The Two Codes Your Kids Need to Know

The College Board came up with a surprising conclusion about keys to success for college and life.

Thomas L. Friedman

By Thomas L. Friedman

Opinion Columnist

Image
Ninth graders in a computer class in Brooklyn. The College Board has said that to be successful, students need to master computer science.CreditCreditSarah Blesener for The New York Times

A few years ago, the leaders of the College Board, the folks who administer the SAT college entrance exam, asked themselves a radical question: Of all the skills and knowledge that we test young people for that we know are correlated with success in college and in life, which is the most important? Their answer: the ability to master “two codes” — computer science and the U.S. Constitution.

Since then they’ve been adapting the SATs and the College Board’s Advanced Placement program to inspire and measure knowledge of both. Since the two people who led this move — David Coleman, president of the College Board, and Stefanie Sanford, its chief of global policy — happen to be people I’ve long enjoyed batting around ideas with, and since I thought a lot of students, parents and employers would be interested in their answer, I asked them to please show their work: “Why these two codes?”

Their short answer was that if you want to be an empowered citizen in our democracy — able to not only navigate society and its institutions but also to improve and shape them, and not just be shaped by them — you need to know how the code of the U.S. Constitution works. And if you want to be an empowered and adaptive worker or artist or writer or scientist or teacher — and be able to shape the world around you, and not just be shaped by it — you need to know how computers work and how to shape them.

With computing, the internet, big data and artificial intelligence now the essential building blocks of almost every industry, any young person who can master the principles and basic coding techniques that drive computers and other devices “will be more prepared for nearly every job,” Coleman and Sanford said in a joint statement explaining their initiative. “At the same time, the Constitution forms the foundational code that gives shape to America and defines our essential liberties — it is the indispensable guide to our lives as productive citizens.”

So rather than have SAT exams and Advanced Placement courses based on things that you cram for and forget, they are shifting them, where they can, to promote the “two codes.”

In 2016, the College Board completely revamped its approach to A.P. computer science courses and exams. In the original Computer Science course, which focused heavily on programming in Java, nearly 80 percent of students were men. And a large majority were white and Asian, said Coleman. What that said to women and underrepresented minorities was, “How would you like to learn the advanced grammar of a language that you aren’t interested in?”

Turned out that was not very welcoming. So, explained Coleman, they decided to “change the invitation” to their new Computer Science Principles course by starting with the question: What is it that you’d like to do in the world? Music? Art? Science? Business? Great! Then come build an app in the furtherance of that interest and learn the principles of computer science, not just coding, Coleman said. “Learn to be a shaper of your environment, not just a victim of it.”

The new course debuted in 2016. Enrollment was the largest for a new course in the history of Advanced Placement, with just over 44,000 students nationwide.

Two years later The Christian Science Monitor reported, “More high school students than ever are taking the College Board’s Advanced Placement (A.P.) computer science exams, and those taking them are increasingly female and people of color.”

 

Indeed, the story added, “the College Board reports that from 2017 to 2018 female, African-American and Hispanic students were among the fastest growing demographics of A.P. computer science test-takers, with increases in exam participation of 39 percent, 44 percent and 41 percent, respectively. … For context, in 2007, fewer than 3,000 high school girls took the A.P. Computer Science A exam; in 2018, more than 15,000 completed it.”

The A.P. U.S. Government and Politics course also was reworked. At a time when we have a president who doesn’t act as if he’s read the Constitution — and we have a growing perception and reality that college campuses are no longer venues for the free exchange of ideas and real debate of consequential issues — Coleman and Sanford concluded that it was essential that every student entering college actually have command of the First Amendment, which enshrines five freedoms, not just freedom of speech.

Every student needs to understand that, as Coleman put it, “our country was argued into existence — and that is the first thing that binds us — but also has some of the tensions that divide us. So we thought, ‘What can we do to help replace the jeering with productive conversation?’”

It had to start in high school, said Sanford, who is leading the “two codes” initiative. “Think of how much more ready you are to participate in college and society with an understanding of the five freedoms that the First Amendment protects — of speech, assembly, petition, press and religion. The First Amendment lays the foundation for a mature community of conversation and ideas — built on the right and even obligation to speak up and, when needed, to protest, but not to interrupt and prevent others from speaking.”

This becomes particularly important, she noted, “when technology and democracy are thought of as in conflict, but are actually both essential” and need to work in tandem.

One must observe only how Facebook was abused in the 2016 election to see that two of the greatest strengths of America — innovation and free speech — have been weaponized. If they are not harmonized, well, Houston, we have a problem.

So the new A.P. government course is built on an in-depth look at 15 Supreme Court cases as well as nine foundational documents that every young American should know. It shows how the words of the Constitution give rise to the structures of our government.

