Social studies and integration into the reading block are two of my passions. I love tying in big moments in history with books that give my students increased context. I love teaching about state history, native people, presidents…anything social studies related! 🙂 My kids learn a lot and they love it. I don’t know why there is a reticence out there to teach this content with authenticity. I have friends–both white and black–that love teaching this content and do it well in spite of the challenges. I am so grateful for them. Teaching historical context to primary learners that both gives them the content, yet shields them from things that are not appropriate for their age is tough. That does not mean that we sanitize things to the point where no one has to feel bad about anything at any time. There are groups of people that oppressed other people in order to become successful. So, instead of teaching that content with fidelity, we make it cute, and minimize the damage that was done to those marginalized people. I am in countless Facebook groups and when teachers are asked about great ideas for teaching the tough parts of history in a primary setting, there are not very many responses that shed light on the difficulties in a meaningful way. It made me think, why?
1.) There’s not a big demand for quality.
Currently we are in the midst of Black History Month. This topic competes with other topics that have a higher market saturation. President’s Day, Groundhog’s Day, Chinese New Year. In primary, the two presidents we spend the majority of time on both have the backdrop of slavery…yet when we are looking for resources…we see… a bunch of cute crafts and quick printables. We don’t talk about the fact that our first and arguably most heralded president was a man who kept slaves. Lots of them. Just recently, Scholastic put out a book about George Washington and one of his slaves, depicting that slave as happy with working for President Washington. That same ‘happy slave’ fled just a year after the story took place. How happy could he have been if he ran for freedom? The book was later pulled from circulation. Our second most popular president emancipated almost 1 million black men and women to cripple the south into coming to the table to end the war. Which leads me to my second point.
2.) You can’t make a craft about lynching or oppression cute.
I just had the most enlightening discussion with a few other teachers of color, and this is a point we spent a good bit of time on. When people think about Black History Month, they are drawn to the images of oppression…because truthfully, much of the history of Black America is peppered with these moments. There have been MANY moments of triumph in spite of that as well. We can teach the fact that these men and women survived and THRIVED in spite of the odds, and continue to do so today. Consider using images from the time. In a primary classroom, consider using photos of marchers/protesters being hosed down in the street or maybe angry protesters with signs. Primary learners obviously don’t need to be exposed to photos of lynchings….but in upper elementary, those photos might be more appropriate depending on the standards being covered. This same point would be relative to the Holocaust, Japanese interment camps, the Crusades and a host of other things that regionally and nationally we teach in an elementary school construct. We don’t need to make it cute…we need to make it engaging. There are other ways to do that beyond construction paper and glue. We need to move past that. As a primary teacher, cutting and gluing is an important fine motor skill, and I’m not denigrating that, but…if that’s all we’re doing is a cut out, and our kids aren’t internalizing that lesson, we’ve missed the mark.
3.) Colorblindess is killing our creativity.
This word! I just wish we could strike it from the discussions we’re having this month about race and culture. This does not exist in the context of race relations. We ‘spare’ our students from the harsh realities…not because it’s necessary, but, because teaching it shows them that there was a time in our history that people were ugly to each other and heaven forbid that kids recognize that it had to do with color. Colorblindness also keeps teachers from letting their kids have authentic discussion about how racism is still a problem today.
So, I’ve laid out the problem…here are some solutions.
Invest in learning about people of color.
Read lots of books that feature men and women of color who have triumphed in spite of the odds.
Carry on meaningful, highly engaging activities with your students to reflect on those texts.
Allow your students to ask questions….and then answer them.
Teaching the ‘tough stuff’ is how we help our kids develop empathy and character. Just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean we don’t teach it, or we only teach the sanitized parts. The beauty of our craft is not finding a way to make it less hard…it’s finding a way to help kids engage it in a relevant way.
Are you up for the task this month?
Let’s do this!