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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
Blogger

I taught in the areas near Mount Vernon and some of us helped to write the lessons that are taught to children. As an aside, I also grew up near Gum Springs, Va. That 's the land that George Washington created to make a home for the slaves that he freed on his death. The slaves , ex-slaves built his grave
There is a small museum on the Gum Springs property that is all about him and the way in which he treated his slaves. This is from the web site for visitors and information for schools.

Slaves played an integral role in Mount Vernon's history. Although little written documentation exists from the slaves themselves, much is known about their lives through primary documents left by Washington and visitors to Mount Vernon. The skilled and manual labor needed to run Mount Vernon was largely provided by slaves. Many of the working slaves were trained in crafts such as milling, coopering, blacksmithing, carpentry,and shoemaking. The others worked as house servants, boatmen, coachmen or field hands. Some female slaves were also taught skills, particularly spinning, weaving and sewing, while others worked as house servants or in the laundry, the dairy, or the kitchen. Many female slaves also worked in the fields. Almost three-quarters of the 184 working slaves at Mount Vernon worked in the fields, and of those, about 60% were women.

Food grown at Mount Vernon was distributed to the slaves and their families and to the Washingtons. Any surplus was sold at market. The slaves received their food rations weekly. Many slaves also kept their own gardens to supplement their diet. The slaves could sell their food at local markets to earn extra income. The slaves were also issued clothing once a year.

The work-day at Mount Vernon was from sunrise to sunset, with 2 hours off for meals. Sunday was a holiday. Slaves also received 3-4 days off at Christmas, and the Monday after Easter and Pentecost as holidays. If a slave was required to work a Sunday during harvest, Washington would allow them a day off later, and sometimes compensated them with pay.

George Washington's attitude toward slavery changed as he grew older. During the Revolution, as he and fellow patriots strove for liberty, Washington became increasingly conscious of the contradiction between this struggle and the system of slavery. By the time of his presidency, he seems to have believed that slavery was wrong and against the principles of the new nation.

As President, Washington did not lead a public fight against slavery, however, because he believed it would tear the new nation apart. Abolition had many opponents, especially in the South. Washington seems to have feared that if he took such a public stand, the southern states would withdraw from the Union (something they would do seventy years later, leading to the Civil War). He had worked too hard to build the country to risk tearing it apart.

Privately, however, Washington could -- and did -- lead by example. In his will, he arranged for all of the slaves he owned to be freed after the death of his wife, Martha. He also left instructions for the continued care and education of some of his former slaves, support and training for all of the children until they came of age, and continuing support for the elderly.

Washington's habit of extensive recordkeeping, such as his 1799 Slave Census, has helped Mount Vernon's historians research and interpret slave life on his five farms. Extensive archaeological excavation and research at Mount Vernon has also furthered our understanding of the large slave community that lived here. For further information on individual slaves, see Different People, Different Stories, by Mount Vernon historian Mary Thompson, and the website of the descendants of Washington, Custis, and Lee slaves. http://www.mountvernon.org/learn/meet_george/index.cfm/ss/101/

If you need more, I have the lessons and the recipes and information on Gum Springs.
We as little kids did not understand about Gum Springs. So as teachers we created the
history . It is a great place to visit both Gum Springs and Mount Vernon.

I am black , history is my hobby.

Bonnie Bracey Sutton
Slaves played an integral role in Mount Vernon's history. Although little written documentation exists from the slaves themselves, much is known about their lives through primary documents left by Washington and visitors to Mount Vernon. The skilled and manual labor needed to run Mount Vernon was largely provided by slaves. Many of the working slaves were trained in crafts such as milling, coopering, blacksmithing, carpentry,and shoemaking. The others worked as house servants, boatmen, coachmen or field hands. Some female slaves were also taught skills, particularly spinning, weaving and sewing, while others worked as house servants or in the laundry, the dairy, or the kitchen. Many female slaves also worked in the fields. Almost three-quarters of the 184 working slaves at Mount Vernon worked in the fields, and of those, about 60% were women.

Food grown at Mount Vernon was distributed to the slaves and their families and to the Washingtons. Any surplus was sold at market. The slaves received their food rations weekly. Many slaves also kept their own gardens to supplement their diet. The slaves could sell their food at local markets to earn extra income. The slaves were also issued clothing once a year.