Besides revamping the government course and the exam on that subject, Coleman and Sanford in 2014 made a staple of the regular SAT a long reading comprehension passage from one of the founding documents, such as the Constitution, or another important piece of democracy, like a great presidential speech. That said to students and teachers something the SAT had never dared say before: Some content is disproportionately more powerful and important, and if you prepare for it you will be rewarded on the SAT.

Sanford grew up in Texas and was deeply affected as a kid watching video of the African-American congresswoman Barbara Jordan arguing the case against Richard Nixon in Watergate. What she remembered most, said Sanford, was how Jordan’s power “emanated from her command of the Constitution.

“Understanding how government works is the essence of power. To be a strong citizen, you need to know how the structures of our government work and how to operate within them.”

Kids are getting it: An A.P. U.S. Government and Politics class at Hightstown High School in New Jersey was credited in a Senate committee report with contributing content to a bill, the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act, which was signed into law last month.

Sanford cites it as a great example of her mantra: “‘Knowledge, skills and agency’ — kids learn things, learn how to do things and then discover that they can use all that to make a difference in the world.”

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Thomas L. Friedman is the foreign affairs Op-Ed columnist. He joined the paper in 1981, and has won three Pulitzer Prizes. He is the author of seven books, including “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” which won the National Book Award.

Inquiry-Based Tasks in Social Studies

edutopia

Assignments that are bigger than a lesson and smaller than a unit are a good way to experiment with inquiry-based learning.

 

January 2, 2019
High school students engage in civic debate
© Barry Sloan

 

Many schools, both nationally and internationally, are adopting the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards. Some states, districts, and schools adopt the full framework and standards, and others adopt the general framework, but modify or create their own grade-level standards. An important element of the framework either way is something called the Inquiry Arc.

The Inquiry Arc comprises four dimensions: “one focused on questioning and inquiry; another on disciplinary knowledge and concepts relating to civics, economics, geography, and history; another on evaluating and using evidence; and a final one on communicating and taking action.” The basic idea is that students ask or are given compelling questions and then investigate those questions, evaluate and find evidence to answer them, and communicate their answers.

For example, middle school students might be given the question “Can disease change the world?” in order to spark their exploration of the Black Death. Starting with questions such as “What was the Black Death?” and “How did the Black Death affect people in the 14th century?,” they explore geography and history by examining maps and other sources.

They then write an argumentative essay to answer the original question, using the sources they examined as evidence. As an extension, they might create a public service announcement on how to assess how effective their school or community is in preventing and controlling the spread of disease.

By default, inquiry is hardwired into the C3 framework and standards: In order to effectively implement the C3, you must engage students in inquiry practices.

THE INQUIRY DESIGN MODEL FOR TASKS

The Black Death exercise is an example of an inquiry-based task that uses the Inquiry Design Model (IDM) developed by some of the key authors of the C3. They describe these tasks as “bigger than a lesson, smaller than a unit”—just right for teachers who want to implement inquiry-based learning but may not feel comfortable devoting a unit to it. IDM tasks include the following:

  • A compelling question that is of interest to students and addresses issues found in one or more of the academic disciplines in social studies. It should provoke student thinking and align to curricular outcomes.
  • Specific standards from the C3 framework.
  • An activity to stage the question to elicit student inquiry.
  • Supporting questions aligned to the compelling question. They are specific and content-based, and guide the students to be able to answer the compelling question.
  • Formative assessments to check student knowledge of the content under the supporting questions. These can be short paragraphs, graphic organizers, or other traditional ways to assess student learning.
  • Sources—usually primary sources—aligned to the supporting questions.
  • A summative performance task that is argumentative in nature. Students must answer the compelling question using evidence to support their thinking.
  • An option for students to take informed action in the world around them.

In an elementary example, students learn economics standards by investigating the compelling question “What choices do we make with our money?” They examine short readings and images, and write a short argument using these sources. They discuss the pros and cons of saving and spending, and have a chance to take informed action such as creating a poster listing ways families can save money.

There is also a version of IDM called a focused inquiry. A high school examplehas the compelling question “Did the attack on Pearl Harbor unify America?” Students answer a single supporting question and complete one performance task and then write short claim and counterclaim arguments. They then propose a revision to their textbook based on the sources explored in an extension assignment. This takes one or two class periods, versus five or six for the elementary school economics example.

WHAT ABOUT PROJECT-BASED LEARNING?

Project-based learning (PBL) is also a great way to implement the C3 framework. PBL employs inquiry and includes elements that increase engagement, such as authenticity, high-quality public products, and voice and choice.

