If we truly care about closing the achievement gap and ending the oppression of black and brown people, it’s not possible to teach history from a solely objective viewpoint.
Recent conversations around the issues of policing in communities of color lead me to believe that what we have done, yet again, is misjudge the distance between us. We, the “American people”, are separated by a gulf of misunderstanding, ignorance, and denial about the caustic effects of inequality on the lives of our students. At UAP, nearly all of the students we serve are black or brown, and, in the aftermath of the tragic events in Ferguson, Staten Island, and Washington State, I am pondering the implications for the way we work. Indeed, I wonder if these recent troubles present all educators with an opportunity to reexamine the way Global and U.S. History are taught in public schools across our country? In answer to that question, I quote Rahm Emanuel, who said “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”
Remarkably, most Americans can at least agree on one thing– the academic achievement gap does exist. What we cannot seem to agree on is why it exists, or how to close it.
I think the way to address both the gulf of understanding, and the achievement gap, is through arts education, but I know that any authentic solution to a problem as complex as the achievement gap is going to require a pretty radical transformation in both curriculum and teaching style.
Let’s start with the idea that traditional history class–one that is taught purely from an ostensibly objective viewpoint–is too boring.
Warning: A sort of Swiftian proposal follows.
How can we make history class more engaging, and therefore more effective?
If we truly care about closing the achievement gap, and ending the oppression of black and brown people, then it’s not possible to teach history from an objective viewpoint. Classroom teachers in inner city schools should abandon all pretense of objectivity, and begin to teach all of history from the perspective of the oppressed. At the very least, as an opinion piece in the New York Times recently argues, social studies should be taught within a framework that advances students critical thinking skills. This means no sugar coating.
History class, when taught through a social justice lens, has the potential to become an intense emotional experience for students, especially students of color. To give black and brown teens more opportunities for success, we educators need to take sides, and we need to make the reality of 400 years of oppression our starting point. Teaching history in emotional terms exploits the natural human tendency to pay more attention to things that we feel strongly about, and is just another tactic to add to the growing list of educational best practices derived from research on the way our brains actually work.
Harnessing the power of art to explore the collective history of young people of color is the way to galvanize their will to overcome, succeed, graduate, and enter the workforce as strong, confident adults.
No one wants to be a victim of history.
By raising their awareness of the impacts of racism in their daily lives, and asking students to imagine alternatives, History class can actually give young people of color motivation to demonstrate growth mindset, and popular traits like grit.
The truth shall set you free, and, in this case, telling our students the truth in emotional as well as factual terms is the best way to build their confidence, raise their awareness, and give them a fighting chance. A social justice framework that includes project-based art-making is a great leap forward.
Arts educators can use the Common Core Standards to compose new kinds of lesson plans, along specific themes. I think of the Common Core Standards as the keys on a new kind of instrument. Juxtaposing them with the National Core Arts Standards creates an incredible space for play and experimentation around difficult subjects.
Within an art-making matrix, every classroom can be a safe space to tell the truth about history, and go beyond into youth development, and even workforce development.
Children of color deserve a space where the negative impacts of industrialization and imperialism are presented truthfully, as part of our collective American history. For most progressive arts educators, Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed already functions as a framing device for the design of arts-integrated curriculum. With their emphasis on non-fiction texts and the development of critical thinking skills, the Common Core Learning Standards present us with a great opportunity to reimagine and revamp our approach.
The dispassionate, linear way, history is taught in most public schools just isn’t working. We should create a passionate, more reflective approach to teaching history—one that uses power as a guiding theme, allows teens to engage with current events, grapple with essential questions, and produce artwork as critical responses.