Addressing Race and Racism Head-On in the Classroom
To teach students U.S. History authentically, educators must dig into race and racism, invite complexity and hidden narratives into the conversation, give students the tools to navigate the truths that are difficult for them to reconcile with the messages of liberty and democracy,” Emily Boudreau writes for Useable Knowledge, a Harvard Graduate School of Education publication.
What does it mean to live on land that was taken from Indigenous peoples? How can a nation acknowledge that many of its institutions were built or made possible by the labor of enslaved persons?” Boudreau writes. He refers to an inclusive vision history that asks us all to recognize the contributions of Black, Latinx, Asian and LGTBQ people. Because these difficult histories can be hard to talk about, educators must know how to approach them in a thoughtful and developmentally appropriate way.
A growing number of educators are trying to include “the narratives of peoples from a wider variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds” in K-12 curricula. This is because schools and the country are becoming more diverse. Holly Korbey reports. She writes that if young people can see themselves in the history of our shared past, it not only helps them to have a deeper appreciation but also makes them more civically engaged.
These are four suggestions, drawn from Boudreau’s article and our Edutopia archives for teaching and engaging in the complex narratives of American history.
FEATURE STORIES RESISTANCE & RESILIENCE
Historical narratives must balance racism and discrimination while also highlighting the resilience and resistance of communities throughout history. This is so they can instill hope in young people. However, Boudreau also writes that it’s important to correct the narrow view of U.S. History that often glosses over key figures like Cesar Chavez, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Ed Roberts who were disability rights activists. This effort calls for educators to “teach an accurate history that often goes untold: The role of grassroots activists, women, nuanced portraits leaders like Parks, King, and racial- and social justice battles which link the past and present issues of inequality,” Melinda D. Anderson.
Rann Miller, a director of after-school programs, writes that teachers mustn’t promote a smug version of Black history that is antisemitic because it erases painful truths. Miller was a student and learned about Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass. I didn’t know much about Malcolm X, the FBI campaign against civil rights leaders, the Rainbow Coalition formed by Fred Hampton of the Black Panther Party, or Hampton’s assassination. I was not able to learn about Gabriel Prosser or Dan Vesey or Nat Turner’s struggles.
EXAMINE PRIMARY SOURCES
Boudreau writes that textbooks often gloss over large chunks of history and “without going into great depth or bringing to the surface the voices of those who lived through these times.” Teachers have the responsibility to bring these voices into the classroom through primary source documents that “tell the story of an incident using the words and perspectives of the people described in the curriculum.”
It’s important, however, to make sure these materials are developmentally appropriate–teachers can “redact or edit them so students can understand and engage with the texts,” Boudreau suggests–and to give kids opportunities to discuss and process “feelings that come up as they learn about these histories.” One way to do this is to check in with students via an anonymous Google survey. Adrienne Stang is a K-12 history and social sciences coordinator at Cambridge Public Schools. She says that teachers can validate these emotions. Some people may feel sad or angry, but allowing students to process them is crucial for us to recognize racism and move forward as a nation.
The effort to locate and work with primary documents offers a valuable opportunity for older students to learn how to vet resources. This is a fundamental, critical thinking skill that requires understanding the cultural context and the values from which primary resources spring and determining the credibility of those resources. Paul Franz, an educator, and researcher writes that “vetting resources in social studies is important not only because we want students to learn from accurate, verifiable material.” It’s also important because students need to be able to ask questions about context, sources, bias, or bias. This is essential for social studies education.
MAKE SURE YOUR KIDS ARE VISIBLE IN YOUR CLASSROOM
Boudreau writes that books and curriculum must reflect the diversity of the world and the identities of all students. Stang suggests that families and caregivers should be contacted in the first grades to get a better understanding of student backgrounds. This will ensure that students have the opportunity to learn about not only the identities of students in class but also about other cultures and backgrounds.
Even though school budgets can be tight, even small changes like sharing one book that refers to a child’s experiences can make a big difference. Natalya Gibbs is a second-grade teacher who creates posters that reflect the identities and experiences of her students. She also offers skin-toned crayons to help her students see themselves in every aspect of her classroom. It’s all about “Who are they?” What do they bring to the table? I am growing my curriculum based upon the community of children I have each year. This means learning more about my students and their cultures and making sure they are represented.
TEACH HARD HISTORIES TO OTHER CLASSES, AS WELL
It is not the responsibility of history teachers to engage in complex discussions about race and racism. Boudreau writes that teachers must include curriculum and resources that address both hard history and narratives of agency and resilience.
For example, writes scientist Ainissa Ramirez. She is the author of The Alchemy of Us. This book highlights little-known inventors and gives educators the chance to show students how science works.
English class should include texts by authors from a variety of cultural, racial, and gender perspectives. It is important to highlight the contributions of people often overlooked to American histories, such as Bao Phi’s A Diverse Pond, R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, and Malinda Lo’s Ash. Miller writes that he taught students about the Africanisms of American English while discussing grammar. He recalls having read Mark Twain and Charles Dickens in English class but not Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, or Toni Morrison. Students should be exposed to Black authors who speak about Black experiences, Black perspectives, and Black achievements. These authors remind adults and children that Black excellence does not mean only athletics or entertainment. How can we promote the academic excellence of Black children without introducing them to Black intellectuals–individuals they can see themselves someday becoming?”