Edutopia on Facebook
Edutopia on Twitter
Edutopia on Google+
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Last week over breakfast, my six-year-old son declared, "George Washington was a good president."

"Why do you say that?" I asked.

Credit: Elena Aguilar

"Because he freed us from England," he said.

"Some people think he was good, others disagree," I said.

"My teacher thinks he was good," my kindergartner responded.

I then explained to my son that I thought he'd done some things that weren't fair. "George Washington owned slaves and one of the reasons he wanted to be free from England was because he wanted to be even richer than he already was," I told him.

My son had no comment and resumed eating his granola. We're pretty anti-slavery in our house, so I imagine he was contemplating that contradiction.

I controlled the tirade that threatened to erupt; I am quiet about my many pedagogical disagreements with my son's teacher. I'm making a big effort to embrace the public schools in the district that I've worked in for 15 years as I send my only child into its classrooms.

The Old Approach

My son's class has been learning about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln for over two weeks -- and the unit is not yet finished. They cut out construction paper faces of Washington and glued on cotton balls for wigs; they memorized lyrics to a song which stated that "Lincoln freed the slaves;" they stapled together paper hats "like the patriots wore" and listened to stories about Revolutionary War battles.

Credit: Elena Aguilar

The George Washington comment had me boiling for two reasons:

First, this is not the way to teach history. This approach -- an uncritical, history-as-true-fact, spoon-fed-hero-worshipping of rich white men and the unquestioned glorification of those who have always had power -- is not acceptable for my kid or any kid.

Secondly, I'm shocked by any teacher's lack of cultural competence. I can't imagine what one might think as they look at students' faces, such as those of my son's classmates (some of whom are African American or recent immigrants), and declare, "George Washington freed us from England." He sure didn't free my people who immigrated in the twentieth century, and he sure didn't free my husband's ancestors who were brought to this country in shackles.

Necessary Standards for Teaching History

In California history classes, along side the content standards, there is a set of standards for teaching historical analysis skills -- starting in kindergarten.

If our schools are going to be successful in preparing our young people to actively participate in a democracy then we need to go far beyond just teaching the content standards in history. Going deeper means this:

Students understand that history is a construction.
This means that students recognize that "there are no truths, only stories," as the Native American poet, Simon Ortiz, says. Students also understand that the history that has been written down is a story told by the victors, the conquerors, those with power who constitute a tiny segment of the population, and that it is a story told often to justify their own power.

Students know how to deconstruct history and re-write it.
This means that children learn how to be historians. They can analyze primary sources and develop their own interpretations. They can identify bias in other people's interpretations and consider how privilege and status impact the way events are recorded. They also look for and listen for stories that have not been told, and they see the value of bringing those stories to light.

Students know their own histories.
A kindergartner should be learning about his own family history before learning about George Washington. He should first learn about how the past affects the present, about the people he comes from, and about the struggles and accomplishments of his ancestors. Maybe such a sequence of instruction would result in more kids enjoying history -- in fact, that should be another standard.

Students enjoy studying history and recognize the value in doing so.
This means that students understand that in order for us to better our world, to fix some of the terrible injustices and perhaps even save our planet, they need to understand the past. They need to understand how we got to where we are and they need to recognize their own power to be able to change the situation. History is the ideal curriculum to allow this to happen, but only if students enjoy the material and see how it can be a tool for empowerment.

A New Approach

I have no problem with kindergartners being taught about George Washington, as long as they are being asked to think critically and consider multiple perspectives, and as long as they are also learning about other people.

Here's what I mean: A teacher could introduce the study of American presidents by reading a picture book that presented an alternate perspective on Washington, perhaps told from the point of view of one of Washington's three-hundred slaves. She could have students consider what makes a hero or what makes someone worthy of respect, asking them to evaluate Washington's actions.

Even when instructing our youngest students, we communicate beliefs and values about people and power. All teachers should be clear about what beliefs they are communicating and should question their appropriateness.

Here are a few resources to think through a framework for teaching history:

What is your philosophy for teaching history? What standards do you think should be added?

Comments (89)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Bonnie Bracey Sutton's picture
Bonnie Bracey Sutton
Teacher Agent of Change, Power of US Foundation

" These negros, they're getting pretty upitty these days and thats a problem for us since they've got something now they never had before, the political pull to back up there uppityness. Now we've got to do something about this,we've got to give them a little something, just enough to quiet them down, not enough to make a difference. For if we don't move at all, then there allies will line up against us and ther'll be no way of putting a brake on all sorts of wild legislation. It'll be Reconstruction all over again"
LBJ quote............

Well this is interesting in light of the change that LBJ himself made. He didn't hide behind anonymous names on the Internet. He said what he thought and then when he needed to change his mind he did so.

Lyndon Baines Johnson was the author of the " Great Society" and the change that finally got
rid of the taint of the Civil War.

Thanks very much Dean. Enjoyed...

