Struggles Teaching History
I spent the last week at a conference at Stanford University for history teachers and researchers. The program focused on incorporating primary sources and worthwhile inquiry into our education system, something the Stanford History Project has been pushing for years now. Only now that schools across the country attempt to implement the Common Core has their sensible program of student questioning of sources (in tandem with a close reading of said documents) gained newfound popularity.
When I hear criticism of the Common Core curriculum, its clear that most of those standing in opposition to it know very little about what it actually asks of students and teachers. I have encountered more than a few individuals who deem the entire project a centralized governmental conspiracy to push homosexuality and anti-Americanism in the classroom. Activists and shock-jocks that either parrot these claims or are entirely uniformed on the actual specifics have fueled these sentiments, and motivated parents to oppose the shared standards on completely fabricated grounds. When critics are not creating their own facts, they are confusing different programs with the Common Core (for example, California schools are required to teach students about the contributions of gay and transgendered citizens, but this is not related to the federal Common Core curriculum).
As a whole, the Common Core focus on worthwhile inquiry is a positive thing for students studying history. I can recall my high school history class vividly. While my teachers cared about the curriculum, it often involved rote memorization of specific figures, facts, and battles that was then forgotten as we pushed forward into the next unit. We covered a great deal of history, but the curriculum was shallow in its depth. The textbook was used exclusively as the medium to engage with history, and we never debated the merits of narratives provided. While I continued to love history, I could see why many of my classmates learned to hate the subject.
Yet, there are pitfalls to implementing open-ended inquiry in a middle and high school environment. A middle school in Rialto, a Los Angeles suburb, found itself in hot water a few years ago for a prompt and inquiry created by its history department. Students were asked to support or challenge the existence of the Holocaust, and whether Jews and Israel use it for political gain. The LA Times wrote:
“What started as an eighth-grade critical-thinking writing assignment has become a source of relentless controversy for Rialto school officials, who apologized profusely and publicly this week for asking that students consider whether the Holocaust was created for political gain or didn’t happen at all.
The assignment, developed by a group of teachers and the district’s educational services division, prompted widespread outcry and criticism from such groups as the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which called it “grotesque.”
The district said the assignment was meant to satisfy Common Core standards for critical thinking, but quickly pulled it and promised revisions. A spokeswoman called it a “bad mark” on the district’s record.”
Understandably, this assignment received universal condemnation. Anti-public school activists could attack the Common Core and further their claim that public school teachers were dimwits actively trying to undermine American values and corrupt its youth. After hearing this story, I looked a bit deeper into the documents and sources provided to students to answer this incendiary question. The teachers included documents from the Institute for Historical Review, a group well known for Holocaust denial. Not only had these educators come up with a poor guiding question, they stacked the deck in favor of denying the holocaust as an event. It was no surprise to see student essays arguing that the Holocaust was made up by the Jews to further their political aims.
Perhaps understandably, opponents of the Common Core used this case to argue that the curriculum, and student led inquiry in general, would turn history classrooms on their head. Rather than learning about our governing documents and principles, students would be force-feed revisionism and gradate decrying the very foundation of America. As a defender of the Common Core, I don’t take these arguments lightly. This case in Rialto demonstrates just how difficult teaching history can be if an educator is not well versed in the content area or proficient in sound pedagogy.
While I can’t say for certain, I imagine the teachers involved in creating this assignment had good intentions at heart. They wanted to have their students engage in a topic that was interesting, controversial, and required that they examine multiple perspectives. I teach a number of controversial topics in my classroom, and I definitely do not want to see history classrooms turned into environments were students are not allowed to question prevailing narratives. With that in mind, not all historical topics and debates are suited for a primary or high school classroom. Teaching students to think like historians is important, but you can give your students a false sense of understanding by selecting 3 or 4 documents and then asking them to support or justify events on such limited evidence. There will always be exclusion when it comes to teaching history; each and every project I create with my compatriots has us decide what will be included in our inquiry and what will be excluded. There is only so much time and calories a student can dedicate to a project, so something is always left out. Yet, when the Institute for Historical Review is given equal footing in your document selection, something has gone terribly wrong. Chances are, the teachers were not familiar with the organization, and simply wanted students to ponder “the other side” of a debate without considering the historical worthiness of those documents.
The reality is that not all topics of inquiry are appropriate for a classroom. It should go without saying, but teachers have to be conscious of the fact that a middle or high school classroom is not the same as a graduate studies program. Getting students to analyze multiple perspectives and challenge the authority of a source is important, but we should not create a learning environment where students feel they can pass judgment on major historical events through a brief selected reading of documents.
The teachers in Rialto who had students question the existence of the Holocaust created a piss-poor and unacceptable inquiry for middle school students. I am baffled that no one questioned this project during the planning stages. However, this case should not condemn student-led inquiry or controversial topics in our public schools.
I will be returning to this subject in subsequent posts, explaining what I think a well-reasoned inquiry looks like in a middle school classroom, and how I balance teaching student skills and historical knowledge in my classroom. I also want to touch on the “controversial” topics addressed in my class, and why liberal and conservative parents have supported said projects.