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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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

He freed slaves and in the times created a difference for those he owned and treated them differently than others. Read the narrative.

James said

Third, if your child does not know their own history, it's not the schools fault, it's the parents. School should be teaching the history of OUR country, not other countries.

History is not known by everyone.

Hispanic children that I taught were surprised to know the history of the Inca, Maya and Aztecs, and Toltecs. The Smithsonian helped with the story of the two old worlds coming together.

The books most of us get in schools have little real history in them. Thank heavens for museums and the Internet. Even then lots of history is censored. Lots of history is censored. In the recent month we
know that the state of Texas has moved to change history in the books.

Here's the info on the early history of America.

Here is a starting point.

Dean A. Deardurff's picture

All legislation to protect the rights of blacks was initiated by republicans..All legislation to prevent blacks from voting was sponsored by democracts...Thr true was told in the vote of 1964, when 82% of republicans voted for the civil rights act while only 64% of democracts..The ku klux klan was formed by democracts after Lincoln freed them..

Ro's picture

I agree with JohnStJohn about the title, and Ms. Sutton you are doing so much work. I agree with you that the internet has brought great information when teaching history - not rewrite history, but teach it. I hope that more parents tune into these sites you posted. I'm going to do research on them too to continue the conversation. Next stop Ben Franklin. Dare I mention him, there might be more bias about his womanizing printed on this site. But we owe thanks to Ben, for the Franklin stove which he designed to help save the lives of many women killed by the open fires in homes back in the day. I know I'm a grateful woman. And I wouldn't be able to write a comment here if he didn't risk his life flying a kite in a thunder/lightning storm. Can't wait to see what this sparks.

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

Benjamin Franklin was against slavery, and it was one of the last things he fought for in his life as a senator of Pennsylvania. He was the President of Pennsylvania's Antislavery Society. However, most of the Founding Generation were against slavery (including John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and, although a bit hypocritically, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington - who had his slaves freed after he and his wife, Martha, died), yet they realized that the country was too frail to really risk forcing the issue.


It should not be surprising to learn that Franklin's views on slavery changed over time. When he was a young man he bought and sold slaves in his shop. Later on he became a staunch opponent of the practice and founded an early anti-slavery society. Michael Montagne


Ben at one time offered rewards for runaway slaves as an ad in The Pennsylvania Gazzette.He also had his own negro servant that accompanied him to Independence Hall in Philadelphia.


Benjamin Franklin was against slavery, and it was one of the last things he fought for in his life as a senator of Pennsylvania. He was the President of Pennsylvania's Antislavery Society. However, most of the Founding Generation said they were against slavery (including John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington) yet they did nothing in contrast to their actions to revolt from the British to bring about the end of slavery.

franklin was against slavery for the simple reason that it was not economically beneficial. that, and the fact, franklin learned slaves were intellectually equal to non slaves, led him to the belief that slavery was a waste. that no good came of it. franklin's creed was that the greatist good man could do was to do good to his fellow man.

Not doing so much work. The information is a mouse click away. Evaluating the source is important.

I don't have a book about Franklin that I have read and remembered as I do for others.

Interesting facts about Benjamin Franklin

The history channel has lots of great movies on Franklin

Ben Franklin in Europe?

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

Dean, heard the word micegenation? Know about Jim Crow.. both parties were equal opportunity enforcers and I am not even talking black codes, lynching, and other unspeakable acts.. covenants aagainst
owning houses and or separate but unequal schools. Did I mention that people paid taxes without
having equal opportunity. So the thing about who introduced what legislation is a moot point.

However , this are different times. in most parts of America.

There is still segregation ... and inequity.

Have fun here.

There was a civil war , it was not just fought by black people. Here in Washington DC white women came in and created schools.. for the underserved. No one set of people did everything.


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

When I was teaching the Civil War. A parent sent a school board member to see who invited a man dressed in confederate dress to speak to kids. Of course, it was me and my Jewish friend.. trying to have a balance
since we live in the area where Mosby's raiders existed.

Bonnie Bracey Sutton

Dean A. Deardurff's picture

" 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............

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

Using the "evidence" of history, the history that we know there are few
people who are saintly enough to please Robert and some of the others.
First of all, maybe many have not taught the little ones. They don't have a lot of information, and most of it is given to them by their parents.

Second, it is ok to have a different opinion. It is also good to be able to share evidence and other information that sheds light on the subject.
Most children in K cannot read, and even if they could this discussion has taken on its own life which has little or nothing to do with early learners and their skills in deciding who is or was a great leader.

I like this from the newspaper article that was quoted on George Washington.
: this from the comments "
Sure, but what's the "cost of replacement" for a volume of "Common Discourses" published in the 18th century? Possibly the value of the fine is cheaper than the replacement cost at this point.
Someone should check the various museums that Washington's stuff ended up at. And the museums of the other Founding Fathers - he may have lent it to someone and forgot it wasn't his. Who knows - it could be in a storage vault at the Smithsonian or something."

George Washington , was a gentleman farmer and was always while in the service of the country, traveing. There are many things , and bills that he absorbed as people came from all over the world to meet him. He entertained these people with no funding of a critical sort from the
government. He was better at his book keeping than Thomas Jefferson, so we have the " receipts" to know about the assumed costs of being a retired president that made for the changes that happened .

I met some of the relatives of George Washington, who reminded me that some wanted him to be king. He , however , was not interested in being a king. Take a look at the Virginia flag and you might have a clue.

The letter is just 111 words long, a scant two paragraphs, but it mentions a rival of Washington, Horatio Gates, and includes enough hints of intrigue to whet the appetite of scholars. They learned of the letter's discovery only recently, after it was found among the private papers of one of New Jersey's most prominent families.

"The happiness of this Country depend much upon the deliberations of the federal Convention which is now sitting," reads the second paragraph of the quill-and-ink letter. "It, however, can only lay the foundation -- the community at large must raise the edifice."

Washington was writing from Philadelphia, where the Constitutional Convention was under way. It was two years before he became president.

His correspondence was wide and frequent, but discoveries of his letters, especially those in which he says something notable, are somewhat rare, scholars and archivists say. It is rarer still to find such a letter in so unusual a place as a child's scrapbook. (The last discovery of a Washington letter previously unknown to scholars was about two years ago; the owner said it had been hanging on a friend's wall.)

The convention "was of monumental importance to the history of the new republic," Mr. Lender said. "I don't think you have to read between the lines to see that his position was sympathetic to the strong, nationalist implications of Alexander Hamilton and James Madison."

Bonnie Bracey Sutton

Finding out even better things about George Washington, the first president while discoursing.

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