Today I had the chance to attend a class as part of my employer’s Summer Institute. Basically, the school system I work for believes teachers (well, anyone really) should be lifelong learners, always aspiring to know more. Summer is a great time for teachers to enter the classroom as students and at Great Hearts (the charter I work for) they host a series of lectures/courses over the summer at low cost so teachers can do just that! You do not have to work for Great Hearts to go. If you are in Phoenix this summer and need to beat the heat I suggest you check a class out. Here is the link to the course descriptions:
So far I am signed up for 2 Summer Institute classes and a one day seminar class. Today was my seminar class titled “Teaching Controversial Topics in History.” As soon as I saw this was an option I signed up. I was excited for this class for two reasons. The first reason being I love history; I always have. Each summer I spend a good amount of time reading nonfiction and memoirs because it is just so interesting to me. My dad taught history at my high school and we always had plenty to talk about. The funny thing is, my sister who grew up right alongside me does not enjoy history. That blows my mind! When students say history is boring, or when adults tell me it is ridiculous to teach history to modern students because it is so subjective my jaw hits the floor. Which leads me to reason number two for taking this one day class.
History is controversial. We have to depend on the word of human beings to know what happened in the past. Also, many things that have happened in the past make us uncomfortable now. I have taught history to kindergarten students for two years now and have found myself getting anxious about certain lessons or questions that students ask. I have also been confronted by a parent and asked to defend the reason we teach history at our school. Since I love history and want everyone to love it I need to know how to teach it and how to defend it.
What makes something controversial?
I think the controversy is bread from feeling uncomfortable. People feel uncomfortable for many reasons, but when reading or learning about other human beings that unsettling feeling comes from a feeling of immorality of the topic being discussed. The controversial topics taught in history that come to mind include, early exploration, colonizing, the Donner Party, torture and slavery. I do not teach all of these topics to kindergarteners but we do touch on slavery when learning about Abraham Lincoln and we do a pretty hefty unit on Columbus. Even teaching these to kindergarten students can be rough and I have found myself questioning what is age appropriate and why certain topics need to be discussed even though they are hard to talk about.
The instructor of our class offered some great insight into why it is ok to be uncomfortable and never feel settled about a topic or character trait of a person in history. Being uncomfortable causes us to look inward and reflect on the human condition. It allows us to confront our own biases or ask questions about hard issues. It teaches students, even students as young as kindergartners, to think critically. It prepares them to make hard choices they will be presented with during their life. It allows them to respond emotionally but still think analytically. It forces them to ask why. These sentiments really resonated with me. Today I discovered why I love history, because it tells us about what it means to be human. It helps me write my own chapter in this story. It allows me to think about the hard choices others have made and helps inform my own choices and beliefs. It also reminds me that humans are not perfect and through reflection and choice we can hope to become better individuals. History is important!
So now I know why I love history and why I think it is important for everyone to be exposed to it. But, how can you justify teaching kindergartners (at an age appropriate level of course) about things that are uncomfortable? It is justifiable because history is the story of humanity. Think about that; history is the story of humanity. When our class came to that conclusion today I felt like we had unpacked something profound. We live in a digital age filled of social media, blockbuster films, full seasons of television at our fingertips (thank you, Netflix!). People spend hours surfing the wed, updating statuses and reading hundreds of comments, watching how choices change the lives of fictional characters on television and in movies. Many of us are invested in these stories, and crave to be a part of them and understand them. This makes the modern student more ready to receive the rich stories history has to offer.
Earlier I read a quote about literature that demonstrates this. It said, “Until we know what a character wants we don’t know what the story is about. Until we know what the stakes are we don’t care.” I think we could apply this quote to our instruction of history. Teach history like the story it is. Show how exciting it is by asking questions about why things happen the way they do. Make the uncomfortable moments the most valuable by questioning the virtue (or lack their of) of the characters in the story. Do not be afraid to discuss the negative parts of history, just be prepared. Do not let your students dwell on the negative characteristics of an important figure, have them reflect on how that shows their humanity. This will make things that have happened, hundreds or thousands of years ago more relevant to a young audience. It will demonstrate the importance of history and it will be engaging and entertaining. It will matter.
After taking this course I not only feel more prepared to teach controversial topics in history, I feel like I am prepared to be a better student of history. I feel like I have the tools to ask myself the hard questions and reflect on the flaws of the people of the past as well as the flaws in my personal choices. History is the story of humanity and it is worth being told.