“Meet the women you don’t know, behind the mission you do,” proclaims the poster for the hit film Hidden Figures. From tagline to title, it’s clear that this story, about the black women who led NASA’s team of mathematicians during the “Space Race,” was previously cast in the shadows of American history. Shining a light on these hidden histories, and broadening the spectrum of inquiry into the past, is not just a winning formula at the box office. It’s also an endeavor that’s resonating in K–12 classrooms, with teachers seeking ways to provide more accurate, complex, and engaging history education.
Mirror and Magnify
Instructional specialist Aruna Arjunan has spent the last three years working with New York City public school teachers to develop a U.S. history curriculum using open educational resources, which supports teaching content and literacy skills simultaneously. Now, Arjunan and her colleagues at New Visions for Public Schools are launching a curriculum project called “Rewriting History: Expanding the Story of the United States.” Their goal is to make U.S. history more relevant to their “extraordinarily diverse” student population by finding the overlapping core in a Venn diagram of high-interest untold histories, contemporary connections, and the content commonly tested on the New York Regents Exams. Arjunan thinks this new grounding will help students better understand their world and “be more interested in a curriculum they can see themselves in.
Using historical topics as both a mirror and magnifying lens for understanding the present is an important pivot from the singular perspective, “dead white men” history lessons most of us learned. It’s a shift also reflected in policies like California’s FAIR Education Act (which mandates the inclusion of LGBTQ individuals and people with disabilities in the state’s curriculum) and in the work of education pioneers Debra Fowler and Miriam Morganstern.
After collaborating with a student to create the film Through Gay Eyes, which spotlighted the experiences of students and staff at Lowell High School in Massachusetts, Fowler petitioned the community to include LGBTQ topics and individuals in the curriculum. The success of that petition led Fowler, joined by colleague Morganstern, to form History UnErased, an organization that prepares educators to teach about the vital role of LGBTQ history and people. “Students are surrounded by LGBTQ topics everywhere—social media, recent legislation, music—except in their classrooms,” Fowler notes. She sees a correlation between this glaring absence and the worsening statistics for LGBTQ youth homelessness, suicidality, risk behaviors, and dropout rates, despite undeniable advancements for LGBTQ equality.
Rooted in History, Rooted in School
Iowa State University education professor Katy Swalwell encourages social studies educators to pursue critical inquiry with local connections. How many Iowans, for example, know that their own Alexander Clark was an influential figure in black civil rights, effectively desegregating Iowa’s public schools nearly 90 years before Brown v. Board of Education?
“Every corner of the country has a story like that,” says Swalwell. “Any time you can connect what kids are learning to their community—that immediately hooks kids in a completely different way.” For marginalized groups, history is often about other people, happening someplace else. “It’s easier to see yourself in someone from your hometown,” explains Swalwell. “It’s less abstract and more personal.”
In Seattle, public school teacher Jon Greenberg is championing a grassroots movement to make ethnic studies part of the district’s required curriculum. Where ethnic studies has taken hold in California and in districts like Portland and Tucson (with its short-lived but acclaimed Mexican American Studies program), Greenberg points to the academic, social and emotional, and civic benefits for students of color and white students, alike. “Ethnic studies has the ability to transform our society by exposing people to multiple perspectives, an understanding of race, and white privilege.” Absent these types of inclusive, culturally responsive curricula, students of color are likely to see their ancestors represented narrowly, if at all.
Teacher Alecia Walker recalls turning to her history textbook for a lesson on Japanese internment during World War II, and found “nothing there.” Although Walker turned this into a class discussion on the absence of certain groups from history, she laments that these curricular erasures drive students in marginalized groups to disconnect from school. “There’s power in knowing your history,” says teacher Keanya Clifton-Roach who, along with Walker, founded the Education Equity Project, an organization focused on parent advocacy and teacher diversity. “For students to be engaged in school and for a fully functioning democracy, culturally responsive teaching in social studies is essential,” adds Walker.
To achieve this civic goal, educators must make professional decisions about what to teach and how to teach it. But first, they must contend with the oldest player in history: time itself.
Rushing to Reagan
In her 20 years in the classroom, Morganstern says teaching history was “always a rush to the finish line. Am I going to get to the Vietnam War? Will we talk about Ronald Reagan?”
Even if historical content were injected into other subject areas—by manipulating data sets under a historical lens, for instance, or reading first-person accounts like the letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakemen, who fought in the Civil War as a man—it would be impossible to cover every aspect of a nation’s history in a school year (or two). “How we teach history has to change,” Morganstern asserts.
Instead of a date in time, Swalwell says historical pedagogy should start with a question: “What’s the purpose of looking into the past?” Focusing on facts and trivia, without a broader sense of the systems and factors that have shaped the past, won’t prepare students for participatory citizenship, she argues. “To be able to list off all the Kings of England, in order—that’s a parlor trick, not a civic goal.”
