We Don’t Just Teach Our Students History; We Teach Them How To Make History

Pundits, caregivers, and educators alike have gone from zero to 100 with opinions about critical race theory, also known as CRT. David Theo Goldberg summarized the coordinated attack on CRT by explaining the catch-all nature of the term: “an empty signifier for any talk of race and racism at all… or indeed any suggestion that racial inequities in the United States are anything but fair outcomes….”. This attack includes broad state legislation banning critical race theory from schools and more recently, legislation that explicitly limits conversation on racism, sexism, and oppression.

We are not critical race theorists. We are public school teachers—ones who care deeply about the holistic development of our students and their preparedness to be skilled, knowledgeable, critical thinkers. To us, the push to “ban critical race theory” from classrooms represents an organized effort to capitalize on fear and ignorance and to stop us from teaching our students the truth about American history in a classroom context that welcomes all of who they are.

Today, the stated mission of our United States Education Department is “to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.” How can we expect our students to compete with those of other nations when we, as a nation, are not committed to providing them with accurate records of its inception, development, and sustainment? What is “excellent” about lacking the courage to face our history and learn from it?

This American experiment has resulted in some amazing products. And those products are blood-stained. How can we and future generations clean up a mess we refuse to collectively acknowledge? How can our students dismantle a racist system when some teachers don’t believe it exists? How can we forge a path forward that is not built on the backs and blood of Black people, the theft of indigenous land, and the criminalization and imprisonment of those we fear?

Teachers have a unique opportunity to help students see the world through a lens of equity with the books we read, the units we design, and the conversations we facilitate.  

What Does This Look Like in the Classroom?

We do this work in our classroom every single day. We equip students with the knowledge and skills they need to develop a broader sociopolitical consciousness that allows them to critique norms, values, and institutions. Additionally, we leverage students’ cultures and identities as a vehicle for learning. In our classrooms, we dive head first into issues such as identity, social justice and activism. 

At the beginning of the year, our first social studies unit focuses on exploring identity, culture, diversity and tolerance. Students discuss how different aspects of their identity affect who they are and who they want to become. We use culturally-responsive and age-appropriate videos, books and news articles to dig deep into questions like:

How does our history affect my identity?

How does my family affect my identity?  

How does society affect my identity?

We use this time to create a safe space for students to share their experiences and learn from their peers.

During this unit, our lessons also focus on the identities of others. Research shows that by Kindergarten, children share many of the same racial attitudes that adults in their culture hold, and that they have already learned to associate some groups with higher status than others. In short, this means that by the time our students come to us as third-graders, they are already thinking and forming opinions about race. 

This unit ends with students creating beautiful self-portraits and writing “I Am” poems focused on the joy and beauty of being exactly who they are. Starting the year off in this way helps to create a safe learning environment for all students to achieve and grow, not just academically, but also socially and emotionally.  

It would be virtually impossible to center student voice and experience in our classroom without holding focused conversations about stereotypes, biases, racism, and privilege. Facilitating these conversations can be difficult, not only because of the content, but also because it is clear that so many of our 8-year-old students have already been victims of stereotyping and racism. It can also be challenging due to our own past experiences and the many different perceptions of the work we see reflected back to us from teacher colleagues, students’ families and more. 

Yet, we know these lessons make a difference. Research shows that having explicit conversations about diversity, tolerance and interracial friendships can dramatically improve racial attitudes in as little as a single week. Research also suggests that children who are exposed to racist ideas tend to accept and embrace them, even as young as age 3. As teachers, we have a responsibility to actively work against this exposure by discussing race and racism with students–who notice differences at a very early age–in an intentional and developmentally-appropriate way. 

Activism At Every Age

Student identities are inextricably tied to the issues that impact them experientially and about which they develop strong feelings and opinions. Our students have questions, opinions and ideas about issues pertaining to social justice and how to make our world a more equitable place.

Our classroom is a safe space to explore historical contexts, present realities, and future possibilities. We are not teaching the legal framework of critical race theory. We’re providing culturally-reflective and responsive teaching that centers student identities, interests, and holistic growth.

In our social studies activism unit, students explore changemakers and movements throughout history, learn about social justice issues of today, focus on a particular issue of interest, and design and facilitate a public action that they hope will lead to a desired change. Depending on the year, students might simultaneously engage in social justice book clubs to supplement their social studies learning experiences.

This year, due to the pandemic, our students are publishing an online magazine about activism. During the bilingual (English-Spanish) webinar they created to launch the magazine, they offered advice on how to choose an issue, how to research it and how they intend to stay involved in activism after the school year ends.

In previous years of teaching this unit, our third-graders have led a school-wide rally to raise awareness and funds to support global education and published a magazine to rewrite the narrative of the Back of the Yards neighborhood where they live and go to school. In 2020, they led a webinar to educate community members about the 2020 Census and encourage their participation. This was especially important in Back of the Yards, a neighborhood with historically low rates of Census participation.

This inclusive, student-centered, cognitively-rich learning environment is one we should embrace. Yes, our classrooms address race, class, gender, language, ethnicity, etc. because they are realities of life. When we equip students with all of the tools they need to be critical thinkers, rather than withholding tools for fear of how they’ll use them, we’re more likely to be surprised at the better world they build.

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Lindsay Singer Ashley McCall

Ashley McCall and Lindsay Singer both serve as 3rd grade educators at César Chávez Multicultural Arts Center on the south west side of Chicago. Follow them on Twitter at @ashlm_12 and @ChavezSinger.

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