But there may be challenges to implementing the C3 framework through PBL. Teachers may not want to transform a full unit into PBL, or the unit may not be a great fit for PBL. In any case, an inquiry-based task like IDM has many of the essential elements of PBL: It assesses key knowledge and skills, has a challenging question, and requires inquiry. It also may allow students to do more public work if they take informed action through the extension assignment. It’s also possible to have an inquiry-based task within a PBL unit, as another way to assess student learning: If students are collaborating on the final PBL product, an inquiry-based task is an effective way for teachers to assess individual students’ understanding of the content and skills in the project.

Teachers need to use their professional judgment about what makes sense for student learning as they consider PBL and smaller inquiry-based tasks. Both can increase student engagement and be used to assess deeper learning.

How can we help students make sense of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting and a week of violence in the United States?

Teaching Tolerance

On Saturday, eleven people were murdered at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue by a gunman who shouted “All Jews must die” as he opened fire. Clearly antisemitic, the gunman was also motivated by anti-immigrant animus, according to reports of his internet postings. The suspected gunman is in custody and the FBI is investigating the killings as a hate crime.

 

The tragedy came at the end of an anxious, tumultuous week in the United States. Beginning Monday, October 22, pipe bombs were sent to over a dozen prominent Democratic figures, including former President Barack Obama, and to the CNN newsroom in New York City. The suspect, a right-wing extremist, is now in custody. On Wednesday in Louisville, Kentucky, two elderly African Americans were killed at a grocery store by a white shooter who had first attempted to enter a black church. This week felt extraordinary, yet Americans have been living through a time of increasingly visible, public bigotry and violence, including the 2015 killing of nine worshippers at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church by a white supremacist; the 2017 bombing of a mosque in Bloomington, Indiana; and the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that same year, when marchers chanted neo-Nazi slogans and a counter-protester was murdered. The rise in hate, in these incidents and others, has been well-documented.

Americans must consider what these troubling events suggest about the current state of the country and the future of this diverse democracy. Such incidents are also on the rise around the world, including growing antisemitism in Europe, making hate an issue of global concern. Educators have an additional role to play. Even as we mourn, we also have to help our students process the week’s events within a safe and supportive learning community. Students need to share their reactions and hear those of their classmates, and with our guidance explore difficult questions about the past, present, and future. If we don’t make time to talk about these events, we risk normalizing them.

These conversations might begin on Monday morning, but they should continue long after, not just as a time-out from regular curriculum, but as a commitment to fighting hate and nurturing democracy that informs everything we teach. As Fernando Reimers, international education leader and Facing History board member, reminds us, “Addressing the most visible attacks, once they happen, requires the specialized knowledge and organization of law enforcement. Preventing them requires the concerted effort of each and every one of us… Preventing such hatred at the roots…requires deeper and earlier action in communities and schools.”

In this Teaching Idea, we offer some suggestions for opening a conversation about the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting and other recent events with your students, as well as selected resources to examine antisemitism and religious bigotry and to explore the role we all can play in standing up to hate.

In addition to the suggestions here, you might connect last week’s incidents to your ongoing discussions with students around the fractious and intense mid-term election campaign. It is worth considering the relationship between the two. To what extent does political rhetoric, whether by our leaders or in the debates we have individually with others, fuel hatred?  What responsibility do leaders and citizens have to appeal to each other’s “better angels” rather than stoking our basest inclinations through stereotypes and resentment?

Prepare for Class

Before leading a conversation with students, check in with yourself. How have you been affected by the events of the past week? What is on your mind? Being conscious of your own responses and concerns can help you foster a more safe and open conversation in your classroom.

Consider, too, the ways that your own students may have been impacted by recent news. You may have survivors of violence in your class, or students feeling newly vulnerable because of their identity and connection to groups who have been targeted. What support might those students need, and what resources in your school, including counselors and social workers, could help to provide it?

Finally, keep in mind that each of the news stories from the past week alone is complex and the shape of what is known and unknown changes quickly. Frequently-updated “What We Know” features on sites like the New York Times and Vox can help you stay abreast of the news, and can also be used as a reference point to ground discussion with students.

Create a Reflective Environment for Discussion

Let your students know that your classroom is a safe space. Begin with a brief contracting activity if you have not already forged that safe space. Then allow time for students to name what stands out to them in the news of the past week and then to process and reflect, perhaps writing in journals and then sharing some thoughts with a partner. You might use the following writing prompts:

  • The synagogue attack in Pittsburgh is disturbing and painful to learn about. It prompts us to ask many questions, some of which may not have an answer. What questions does this event raise for you? What feelings does it provoke?
  • How do you see the events in Pittsburgh, in Louisville, and around the country affecting people in your home, in your school, and in your community? Who in your community, including you yourself, might be feeling particularly vulnerable right now?

