My friend and host of the “Wellplayed” Podcast Michael Matera (@MrMatera) likes to end his weekly show on gamification in education with a “Quote of the Week”. Mr. Matera and the guest discuss the quote and how it might apply to the classroom. Well, I have a quote rattling around in my head.
I have been thinking about this mostly in terms of Social Justice issues in our schools. I have heard teachers talking about how they want to keep the classroom ‘apolitical’ – as if that is possible. Remaining ‘apolitical’ is to remain silent and to remain silent is to promote acceptance.
What you permit, you promote.
Classroom teachers do have some control over what happens in their personal classrooms and can advocate beyond their walls as well. Teachers have input in creating relationships with students, developing curriculum and activities, and advocating positive pedagogy. Over the last few years I have been reflecting on where I have been silent or where I have not been loud enough. I realize that I have not been as forceful in advocating for social change. In my position as a High School US History teacher I am part of a system that needs to be constantly vigilant about the trappings of permitting false and harmful narratives. Many of the narratives found in textbooks are designed to protect the status quo. Some content was added maliciously (see this plaque in SC Statehouse in this post) but some has just become embedded by systemic inertia.
Critically examining the Curriculum
Good History can portray a nuanced and evolving view of our country and its history. Unfortunately History can also be used as a weapon by those in power to try to silence opposition. Good Historical work is based on asking questions of the past, finding evidence, and making arguments. It is dynamic as our interpretations are always in a state of revision. Unfortunately, not everyone sees History in these terms and want current students to learn only what they were taught. The problem with that is that a lot of what was taught in previous eras is steeped in white supremacy and still haunts our classrooms.
A quick example is what to “Reconstruction”. For decades, following the end of the Reconstruction era (1965-1877) an interpretation referred to as “the Dunning School” emerged to support white supremacy and Lost Cause mythology*. These Historians portrayed African Americans and Republican supporters during Reconstruction as ignorant and corrupt leading to the decline of Southern states. In this interpretation the white Southerners had no choice but to violently “Redeem” the states. They created the Ku Klux Klan (and others) to violently attack and intimidate Black and Republican voters in order reclaim the South for the “proper” white Democratic party. Almost immediately this ideology found its way into school textbooks across the country. the white North and South “reconciled” and much of the Lost Cause myth was accepted as fact.
Following the Civil Rights era new Historians began to reexamine the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. New voices entered the field, new questions were asked, and new evidence was unearthed. These new Historians labeled the Dunning school for what it was – an integral support of white supremacy. The most notable of these new Historians was Eric Foner and the field has continued to grow and diversify. History changed but even so our schools still have traces (sometimes more) in curriculum. This is true throughout all of our History.
When we permit this we promote it.
In 2019-20 new standards were introduced for the South Carolina US History courses. New standards are always met with the grumbling but I was excited to see that the Lost Cause was specifically called out in our “alignment guide” as something to avoid.
This is not an embargoed document. You can read the alignment guide on the state department of education website. The Standards are also centered around Historical Thinking Standards and big idea essential questions rather than a list of specific facts to be memorized. Promising starts but it is the teacher’s responsibility to decide what actually gets taught. In my classroom, I want to get rid of content that condones or supports white supremacist ideas. Then, as an advocate of change, I want our profession to hold each other accountable for the same. What we permit as a profession we promote to our students.
I know I am flawed but trying to put in the work and grow. There will be blind spots and biases still to overcome. This is going to be a lifelong journey and as I learn better I am trying to do better.
Right now here some of my Guidelines:
- “First Do No Harm” – Be thoughtful about simulations. Don’t force students to role play traumatic experiences and don’t put them in the position of an oppressor. There is a difference between examining primary sources to understand an experience and asking someone to inhabit that experience.
- “Don’t let the white supremacists have an easy win” – It is easy to suggest that victims of white supremacy just accepted their fate. For example, it is possible to frame the end of Reconstruction as a victory for white supremacy and that the Black population just passively allowed this system to exist unchecked until the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. That would be a false. It also takes agency from those that are oppressed. In fact there was a lively Civil Rights Movement that immediately took hold. Don’t make oppression seem inevitable as that will make modern advocacy seem worthless.
- “Examine the Struggles but Celebrate Achievements and Remember the Humanity” – It is too easy to get bogged down in the negative. Celebrate victories. Remember that Populations of Color are more than the targets of oppression. They have diverse cultures and experiences that should be shared.
- “No Hero Worship – Show the Flaws” – Did George Washington do great things to promote the creation of the United States? Yes. Did he also fail to live up to the ideals that his generation proposed? Also yes. He helped found the country and set many important governmental precedents but he also fiercely defended his right to own other people as property. Teach the complication. Avoid creating an icon to be worshipped and instead allow students to learn how people are flawed and how we need to work for a better future together.
That’s what I got so far in terms of curriculum development. Please add more suggestions in the comments.
This is a synthesis of so many other people’s work and ideas. In an effort to amplify some of these people check out the resources below but note this is certainly not a comprehensive list and I am certain to leave some people and work out. Feel free to add those that I have missed in the comments.
Here are a few resources that have helped me.
Teaching Related Websites: Learning for Justice (formerly teaching tolerance), Zinn Ed Project, Standford History Education Group (SHEG)
Podcasts (all are available on Spotify): Seizing Freedom Pod, Bakari Sellers Pod, Code Switch Pod, Politically Reactive, Still Processing Pod, The Right Time with Bomani Jones Pod, Jemele Hill is UnBothered Pod, Throughline Pod, David Blights’ Civil War YouTube Playlist
I also follow a lot of people interested in Social Justice issues and how it relates to education in my Twitter feed – too many to list here. Check out my “following” page if you would like. There is a wide range of conversation and debate even among those on the same side so, as always, I can’t control what others say or retweet and don’t always endorse it.
*Whats the Lost Cause?
The biggest part of the myth is that the Civil War was not fought over slavery (it clearly was) but was about “states’ rights” (which it was not something argued before the war). It also asks people to ignore the causes of the Civil War (which is embarrassing) and instead focus on the honor and bravery of the soldiers fighting (even though they were fighting to uphold a slave system). The biggest champion of the Lost Cause was General Robert E. Lee because of his military skill and his honorable demeanor. Lee is promoted as a mythic figurehead and his decision to fight for the Confederacy is attributed to his loyalty to his home state (although there are a couple dozen officers from VA that remained loyal to the United States) to feed into the States Rights argument. The fact that Lee never own slaves is also part of the myth. While it is technically true that he never owned slaves himself he did run a plantation and was known as a particularly harsh manager even for the time period. In this Lost Cause myth the Southerners knew they would lose because of the Northern industrial advantages but decided to fight a noble fight against “Northern Aggression”. There is an effort to avoid the racial violence of the era with the creation of the “loyal slave” myth and the myth of the Black Confederate – both of which have been pretty thoroughly debunked.