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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

Elena Aguilar's picture
Elena Aguilar
Transformational Leadership Coach from Oakland, California

Thank you, readers, for your insightful comments!

A few responses:
To Mike's question regarding if I've spoken to the teacher: Yes, many times, before, during and after the unit. She has many strengths as an educator, however, developing critical thinking skills in her students and teaching with a cultural lens are not among them. She insists that this unit must be taught and that the content is in the standards. I don't agree that it shouldn't be taught. I just disagree with the approach. I taught for 15 years and always asked parents to talk to me about any issue they had. Although my son's teacher doesn't invite the same kind of discussion, I go to her whenever I have a question or concern. It only seems fair.

To John's comment regarding too much to teach, how to balance the mandated curriculum and textbook with a "Zinn" approach. I agree--too much to teach! Marzano reminds us that in order to teach all the standards outlined in most states today we'd have to increase school to grade 21 or 22. And so we have to make some decisions about how we'll prioritize that learning. I prioritize whatever needs to be done in order to develop critical thinking skills. When I taught US history, I bounced between our textbook and materials from Rethinking Schools, Howard Zinn, and James Loewen. Kids gained a survey sense of US history (through the textbook) and developed critical analysis skills along the way.

Sandra's comment regarding being afraid of losing her job. Wow, thank you for reminding me of this pressure at this time! I hope you can find a school to teach at where this isn't the case, where the administration supports the development of critical thinking skills.

To Doug's comment regarding "children are not just small adults:" Doug, thank you so much for bringing this into the discussion. I need to do some more research into the developmental stages of children in the early grades and how to teach history in them. Your final comment, ("But whose stories, constructed by whom and for what purpose...that is always the rub") raises the point that the issue is much greater than one classroom, one teacher's decision, and even the state standards. A lot for me to mull over here. Thank you.

Regarding questions about how independence allowed colonists to amass even more wealth: To those who are interested in this question I'd really recommending reading Howard Zinn and James Loewen's books. Very briefly I'll just remind readers that Washington and colonists throughout the Americas paid high taxes to England (or their colonial rulers). Many independence movements were motivated by the fact that once the colonial rulers were no longer mandating who the colonists could sell to and were no longer demanding tributes and taxes, the colonists stood to become even more wealthy.

Robert's picture

And nothing to say about the mysterious deletions of comments? This really does smack of censorship.

Mike Morgan's picture

I just looked back at the comments after I read an email update making reference to comments missing. They sure do appear to have been censored. Those comments had no business being removed. They were not vulgar or obscene. They merely challenged the viewpoint of the author. Wow, I can't believe a site dedicated to progressive education would do that and I'm disappointed. The same people who would champion dissent turn against it when they are in the majority themselves. And for an article dealing with multiple historical perspectives

Betty Ray's picture
Betty Ray
Director of Programming and Innovation @Edutopia

Hi All -
Regarding the comments that were taken down, we do have a terms of use here http://www.edutopia.org/terms-of-use which prohibits the transmission of content that "GLEF considers [to be]... racially, ethnically, or otherwise objectionable."

The two comments that were deleted were deemed to be as such. That said, we did err in taking them down without more public dialog - including a reference to our Terms of Use - and for this, we apologize.

Here are the comments in their entirety:

And Ro wrote:

America the Last Best Hope
I don't see where in this conversation it talks about African War Lords and native tribal kings SELLING their own people as slaves. If you want the child's own history told first, and you're from Africa, do you go back to how their own people were willing to "sell" them into slavery to earn a profit? Yes, the same criticism that the "white" slave owners are constantly crucified for. No matter how true it was that the Founding Fathers of America had slaves, remember who was also profiting from the sale. America is the Last Best Hope of Earth. Please tell me what African American today isn't GLAD they are here in America and not in Africa. Seriously, do you know any African Americans who want to move back? They are free to go aren't they? Also, I have a very diverse group of dark skinned students in my room and they aren't all from Africa yet they get grouped into this culture. Are you addressing this? I certainly hope that you are applying anti-Zinn texts for studen! ts. And kudos to the students who are asking for an opposing view to Zinn. America has throughout history made many attempts to right the wrongs. To say that Washington and Lincoln were not GREAT AMERICANS is not American. Today we're seeing the Howard Zinn's America I think I hear it being titled "Fundamentally Changing" America. Well, I for one am glad Washington as credited by this child in the article freed us from England. I am glad my family LEGALLY immigrated here in the early 1900's to seek the American Dream. And how fortunate for those African American students who are here in America today. At least,for now, they can freely learn and critically think and respond. I'm not sure what "Fundamentally transforming America" might really mean and I fear it means a European version infiltrating our American Constitution. I think that is what Washington warned us against. I hope you critically read beyond Zinn too. Ask anyone who is in a country where a brutal dictator is overpowering the people what flag they are relieved to see coming over the hill to rescue them - it's AMERICA, THE LAST BEST HOPE- read it volumes 1-3 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

Mark Hettinger wrote:


"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..." Really? Is this statement a statement of fact or does it simply represent your bias about "the white man"? Please enlighten us all by providing a citation supporting your "facts."