His Presidency is tainted by the Vietnam War, but he did make advances in the "War on Poverty" and the "Great Society". The Civil Rights Act of 1964, Project Head Start, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Medicare and his efforts in support of space exploration are noteworthy.

I had forgotten his accomplishments.

Bonnie Bracey Sutton

Dean A. Deardurff's picture

Bonnie, who is hiding? anyway,
He did switch sides after realizing he was on the losing side. REp. 82% for dems 64%..With the level being so high on the republicans side, drew a lot of vote by demacract to vote in favor also. Democrat senator Robert KKK Byrd had led a filibuster against the bill
Dean Deardurff

Bonnie Bracey Sutton's picture
Bonnie Bracey Sutton
Teacher Agent of Change, Power of US Foundation

counted as Republican or Democratic/
The Republicans have their share of disasters.

Is your food and drink and are your possessions counted in that way? Just curious.

Doug Loomer's picture

Since no one seems to be particularly interested in discussing how to engage young students in historical thinking, I thought I would try to get some reactions to the following resource designed to help high school students learn to think historically. I'm not sure, however, whether it was written by a republican or a democrat.

Divided Memories: Comparing History Textbooks
Full Unit

We study history, many say, to learn from history's mistakes. But what happens when our memories of history differ? Students analyze, compare, and contrast history textbooks from five societies and compare their coverage of six sensitive historical episodes.

Bonnie Bracey Sutton's picture
Bonnie Bracey Sutton
Teacher Agent of Change, Power of US Foundation

Benjamin Franklin and the society of friends influenced my life though in the history books I read there was very little told about it..

I have been living so long in a more equal world I forgot about how we as children would go to Philadelphia and feel free. .. of the shackels of Jim Crow.. we could use the bathrooms and ride anywhere on the bus. I learned comparative history study at the National Geographic as a student/ as a teacher in an institute. We studied the history, we studied the maps, we looked at the biographies, and we got on busses to travel. The society of friends impacted the Chesapeake Bay. They taught slaves how to read, protected them on their runaway journey up north and also taught skills to people . It was such an amazing history to read and learn about.

Maryland is close to Pennsylvania and the culture of Benjamin Franklin made it a free state.
There is a brief history of Benjamin Franklin here. http://www.ushistory.org/franklin/info/index.htm

I loved however, reading about him in various other books that are a lot more informational. The Teacher's page in the Library of Congress has primary sources , but they are not for kindergarten children.

This is my favorite way of thinking and learning about historical figures.

Primary sources are the raw materials of history -- original documents and objects which were created at the time under study. They are different from secondary sources, accounts or interpretations of events created by someone without firsthand experience.

Examining primary sources gives students a powerful sense of history and the complexity of the past. Helping students analyze primary sources can also guide them toward higher-order thinking and better critical thinking and analysis skills.

Before you begin:

* Choose at least two or three primary sources that support the learning objectives and are accessible to students.
* Consider how students can compare these items to other primary and secondary sources.
* Identify an analysis tool or guiding questions that students will use to analyze the primary sources

1. Engage students with primary sources.

Draw on students' prior knowledge of the topic.

Ask students to closely observe each primary source.

* Who created this primary source?
* When was it created?
* Where does your eye go first?

I apologize that we have gotten off the topic of the very youngest students, but I never found my K students to be philosophical, more reflective of what they were told at home if they were told anything.

I like this. but we should add the multimedia resources from reputable sources.

We study history, many say, to learn from history's mistakes. But what happens when our memories of history differ? Students analyze, compare, and contrast history textbooks from five societies and compare their coverage of six sensitive historical episodes.

Bonnie Bracey Sutton

Bonnie Bracey Sutton's picture
Bonnie Bracey Sutton
Teacher Agent of Change, Power of US Foundation

Jump to: navigation, search
Coordinates: 36deg59'45''N 75deg57'34''W / 36.99583degN 75.95944degW / 36.99583; -75.95944
Chesapeake Bay
The Chesapeake Bay - Landsat photo
Name origin: Chesepiooc, Algonquian for village "at a big river"
Country United States
States Maryland, Virginia
- left Chester River, Choptank River, Nanticoke River, Pocomoke River
- right Patapsco River, Patuxent River, Potomac River, Rappahannock River, York River, James River
Source Susquehanna River
- location Havre de Grace, MD
- elevation 0 ft (0 m)
- coordinates 39deg32'35''N 76deg04'32''W / 39.54306degN 76.07556degW / 39.54306; -76.07556
Mouth Atlantic Ocean
- location Virginia Beach, VA
- elevation 0 ft (0 m)
- coordinates 36deg59'45''N 75deg57'34''W / 36.99583degN 75.95944degW / 36.99583; -75.95944
Length 200 mi (322 km)
Width 30 mi (48 km)
Depth 46 ft (14 m)
Basin 64,299 sq mi (166,534 km2)
Area 4,479 sq mi (11,601 km2)
Chesapeake Bay Watershed

The Chesapeake Bay (pronounced /'tSes@pi:k/, CHESS-@-peek) is the largest estuary in the United States. It lies off the Atlantic Ocean, surrounded by Maryland and Virginia. The Chesapeake Bay's drainage basin covers 64,299 square miles (166,534 km2) in the District of Columbia and parts of six states: New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia.[1] More than 150 rivers and streams drain into the Bay.
The bay was an influence on early American History and the people and the states around it created our
first pages of history well English history. The Spanish actually discovered America and also tried to colonize areas near Williamsburg. But that's another story. History is a story.

