Engaging Colleagues

Tool 12: Identify and engage allies.

Tool 13: Use Learning for Justice’s Speak Up at School and Let’s Talk! resources.

Tool 14: Create a professional learning community on teaching honest history.

Tool 15: Break down silos within the school community to foster an interdisciplinary approach.

When educators feel like they are not alone in their belief that students deserve access to accurate and inclusive learning, they are more likely to persevere in their advocacy for teaching honest histories. Colleagues in school buildings who know the same families and community members can be an essential source of support. Educators who actively engage with their colleagues foster communities that can work together to teach honest histories.

Some educators have lamented that they often experience pushback instead of supportive partnerships from their colleagues. Others have commented that they feel restricted in what they can do. Sometimes colleagues are not actively resistant to teaching honest histories, but their passive reluctance to engage creates barriers. As an educator from California noted, “Many of [my colleagues] are interested but don’t have the time or motivation to explore on their own. Some of them are stuck in their habits and not willing to reexamine their teaching.” We have heard similar stories from educators across the nation. More recently, educators have expressed that their colleagues are fearful of teaching honest history because of concerns around parent pushback or job loss. Some are even getting in trouble for teaching it. As a result, educators can feel alone in this work.

On the other hand, educators who say they have supportive colleagues feel empowered and encouraged to keep teaching honest histories.

Understanding these dynamics, we provide the following tools to help educators engage colleagues.

Tool 12: Identify and engage allies.

“When confronted with these realities during their visit, learners of all ages realize we aren’t merely in some place to look passively at history—we are in an active, transformative space where our understanding of the lives of people who were enslaved is challenged directly. This history lives and breathes every day, and we have a role in changing the narratives around enslavement and Black people in the U.S.”

From “Survival, Resistance and Resilience” by Amber N. Mitchell, former director of education at Whitney Plantation

Remember that you are not alone in your support for the teaching of honest history. There are allies in your school and community doing this work, whether you have identified them already or not. Find the colleagues who are teaching diverse and inclusive narratives, even if only partially, and collaborate with them. For example, is an art teacher doing a unit on Indigenous art? How might you then bring related content into your units of study? This could be done in single lessons, by combining classes with the art teacher, or simply by brainstorming and co-planning with your colleague about how you will both address the topic. Educators can build coalitions with other educators, community members, families and caregivers, school administrators, district staff, unions, and, most powerfully, students.

Allies can also be found outside of schools. The LFJ article “Partnering With Museums To Teach Honest History” by Jey Ehrenhalt provides examples of how educators who work for community groups, like local museums, can be considered colleagues. They also advance honest histories, and school-based educators can partner with them to deepen students’ understanding of these topics. Taking the time to listen to colleagues who are doing this work can inspire others to take action as well.

Tool 13: Use Learning for Justice’s Speak Up at School and Let’s Talk! resources.

The Speak Up at School guide offers tools, resources and strategies to prepare educators to speak up against prejudice, bias and stereotypes at school. Sharing the Speak Up resource along with its strategies may build your colleagues’ confidence in teaching honest histories. This resource provides educators with tangible steps to stop bigotry and hate from being expressed in classrooms, schools and communities.

When prepared with the four strategies from the Speak Up at School guide (Interrupt, Question, Educate, Echo), educators can feel more confident in engaging in difficult conversations with their students. Educators will be prepared to intervene if and when someone makes a disparaging comment.

Let’s Talk! is a resource for educators to help build their competency facilitating classroom conversations about critical topics like identity, discrimination and inequality. Learning how to communicate about such topics as white privilege, police violence, economic inequality and mass incarceration requires practice, and facilitating critical conversations with students demands courage and skill. This guide offers classroom-ready strategies educators can use to plan discussions and facilitate these conversations with students.

These guides can help educators feel more prepared, and they can open the door to discussion and collaboration among colleagues.

Consider advocating for staff professional development sessions around Speak Up and Let’s Talk! Learning for Justice offers open-enrollment workshops about these publications.

Tool 14: Create a professional learning community on teaching honest history.

A professional learning community (PLC) can provide educators with collaboration and support around teaching honest history. By participating in a PLC, educators co-create safer spaces to discuss resources, research and pedagogy. And PLC participation can limit feelings of isolation by building allyship and partnerships.

PLCs take multiple forms and have various areas of focus. Educators can create a PLC with other teachers in their content area to help revise and decenter whiteness in current lessons and curricula. Or they may choose to create a PLC across content areas to provide space for co-constructing interdisciplinary units. There is strength and power in numbers, and finding colleagues willing to work with you is essential to creating change in schools.