History classes can give students a much deeper context for present-day social issues, such as Black Lives Matter, immigration, and the Dakota Access Pipeline. “You can ground discussion of these issues in history, and make the story much richer,” says Arjunan.
In an age where information is ubiquitous, Morganstern believes the history teacher’s role is more important than ever. Students can “Google what date a battle happened, or what kind of musket got used,” adds Swalwell. “You can’t really Google why problems persist and how people have grappled with similar issues, over time.”
Rather than an incomplete chronology, teachers can “curate a context for student-driven inquiry” by organizing history curriculum thematically and around big understandings, says Morganstern. Swalwell recalls observing a U.S. history survey class where the teacher divided content into overlapping units—one on the effects of industrialization over time and another on gender. “You keep layering understanding of different eras by looking at them through the lens of different social issues,” says Swalwell, noting that students were fascinated and able to connect issues along a continuum of history that included present day.
“If we just gave up on thinking coverage is a good idea, it immediately opens up all these other things you can do,” notes Anne Hyde, history professor at the University of Oklahoma. Centering social studies in a skill-based approach—teaching students to consider big ideas over time, recognize bias, and interpret sources, for example—”opens up a lot of space for including different kinds of documents and people,” says Hyde.
Start Small, Go Deep, Repeat
But how do history teachers ultimately decide who and what to include? For Arjunan and the teachers at New Visions, setting granular goals for the curriculum they’re developing has been a lifesaver. “We didn’t try to take on all of U.S. history at once.” Using the formula of high-leverage, often-tested topics, plus student interest and contemporary connections to expand the narrative of a marginalized group, Arjunan’s team landed on the Negro Motorist Green Book. These guides, created in the 1930s by Harlem postal worker Hugo Green, helped black southerners find safe travel routes in the Jim Crow era. Not only will this 11th-grade unit connect with tested topics (automobiles, industrialization, Jim Crow), it will share a slice of history that goes largely untold—the experiences of the black middle class in the 1920s–60s.
“During Jim Crow, public vehicles were very segregated, so the car was this liberating, alternative form of transportation,” Arjunan explains. “But how do you travel in a country that is as divided as the U.S. during Jim Crow? That’s not often taught.” Not to mention, she adds, those experiences are not so different from what many kids face today. They are echoed in the Trayvon Martin killing; the deep divisions in communities like Ferguson, Missouri; and even in the opening scenes from the movie Get Out.
Students can relate by talking about which neighborhoods feel safe to travel in and which don’t. This pedagogical approach puts social problems like racism on a continuum that extends beyond King’s Dream speech, and gives students a critical context for the modern world and their place in it. There are also Green guides for Jewish and LGBTQ people, so the topic has intersectional connections, as well.
Keep doing that—focusing on a marginalized group during a small slice of history and looking for topical tie-ins—and slowly but surely, you’ll have a bank of lessons. The curriculum will be constantly evolving, Arjunan adds, but there are steps to support sustainability—like using Google Drive to share and store documents and establishing guiding principles that can be passed on to new team members.
Confidence for the Long Run
Educators committed to bringing high-quality, inquiry-based, inclusive history education to the classroom will have to grapple with their own gaps in background knowledge, and build the language and confidence to teach new material. A lack of teacher diversity (according to federal data from 2011, 84 percent of social science teachers in the U.S. are white) presents one hurdle for the profession; another is lack of formal social studies training, especially at the elementary level.
As a general resource for inquiry-based social studies teaching, Swalwell recommends the National Council for the Social Studies’ C3 Framework. She also encourages elementary teachers to engage young students with primary sources, readily accessible from the digital archives of cultural institutions like the U.S. Library of Congress or the Smithsonian. “Examining photographs or letters—that’s a good training wheels approach to getting students more engaged and focused on historical inquiry.”
Zinn Education Project, History UnErased (which hosts the Making Gay History podcast), Facing History and Ourselves, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Teen Vogue’s OG History column, and countless other sites offer lessons and multimedia to help educators expand their repertoire of relevant and rigorous history curriculum. Morgenstern suggests that teachers receive training to develop the confidence to teach this content in a way that the school or the community will support.
Arjunan agrees, and that’s why New Visions will conduct a slow rollout of its Rewriting History curriculum next year in select 11th grade classrooms. “I think a lot of teachers struggle with how to bring responsive and inclusive curriculum into the classroom because they don’t have the language to talk about it—they don’t know what words are appropriate and which aren’t, and how to walk the fine line of showing multiple sides of an issue,” she says. With lots of training, feedback, and support for teachers, Arjunan hopes to reduce some of the fear associated with taking a complex and culturally responsive look at the past as a way of understanding ourselves and the present.