The work-day at Mount Vernon was from sunrise to sunset, with 2 hours off for meals. Sunday was a holiday. Slaves also received 3-4 days off at Christmas, and the Monday after Easter and Pentecost as holidays. If a slave was required to work a Sunday during harvest, Washington would allow them a day off later, and sometimes compensated them with pay.

George Washington's attitude toward slavery changed as he grew older. During the Revolution, as he and fellow patriots strove for liberty, Washington became increasingly conscious of the contradiction between this struggle and the system of slavery. By the time of his presidency, he seems to have believed that slavery was wrong and against the principles of the new nation.

As President, Washington did not lead a public fight against slavery, however, because he believed it would tear the new nation apart. Abolition had many opponents, especially in the South. Washington seems to have feared that if he took such a public stand, the southern states would withdraw from the Union (something they would do seventy years later, leading to the Civil War). He had worked too hard to build the country to risk tearing it apart.

Privately, however, Washington could -- and did -- lead by example. In his will, he arranged for all of the slaves he owned to be freed after the death of his wife, Martha. He also left instructions for the continued care and education of some of his former slaves, support and training for all of the children until they came of age, and continuing support for the elderly.

Washington's habit of extensive recordkeeping, such as his 1799 Slave Census, has helped Mount Vernon's historians research and interpret slave life on his five farms. Extensive archaeological excavation and research at Mount Vernon has also furthered our understanding of the large slave community that lived here. For further information on individual slaves, see Different People, Different Stories, by Mount Vernon historian Mary Thompson, and the website of the descendants of Washington, Custis, and Lee slaves.

The daily lives and contributions of the slaves who lived at Mount Vernon are the focus of a 30-minute guided walking tour. The Slave Life tour meets daily at 2:00 p.m. in front of the Mansion, April through October.

Related Files
To view Different People, Different Stories click here

Doug Loomer's picture

Bonnie, thanks for sharing your information about Gum Springs, Washington, and slavery. I would love to see the primary source materials someday, and I am grateful that they are being preserved. I am also very interested in your statement that "We as little kids did not understand about Gum Springs..." Would you be willing to share with us what you didn't understand, how your understandings of Washington and Gum Springs have changed over your lifetime, and at what ages those changes happened and why? I would find it very helpful to know what you knew and how you felt about these issues (to the degree that you can recall the specifics) at ages 5, 15, 25 and today. I ask this not for the purpose of passing judgment on Washington, but for seeing the progress of understanding development that you went through. Thanks again for sharing this part of yourself.

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

In the city of Alexandria the kids from Gum Springs used to have to come to school by bus. There were until about 50 years ago ways in which people blocked black people from buying land. There were some "freetowns where blacks and Indians could live. But Gum Springs was land that was inherited by the slaves or one of the slaves from Mount Vernon.
As it was not in the history book and probably is not now, we had no clue about the historical precedent that it was. I found out while taking Black History Classes and studying the American Memory site.
Interesting narrative here.
Private Lives of Washington's Slaves
http://www.mountvernon.org/file/Private_Lives%20of%20Washington's%20Slaves.pdf
Download time : approx 0 minutes 13.8 seconds on a 56k modem.
(Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader)

We had no information about what Gum Springs was and thought that they were poor. We did not know their legacy. Lots of history is unwritten, or preserved at the library of congress but not in school books. The site of the information I previously have given is
http://www.mountvernon.org/learn/meet_george/index.cfm/ss/101/

There is this book. Archaeology & Slave Life at Mount Vernon
By Amy Shook of the Education Staff, Nancy Hayward, Manager of Educational Programs and Ester White, Archeologist at Mount Vernon. ISBN 1-56696-160-2. Copyright 1999. This attractive Jackdaw portfolio includes student readings, activities, diagrams, maps, posters, and other relevant documents. Students will learn about George Washington as a farmer, slave life at Mount Vernon, and the archaeological richness of the area. A teacher's guide with suggested reading activities is also included. Published by Historic Mount Vernon.http://www.mountvernon.org/store/shopping/index.cfm/fuseaction/viewitem/...

The Cobblestone book is more at a kid level, but probably not K.http://www.mountvernon.org/store/shopping/index.cfm/fuseaction/viewitem/...