Graffiti boards and S-I-T are two other teaching strategies that can help students reflect on difficult topics.

Put Last Week’s Events in Context

The major events of last week made the front pages of newspapers across the country and around the world. They are part of a growing pattern of expressions of hate and antisemitism in schools and communities, including many events that don’t get national attention. In Fairfax, Virginia, for example, 19 swastikas were spray painted on a Jewish community center in early October – the second time the building was defaced in just over a year. Pro Publica’s Documenting Hate project and the Southern Poverty Law Center Hatewatchare two programs that track and document hate crimes and bias incidents in the United States.

You might choose to share information from these sites, or simply the selected October news headlines listed below, with your students.

After reviewing some of the events of the last month together, discuss:

  • What patterns or connections do you see among these events? What are some differences between them?
  • Does your local and personal context connect to this larger climate of hatred and violence in any way? Do you see examples of hate, exclusion, racism, sexism, homophobia, antisemitism in your community?
  • How do small acts of hateslurs, name-calling, graffitifracture communities? Do they make it it more likely that more violent acts will occur?
  • What other factors contribute to a climate in which perpetrators of hate crimes feel emboldened? How do we understand the connection between ideas, rhetoric, and actions?

Consider a Range of Meaningful Responses

As students reflect on the impact of this week’s events in Pittsburgh and beyond, they should also consider positive ways that individuals and communities can respond – by denouncing hate, offering support to those who have been targeted, and asserting inclusive norms and values. You might share some examples of how people have responded to support the Tree of Life synagogue community in Pittsburgh: there have been vigils around the country, interfaith statements of support, and fundraising efforts to help the congregation and victims.

Discuss with students:

  • What can we do if we ourselves are feeling vulnerable?
  • How can we stand with and support others who are feeling vulnerable?
  • What are some meaningful actions we can take, even if only in our own home, neighborhood, or school?

Extensions

Learn about the history and present reality of antisemitism: The lesson “The Roots and Impact of Antisemitism”, from Facing History’s Teaching Holocaust and Human Behavior unit, focuses on the question “What is antisemitism, and how has it impacted Jews in the past and today?”

Choosing to Participate: At Facing History, we conclude our case studies in history and literature with conversations about how each of us can help to bring about a more humane, just, and compassionate world and a build a more inclusive democracy. The readings below have particular resonance right now. Used singly or together, they can help students consider the values, tools, and actions that protect human rights, establish a sense of safety and dignity, and strengthen communities.

  • “Not in Our Town”: Residents of Billings, Montana banded together to stand up to racist and antisemitic violence in their town: “Intolerance, hatred, and violence test the strength of a community. How the members of a community respond is one measure of its citizens’ commitment to democracy.” This reading includes a companion video and lesson plan.
  • “Talking About Religion”: Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith Youth Core, talks about his failure to respond to antisemitism in high school and how this experience of being a bystander informed his commitment to pluralism.
  • “Give Bigotry No Sanction”: Correspondence between members of the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, RI and President George Washington in 1790 can inspire thoughtful conversation about the role of religious freedom in American democracy.
  • “Walking with the Wind”: Congressman and activist John Lewis tells a story from his childhood to explore how we can work together to create a better world:

    America itself felt as if it might burst at the seams—so much tension, so many storms. But the people of conscience never left the house. They never ran away. They stayed, they came together, and they did the best they could, clasping hands and moving toward the corner of the house that was the weakest.

A History in Which We Can All See Ourselves

Edutopia

Educators are finding ways to tell a richer history of America—responding to the demands of an increasingly diverse student body.

After a recent assignment on Christopher Columbus’s expedition to the New World, a student approached eighth-grade teacher Vanee Matsalia after class. The girl, whose family is from the Caribbean, told Matsalia that the lesson was the first time she had heard her people mentioned in school.

“‘I can’t wait to go home and tell my dad—he’s going to be so excited, but so angry when he finds out what happened,’” Matsalia remembers her saying, referring to Columbus and his fellow colonizers enslaving and killing many of the indigenous people they encountered when they landed.

Neta Snook adjusts the propellers of a plane.

©The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

An archival image of Neta Snook, Amelia Earhart’s flight instructor, adjusting a plane’s propeller in 1920.

Matsalia teaches English language arts (ELA)—not history—but for the past seven years, she has been working hand-in-hand with a history teacher at her largely black and Latino Title I middle school in San Bernardino, California. Together, they co-teach units in which students probe into a complicated U.S. historical narrative, one that highlights stories of populations and events often left out of history books. Students then research, write, and build projects about these “other” perspectives in ELA.

