I’ve long criticized history textbooks as unexciting, incomplete, and male-centric. Yet each passing year, I have shamefully justified using them as a necessary evil that despite their numerous deficiencies still offered students a much-needed panoramic view of the past.
It’s taken me 17 years to take the plunge, always fearing that going without a textbook would leave my students without direction, particularly when it came to preparing for exams and projects. I extinguished that fear on the first day of school this fall by taking a moment to appreciate the wide-ranging diversity of my high school juniors in American history.
I want my students to see themselves in the curriculum, not primarily from textbook authors, but rather from a diverse range of sources that emphasize their importance, place them firmly in our American story, and show that they are seen. Even for teachers who face restrictions on what and how they teach history, there are steps to take, however small, toward more culturally responsive teaching.
Ask how existing curriculum resonates with students
I have the luxury of teaching at an independent school with rich diversity, which is felt, seen, and celebrated every time I walk onto campus. This has made it easier for me to consider what types of readings and assignments I could include in my overhaul.
Still, appearances can be deceiving. We can’t assume that phenotypical attributes tell us everything. As one of my journalism students courageously wrote about her diverse heritage, “For years, I could not help but feel denied my ethnicity by the pale hue of my skin. I succumbed to constant microaggressions, accepting that my light features had no rightful place within the Latin community.”
In large part thanks to that intrepid reporter, at the end of each learning unit (from one to three weeks), I now ask students to reflect on their learning—not just on an academic level, but also to what extent it resonates with their unique identities and experiences. When revamping my course, I drew on two years of reflections to reevaluate how extensively I should delve into a given topic, providing room to explore fewer topics at greater depth.
Collaborate with colleagues (especially librarians)
Ever since I started teaching in 2007, more experienced educators have urged me to replace traditional textbooks with monographs, biographies, autobiographies, and graphic novels. I think of Mark Hayes, a mentor from my first six years in the classroom, whose words of encouragement still whisper in my ear: “Just take the plunge.”
I now teach at my high school alma mater, and my history and English colleagues have offered similar advice. Despite this collective wisdom, and because of my own apprehension and pride, I shifted my approach only after connecting with my librarian, Elyse Seltzer.
“Representation matters,” she told me when I asked for her thoughts on changing what I taught. “I know that you agree and care deeply about students seeing themselves in the learning, and I’m here to support you however I can.”
I couldn’t pinpoint a single explanation for why Elyse’s encouragement gave me the confidence to move forward with the change; maybe I subconsciously needed the approval of a knowledgeable and compassionate librarian, or perhaps I craved reassurance that I could find suitable substitutes for a textbook. Both explanations are likely true.
Thanks to Elyse, I had my international students from China in mind when thinking about how to teach about the history of Chinese immigrants’ experience in America —beyond the few, inadequate passages in the textbook. I settled on Fortunate Sons, by Liel Leibovitz and Matthew Miller, a terrific book about how, in 1872, China sent 120 boys to America to learn about Western innovation. I couldn’t have found a better selection for my international students, who spend months or more here, away from friends and loved ones.
Beyond matters of race and nationality, Elyse also encouraged me to think about how to approach gender and socioeconomic issues, and to teach about unsung heroes of the past, like civil rights attorney Dovey Johnson Roundtree, whose autobiography I will teach next spring.
To cultivate richer interest in the struggle for women’s rights and to leverage my students’ affection for popular culture, I’m also assigning Jill Lepore’s Smithsonian Magazine article “The Surprising Origin Story of Wonder Woman.”
As teachers, it’s important for us to do what we can to cater to our students’ interests, which will certainly vary depending on where and whom we teach. This is not capitulation, but rather effective pedagogy for reaching hearts and minds.
Be prepared for lots of hard work
Even with Elyse’s invaluable help, I had to spend many late nights reading possible book selections for next year. While teaching five classes, coaching cross-country, and being married with a 4-year-old, I consumed my fair share of Dunkin’ coffee (I’m from Boston, after all).
On a healthier and more practical level, whenever I had a spare moment, I listened to audiobooks to rest my screen-weary eyes. Rather than watch a show before bed and turn on the radio while driving to and from school, I listened to a narrator’s soothing voice. As a welcome side effect, my sleep quality improved, and I felt more energized during the day.
My work to revamp my history class is far from over. From now until the first day of school next fall, I’ll work on crafting assignments around my revised curriculum. All the while, I’ll keep in mind that to help the learning resonate with my students, depth over breadth is always preferable. In my case, to foster meaningful and thereby lasting learning, I’m curtailing the textbook’s lengthy unit about Andrew Jackson’s turbulent presidential campaigns, assigning instead a chapter from Steve Inskeep’s Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab. In-depth engagement that students can relate to always makes for richer learning than superficial surveys ever can.