Gum Springs, VA. - The Legacy of West Ford
Historic Black communities are a symbolic monument to the perserverance and enduring spirit of the African American people. The state of Virginia, commonly called the "gateway to history," houses one such community.
Gum Springs was named after a gum tree that once marked its location near historic Mount Vernon. The community was founded by patriarchal freeman, West Ford, who allowed the land he inherited from the family of George Washington to become a refuge for freed and runaway slaves during and after the Civil War.

The location became a depot where many newly freed slaves came to be reunited with their separated families, or to settle as newly emancipated people. Gum Springs ultimately became the final destination for many more Black families after the U.S. government stilted on its promise of "forty acres and a mule" in reparation to former slaves.

The African Americans of Gum Springs began erecting homes and developing the life of their independent community. With the help of the Freedmen's Bureau and the Quaker community, Gum Springs residents established means of economic survival through farming, in the lumber industry, and in trades they first learned as estate slaves. The small community prospered and grew. Today, Gum Springs has over 2,500 residents, many whom are descendants of the original folk who lived there. The proud history of Gum Springs is preserved through its community, through the Gum Springs Historical Society and the Gum Springs Community Center.
For more information about West Ford, founder of Gum Springs, go here.
http://www.westfordlegacy.com/gumsprings.htm

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

Burton, Judith Saunders. A History of Gum Springs, Virginia: A Report of a Case Study of Leadership in a Black Enclave. Ed. D. Dissertation, Vanderbilt University, 1986. An overview of the history of Gum Springs, a Fairfax County community that was founded by West Ford, a former slave of the Washington family. Information was gathered through interviews with residents and investigations of primary and secondary resources. 975.5291 Bur Fairfax County

The American Memory Project has paintings, letters and other resources.
Library of Congress.http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/index.html

All of the slaves in the US were not treated in the same way. Some further reading and depth in understanding the black history, as in reading Judy's book. ( She and I were in parochial and high school together. The people whom were the slaves and descendants of George Washington, left letters and information that would be helpful to the people who want to pursue the ideas about how Washington treated the slaves.

It would make for better informed citizens.

Judith does speaking tours and griot kinds of things . We at first did not understand any of this as it was never in any book that I had as an avid reader of history. Will and Ariel Durant would have written this well if they had ever gotten around to doing US history.

My reason for reading extensively on slavery and on the treatment of minorities and women was to understand American History.

Actually my family is Black and Native American. Not much written on NA either but the slaves were treated a LOT better than Indians.

Bonnie Bracey Sutton

Margarita Hernandez's picture

The Zinn Education Project is giving away classroom sets (25 books per set) of Howard Zinn's classic, A People's History of the United States, to 20 teachers who submit 2-4 page stories about how they teach a people's history in the classroom. A total of 500 books to be given away! Books have been donated by HarperCollins.

Deadline is Monday, April 26.

More info:
http://www.zinnedproject.org/posts/5866

Long Live Howard Zinn!

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

I don't understand this statement in the set of comments. What is a Black Community/ What do you mean that the government is giving too much freedom to the black community? In what ways and what do you see as the problem?

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

The explorations and discovery of the world are told from the point of view of governments. I actually was called into the principal's office by a parent who was concerned. She said she knew who discovered America before I taught her child, now she was confused.

We had studied the Northern Voyages of the Irish, and talked about the other early explorers.
I escaped censure.. we were learning from the National Geographic about early explorers of
what is called America...

History has a lot of stories. The stories of the discovery of America are many. If you lived in some parts of the US, and know about the suggested Chinese discovery and mapping of the world, you may be inclined to read.Chinese Exploration: the Voyages of Cheng Ho, 1405-1433

Overview

Between 1405 and 1433 admiral Cheng Ho (1371-1433) commanded seven grand voyages from China to southeast Asia, India, Arabia, the Persian Gulf, and the eastern coast of Africa. To some western scholars, versed in the European voyages of exploration that profoundly affected much of the world's history, the voyages of Cheng Ho appear enigmatic. The voyages of Cheng Ho were significant undertakings that demonstrated China's impressive maritime technology and expertise, yet their impact was only short-lived. Undertaken with the aim of spreading China's imperial majesty to distant lands, these endeavors were to have very different consequences than the early European voyages of discovery, which took place soon after.

Some claim that the early European explorers had access to the maps of this voyage.

But the site Bad Archaeology disputes this they claim that this is bad science..and bad history. Who really knows?