Learning for Justice offers a PLC through our Teaching Hard History: American Slavery cohorts. Check out our website for more information, and apply to be part of our community of educators working to ensure students receive an honest, accurate history of slavery.

Tool 15: Break down silos within the school community to foster an interdisciplinary approach.

Honest history should not be solely relegated to social studies classrooms but incorporated instead into all content areas. First, teaching honest history across subject areas can create more holistic and comprehensive curricula, helping students build connections and strengthen their critical thinking skills. Second, a multidisciplinary approach addresses history through a variety of contexts and lenses, so students learn more facets of a subject or topic. Finally, in the language of Rudine Sims Bishop, Ph.D., in “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,” this approach creates a sliding door that students can cross through in order to better learn to live alongside people who are different from them, as well as for students to see themselves and others represented in history and curriculum.

“Democracy cannot be sustained, let alone flourish, in the 21st century without open and robust spaces for rational discussion and analysis about our different experiences and viewpoints. This is an essential reason why inclusive education is crucial to our basic self-interests and our collective success. Our schools must furnish a diverse platform to teach all students how to intellectually navigate a world full of profound challenges and an assortment of competing ideas, perspectives, cultures, religions, languages and philosophies.”

From “The Promise of Inclusive Education” by Gregory M. Anderson, Ph.D.

One way to break down silos is to create interdisciplinary units. For example, a history educator teaching about American enslavement may collaborate with a music teacher, science teacher and art teacher to provide students with a deeper, more complete history. The history teacher can provide the historical content and context while the music teacher provides a lesson on spirituals and the importance of music as resistance for enslaved people. The science teacher can contribute by teaching a lesson on race as a social construct and providing information around genetics and the myths around “racial” differences in body build and features (see Race: The Power of an Illusion from Facing History & Ourselves for more ideas around this lesson). And the art teacher can tie the unit together by having students sculpt memorials to honor formerly enslaved people. In this way, educators from different disciplines can co-construct units that help students gain a better understanding of honest histories.

By working across disciplines, educators not only build connections across subject areas that are frequently siloed but also build connections with one another, limiting isolation and fostering a sense of community around their work. Colleagues acting together in solidarity create a safer, braver school environment in which their students can learn about and feel comfortable engaging with honest histories. Find that community within your school and support one another to help ensure honest histories are being taught—not just in certain classrooms but across all disciplines and at all grade levels.

Supplemental Resources

Speak Up at School

Speak up against every bigoted and prejudiced remark—every time, in the moment, without exception. Think about what you’ll say ahead of time so you’re prepared to act instantly.

Ask simple questions in response to hateful remarks to find out why the speaker made the offensive comment and how you can best address the situation.

Explain why a term or phrase is offensive. Encourage the person to choose a different expression. Hate isn’t behind all hateful speech. Sometimes ignorance is at work, or lack of exposure to a diverse population.

If someone else speaks up against hate, thank them and reiterate their anti-bigotry message. One person’s voice is a powerful start. Many voices together create change.

A Collaborative Approach to Teaching Honest History

Educators who are working in collaboration can create lessons to engage students with essential questions that lend themselves to diverse answers. The aims of essential questions are to stimulate thought, provoke inquiry and spark more questions. Essential questions can also be overarching or topical. Specifically, educators might collaborate around a content topic and use Learning for Justice’s Social Justice Standards framework to unpack and draft essential questions through the lenses of Identity (self), Diversity (others), Justice (systems) and Action.

Here are examples of essential questions that were drafted to better engage students in a topic frequently taught in U.S. history: the period typically referred to as “Westward Expansion.” This topic is most often addressed from a white-centric point of view (evident even in the term “Westward Expansion”). For other people, like many Indigenous Americans, this same period might more accurately have been experienced as “Eastern Encroachment.” The U.S. history teachers who drafted the following essential questions were seeking to engage students in a more critical understanding of this period in history and to draw out universal themes that help make connections to the world around them.

Topic: “Westward Expansion” (or “Eastern Encroachment”)

Essential Questions

  • Identity: What is my family’s history of migration?
  • Diversity: What are some of my classmates’ histories of family migration?
  • Justice: How are different groups fairly and unfairly affected by human migration?
  • Action: What can we do to ensure that migration is fair to all people?

Work with your colleagues using the template in Appendix B to create essential questions around an honest history topic.