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Social studies: learning the past to influence the future

The events of 2020 have shown individuals living in the United States that race is ever-present in our lives. Consider the mass protests that have occurred all over the US—and spread around the world—following the death of George Floyd, and the economic and medical inequalities experienced by communities of color revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic. These historic events contradict the New York Times headline I recalled following the election of Barack Obama as President in 2008: “Racial Barrier Falls in Decisive Victory.” Yet, from observing student teachers in educational contexts this year, many students want to discuss race’s effect on their lives. Spaces for these conversations, however, are not usually available. We must transform how history is taught and learned in our K-12 classrooms since we do not see the implications of our actions until well into the future.

Learning history is complex; it requires an individual to be a critical thinker, develop different interpretations of history, and engage in analytical writing. I encourage these skills in my undergraduates when we discuss the past. However, within the US’ K-12 system, social studies have been relegated to the sidelines as education policymakers and administrators have focused on math and science since the start of the 21st century. I experienced this sidelining of learning the past as a secondary social studies teacher.  School administrators and colleagues told me numerous times that learning social studies did not matter. Even though the events of 2020 have brought learning about history to the forefront, it is still common for many educational contexts to ignore race.

One possible cause for the lack of a thorough understanding of race in US history has been the social studies curriculum. The social studies curriculum has had a long and contentious history with “controversial” topics such as race. It has been a tug-of-war between liberal and conservative politicians and policymakers since the formation of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) in 1920. NCSS advocates Social Studies as a subject that educates students for life-long learning and informed civic action. Moreover, each state is responsible for the development of standards that guide the instruction of the past. This implies that learning the past will be considerably different.  Consider a student moving from New York to Texas; that student will learn about the past in a considerably different way due to geography, demographics, and local histories.

Another possible cause is teacher education programs. In my program, I learned the importance of writing the perfect lesson plan, developing detailed assessments, and building strong classroom management skills. I was told to keep politics out of my instruction. So, at the beginning of my K-12 teaching career, I deliberately ignored the topic of race. As a result, I found the students unresponsive to my teaching. It was not until my fourth year of teaching when students started asking questions about race. Those subsequent conversations changed my pedagogy towards including conversations on race in different units.

Towards the latter half of my career, I used primary sources to dig into US history origins. Students dissected the journals written by English, Dutch, and Spanish “traders.” Students learned how race was the main reason for the human trafficking of Africans to North America during the 16th and 17th centuries. I recall their questions: Why did Europeans target Africa? Why were thousands upon thousands of Africans transported against their will across an ocean?

I also used eyewitness accounts. I recalled a unit on Reconstruction. There was minimal mention of the Buffalo Soldiers who fought Indigenous people following the US Civil War. I introduced diaries written by different soldiers to the students. I also remember their questions: Is this what Bob Marley talked about in his song? Why didn’t I learn this before? Why is it a paradox that these individuals fought valiantly for a country which separated them according to their skin color?

As a teacher educator, I introduce race from the start. Future educators read research articles, speeches, and case studies that situate race within different education facets. We connect race to other topics, such as gender, economics, climate change, and language. I encourage them to reflect throughout the semester, a needed practice in developing their pedagogies.

These are initial suggestions. Encouraging students to ask questions is a valuable academic and life skill, resisting the need to accept others’ narratives. Learning about race in the past is necessary for the students currently in our classrooms. They need opportunities to learn how race was part of the development of the US and how it continues to be present. What we teach them today will have an impact on our society in the future. I leave the reader with this thought: imagine how impactful these conversations on race will be on our students’ future political participation.

Featured image by NeONBRAND

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  2. dmf

    we tend to teach the results of research more than the how-to of research and the debates around theories and until this changes calls for “critical” thinking will remain hollow.

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