Teaching History Honestly: One Educator’s How-To
Being a social studies teacher was one of the most rewarding things that I’ve ever done, but it was also one of the most challenging. I found it especially difficult when it was time to teach students about subjects that were awkward or painful to discuss, such as America’s history of mistreating and disenfranchising minorities. To add to this, modern textbooks tend to downplay these elements of history and often neglect to mention them at all.
You owe it to your students to tackle with honesty and integrity issues such as the history of inequality in America. How can you do this without ruffling feathers? You have to be creative and come up with novel ways of getting the material across to your students, without causing an uproar.
For instance, I remember teaching my fifth-grade students about Brown v. Board of Education and the integration of Little Rock High School by first showing them a 5-minute clip of how African Americans were treated during the 1950s. I was a bit worried about how it would go over, because students are usually bored to death by videos, even if they are short clips. However, I was amazed by their reaction.
They were asking great questions, such as “Why did white America treat Blacks differently?” and “Why did we have slavery?” On the spot, I decided to swivel and go in a different direction. I spent the rest of the class giving them a primer on the history of African Americans in the United States. That afternoon, I brainstormed on creative ways to capitalize on this new direction. It turned out to be one the most popular units that I have ever taught.
The next year, we began with the introduction of slavery in the Americas in the 1600s, and subsequently covered the Dred Scott and Plessy cases; the Civil War; the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments; Jim Crow; and Brown v. Board of Education and the integration in Little Rock. From there, we finished off the Civil Rights movement and continued up to the new millennium.
Teaching students about the history of inequality in the United States can be difficult, simply because you want to do it in a fair and unbiased manner, but you also don’t want to stir the class up too much. If you’re honest and respectful to your students and their reactions, you should be fine. Although many of the American history textbooks on the market today fail to fairly discuss America’s history of unfairly treating minorities, you owe it to your students to tell them the truth in an appropriate manner. Good luck!