Whitney, Educator, Texas
Research has shown that kids who don’t see themselves in the historical narrative do not perform as well on standardized tests and other assessments of historical knowledge as those who see themselves represented. Typically, your average, suburban, middle class kid sees themselves in textbooks and on TV, whereas kids of color are not seeing themselves.
I tend to teach U.S. history to high school juniors and seniors, and I’ve realized that often what students learn about history in school is very different from the history they learn through their families. For white students in particular, they’re only seeing one side of history – they don’t see the larger picture. This isn’t their fault; it’s the result of school history and traditional television programming that has emphasized great men and endless progress while downplaying the more unseemly parts of history as aberrations rather than substantive issues that are ongoing.
In order to really understand history, you have to understand the big picture and see yourself in it to make sense of it.
If you ask most high school kids about their history class, they’ll tell you it’s boring – all about recall of events, names and places. That simplistic version of history tends to be what makes it into the history books, but when you begin looking at history from different perspectives, all of a sudden history becomes very complicated — where there may not be a clear right and wrong — and that engages students.
When students learn that the narrative offered in textbooks is just one possible interpretation, they become more open to listening to other perspectives and become more critical thinkers and critical readers. They’re always asking: What’s being left out?
In the long run, it makes for better citizens because they understand that — yes, America was formed on these great principles, but we haven’t always lived up to them. A lot of times, it’s two steps forward and 10 steps back, and much of what we think we know about American history, whether from popular media or school history, aren’t necessarily accurate — it’s not the whole story. In order to be effective citizens, you have to understand where the country has been and how it has approached the problems over time and in order to think critically.
Donna, Educator and Mom, Arkansas
If our country is ever going to realize its potential — of who we say we are and what we claim to be — we have to tell everyone’s histories accurately and fully. Our curriculum has been whitewashed for far too long.
Educators are afraid. They are going to play it safe because they need to have a job and provide for their families, but these efforts to censor teachers hinder their ability to support all students.
Politicians actually need to spend time talking to teachers, students, and parents instead of protesting over what they think is being taught in classrooms.
We have to understand the experiences and stories of all Americans. When I talk to my students about this, I talk about the window-mirror-and-sliding-glass-door curriculum model. A mirror is where you can see yourself and you find affirmation of the identifies you claim, but a window allows you to see other people’s identifies and experiences and allows you to develop empathy and understanding for those peoples, and the sliding glass door opens, so if you now understand all these identities, then you can go through the sliding glass door to take action to advocate for self and seek action to affirm and support other people.
As an example, I teach about the Tulsa Race Massacre. A lot of my students express hurt and anger that this history wasn’t taught to them. They feel duped. Then they find themselves in conversations with people who know more, and they feel ignorant.
Melissa, Mom, Oklahoma
My daughter, who is in high school, recently did a project about redlining and discriminatory housing practices in cities around the country. She felt that from her perspective as a white student in a suburban school district, she could raise awareness and reach an audience that’s not typically plugged in on this issue.
Her project examined why there is a “bad” part of town where there’s not adequate housing or good schools or grocery stores. She heard from tons of people who never learned about these issues in school. That’s why it’s important to talk about racism and racist practices. Otherwise, how do people learn and do better moving forward?
It made me proud as a parent that she was looking through this lens, understanding that it’s not that some people work harder than others — it’s that some people are in a system where their hard work isn’t allowed to pay off for them the same as for other people.
We need to have hard conversations about how systems and power structures in our country are set up to prevent other people from being represented or being able to work hard and succeed like everybody else. Students are already exposed to these discussions just by being in class with fellow students. I see my own kids be really confused about why anyone is fighting over this. We’ve created a problem that doesn’t exist for them.
Our kids only benefit when they learn how to have respectful, honest conversations with people who are different from them. It’s a fundamental skill they will need in college and their future careers.
If we teach our children that we can’t talk about certain things, that to me feels very hopeless. Now, more than ever, we can’t allow that to happen.