Teaching History in the 21st Century Classroom

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February 11, 2022

The Importance of Students Thinking Critically About Diverse Perspectives

This is the sixth in a series of guest blogs by the 2021-22 Michigan Regional Teachers of the Year. James Johnson is a social studies teacher at Loy Norrix High School in Kalamazoo Public Schools.
There have been some heated debates going on in school districts across the country over the past several months about what kinds of ideas should (or shouldn’t) be taught in America’s public schools. Some people seem to fear that exposure to controversial perspectives or topics will produce negative consequences for our children. High school history teachers like myself have come under scrutiny in many states that have gone so far as to propose and even pass legislation that bans the teaching of specific content, or requires us to be impartial about things like slavery and Nazis.

I am not here to get political. I am not here to promote the teaching of any new and controversial academic theories in K-12 schools. But today’s students come across so much information and so many ideas through their own social media use, that to deny them access to tools that would help them make sense of controversial perspectives is a mistake we cannot afford to make.

Instead of limiting ourselves to the political talking points that shape these ongoing debates, let’s instead frame the issue of history education this way: How do we reconcile the realities of the digital information age and the need to be critical thinkers to participate in our society? In my experience, this is accomplished through culturally responsive teaching, using diverse primary sources in history instruction, and engaging students through inquiry-based learning. 

The current Michigan Social Studies Standards​ emphasize the importance of teaching students to be critical thinkers, because they are “members of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.” Our standards are skill-based, asking students to do things like explain, describe, analyze and evaluate. They are not merely a list of events and topics that some panel of stakeholders thought students should know about. And as we add more history every single day, our understanding about those historical events and topics is constantly evolving. Students need to be exposed to different and sometimes controversial perspectives about the past so that they can make sense of our complex present.

“Culturally Responsive Teaching” has been an academic buzzword of sorts for the past decade or so, and has recently gained some critics who mistakenly view it as political correctness or social justice. What does it mean to be “culturally responsive”? Essentially, “culturally responsive teaching … connects students’ cultures, languages and life experiences with what they learn in school.”

Being culturally responsive starts with respecting the knowledge and experiences students bring to the classroom​. This offers full, equitable access to education from all cultures​​. I often start new lessons or units by asking students what they already know about that topic or asking their opinion about a current event related to that topic. Activating students' prior knowledge makes the learning of history more accessible and relevant to students. It also invites all student experiences and voices, even if they are just writing them on paper and not sharing them.

Studies show that fostering inclusion and awareness benefits all students. ​It helps students with different backgrounds and needs succeed, encourages acceptance and helps prepare students to thrive in an exponentially diverse world​. All students deserve to see their experiences and cultures represented in their curriculum.

As a high school history teacher, the easiest way for me to represent my diverse student body is through diverse primary sources for each topic or time period we cover. Primary sources written in the historical moment that include multiple perspectives and identities teach students to analyze how different groups were impacted by and how they felt about historical developments.

When teaching about World War II and the attack on Pearl Harbor, I give students access to diary entries from survivors of the attack, images of the aftermath, newspaper clippings, propaganda posters and FDR's “infamous” speech. Then, we analyze how that attack impacted life for Americans. This includes new government organizations to mobilize the country for war, but equally as important are pictures and stories of Japanese internment camps, military and domestic service by people of all races and ethnicities, and even some criticisms of our country's actions (or inaction, in the case of Jewish refugees).

Students who see themselves represented in our history make real-world connections that draw on their own experiences and voices. ​According to Rudine Sims Bishop, a writer and professor emeritus at Ohio State University, “when children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read … they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part.”

Another element of our current Michigan Social Studies Standards is the The College, Career and Civic Life (C3) Framework. This encourages an inquiry-based model that mimics the scientific method to engage students in historical artifacts. I often give students images or artifacts related to what we are learning once I have introduced a topic. They have enough information to know what the artifacts are about but not a complete understanding yet. This prompts many questions, but also allows students to make connections to their existing schema about history. We discuss these questions and then add more context for the artifacts with continued instruction or student research.

Inquiry-Based Learning has been shown to result in a better understanding of the concept being taught​ and promotes higher-order thinking skills​. Recent technological advancements increase the success of inquiry-based learning even more​, as students have more access to sources and more creative freedom in communicating conclusions and taking informed action.

So, how can public schools support history instruction in an increasingly digital and politicized world? First, we must continue to create an environment in which students can explore history from multiple perspectives and develop a comprehensive understanding of topics.​ That means not restricting information or viewpoints about uncomfortable topics.

Activist and author James Baldwin wrote, “People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.” To me, this means that the past still has consequences for our present. Our instruction and resources need to be inclusive and help students see themselves represented in our nation's history.

Michigan should also continue to be a leader in the development of standards and professional development that emphasize critical thinking skills. That means providing resources for teachers that include diverse perspectives, and training new and current teachers on how to appropriately engage students with them.

Lastly, let’s not allow history instruction to be politicized and watered down. The effect will be a propagandized version of history that excludes and invalidates students’ own cultures and experiences, and a crippling of their ability to make sense of the information and misinformation they encounter on a daily basis.

We must empower students to understand and engage in the present, and we must trust teachers to guide them as the professionals we are.