If you have any questions as to the appropriateness of any post content, please review our Terms of Use, here:


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

How sad that the conversation has gone Into mocking. There are places in America that are great, but the urban ghetto is not no matter what the color of the student or how much they say it. History is an account of what happened in this case by those who could read and write and who were believed.
Slavery did happen.It was cruel and unusual punishment. I don't teach it in that way, I use the literature that is available for students to read, reflect and think about it. I live in Virginia where everywhere we are is a place of history.

Two books that older students might read, Kenneth M. Stampp's , Slavery the Peculiar History, and The Book of Negro. The Book of Negroes / Someone Knows My Name

Lawrence Hill's new novel is published as Someone Knows My Name in the USA, Australia and New Zealand and appears in Canada as The Book of Negroes.
An Excerpt

Let me begin with a caveat to any and all who find these pages. Do not trust large bodies of water, and do not cross them. If you, Dear Reader, have an African hue and find yourself led toward water with vanishing shores, seize your freedom by any means necessary. And cultivate distrust of the colour pink. Pink is taken as the colour of innocence, the colour of childhood, but as it spills across the water in the light of the dying sun, do not fall into its pretty path. There, right underneath, lies a bottomless graveyard of children, mothers and men. I shudder to imagine all the Africans rocking in the deep. Every time I have sailed the seas, I have had the sense of gliding over the unburied. Some people call the sunset a creation of extraordinary beauty, and proof of God's existence. But what benevolent force would bewitch the human spirit by choosing pink to light the path of a slave vessel?.

My family has traveled a lot. I have been to Africa. and 33 other countries. There are places where
I would not choose to live, and there are places in Africa where I could choose to live.

In Virginia, one of the things that happened after the Black Governor, was that we gathered everyone's history from the Civil war. The NPR programs taught us all to see the war from the eyes of all of the people who were a part of it. If you go to the cemetaries, go to the graves... there was a terrible loss.

My husband took me to several of the plantations in Charleston and we read the history of slaves in that place. It was said that you could smell the slave ships coming because of the lack of cleanliness on the
ship and that the entering officers, inspecting the ships were often made ill by the odors eminating from the vessels. Anyone reading the passages , and the history of the people some millions who were transported would have some cause to think of the peculiar institution.

George Washington's home in Alexandria is where I grew up. Gum Springs is where his black descendants and slaves lived after his death. The library of congress and other books have some interesting insights into the life of George Washington. We created a set of lessons from that history.

George Washington was born into a world in which slavery was accepted. He became a slave owner when his father died in 1743. At the age of eleven, he inherited ten slaves and 500 acres of land. When he began farming Mount Vernon eleven years later, at the age of 22, he had a work force of about 36 slaves. With his marriage to Martha Custis in 1759, 20 of her slaves came to Mount Vernon. After their marriage, Washington purchased even more slaves. The slave population also increased because the slaves were marrying and raising their own families. By 1799, when George Washington died, there were 316 slaves living on the estate.. http://www.mountvernon.org/learn/meet_george/index.cfm/ss/101/

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.

We all know that all of history was not written . I have studied black history, and lots of other history.
I don't hate because of it and I am Black. Knowing the story helps me to deal with it.
The South lost the war but won the peace being able to impose "Jim Crow."

http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/snhtml/ Slave Narratives,

Slaves were not the only people who suffered in the early days of the colonies.

Bonnie Bracey Sutton

John Pellikan's picture

Can you please explain how the 2nd post was deemed to be objectionable? If that was, I would like to formally ask the author to clarify and substantiate her claims about Washington.
Thank you.

Betty Ray's picture
Betty Ray
Director of Programming and Innovation @Edutopia

Hi John,

As I mentioned above, the post - both posts - were removed in error and we apologize for this. There should have been more public discussion about the boundaries and what is and is not objectionable, rather than removing the posts out of hand.

That said, I'm sure Elena is following this thread closely, but I will contact her personally to make sure she's aware of your question.

Robert's picture

@Betty Ray I appreciate the explanation, even if it's an unsatisfying one. Ro's comment, while certainly strident, doesn't strike me as so obviously offensive that it would warrant censorship. Mark Hettinger's comment is not even close to meeting a test for objectionable. Remember that the reference to the "white man" that Hettinger quotes was made by Edutopia's Elena Aguilar who in her piece decried "spoon-fed-hero-worshipping of rich white men and the unquestioned glorification of those who have always had power"--a statement that in itself seems more likely to run afoul of your terms of use that Mr. Hettinger's comment.

Also, there were at least four comments that were taken down, not two. One of them was mine, and it was not objectionable no matter how broadly one interprets GLEF's terms of use.

At the end of the day, Edutopia is entitled to run its forums how it will. But your explanation doesn't sound credible, it does not cover all deleted comments, and it leaves the impression that an overt attempt was made by either the author or Edutopia to limit and censor conversation on an important issue.

Very troubling. And disappointing.

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.

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