Throughout the year we’ll be featuring stories from Hope Street Fellows in Utah. Thank you for sharing your story, Lynette!
Teaching history with a purpose
Teaching social studies is never easy, but teaching social studies in the politically, racially, and otherwise charged atmosphere that we’ve been facing in the last year has felt overwhelming.
In my history education, I was taught about people, names, dates, and events. I learned by sitting and listening to my teachers, reading my textbook, doing chapter outlines, and finishing up with a unit test. This way of teaching history lasted all the way through my university experience. I had many fine history teachers, unfortunately the pattern of teaching history remained largely unchanged. Eventually, my history classes taught me how to identify historically significant events and tease out their underlying causes and eventual effects and to then put those facts into a larger context of the world today. These are wonderful and important skills. They are not, however, the full picture. What my history classes didn’t teach me was empathy. They didn’t teach me how to see something from another point of view, or learn to appreciate opposing opinions.
“What I didn’t know was what to do when a student said the n-word in my class”
When I became a teacher, because of my experience as a student I knew pretty well how to lecture and how to give tests. I knew how to cram knowledge into a kid’s head and how to test that knowledge. What I didn’t know was what to do when a student said the n-word in my class. I didn’t know how to react when another student vociferously insisted that all Muslims would be terrorists if they truly believed in the Koran. In essence, I didn’t know how to deal with the reality of opinions, experiences, and prejudices when they were presented to me. Unfortunately, dealing with these things seemed to me to be inherently part of the job description of being a social studies teacher. I felt more strongly with each passing year that these prejudices and misunderstandings were mine to deal with. However, I had no idea where to start.
Starting at the top with empathy in state standards
The old way of teaching history, however, is beginning to change, and Utah is championing that change in their new social studies standards. As I have struggled through these questions and cried actual tears at the hateful things I’ve heard and had to deal with (and felt I dealt poorly with) in my classroom, I started to see where my focus as a social studies teacher needed to be. I began to envision teaching empathy, teaching a student to be open to new ideas, and teaching students to listen to their classmates’ opinions. Slowly I looked for ways to put that into my curriculum, to change the focus from knowing a multitude of seemingly random facts to knowing how to use historical perspectives and experiences to create better people in my classroom.
Just as I began to catch that vision I got a draft of the new social studies standards in my school mailbox. I read through them and was ecstatic to see a step back from facts and a focus on skills. But my excitement skyrocketed when I attended a conference on these new standards in their final form. Robert Austin, the state Social Studies specialist, guided us through the standards and I saw at the beginning of each course standards an entry on Civic Preparation. Robert talked to the teachers about the values of empathy, open-mindedness, and civil dialogue and how this is what we are expected to teach as social studies teachers. He gave us resources to help us deal with difficult and tense moments in our classroom.
He also provided an interesting visual that has remained with me. With his hands clasped in front of his heart, he told us that in our social studies classes we often must discuss topics that students hold very close to them. However, when his hands were there he was able to see only a small part of them, and he wasn’t able to look at any side but one. Pushing his still clasped hands far in front of him, he could now examine all sides of them; this, he told us, is how we need to teach our students to approach these topics, with empathy and understanding of all sides.
With your hands around your heart, you can’t look at more than one side
Each week unravels a multitude of events where we are all clasping our hands tightly to our hearts. We are facing news stories that frighten us, anger us, and exasperate us. Debates about gun control, Confederate statues, racism, anti-Semitism, white supremacy, and other painful topics continually prove that our clasped hands are refusing to move from their locations firmly embedded in our hearts. The only problem is, we won’t be able to understand what anyone else is really talking about until we push our hands out and see for ourselves. Until we allow for empathy of those we disagree with, we won’t ever be able to hear each other. This is a skill that is essential in a democracy, and this is a skill that our students desperately need.
These new standards have showed me that in the state of Utah, we are committing to making our students better people. We are arming our students with an understanding of history so that they can then go out and create positive discourse, make meaningful changes, and engage in whatever diverse group they become a part of. We are teaching history with a purpose, and it is a purpose that will directly affect the quality of our public discourse, our elected officials, and our lives.