“I hear from students all the time, ‘Why have I never seen this before?’ They are often in shock,” said Matsalia of the course. “The lessons resonate when connected to something students can belong and respond to.”

Matsalia is part of a growing group of educators working to expand K–12 history curricula to include the narratives of people from a wider range of racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds at a time when schools, and the country, are becoming rapidly more diverse. These changes in coursework are happening in synchrony with others—like a shift away from punitive discipline and a focus on social and emotional learning—aimed at making schools more culturally responsive and attuned to the whole child.

FOCUSING ON RESEARCH

Proponents of greater inclusivity in history say that when young people see themselves in the story of our shared past, they not only develop a deeper appreciation of the subject but become more civically active, citing research indicating that students who feel a sense of belonging and identity in school are more likely to be engaged in society more broadly.

Research also shows that the self-image of students can suffer when they regularly encounter negative depictions of people who look like them. And a 2010 study of ninth- and 10th-grade students extends that insight to omissions, finding that girls performed significantly better on a chemistry quiz when the textbook lessons featured images of only female scientists, while the performance of boys declined under the same conditions—leading the researchers to conclude that the simple act of representation can level the playing field.

Unfortunately, progress in social studies curricula has been slow moving. A Rutgers University study found that while social studies courses are “pivotal sites” for promoting civic engagement in young people, schools with high percentages of students of color and low-income students tend to have “the least innovative and most ineffective” social studies courses. As a result, students frequently find the study of history and government “alienating and irrelevant,” or they see a disconnect between “civic ideals and the reality of their lives.”

CHANGING REQUIREMENTS

There may be changes ahead. The Philadelphia district made it a requirement for students to take at least one African American history class to graduate. Montana, Washington, and Wisconsin now mandate that Native American history be taught to students, while New York, New Jersey, Florida, and Illinois have put laws on the books requiring all students to study the Holocaust and other genocides. And in 2011, California passed legislation requiring districts to include the roles and contributions of people with disabilities and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people in state social studies curricula.

Photograph of Pilot LeRoi S. Williams in Tuskegee, Alabama, during WWII.

©The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

An archival image of LeRoi S. Williams, a Tuskegee Airman during World War II who was killed in the line of duty.

These requirements have not involved the removal of key historical figures like Thomas Jefferson, as skeptics have warned or fretted.

In California, the history curriculum guidelines and materials weave in the contributions and sexual orientation of LGBTQ historical figures like Walt Whitman, and significant events in LGBTQ history like the Stonewall Riots, which have often been missing from schools’ history curricula. And the 11th-grade standards, for example, address familiar themes like the rise of America as a superpower and the contributions of key leaders like Theodore Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, but also discuss the roles of African American soldiers during World War II and the Lavender Scare that targeted LGBTQ government officials during the 1950s.

“The more people understand other perspectives and the more we include underrepresented people in history, the more they are legitimized as American history,” says Shana Brown, a middle school teacher in Seattle Public Schools who helped write the Native American history curriculum for Washington state.

A telegram from Boyd Coab to Cordelia Williams notifies her of the death her son Leroi S. Willliams, killed in duty.

©The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

A telegram informs LeRoi S. Williams’s mother of his passing in 1943.

As a teacher in the 1990s, Brown, who grew up on the Yakama Indian Reservation, began weaving Native American history into her coursework because it was absent from textbooks. Hoping to take this work one step further, Brown traveled to the capital and got involved in efforts to change Washington’s history curriculum. In 2005, legislation passed recommending that schools include tribal history; by 2015, it had become a requirement.

“I went through all of school and college thinking my history wasn’t relevant or I didn’t have one. When I became a teacher, I realized that our history does matter and my history is American history,” said Brown, who still teaches and was recently recognized as a Great Educator by the U.S. Department of Education.

UPSTANDERS

But for teachers and districts that want to refresh their history materials, there can be a difficult trade-off, according to Tim Bailey, education director at The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, a nearly 25-year-old nonprofit dedicated to K–12 American history education.

Bailey said teachers often have to perform a balancing act between meeting state history standards that are politicized and slow to change, and trying to teach history lessons that a diverse range of students will find meaningful—placing the onus on the teacher to seek out additional teaching materials. “Do you teach a mile wide and an inch deep? Or do you go for depth and understanding?” Bailey said. “Those are hard decisions for teachers to grapple with.”

Due to states’ evolving requirements and interest from teachers, schools and communities are thinking creatively about how to work together.

A session at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, Illinois.

©Illinois Holocaust Museum

Two high school students at Overton High School work with Dr. Marilyn Taylor to discover the story of lynching in local Shelby County.

The Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie now collaborates with schools, for example, welcoming 62,000 schoolchildren and educators annually to learn about the history of genocides around the world. A recent study found that 66 percent of millennials did not know what Auschwitz was. The museum has also hosted sold-out professional development sessions on topics like “Difficult Conversations,” which helps teachers discuss events that may make both students and educators uncomfortable.

“The purpose of learning about what led up to the Holocaust is not just to remember the past, but to transform the future,” said Shoshana Buchholz-Miller, vice president of education and exhibitions at the museum. “Students can then look at what’s happening in their society, or even on their playground, and they are equipped and empowered to be what we call an upstander, not a bystander.”

HITTING REFRESH

But according to experts, teachers should also look around them for easily accessible resources and materials to make history more inclusive—and sometimes, those are found in their own communities or classrooms.

A reward poster from 1852 offers a $2500 reward for runaway slaves in Missouri.

©The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

An image from Gilder Lehrman’s digital archives shows an 1852 poster offering $2,500 for runaway slaves in Missouri.

Using Gilder Lehrman’s massive, free online collection of primary source materials, teachers can help students connect to the experiences and emotions of the people in the stories—especially ones who look like them. This may mean reading a poster written by women in the early 20th century discussing the importance of having the right to vote, a flyer for a slave auction, or a letter urging people to vote for an African American vice presidential candidate in the late 1800s.

It can also mean hitting refresh on old materials. In her winter unit on the book A Wrinkle in Time, Matsalia used the main character, Meg, to walk her students in San Bernardino through issues of gender representation and traditional gender roles at the time the book was published in 1962. She asked students to consider whether one character referred to is a trans person—and then they discussed how history has viewed trans people and how society views them today.

Finding new course materials may also involve looking around locally. With support from the nonprofit Facing History and Ourselves, Dr. Marilyn Taylor taught her students at Overton High School a lesson on how Reconstruction led to racial violence like lynchings, which motivated students to see if any lynchings had occurred in Shelby County, Tennessee, where their school is located. After finding that one had happened less than 20 minutes from their school, students banded together to mark all the local lynchings and held memorials at each site for the victims.

Dr. Taylor teaches a Facing History lesson to students.

©Memphis Flyer

Two high school students at Overton High School work with Dr. Marilyn Taylor to discover the story of lynching in local Shelby County.

Now a freshman at the University of Memphis majoring in psychology and criminal justice, Overton alum Khamilla Johnson said that she often reflects on lessons learned during the memorial project, which helped influence her future choices.

“I think about [Dr. Taylor’s class] all the time, because it really helped to shape my character and gave me a position to use my voice,” said Johnson, who hopes to one day join the FBI. “Dr. Taylor reminded me that I do have a voice, that I can speak out about things that matter and make a difference.”

Don’t know much about history: A disturbing new report on how poorly schools teach American slavery

 February 3, 2018

Slave shackles are on display in the Slavery and Freedom Gallery in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Consider this from a disturbing new report on how U.S. schools teach — or, rather, don’t teach — students about the history of slavery in the United States:

  • Only 8 percent of U.S. high school seniors could identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War.
  • 68 percent of the surveyed students did not know that slavery formally ended only with an amendment to the Constitution.
  • Only 22 percent of the students could correctly identify how provisions in the Constitution gave advantages to slaveholders.
  • Only 44 percent of the students answered that slavery was legal in all colonies during the American Revolution.

These results are part of an unsettling new report titled “Teaching Hard History: American Slavery,” which was researched over the course of a year by the Teaching Tolerance project of the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center. The report includes results of surveys of U.S. high school seniors as well as social studies teachers in all grades — nationally representative of those populations — as well as an analysis of 15 state content standards, and a review of 10 popular U.S. history textbooks. The best textbook achieved a score of 70 percent against a rubric of what should be included in the study of American slavery; the average score was 46 percent.

Teaching Tolerance also published a framework to help teachers properly teach the subject, with suggested resources and materials.

The report argues that the United States “needs an intervention in the ways that we teach and learn about the history of American slavery,” which will require work “by state educational departments, teacher preparation programs, school boards, textbooks publishers, museums, professional organizations and thought leaders.”

Slavery defined the nature and limits of American liberty; it influenced the creation and development of the major political and social institutions of the nation; and it was a cornerstone of the American prosperity that fueled our industrial revolution. It’s not simply an event in our history; it’s central to our history.

It found that while teachers say they are serious about teaching the subject, they are uncomfortable doing so. State content standards do not largely convey the need to teach about the history of slavery and most textbooks fail to convey the reality of slavery, the report said.  Other problems include the prevalence of lessons that portray slavery as only a Southern institution, that fail to connect slavery and white supremacy, and that provide no real context about slavery, “preferring to present the good news before the bad.”

