Writing the Powerless Out of History

In a recent discussion about a history reading, I asked students if they understood the need to think critically about what we read, even if the reading is labeled “historical.”

In a recent discussion about a history reading, I asked students if they understood the need to think critically about what we read, even if the reading is labeled “historical.” 

“When stories are retold as history, what side do these stories come from?” I asked. “Who writes the history?” Thanks in part to the work of my social studies colleague and social justice teaching advocate, a few students boldly answered, “the victors.” After a few more prompts, my students went on to tell me that the people who have the most power are the ones who tell the stories.

“Can we assume that reading or watching something ‘historical’ means that it’s completely objective?” I asked. Students quickly and unequivocally answered, “no.”

We have to keep in mind who is telling the story and what role they played in it.

We had a similar discussion in the class period that followed except that in addition to students telling me that victors and those in control write history, one student quickly added something. “White people write history.”

A few students seemed bothered by this comment. Some asked, “What do you mean white people write history?”

White, middle-class students are the majority in our middle school. I realized that students never really expected to confront or challenge their roles within the privileged majority. Sometimes belonging to a group that has always had a voice creates a sense of complacency in understanding how and why significant things happen in our community, our schools and what is written in our history. It’s a tough but important discussion to have. These conversations unearth inherent inequities that students encounter on a regular basis.

It’s not often that we ask students to confront the reality of the marginalized and also probe at what part a student may have in perpetuating that marginalization.

As a white, middle-class teacher and a member of the privileged majority, am I making sure that I encourage conversations about race and privilege in the classroom, as part of writing assignments and in discussions about literature?

I Don’t Think I’m Biased,” provides ideas and links to resources that allow educators to examine their own philosophies and practices, as well as find ways to challenge their students’ understanding of race and privilege. It is a vital tool and starting point to engage us in this complex issue.

I have learned that I cannot be an educator to all of my students if I don’t reflect on what part I may have in silencing the voices of the marginalized. It is my duty to make sure that I am constantly reflecting on my own practice to enable students to have thoughtful experiences as consumers and creators of history.

Timm is a middle school language arts teacher and creative workshop instructor in Iowa.

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