Mark Hettinger's picture

I left this site for a few days to find some sanity and returned to MBT shoe comments. I guess the Masai are finally taking their rightful place in the progressive history forum? At least they haven't been censored......yet.

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

The history of America is fascinating to me. As a small child I worried about slavery, and the history and was in quiet pursuit of the reality of what it was like then. Walking the streets of Old Town, and reading at the Smithsonian and in the library of Congress, what I could not read in books was fascinating.

I also went to a "Mission " school for colored children. My parents were alive but the Catholic church in Ireland and the Kelly family created schools for blacks in the south.
The black nuns who taught us did not censor our learning nor make us afraid to learn and they were
knowlegeable about some things.

Did you feel sorry for Emmit Smith as he was searching for his roots? I did . I knew he had little in the way of learning about the minorities in America and how they lived. The Chinese were not treated well either and worse than slaves.. but that;s another story, of soiled doves and China Camps..

Here are the laws of Virginia at the time , or circa George Washington.

1680-1705: Slave Laws Reflect racism and the Deliberate Separation of Blacks and Whites. Color becomes the Determining Factor. Conscious Efforts to Police Slave Conduct Rigidly.

* 1680 -- Prescription of thirty lashes on the bare back "if any negroe or other slave shall presume to lift up his hand against any Christian."
* 1680's -- Development of a separate legal code providing distinct trial procedures and harsher punishments for negroes.
* 1680's -- Status of the child is determined by the status or condition of the mother.
* 1680's -- Severe punishment for slaves who leave their master's property or for hiding or resisting capture.
* 1691 -- Banishment for any white person married to a negroe or mulatto and approved a systematic plan to capture "outlying slaves."
* 1705 -- All negroe, mulatto, and Indian slaves shall be held, taken, and adjudged to be real estate.
* 1705 -- Dismemberment of unruly slaves was made legal.
http://www.history.org/history/teaching/slavelaw.cfm

A visit to Williamsburg would be interesting, but in the age of media ( if one has it and knows about it) there is a way to find out that is easier than combing the stacks.
http://www.history.org/history/teaching/objects_sale.cfm

This is an article that may be of interest to you.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/local/daily/july99/williamsburg7.htm

This is more indepth.. not for K though...
http://www.history.org/Almanack/people/

History as it really is or was does not always get into the books.
We probably know that by the time they clean it up to make it not offensive , the interesting parts are gone.

Interesting twist by Mark Twain
http://www.readprint.com/work-6144/General-Washington-s-Negro-Body-serva...

Two interesting reads are.. King Leopold's Ghost
http://www.amazon.com/King-Leopolds-Ghost-Heroism-Colonial/dp/0618001905

American Memory Project
http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/aaohtml/exhibit/aopart1.html

and But I didn't think it would happen to me. When my novel, The Book of Negroes, came out last year with HarperCollins Canada, I was assured by my American publisher that the original title would be fine by them. However, several months later, I got a nervous email from my editor in New York.

She mentioned that the book cover would soon be going to the printer and that the title had to change. "Negroes" would not fly, or be allowed to fly, in American bookstore. At first, I was irritated, but gradually I've come to make my peace with the new title, Someone Knows My Name.

Perhaps the best way to examine the issue is to examine the evolution of the word "Negro" in America. I descend (on my father's side) from African-Americans. My own father, who was born in 1923, fled the United States with my white mother the day after they married in 1953. As my mother is fond of saying, at the time even federal government cafeterias were segregated. It was no place for an interracial couple to live.

My parents, who became pioneers of the human rights movement in Canada, used the word Negro as a term of respect and pride. My American relatives all used it to describe themselves. I found it in the literature I began to consume as a teenager: one of the most famous poems by Langston Hughes, for example, is The Negro Speaks of Rivers. When my own father was appointed head of the Ontario Human Rights Commission in 1973, the Toronto Globe and Mail's headline noted that a "Negro" had been appointed. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2008/may/20/whyimnotallowedmyb...

Being consumed by hate or fear is restrictive. I look at the past and then move on. I do examine it carefully.

Bonnie Bracey Sutton

James StJohn's picture

First this article should have been titled "I Hate George Washington!!"

Second, since when is it a bad thing to want to be richer than you already are?

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.

And fourth, even tho your people didn't immigrate here till the twentieth century your here now, and that makes you an American

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