“Why didn’t my history teacher teach me that?!”
If you’re anything like me, you have probably thought this to yourself more than once over the last few weeks. Whether history was your favorite subject or not, you probably heard a lot about how those nice Native Americans helped the poor, sad Pilgrims through the harvest and celebrated with the first Thanksgiving, and how Lincoln freed the slaves, and how Hitler tried to ruin the world. But your history class left out the Tulsa Massacre and Juneteenth, and the most diversity you saw inside a history classroom was a picture of Harriet Tubman and a motivational quote from Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.
I have a bachelor’s degree in history and I have taught middle school social studies for eleven years, and I learned about the Tulsa Massacre just like everyone else — during the first episode of Watchmen. I can tell you anything you want to know about King Henry VIII and his six wives, but I had only heard of Juneteenth in passing before this month (and not in my history classes, though I had to take five American history classes in college).
The answer to your question of why your history teacher left these important lessons (and so many more) out of your classes is too long for any one article, but there are a few main reasons. First and foremost is that the textbooks we use don’t cover it. The majority of textbooks follow a pretty simple formula: they add a paragraph or two about women in each chapter of a decades-old book and call that diversity. Our textbooks drive the topics and information we can share, and schools have a varying degree of leniency for teachers who stray from the textbook information.
This lack of autonomy is another big reason why these topics are left out. Teachers have an incredibly minimal amount of control over what they teach and the time dedicated to teaching it. Regardless of the grade we teach, our minutes are dictated by district curriculum, state testing, and state and federal standards. Even a teacher with the information couldn’t give more than a passing mention because they have to adhere to the pacing set by people far outside their classroom.
The saddest reason of all is that history class just does not make the cut. It isn’t on state standardized tests for elementary or middle school, and it’s nowhere to be found on the ACT or SAT. Districts receive ratings and even funding based on their standardized test scores, and at the elementary and middle school level only math and reading are tested. Therefore, those subjects are their focus. So much emphasis is placed on those two subjects that many elementary teachers report that they simply do not have the minutes in their day to cover science or social studies, except as an extension of reading or math (i.e., in reading today, we’re going to read about George Washington). High schools have higher graduation requirements for math and English than for social sciences.
All of these reasons boil down to one, big, nasty secret: Social studies itself is not valuable.
It’s “just arts and crafts” (slap in the face to art teachers everywhere). It’s socialization time. It’s just boring documentaries. For so long, that is all it was and it was all it could be because as teachers that’s all we were taught and all we were allowed to teach. But the real value in social studies lies in teaching our children about cultures, their own and others, because that is how we ensure they value the world in which they live.
So how do you ensure your child(ren) know more about history than you learned? Put that activism you’ve been feeling over the last few weeks to use!
Before you begin emailing your child’s teacher, inform yourself. As I mentioned, your child’s classroom teacher has very little (if any) control on what topics they teach and probably even the amount of time per day/week they have to cover that topic. These conversations should be directed to district administration (like a curriculum director or superintendent), or even local representatives like your school board or local congresspeople. These are some questions you can ask:
1. How many minutes per week are dedicated to social studies? Or, at the higher levels where this is obvious, ask what are the graduation requirements for the social sciences and specifically history?
2. Is my child, or other classmates pulled from social studies for interventions such as speech, social work, or even extra math/reading help? (This is incredibly common. Schools have to operate during the school day hours and they are limited on available time to provide extra help or enrichment to students, so they are sometimes pulled from certain classes, often history.)
3. What resources are teachers given? What is the budget for consumables or subscriptions, such as maps, newspapers, Time for Kids, or other current events resources?
4. Do they have textbooks? When were they published?
5. What professional development is offered to teachers to continue their education in diversifying history classes?
As you might guess from your own educational experiences and the current conversations, you may not get a straight answer. In our haste to ensure every kid can group numbers the way Common Core requires, we lay excessive expectations on (especially elementary) teachers and they simply do not have time in their day to cover these topics. Those of us at the higher level are so busy catching kids up on the information they did not receive previously and doing it while kids are being pulled to make up math tests, we can’t get to it.
So what can we, as parents, do to fix it? Start asking your districts and local government. Speak at your district’s board meetings. Write an email to your local congresspeople. Start telling them how much you value your child’s history class. These are the people who decide what and how much we teach, and they are the only ones who can enact the necessary systemic change.