The report says:

In elementary school, if slavery is mentioned at all in state content standards, it is generally by implication, with references to the Underground Railroad or other “feel good” stories that deal with slavery’s end, rather than its inception and persistence. Young students learn about liberation before they learn about enslavement; they learn to celebrate the Constitution before learning about the troublesome compromises that made its ratification possible. They may even learn about the Emancipation Proclamation before they learn about the Civil War.

The report found seven key problems with the way American slavery is taught:

  1. We teach about slavery without context, preferring to present the good news before the bad. In elementary school, students learn about the Underground Railroad, about Harriet Tubman or other “feel good” stories, often before they learn about slavery. In high school, there’s overemphasis on Frederick Douglass, abolitionists and the Emancipation Proclamation and little understanding of how slave labor built the nation.
  2. We tend to subscribe to a progressive view of American history that can acknowledge flaws only to the extent that they have been addressed and solved. Our vision of growing ever “more perfect” stands in the way of our need to face the continuing legacy of the past.
  3. We teach about the American enslavement of Africans as an exclusively southern institution. While it is true that slavery reached its apex in the South during the years before the Civil War, it is also true that slavery existed in all colonies, and in all states when the Declaration of Independence was signed, and that it continued to be interwoven with the economic fate of the nation long into the 19th century.
  4. We rarely connect slavery to the ideology that grew up to sustain and protect it: white supremacy. Slavery required white supremacy to persist. In fact, the American ideology of white supremacy, along with accompanying racist dogma, developed precisely to justify the perpetuation of slavery.
  5. We often rely on pedagogy poorly suited to the topic. When we asked teachers to tell us about their favorite lesson when teaching about slavery, dozens proudly reported classroom simulations. Simulation of traumatic experiences is not shown to be effective as a learning strategy and can harm vulnerable children.
  6. We rarely make connections to the present. How can students develop a meaningful understanding of the rest of American history if they do not understand the scope and lasting impact of enslavement? Reconstruction, the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance and the civil rights movement do not make sense when so divorced from the arc of American history.
  7. We tend to center on the white experience when we teach about slavery. Too often, the varied, lived experience of enslaved people is neglected while educators focus on the broader political and economic impacts of slavery. Politically and socially, we focus on what white people were doing in the time leading up to the Civil War.

It says the “biggest obstacle to teaching slavery effectively in America is the deep, abiding American need to conceive of and understand our history as ‘progress,’ as the story of a people and a nation that always sought the improvement of mankind, the advancement of liberty and justice, the broadening of pursuits of happiness for all.

The report says:

The point is not to teach American history as a chronicle of shame and oppression. Far from it. The point is to tell American history as a story of real human beings, of power, of vast economic and geographical expansion, of great achievements as well as great dispossession, of human brutality and human reform. The point is also not to merely seek the story of what we are not, but of what we are — a land and a nation built in great part out of the economic and political systems forged in or because of slavery and its expansion. Slavery has much to do with the making of the United States.

This can and should be told as a story about human nature generally, and about this place in time specifically. Americans were not and are not inherently racist or slaveholding. We have a history that made our circumstances, as it also at times unmade them. Enslaved Americans were by no means only the brutalized victims of two and a half centuries of oppression; they were a people, of many cultures, who survived, created, imagined and built their worlds. And through the Civil War and emancipation, they had much to do with remaking the United States at its refounding in the 1860s and 1870s.

Fifteen sets of state standards were analyzed: 10 from the top-scoring states in a 2014 Teaching the Movement review of the way state standards cover the civil rights movement, and five more to add geographic diversity.

The report says that none addresses how the ideology of white supremacy rose to justify the institution of slavery and most fail to lay out meaningful requirements for learning about slavery, about the lives of the millions of enslaved people, or about how their labor was essential to the American economy.

Here’s the full report:

The Hard History American Slavery on Scribd

https://www.scribd.com/embeds/370618062/content?start_page=1&view_mode=scroll&access_key=key-gnQBodvLWegMaFIxjRAG&show_recommendations=true

James Baldwin’s Lesson for Teachers in a Time of Turmoil

The New Yorker

Baldwin insisted that a more honest reckoning with history was necessary.

Photograph by Ted Streshinsky / Corbis via Getty

“Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time.” So opens “A Talk to Teachers,” which James Baldwin delivered to a group of educators in October, 1963. (He published it in the Saturday Review the following December.) That year, Medgar Evers, a leading civil-rights figure and N.A.A.C.P. state field director, was murdered in his driveway by a white supremacist in Jackson, Mississippi. That year, four young girls—Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley—were killed when Klansmen bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, in Birmingham, Alabama. That year, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated as he rode in his motorcade through downtown Dallas.

