I’m not a history or social studies teacher, but I believe that students deserve to learn honest histories. How can I help?
Every discipline has a history; you can choose to include or ignore it. Honest history can and should be incorporated into all content areas. First, this creates a more holistic and comprehensive curriculum to help students build connections and develop critical thinking skills. Second, it reinforces different histories through a variety of contexts and lenses, so students learn more facets of a subject or topic. Finally, it creates more windows and mirrors for students to see themselves represented in history and throughout the curriculum.
Here are three steps to bring more honest history into classrooms:
- Assess. Ask yourself the following questions: Where are the gaps in your curriculum around teaching honest histories? Thinking about a range of identities and lived experiences such as race, ability and citizenship, who is represented in what you currently teach? Who or what should you incorporate to be more representative of your students, your community and the nation? Do your books, resources, notable figures and other curricular materials focus on dominant narratives, or do they feature multiple perspectives?
The Culturally Responsive STEAM Curriculum Scorecard from NYU Metro Center is a great place to start for math and science educators who want to assess their understanding and inclusion of honest history in their classrooms.
- Learn. Take time to study history with which you’re not familiar. As educators, we are never finished learning. Understanding the history you want to teach your students is an essential step in making connections to units of study you already teach and bringing a more diverse and complete history into your classroom. Science teachers can turn to the Learning for Justice article “Use the Tools of Science To Recognize Inequity in Science” to better understand inequity in science content. The LFJ webinar Justice in the Science Classroom, hosted in partnership with the Smithsonian Science Education Center, is also a helpful resource. Math educators can draw inspiration from the organization RadicalMath and the Rethinking Mathematics publication from Rethinking Schools.
- Plan. When you create your units and lessons, start with inclusive and thought-provoking essential questions: For example, from where do we get clean water? How do environmental racism and pollution contribute to disparate health outcomes in my community? Incorporate a range of texts—such as biographies, audio, images, books, essays, graphs, charts, data, statistics, scientific papers, art and videos—into your units. Give students the ownership to explore and wrestle with different ideas and perspectives they might not have previously considered.
How do I talk about race, diversity, bias and different lived experiences in culturally responsive, inclusive and sensitive ways?
Every critical conversation, which means a dialogue or discussion about a challenging and emotionally charged topic, has its own context and content, but almost all touch on identity and injustice. Review the following terms (more can be found in LFJ’s Let’s Talk! guide) to help you and your students talk and think about critical topics more clearly.
- Identity: the set of visible and invisible characteristics we use to categorize and define ourselves and those around us (e.g., gender, race, age, religion, ethnicity, socio-economic status, language, marital/family status, ability, sexual orientation, etc.). Identity shapes our experiences by influencing the ways we see ourselves and the ways others see us.
- Identity Group: a group of people who share one or more identity characteristics (e.g., women, Latine people, teenagers, etc.). Members of an identity group can share a wide range of experiences, positive and negative.
- Dominant Identity Group: an identity group whose members share a common privilege. An individual may simultaneously belong to dominant identity groups (e.g., straight, white) and nondominant identity groups (e.g., undocumented, experiencing poverty).
- Bias: conscious or unconscious prejudice against an individual or a group based on their identity. Before leading students through these conversations, it’s critical for you to examine and consider your own identities. How do they shape and inform your perspective? What is easy for you to talk about? What is difficult, and why? What’s holding you back? Educate yourself on different topics to be better equipped to have conversations.
When bringing students in, consider implementing the following strategies:
Use responsive classroom management as one component of an inclusive classroom culture. Discipline and classroom management are central to classroom culture. How are students encouraged to treat one another? What happens when they make poor choices or treat each other disrespectfully? What shapes student-teacher interactions? Involving students in setting classroom policies and expectations can strengthen adherence to shared expectations and values.
Honor student experience. When asking students to explore issues of identity, we must provide spaces where they are seen, valued and respected. Honoring student experience also means providing opportunities for them to learn from one another’s varied experiences and perspectives.
Prioritize social emotional skills and safety. Students need to feel respected and valued if they are to fully participate in critical conversations.
Equip students with language and skills. Talk with students about evidence and experience. Give your students opportunity and language to talk about identity. Teach them terms and use them frequently.
Finally, you’ll want to work on facilitating and leading these conversations with your students. Consider the following as you work to lead these conversations:
Consider your goals for the conversation. You could use goals such as the following:
- Connect a critical topic to shared principles like respect, fairness and individual worth.
- Demonstrate understanding of perspectives and experiences different from your own.
Teach up to the conversation. Build on knowledge and scaffold teaching for the topics you’ll address. Consider the following questions:
- What context or vocabulary will my students need to speak clearly and honestly about this topic?
- How can students connect this critical discussion to our curriculum and to their lives?
Be responsive to your students. Your students may experience a wide range of emotions, from discomfort to anger to sadness. Here are some options for checking in with them:
- Check with students, as a class or individually, before discussions to gauge their feelings.
- Plan ahead to prevent students from putting classmates on the spot.
- Get in the habit of bringing guests into your classroom, including colleagues, guest speakers and community advocates.
Find more in-depth information on all of the above strategies and more in LFJ’s Let’s Talk! guide to help you dig deeper into facilitating critical conversations.