Everyone's story is not written.

Tam Smith's picture

I agree with you. Students should be taught to think critically and to analyze situations.

Bonnie Bracey Sutton's picture
Bonnie Bracey Sutton
Teacher Agent of Change, Power of US Foundation

A wonderful thing that Facebook is doing for me is to put me in touch with children I have taught. It is not data, but I have been surprised by what it is that they remember about me and teaching,.. and my passion for learning and thinking about history.

I had a teacher once who was different, Dannie Starre Townes, and she was the first one to say to me
1492. Look at the world then from various perspectives and fill in this matrix to tell me what was going on
that was significant, newsworthy and transformational. Say what I thought? It changed my way of thinking
about historical events.

Another trip to England and I was in Greenwich. Who knew there was a problem with telling time and that it resulted in a contest to build a proper pocket watch, a portable timekeeper. Lots of the interesting things, ideas, movements we have forgotten. In the US standardization of time took place because of the trains.


Hameed's picture

Samuel Wineburg, in a recent study, examined the differences between the ways expert historians and novice historians think.18 To get at this distinction, Wineburg asked eight historians from a variety of areas and eight eleventh grade honors students to read a group of primary and secondary documents on the Battle of Lexington and to study three paintings depicting the same event. Where the students worked to comprehend the basic meaning of the text, the historians took their reading to a deeper level.
Wineburg observed that the historians used three central heuristics in their reading of a document: sourcing, corroboration, and contextualization. In sourcing a document, the historians considered first who created the text, and second, what the biases of the author were. By examining multiple tellings of the same events, the historians confirmed information and the validity of their viewpoints across several accounts. Finally, via contextualization, events were placed in a particular moment and a particular world.
Wineburg has also noted that historians explored a document's subtext by considering it both as rhetorical artifact and as human instrument.19 The artifact is rhetorical in that it is written for some purpose. For instance, the document written by a group of colonists to the British parliament, describing the events at Lexington, was designed to sway parliament. As human instruments, documents reveal something about the person doing the writing. After analyzing a series of documents, the historians would cognitively construct an event model against which they could evaluate other tellings of the event. These historians clearly read in ways which were very different from the students.
To illustrate Wineburg's rubric, a series of lesson plans for a unit on Reconstruction can be built around two artifacts: the diary of a Southern planter from South Carolina and the Senate testimony of a freed slave.20 By analyzing these documents, which represent opposing perspectives, students are encouraged to generate a Rxeconstruction narrative. They begin by looking at the rhetorical nature of each document. This means that they must consider how the difference between writing a diary and giving testimony before the Senate might affect the telling of events. Next, they are given biographical information about the two authors and asked to explain what each is like as a person.
Students are then ready to look at the content of each author's message. The students "interview" each author to gather his perspective on what life was like in the post-Civil War South, including such matters as work arrangements for the freed slaves and their treatment by white Southerners. Students are asked to ponder these views in the light of each author's unique perspective and hence his bias. By considering author perspective, they are sourcing the document.
Next, students are asked to corroborate discussions of events across accounts. Though the sources and hence perspectives are different, it is interesting that certain images of Reconstruction are corroborated across accounts. For instance, students see that both authors make references to violence against African Americans and both authors refer to the ill-defined and unfair wage structure offered to the freed slaves. Finally, the students are asked to contextualize the two viewpoints. By studying data on the South Carolina county where the planter lived, the planter's views--and, indeed, the entire Reconstruction story--are placed in the context of the impoverished South.
These lessons encourage students to emulate the thinking of the historians in Wineburg's study. Wineburg's rubric offers the teacher a means of teaching students how to get inside historic documents so they can gain a sense of immediacy as they become familiar with the people and viewpoints within one particular narrative. In contrast to the fabricated dialogues from historical fiction, students encounter the actual voices from discussions within history.

Stephanie Kubalek's picture

I loved your critique of history teaching and recommendations for improving it. I have read "Lies my Teacher Told Me" and I was quite surprised by the amount of information and ideas that were "left out." To this day I have a hard time with history and it tends to be a sore spot, but thats because I was taught in the singular fashion, that history is only about the facts and important people. I was never exposed to the idea that I could foster my own opinon and be exposed to several perspectives. If I had only known that way of education was out there, my opinion of history might be completely different today! Thank you for your article and the advice you gave, I hope I can offer that type of education to my students, fostering their critically thinking and opening their eyes to the world around them.

Sign in and Join the Discussion! Not a member? Register to join the discussion.