New Narratives and Content are Crucial for Anti-Racist Education in History Class

Blog Post
Photo by Mike Von, via Unsplash
July 14, 2020

As protests continue, news outlets around the country are documenting a renewed push to remove monuments and statues idolizing confederate leaders and slave owners. And as the cultural awareness about race and racism is becoming more wide-reaching, students, parents, and community members are leveraging the momentum of the moment to advocate for an increased focus on anti-racist education and culturally responsive teaching initiatives.

Recent research from New America has highlighted the importance of these initiatives for “reversing underachievement and unlocking the potential of students of color.” A key component involves devising a more equitable history curriculum. Teaching history in this way is important for a wide range of once-and-still marginalized populations. At this particular moment, with broad swaths of the American public gaining a deeper understanding of the devastating impact of racial injustice in this country, there are heightened calls for educational materials that give Black students the chance to see themselves reflected and represented accurately. This raises the question: what would this kind of curriculum actually look like?

One major factor for school and district leaders to consider is the specific content that the curriculum would need to include. It is perhaps helpful to think of this content in terms of two types of narratives. The first type are those that provide accurate, full, and unbiased accounts of historical events that are currently absent from (or only minimally addressed) in history textbooks. The second type are those that tell positive stories by and for Black students, stories of Black joy and success.

Beginning with the first category, a few examples of these narratives include the rise and contextualization of slavery, the Underground Railroad, or writing from critical civil rights leaders such as Bayard Rustin and James Baldwin. Though more research is needed to determine the exact impact on students of learning from more inclusive and accurate history materials, the data that do exist make clear the need for this type of curriculum content. According to a 2018 study conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), only 8 percent of high school seniors surveyed were able to identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War. The SPLC study also showed that 58 percent of teachers found their textbooks inadequate when it came to addressing slavery. Quite evidently, the process of achieving educational equity will need to begin by addressing this most central aspect of American history.

But even though accurate and inclusive history lessons are necessary for an equitable curriculum, they are not sufficient. In fact, when taught without proper context or preparation, these stories can actually run the risk of causing or amplifying fear and anxiety among Black students. Consider this example in a 2008 article from Teaching Tolerance: One year, on an overnight camping trip for experiential learning, a 10-year-old African American child was asked “to kneel in the hold of a make-believe slave ship.” And even though her classmates were crying, she was told to “keep her head down.” When asked about the incident later, the camp counselors said they were trying to help students imagine what it felt like to be enslaved. The girls’ parents (both psychologists) and other experts objected, citing the circumstances and noting that putting students through these kinds of “simulations” can be psychologically harmful. In addition, a 2019 report from Teaching Tolerance reflects how even despite the rise of trauma-informed teaching approaches in recent years, many educators have yet to consider how certain lessons that focus on racism as a feature of the past may end up being a source of renewed trauma for students who continually experience racism as something that is very much a feature of the present.

A recent article from Edutopia argues that this is part of the reason why an equitable curriculum must also contain more positive stories about the lives of Black people. Some great examples might include biographies of important local figures, who are likely to be particularly relevant in students’ own communities. Examples might also include telling about the life of Robert Abbott, who founded the Chicago Defender, which went on to become the most highly circulated Black-owned newspaper in the country. Or Garrett Morgan, who invented the traffic signal and the first modern gas mask. Or Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who has been hailed as the “Godmother of Rock ‘N’ Roll.”

These latter kinds of stories, commonly referred to as examples of Black excellence, are important for several reasons. For one, as noted by Nehemiah Frank in an op-ed featured in the Black-owned digital news media company The Black Wall Street Times, these narratives give confidence to Black students and help them to combat internalized racism. And Gholdy Muhammad, an associate professor at Georgia State University’s Department of Middle and Secondary Education, argued in a recent article published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) that such narratives are crucial to helping Black students realize their full academic potential. In addition, a 2016 report from The Century Foundation has discussed how a more diverse collection of stories also benefits white students by helping them to combat implicit biases and approach issues with a greater degree of nuance. Overall, these stories give all students a far richer cultural understanding than do traditional textbooks.

The work of creating inclusive and accurate history lessons is critical, but it’s only the beginning. When it comes to issues as complex and broadly-defined as educational equity, there are an endless number of factors to take into account. While challenges of implementation, teacher professional development, state standards, and instructional materials remain, one thing is for sure: this moment is expanding the opportunity for new voices to be heard and for important changes to be made in the teaching of history. As we continue to strive toward greater equity in schools and classrooms, the stories that have long been absent should be front and center.

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Culturally Responsive Education