Magazine Feature

Other People's Shoes

A secondary teacher uses multiple perspectives to examine the past.

When Alistair Cooke brought his series "America, A Personal History" to television audiences in the mid-1970s, he included a photograph from the '30s of two lynched black men in Marion, Ind. It was my first year of teaching, and I had never seen this photo before: An onlooker faces the camera and points at the hanging, disfigured bodies. Other faces in the mob smile, not at all disturbed that their hate is caught on film forever. The companion book to the video series practically falls open to the two-page spread.

I decided to use the photo with my 9th grade social studies class to make the point that there is more to history than what the textbook offers. To maximize the effect, I made the photo almost life-size with the help of an opaque projector in a darkened classroom.

The students reacted as if struck by a baseball bat. In my eagerness to show history as it "really" was, I had forgotten that my primary goal was to help them understand the past, not make them recoil from it in horror, pain and embarrassment. It took me several class periods to undo the damage and give the photo some much-needed context.

We started over by exploring what the students already knew of prejudice in our society. Since then, I've found students eager to discuss their experiences. Non-whites talk about discrimination most commonly as a consequence of race, ethnicity or language. But many students, including whites, also talk about encountering prejudice over religious differences, or because they are female or short or overweight. As students develop empathy for each other through such discussions, they are better able to understand the experiences of people in other places and times.

History at its best lets one walk in other people's shoes. By viewing American history through the eyes of women and minorities, young and old, rich and poor, victim and oppressor, students begin to understand more fully who we are as a nation. Over the years, I've developed several compact units that draw upon a variety of voices in order to reveal the range and richness of the American experience. What I've found in response are students who show more interest in history, who ask questions and think critically about the material they study and the society in which they live. The following are overviews of two such units.


The End of Slavery Isn't Freedom

Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement may be separated by roughly 75 years and 300 pages of text, but they invite a comparative study that defies the customary chronological structure of textbooks. Both originated in a "postwar" America, but how did conditions after World War II compare with those after the Civil War? Both represented attempts to alter fundamentally the relationship between white and black Americans, but Reconstruction policies ultimately failed, and the Civil Rights Movement succeeded -- sort of. The real lessons about both periods occur as students begin to ask "Why?"

In presenting Reconstruction and the years after, many textbooks emphasize the role of law -- first, the constitutional amendments and other legislation guaranteeing equal rights; later, the "Jim Crow" laws that restored white power; and, ultimately, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which codified racial segregation under the doctrine of "separate but equal."

To help students grasp the human dimensions of Reconstruction, I ask them to put themselves in the place of "free" blacks who can't read and have no money in a countryside ravaged by war. Using primary sources such as the Federal Writers' Project oral histories, they can hear the testimony of individuals who were once enslaved. Records of the Freedmen's Bureau provide accounts of education and economic relief efforts, as well as Ku Klux Klan violence. The Congressional Record reveals the failure of the federal government to achieve true political equality for blacks.

By contrast, in the aftermath of World War II seven decades later, change was in the air. The political establishment may not have been leading the charge toward racial justice, but President Truman did issue an executive order desegregating the military. To get a sense of other developments, students can examine the contributions of historically black colleges (many of them founded during Reconstruction). Law graduates from Howard University, in particular, were already engaged in legal battle in the nation's courts. Black veterans who had distinguished themselves during the war, such as the Tuskegee Airmen, were no longer content to suffer the indignities of the past.

Like Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and '60s is often defined by textbooks in the narrowest terms -- key court cases, federal action and public protests. What's missing is the complex interaction between those events and the lives of ordinary citizens who chose to become involved, provoking a "second American revolution" -- in both the law and in social attitudes -- that had proved impossible a century earlier.

Selma, Lord, Selma, by Sheyann Webb and Rachel West, brings the voting rights struggle of the 1960s into vivid relief through the memories of two women who were children in Selma, Ala., at the time. The authors recall the long waits, four-page applications and bogus "tests" facing black citizens who sought to register. As students read about white courthouse workers spraying insecticide and disinfectant around the rooms where blacks waited, they begin to appreciate the enormous courage and sacrifice of the Movement's unsung heroes.

