Teaching the Insurrection in History Classes
Events like the January 6 insurrection offer teachers an opportunity to bring in diverse voices and present a more comprehensive look at U.S. history.
The administration of the school where I run an after-school program recently offered social studies teachers, as well as other faculty and staff, an opportunity to receive support on how to speak to students regarding the insurrection. I’m sure my district is not the only one where teachers are offered this kind of training.
I believe we should expand on this—social studies teachers should receive support not just to teach current events and help students process their thoughts on them but also to teach American history in light of the insurrection.
There are concrete and achievable steps that teachers—and building and district leaders—can take to teach history more fully. Teachers should seek out and teach historical texts written by Black, Afro-Latin, and Indigenous scholars and writers.
Teachers should ask themselves three critical questions as they incorporate those texts into lessons:
- Can non-White voices, and specifically Black voices, be heard in my lesson?
- Are my students empowered by my lesson?
- Have I utilized the culture of my students to teach the lesson, so that they are empowered?
Here are some suggestions as to how teachers can answer those questions with a yes.
Incorporating Diverse Voices
Teachers can amplify non-White voices—Black and Indigenous voices—within their lessons by utilizing first-person accounts and texts from scholars and scholar journalists who give voice to a retelling of history that depicts a more comprehensive image of the United States.
Are the currently used sources written by or the testimony of Black and Indigenous voices? If not, those sources should be supplemented or replaced with texts, documents, essays, lectures, and speeches that feature Black and Indigenous voices. Googling “Black history of the United States” and “Indigenous history of the United States” is a starting point. And here are some texts that I recommend:
- An African American and Latinx History of the United States by Paul Ortiz
- A Black Women’s History of the United States by Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross
- An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
These books are good places to start for amplifying non-White voices. For good measure, I strongly recommend that these and other resources be purchased from a local Black bookstore or a bookstore owned and operated by a person of color—especially if you’re teaching in a Black and brown community.
Educators often think of teaching students skills and competencies to be displayed on tests to show proficiency as well as to equip them for college and career. How often do we consider teaching and instruction as a mechanism and tool to empower and equip young people to strive for justice for all of humanity?
Students can piece together that anger over the election led to the insurrection. However, history lessons should explore a longer time frame and a broader political, social, and economic context, and specifically how a social order that privileges Whites at the expense of Blacks shaped American society.
With that knowledge, students can frame for themselves a picture of how we arrived at a place of White insurrection and how they can engage themselves civically and otherwise to make the mechanisms of power equitable for all Americans, no matter their race or ethnicity. Assessments of students’ learning can be done in the context of opportunities for them to engage in their community.
Taking Advantage of Culturally Responsive Teaching
Culture is the way that our brains make sense of the world around us; our brains use cultural information to turn everyday happenings into meaningful events. To help learners do higher order thinking and problem-solving, educators should access students’ brains’ cognitive structures by delivering culturally responsive instruction.
This would include utilizing cultural aids—e.g., storytelling, music, art, and movement—to make learning stick. By this I do not mean performing faux allyship with the appropriation of cultural phrases and gestures. Rather, educators should research the cultural norms for teaching and learning from among the cultures represented in their classrooms to craft a strategy to help students piece together the events of history so that they are equipped and empowered to change the world for the better.
A few great resources to support this are the following:
- Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students by Zaretta Hammond
- Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy by Gholdy Muhammad
- For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood… and the Rest of Y’all Too by Christopher Emdin
The roots of the insurrection reach back to the Antebellum South, Radical Reconstruction, and Jim Crow. Educators have an opportunity to reteach American history, the good and the bad. The key is that teachers embrace transparency, student liberation, and their own vulnerability.
While it is Black History Month, it shouldn’t take this month or any designated day or month of honor to teach truthfully. We should teach truthfully to understand why the insurrection happened, how we got to this point, and what it will take to make America whole.