This blog is written by Katie Kelly to remind us how and why to teach a more current and accurate history curriculum. Read more about Katie at the bottom of her post.
For far too long, social studies has been taught (if taught at all) through a teacher-centered model comprised of lectures, note-taking, and task-oriented textbook reading. Students are assigned chapters with questions to answer and are later tested on the content. History becomes rote memorization of key dates and figures without meaningful context or deep learning. Therefore, we should not be surprised that many students lack understanding of significant historical events and find social studies both boring and irrelevant. A 2020 survey of adults under forty revealed that ten percent of respondents were unfamiliar with the Holocaust, and sixty-three percent of those surveyed did not know that over six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust (Pew Research Center, 2020).
This is frightening and concerning. Not only do we need to ensure that young people are learning history but also that they are learning about it from multiple perspectives in order to weave a more complete tapestry of truth. Dr. Gholdy Muhammad (2020) reminds us to consider how our curriculum and instruction help us understand power, equity, and anti-oppression. Our teaching practices must be responsive to the historical events that shape the present if we aim to help students understand content from marginalized perspectives (Muhammad, 2020).
Textbooks remain the primary source of social studies content in many classrooms (Brophy & Alleman, 2009). One problem with relying solely on textbooks is that they are designed as an overview of vast periods of time and lack depth and breadth on specific topics. As a result, textbooks often convey oversimplified information and are frequently told from a single perspective that omits the voices and stories of historically marginalized groups (Yearta & Kelly, 2021). This results in a narrow, biased, white-washed curriculum. Sanitized versions of history induce a sense of patriotism while ignoring the complicated past and present (Demoiny & Ferraras-Stone, 2018). As James W. Lowen writes in Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (2018),“The stories that history textbooks tell are all predictable; every problem has already been solved or is about to be solved… Textbooks exclude conflict or real suspense. They leave out anything that might reflect badly upon on national character.”
We cannot ignore our complicated and difficult past if we seek a better tomorrow for future generations. To foster increased engagement in learning a more complete and accurate history, we must build our capacity and willingness to include multiple perspectives and acknowledge that every perspective is true and partial (Hamilton et al., 2020).
In order to teach a more complete and accurate history, we can incorporate multiperspective text sets including books, articles, primary sources, multimodal resources, etc. featuring the stories and perspectives that have traditionally been silenced or marginalized. Multiperspective text sets help students layer their learning about complex history to develop a more nuanced and accurate understanding of how it influences the present. When students have opportunities to connect the past to the present, history becomes more relatable and relevant to their lives (Kelly et al., 2023).
In our book, Critical Comprehension: Lessons for Guiding Students to Deeper Meaning (2023), we offer a multiple read framework to help students move beyond passive acceptance of information towards a deeper critical analysis of text by questioning the author’s intent, the information included/excluded, how the text positions the reader, and who benefits or is harmed by it. The return read seeks to disrupt and interrupt widely accepted narratives, the writer’s intention, and the reader’s stance to uncover hidden truths. This return read, or critical read, is necessary when examining the ways in which history is presented. As readers deconstruct texts, they think critically about historical and current events to examine power relations revealed in text and mirrored in society (Jones, 2006; Vasquez, 2010).
Sample questions for critical reading:
- Whose story is being told?
- Whose stories are being left out?
- Who benefits? Who is harmed?
- How does this perspective position the reader?
- What does the author want the reader to think or know?
- How does the text perpetuate stereotypes?
- How do your assumptions and associations position you to interact with text?
These questions serve as a framework to help students move beyond the dominant narrative to explore counter narratives and expand their perspectives and understanding of our country’s past and present. History textbooks often center the stories of the victor, the hero, the white male. For example, we think of our founding fathers and our first president and general of the Continental Army who led us toward independence. The Declaration of Independence stated that all men were created equal. We celebrate the Fourth of July with displays of patriotism from waving flags, red, white and blue clothing, parades, and fireworks displays. Yet, history textbooks rarely explain that neither women nor people of color had independence and freedom. In fact, slavery was not abolished for another 86 years when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Even then, it took three years for this information to reach enslaved people in Texas. On June 19, 1865, federal troops traveled to Galveston, Texas, to bring the news of freedom. This day has been commemorated as Juneteenth, and though Black citizens have long celebrated it, it has largely been overlooked until recently. Juneteenth became a federal holiday in the U.S. in 2021 amidst continued activism and the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement. Teaching about Juneteenth is one way to help students bridge the past to the present to learn the nuanced and more complete truth of this part of U.S. history. This Book Buzz blog post offers a sample text set to help students deepen their understanding of the importance of Juneteenth.
Our country has a long history of centering the power of dominant voices. This perspective is privileged in the curriculum in our schools as well. Therefore, we must work to ensure that multiple perspectives are included when teaching social studies. Consider your own school experiences. What were you taught? What weren’t you taught? Whose stories were included? Whose were left out? How did that shape your beliefs about the world and your place in it? (Kelly et al., 2023).
Critical comprehension requires deeper reading to consciously question the text, the world, and the stories we’ve been told. Critical readers seek a more nuanced understanding by uncovering silenced voices, omitted narratives, and multiple perspectives needed to weave a more informed and complete tapestry of truth.
Brophy, J., & Alleman, J. (2009). Meaningful social studies for elementary students. Teachers and Teaching, 15(3), 357– 376.
Demoiny, S.B. & Ferraras-Stone, J. (2018). Critical Literacy in Elementary Social Studies:
Juxtaposing Historical Master and Counter Narratives in Picture Books. The Social Studies, 109(2), 64-73.
Hamilton, D.M., Wilson, G.M., & Loh, K.M. (2020). Compassionate Conversations: How to speak and listen from the heart. Boulder, CO: Shambhala.
Jones, S. (2006). Girls, social class and literacy: What teachers can do to make a difference. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Kelly, K., Laminack, L. & Vasquez, V. (2023). Critical Comprehension: Lessons for Guiding
Students to Deeper Meaning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Lowen, J. W. (2018). Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got
Wrong. New York: The New Press.
Muhammad, G. (2020). Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literature. New York: Scholastic.
Pew Research Center, Jan. 22, 2020, “What Americans Know About the Holocaust”. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2020/01/22/what-americans-know-about-the-holocaust/.
Vasquez, V. (2010). Getting beyond “I like the book”: Creating space for critical literacy in K-6 classrooms. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
Yearta, L. & Kelly, K.(2021). Digital Storytelling to Enhance Social Studies Content Knowledge, Explore Multiple Perspectives, and Advocate for Social Justice. In J. Tussey & L. Haas (Eds.). Connecting Disciplinary Literacy and Digital Storytelling in K-12 Education. IGI Global.