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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 (88)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Paul M's picture

As a white man, I find Ro's comments offensive and racist. I would fully support Edutopia to "censor" such dribble, and in fact, if you don't put some limits on what people are allowed to say on here I won't be reading much on this site. It's absurd and out of line. I'm surprised, actually, that teachers have time to do this. Clearly, those individuals who are up in arms about an editorial decision could benefit from spending some time improving their teaching practices. Take it somewhere else and leave this site to those of us who want to have some serious and respectful exchanges about what works in public education.

As for the article, Elena, I find it very interesting and thought provoking. Institutionalized racism is deeply embedded in our education system and your story illustrates that. I mentor new teachers and teach aspiring teachers in a local college - I will be sharing this article with them.

TFT's picture
TFT
Elementary teacher in California for 12 years

Was the error in taking them down, or taking them down without an explanation? Seems to me it must be one or the other, not both.

And considering your "policy" allows you to do whatever you want, why would anyone ever read these comments again, much less the content of the author's blog?

If you just let people comment freely you avoid doing stupid things like deleting completely fair comments and then getting publicly called out for it.

And what about the references for the author's unsubstantiated assertions? Are they pending?

http://www.thefrustratedteacher.com

TFT's picture
TFT
Elementary teacher in California for 12 years

[quote]I'm surprised, actually, that teachers have time to do this. Clearly, those individuals who are up in arms about an editorial decision could benefit from spending some time improving their teaching practices. Take it somewhere else and leave this site to those of us who want to have some serious and respectful exchanges about what works in public education.[/quote]

Is the above your version of a "respectful exchange" PM?

Paul M's picture

"Ro's comment, while certainly strident, doesn't strike me as so obviously offensive that it would warrant censorship."

I find it very offensive, blatantly racist, and not appropriate for this site. I'm a white man, and consider G Washington to have been a "rich white man" who isn't deserving of hero worship. I'm sure there are other places where you might find more conversation that's along your ideological lines.

Joanne Jacobs's picture

When teachers include all children in the "us" who were "freed from England" that means that we are all equally American, with equal citizenship. It doesn't mean we're all descended from colonial Americans. My grandparents came here in 1890-1910 so they could be the heirs of George Washington.

I think it's a grave mistake to urge kindergarteners to see George Washington primarily as a slave owner rather than as the general who helped us win our independence and the first president (who refused the title of king). That's about all five-year-olds can handle.

As Robert writes, financial self-interest could not have motivated Washington. The Revolution was far more likely to lead to his complete ruin and to his death. Hence the phrase "our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor."

Ro's picture

From the blog:
"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."

Wow and I'm to be censored? Really Paul M? But Ms. Aguilar is ok stating the "spoon-fed-hero-worship of rich white men"is not biased and opinionated against white men or the white race? Then the "unacceptable" comment, like Ms. Aguilar, made me boil.

As mentioned by others, remember the time of when Washington had slaves. It occurred, over 230+ years ago. At that time, Slavery was "accepted practice" since the early 1400s (and since the beginning of man). It was popular among Europeans and eventually filtered into England, Spain, Portugal. And yes, tribal kings sold their people into slavery among the many other ways of obtaining slaves.

What I'm tired of is the constant prejudice shown toward America's founding fathers as this blogger describes above. I wrote that America with all its faults has throughout its BRIEF history as a country tried to right the wrongs. Tell me what country every got it completely right? Does Egypt owe reparations to the Isrealites? Didn't the Egyptian's use the Jewish slaves the same way the Europeans and British did?

For Paul M - is this too biased and offensive?
As a footnote "The International Labour Organisation, there are estimated 12 million people around the world still working under coercion in forced labour, slavery and slavery-like practices.[5]"The organization Anti-Slavery International defines slavery as "forced labour." By this definition there are approximately 27 million slaves in the world today, more than at any point in history and more than twice as many as all African slaves who survived being taken to the Americas in the Atlantic slave trade.[2][3][4]

I still hold the line that people aren't flooding the doors to leave America. So if the founding fathers were wrong in declaring independence from England why do so many people still want to come here? America is the Last Best Hope of Earth as taken from President R. Reagan. If we're teaching critical thinking, (and I've read those books as highlighted Ms. Aguilar), please open your eyes to W. J. Bennett's 3 volume series "America the Last Best Hope." That might give your article the critical thinking spectrum of books to introduce to students.
Thank you, Ro

PS, as a first grade teacher Ms. Aguilar's son's teacher is teaching what is developmentally appropriate, it's in my curriculum too. As the student matures, more can be added developmentally. I think this got lost in the translation.

Dean A. Deardurff's picture

where in the world are you people from? I believe that history should be taught correctly. I am an American....not german american. not spanish american, but American....To say Washington was just to make imself rich from slavery, is appalling....talk about a racial statement

Dean A. Deardurff's picture

I supose teaching marxix and solcialist and progresiveness is the way to go? history is important, right or wrong. to say Washinton was in it for the money because of slavery...I don't know about YOU PEOPLE..I'm American, not irish american, spanish american, but an American.... Lesson can be leared from the past, but first, one must know the past in order to not repeat the past.... If you don't like America, your free to go...That's what this country was founded on... Faith Hope and Charity....

Doug Loomer's picture

The title of this article is "How to Engage Young Students in Historical Thinking." Perhaps (since the purpose of this website is supposed to be pedagogy not politics) we would profit from focusing this discussion on how to engage young students in historical thinking. What exactly is "historical thinking," and given the cognative developmental steps our students go through, at what age (and in what ways) should we start introducing them to ideas like history as a construct. What kind of "historical thinking" is appropriate/possible for young students? I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts and benefiting from your experiences.

Binibining Diwa's picture
Binibining Diwa
English teacher and writer for teacher's magazine, La Union, Philippines

[quote]The title of this article is "How to Engage Young Students in Historical Thinking." Perhaps (since the purpose of this website is supposed to be pedagogy not politics) we would profit from focusing this discussion on how to engage young students in historical thinking. What exactly is "historical thinking," and given the cognative developmental steps our students go through, at what age (and in what ways) should we start introducing them to ideas like history as a construct. What kind of "historical thinking" is appropriate/possible for young students? I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts and benefiting from your experiences.[/quote]

I agree. In arguing over the content and viewpoints each educator has taken on in this thread, we've put aside the matter of "historical thinking" and how we can teach this to students. Are the opinions of Elena and the other teachers in this thread a manifestation of historical thinking?

As teachers, it is inevitable that we take our pick in the many interpretations and sides there are to history. However, presenting only one side is NEVER fair to our students. Providing a variety of documents, narratives and viewpoints is what will allow them to scrutinize, question, and later on, judge, defend and re-evaluate what they will eventually form as their own opinion. The re-evaluation part is crucial because this means a constant open door to new data, findings and viewpoints and assessing one's current stand on an issue or "truth" in lieu of these.

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