyone else. However, as a teacher I shouldn't silence POC by ignoring their presence in the class.

In the past, I've privately spoken with students that I know have particular experiences - for example, I knew a student had lived on a reservation, and so I spoke with her privately before we reached that topic in class. I told her that I would give her as must of a platform to talk about her experiences as she wanted - if she wanted to keep that entirely private and not speak, that was fine, if she wanted to get up in front of the class and speak, that was fine, if she merely wanted to contribute to the discussion as normal, that was fine. It was her decision.

Incorporating student perspective doesn't mean always calling on the black kid when we're talking about the Civil Rights movement. It is far more delicate than that - allowing the student to take the lead in speaking up or remaining silent, giving them as much of a voice as they feel comfortable in sharing. I love it when students do choose to speak out and share, but that choice is their own.

Remaining blind to student experience - or worse, speaking over these students and silencing them - is foolish. Often it is these students who imbue compassion in and impart knowledge to their classmates more effectively that I can, because it means a lot when a peer looks at you and says, "yes, this is true, and I know it because I lived it".

4. Tie the past to the present

A lot of American history classes dead-end somewhere around World War II. Many don't even get to Vietnam, and most certainly don't get to Desert Storm. Because students are stranded in 1945, there are no connections made between past and present conditions.

History teachers need to bring students up to the present and make implicit the connections between the past and the present. For example, we can trace the oppression of Black Americans from slavery, through Jim Crow, right to the present - pointing to the racism that first brought Africans here in bondage and then trapped them in a system that is biased against them. The rise of the modern ghetto is based in the deplorable sharecropping system which emerged following the Civil War. Make that connection.

Nothing in the present happens in a vacuum - history has shaped us and directed us.

*For the record, I support this even for ideas that I don't agree with. For example, I think that in a biology class which learns about evolution, a day of class time should be given to a discussion of alternative viewpoints like Intelligent Design. To not discuss this is to ignore a major issue in modern America. Now, the teacher should inform students that this is not a theory supported by the majority of scientists, and expose the ways in which ID doesn't match up with scientific research - but ID should be mentioned, and in a non-judgmental way.


  1. The teacher could inform students that intelligent design is not a scientific theory, because there's nothing scientific about magic. Also, students should be told that intelligent design magic is supported by exactly zero real scientists. If intelligent design is mentioned, students need to be told it's a childish religious idea, and it has repeatedly been shown to be ridiculous.

  2. Human Ape, I agree with you 100% in theory. Although I do think that ID is the worst kind of nonsense, teachers need to walk the line between imparting knowledge and insulting students (possibly leading to firing). Sucks, yes. Reality, yes.

    Also, walking around telling people that they're idiots is the fastest way to get them to stop listening to you. Explain why ID is absurd, but calling names is counterproductive.

    When I taught Biological Anthropology I had a day of discussion about ID. Failing to do so ignores something fundamental in our modern culture and leaves the impression that the biology teacher is somehow unaware of this issue.