In Texas, public school history teachers have been woefully constrained by the elected officials on State Board of Education who tend to flout political ideology over educational credentials during the election cycle. As a result, curriculum standards and textbook requirements are set by a governing body with very little understanding of the current research or pedagogical philosophy at the root of a robust history curriculum.
As a former public school teacher, I feel for my colleagues who are still slogging it out in the trenches trying to cover as much as they can before the standardized STAAR tests each year. These tests tend to focus on covering facts, and in this case, a set of highly politicized ones. I do agree that “covering” history in middle school and high school is important. Having a framework in which to place current events in light of the past cannot happen without some level of coverage.
Dallas Independent School Students were confronted with that very scenario this year – placing current events into a framework of the past. Recently, the DISD board voted to rename four schools named after Civil War generals, and two of those schools are only a mile or two from my house. I am mindful of the ways in which neighborhood students will be asked contextualize the renaming of their own elementary school since their state mandated textbook celebrates the contributions of Stonewall Jackson’s leadership. In only applying the state’s standards, they will do that work lacking the skills to wrestle with Lévesque’s essential questions that invite students to confront “what changed and what stayed the same” or how to “understand predecessors who had different moral frameworks” (37).
But, the digital turn gives me hope in applying a different standard: “To support the teaching of the essential knowledge and skills, the use of a variety of rich primary and secondary source material such as biographies, autobiographies, novels, speeches, letters, poetry, songs, and artworks is encouraged. Motivating resources are available from museums, art galleries, and historical sites.”
Good teachers, the classroom experts, who teach day in and day out now have access to hundreds of different websites promoting museums, biographies and National Park sites about the general. Teachers could design a lesson that compares and contrasts how Jackson is portrayed at a variety of different sites and ask students to wrestle with the question of how to view Jackson in light of his “different moral framework.”
Of course, not all lessons need be so politically charged. Opportunities abound for teachers to pull in resources from across the globe that help them to do the good work of teaching critical historical thinking skills and to consider their textbook as only one source among many.
Lendol Calder, “Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey,” The Journal of American History, volume 92, no. 4 (March 2006), pp. 1358-1369.
Lévesque, Stéphane. Thinking Historically. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.