The role of popular culture in social change is another factor that textbooks gloss over. That sports and music are important influences on young people today is undeniable, but these same elements figured prominently in the climate of the Civil Rights Movement. A personal example may help show the connection.

My first real hero was Jackie Robinson. Any true Brooklyn Dodgers fan knows that the most important year in history is not 1066 (remember? Battle of Hastings?). It's 1955. World Champions at last! I was 6 years old, and Jackie Robinson was simply the most exciting player on a terrific team in a city that also claimed Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays.

Not until later did I learn about Jackie Robinson's breaking the major league "color barrier" in 1947 -- and I appreciated him even more. To help students appreciate the significance of this event, I bring in the voices of Robinson and other key figures who made his breakthrough possible -- Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, radio announcer Red Barber and team captain Pee Wee Reese, for example. Their personal reflections on race reveal the inner struggles that generate outward progress.

By comparing and contrasting Reconstruction and the Civil Rights era, students can begin to understand that changing the social order involves more than court decisions and new laws -- it also requires fundamental changes in the way people think.


Jeannette Who?

Why would a teacher want to devote more than a couple of minutes to someone most people have never even heard of? By spending a few days looking at Jeannette Rankin's remarkable career, students may learn more about westward expansion, the women's suffrage movement, the Progressive Era and World War I than by studying each of these "units" for weeks.

Rankin's name appears most often in lists of "firsts" -- she was the first woman in Congress, elected in 1916 to the U.S. House of Representatives. I start by asking students: How did Jeannette Rankin get elected if the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote wasn't passed until 1920? In seeking the answer, students will discover the grassroots nature of the women's suffrage movement.

Rankin, however, was far more than just the first congresswoman. Virtually every stage of her life provides a convenient entree into important issues in American life.

Born in frontier Montana in 1880, the oldest of seven children, Rankin grew up hearing her parents talk about the injustices faced by Native Americans. She especially admired Chief Joseph's struggle to save his people, the Nez Percé, from the relentless pursuit of the U.S. Cavalry.

Rankin graduated from the University of Montana in 1902. When she traveled east for the first time in 1904, she came face to face with the squalor of urban poverty and made a commitment to improve the lives of others. A brief career in social work convinced her that fundamental social reforms could come only through direct political action.

After moving to the state of Washington, she became deeply involved in the women's suffrage movement and helped to make Washington the fifth state to give women the vote in 1910. The other issues she championed -- abolition of child labor, direct election of senators, improved working conditions for miners and other laborers -- virtually define the Progressive Era. In addition -- and more controversially -- she was an outspoken pacifist.

Rankin returned to Montana just as that state granted suffrage to women in 1913. War erupted in Europe the following year. American neutrality evaporated with reports of German atrocities in Belgium, the sinking of the Lusitania and release of the notorious Zimmerman telegram, in which Germany encouraged a German-Mexican alliance to deter U.S. intervention in the war. In this atmosphere, Rankin chose to run for Congress in 1916. With the strong support of a majority of Montana women, she won -- overcoming prejudice, skepticism and powerful business interests.

When Congress convened in Washington in 1917, the first order of business was the declaration of war. The nation's war spirit was high and the vote's final outcome a foregone conclusion. Jeannette Rankin faced an agonizing choice: She could vote contrary to her pacifist beliefs and secure support for other issues important to her; or she could vote against the war, risk personal and professional rejection by other members of Congress and virtually guarantee her own defeat in the next election. What should she do?

Students, having heard this much of the story, can experience Rankin's dilemma by debating the war issue and casting their own votes. In confronting both a moral and political quandary, they will come to grips with the issues of the Progressive era, war and peace, and hard-nosed political reality. (Many students are shocked to discover she voted against the war.)

It's impossible, of course, to cover all perspectives in every unit. By introducing fresh voices now and then, teachers can help students hear more of America speaking. The resulting history lesson isn't a singular account of the "truth," but something more complex and ambiguous. As young people grow accustomed to searching for answers beyond the "facts" of the textbook, they soon discover how alive the past can be.

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