As part of the increased fervor around racial justice and anti-racism in recent years, educators ranging from preschool teachers to higher education faculty have been working to change how American schools teach U.S. history. Much of the curriculum for this subject has traditionally been created by White Christian men, with little to no attention paid to other cultures. In many instances, the histories of people of color are relegated to footnotes, only focus on stereotypical issues, or present a condescending, negative perspective.
“Students may leave U.S. history courses with the misconception that issues of race only emerged during certain periods, or worse, racism was an issue solved some time ago,” Christopher Martell, an assistant professor of social studies education at the University of Massachusetts Boston, writes in “Teaching About Race in a Multicultural Setting: Culturally Relevant Pedagogy and the U.S. History Classroom.” “Yet, as the [U.S.] continues to increase in racial diversity, it becomes more important to increase the cultural relevance of social studies teaching.”
Now, some colleges of education are training future teachers to highlight the accomplishments of people of color at local, state, and national levels and to encourage critical discussion on issues of inequity, power, race, and justice.
The University of Georgia Mary Frances Early College of Education (UGA COE) takes this approach when it comes to preparing future K-12 educators to discuss these issues with young students.
“In the classroom, we talk about social studies as a space for critical reasoning. If [teachers] are not critically thinking about the world around them, and in turn encouraging and supporting their students in doing that, then they’re not actually teaching social studies,” says Sonia Janis, EdD, clinical associate professor of mathematics and science education and the assistant director of the Improving Teacher Quality program at UGA COE. The program provides government grants to support professional development in teaching core areas such as social studies and reading.
Recently, Janis and her colleagues added to their curriculum a special focus on the resegregation of public schools. The separation of K-12 schools and districts by race is an issue that has largely flown under the radar, as most people assume that school segregation ended with the Civil Rights Movement, Janis says. Raising awareness of this issue is especially important for UGA COE students, who are primarily White and from suburban backgrounds, she adds. In a state like Georgia — where 37 percent of students are Black and 60 percent of students overall are eligible for free or reduced school lunches — it’s crucial that teachers understand this history before entering the classroom.
Once they address systemic issues at play, Janis and her colleagues point the conversation inward to address implicit biases. “Helping them to see how systems work before getting at the personal [level] sometimes helps them to be somewhat less resistant to the realities of their own behaviors,” she says.
UGA COE follows the 3C Framework — or College, Career, and Civic Life Framework for Social Studies State Standards — for training future teachers. The framework was created by the National Council for Social Studies and is based on the philosophy that schools have marginalized subjects such as history and civics that are necessary for students to become critical thinkers and engaged citizens. It also emphasizes analysis and discussion rather than just memorization of dates and names. The framework is especially relevant for teaching about race and culture because it requires students — from K-12 through college.— to examine the past and make connections to modern issues, according to Janis.
“Our students’ exposure to exemplary social studies education always has to do with an issue of justice, humanity, equity, civic engagement, and democracy,” she explains. “It’s not about saying, ‘Okay, everyone look at this timeline and memorize these things.’”
Still, schools of education can only do so much when it comes to creating a more equitable, truthful understanding of history, says Janis. Policy makers and legislators heavily influence K-12 curriculum, which can hinder attempts at reform. When Georgia revised its standards for teaching state history, for example, only one woman was featured in the eighth-grade curriculum.
“Until more people who are seated at the table at the state level have this desire for children in the state of Georgia to know about issues of inequity and diversity, and that to be the focus of the curriculum, it’s just not going to happen,” Janis says.
“This type of mishandling of curriculum has been in place since U.S. public schools have been in place,” Jones stated. “They were not designed to educate Black children, and they were not designed to educate [W]hite children to be critical of anything related to the foundations of this country.”
In other states, Republican lawmakers have been actively fighting against teachers’ efforts to share more inclusive history with young students. In Arkansas, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, and South Dakota, legislators filed bills to ban public schools from teaching the 1619 Project. The project was developed by The New York Times to mark the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship reaching U.S. shores and includes a wide range of content and lesson plans about slavery in America. It is currently being taught in more than 4,500 schools nationwide, including UGA COE. Lawmakers who oppose the project claim it is a “a racially divisive and revisionist account of history,” according to Education Week magazine.
Stephanie Jones, an assistant professor of education at Grinnell College, told the magazine that opposition to the 1619 Project exemplifies how American education distorts the history of racism. “This type of mishandling of curriculum has been in place since U.S. public schools have been in place,” Jones stated. “They were not designed to educate Black children, and they were not designed to educate [W]hite children to be critical of anything related to the foundations of this country.”
Other states support teachers in taking a more inclusive approach to American history. The Illinois General Assembly recently passed a bill that adopts new standards “that are inclusive and reflective of all individuals in the country,” according to the Lincoln Journal Star. The bill established a 22-member Inclusive History Commission that will develop new standards that reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the state and country. Elementary and high schools will develop curricula that cover pre-enslavement Black history from 3,000 BCE to 1619.
In New Mexico, the state legislature is working in partnership with the University of New Mexico College of Education and Human Sciences (UNM COEHS) to support the POLLEN program, which is designed to increase the number of licensed school administrators serving Native American students. It is just one of many ways that the COEHS works closely with Indigenous-based organizations, both on and off campus, to promote a multicultural approach to K-12 education.
With a population that is more than 10 percent Native American and nearly 50 percent Hispanic and Latinx, New Mexico is one of the most diverse states in the U.S. The UNM COEHS emphasizes the importance of celebrating and respecting multiculturalism when it comes to training students to teach social studies and history, according to Shawn Secatero, PhD, an assistant professor of educational leadership and a member of the Cañoncito Band of Navajos.
“Here in New Mexico, we have embedded a lot of our own perspectives and we have redesigned our courses to include our history, our background and epistemology, our ways of learning, which are holistic,” he says. “What we’re trying to do is inform the greater community that we are multicultural, we are a majority-minority state.”
The UNM COEHS has many Native American faculty, which allows their education students to gain a deep understanding of Pueblo, Navajo, and Apache cultures and traditions before they start their teaching careers, according to Secatero. In addition to students learning about diverse cultures and histories firsthand, Secatero stresses the importance of education professors as well as K-12 teachers using textbooks and teaching materials that include a wide range of perspectives.
Diversity among professors and students is a great asset for preparing students to teach about the lives and cultures of people from many different backgrounds, says Secatero. “It’s a blessing, because you get to teach so many different perspectives, and students share their experiences, their life ways, and upbringing with the entire class.”
The school uses a variety of teaching methods, explains Secatero, that emphasize “a holistic perspective of looking at all cultures as valuable tools of information … that teachers can pass onto future generations, their communities, and their students.”●
Erik Cliburn is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.