I make a point of revisiting this essay at the beginning of each school year, and while Baldwin’s words have always felt relevant, this year they feel particularly so. Students have returned to school after a summer of political and social tumult. In August, white supremacists and neo-Nazis brazenly marched across the campus of the University of Virginia; one shot at a counter-protester, and another mowed down a crowd with a car, killing a woman who had showed up to oppose their hate. A few weeks later, the White House announced that it would be rescinding the protections set in place by President Barack Obama’s daca program—a move that left eight hundred thousand undocumented immigrants uncertain about their futures. Many teachers are wondering how to address these events in their classrooms. Should they incorporate potentially contentious issues into their lessons? Should lessons be pushed aside to tackle the urgent matters of the day?

Recently, I was chatting with a friend who teaches at an elementary school in Washington, D.C., where I live, and he shared with me how confused and disillusioned his students were by what they had seen on television. He sat them in a circle and gave them space to ask questions. “Why was somebody so angry that they wanted to drive a car through people who were asking for their rights?” one student wondered. My friend shared with me another story from a community meeting that he had just attended. A mother stood up and said, “I’m tired of having to teach my two-year-old how to duck; I’m tired of having to teach my two-year-old that certain nights when we get home from school we have to sit on the floor.”

“Yet we send them to school and we’re not allowing them to be a part of an opportunity to address that,” my friend said, hurt and perplexed. The next evening, he brought his students to a local candlelight vigil, where hundreds of people showed up to honor Heather Heyer—the demonstrator who had been killed in Charlottesville—and to protest the hateful actions that led to her death. Throughout the evening, people talked about what had transpired. Some of the students chimed in, too. Later, my friend recalled, the kids told him that doing so made them feel important. “People wanted to listen to me,” one student said.

Baldwin’s talk offers a way to think about this. I first read it when I was a high-school English teacher, in the winter of 2012. I was sitting at my desk one day, after the bell had rung, staring at a clouded chalkboard, leaning back in my chair, its beige foam crawling out from beneath red cloth. I had just struggled through a lesson on the different types of sentence structure—not the most riveting topic for most fifteen-year-olds, I realize—and I had seen my students stare blankly past me, disengaged. I wondered how preoccupied they might be by what was happening outside school walls. A string of senseless murders had taken the lives of some of their friends. In Florida, a boy named Trayvon Martin had just been killed, too, and his killer had yet to face charges. But that day, like most days, I stuck to the book, keeping politics on the periphery.

My decision was based, in part, on Maryland’s educational standards. The state had recently adopted Common Core and parcc (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) assessments; there was little incentive to teach beyond the bounds of the new curriculum. This wasn’t why I had signed up to be a teacher, but job security and paychecks were directly linked to student test scores. I found myself becoming a part of a system of incentive-based learning that I opposed. That day, a friend, who had been a teacher for many years, gave me a copy of “A Talk to Teachers.” The essay might quell some of my frustration, she said.

Baldwin delivered the talk on the heels of the March on Washington, where he was famously pulled from the list of speakers because organizers—who knew the writer’s habit for speaking extemporaneously—were unsure if he would stay on message. “A Talk to Teachers” is emblematic of Baldwin’s proclivity for candor over political appeasement, and, like much of his work, focusses on history and the American consciousness. “It is almost impossible for any Negro child to discover anything about his actual history,” he writes. Young people are constantly absorbing—through media, textbooks, and policy—the myths of American exceptionalism; for black children, this means that what they are taught in class does not match the world that they navigate daily. “On the one hand he is born in the shadow of the Stars and Stripes and he is assured it represents a nation which has never lost a war,” Baldwin continues. “But on the other hand he is also assured by his country and his countrymen that he has never contributed anything to civilization—that his past is nothing more than a record of humiliations gladly endured.”

A more honest reckoning with history is necessary, Baldwin insists. Of slavery, he says, “it was not an accident, it was not an act of God, it was not done by well-meaning people muddling into something which they didn’t understand. It was a deliberate policy hammered into place in order to make money from black flesh. And now, in 1963, because we have never faced this fact, we are in intolerable trouble.”

It’s this focus on history that rearranged my thinking. In Baldwin’s view, it is the only thing that can help disabuse black children of the stereotypes that have been projected onto their community—and it is necessary for white children, too, who oftentimes serve as the purveyors of these myths, and who do not know the truth about their history, either.

Baldwin understands that learning this history can leave students in a state of cognitive dissonance and frustration. Imagining his own hypothetical students, he writes, “I would try to teach them—I would try to make them know, that those streets, those houses, those dangers, those agonies by which they are surrounded, are criminal.” Here, Baldwin, with literary sleight of hand, adopts the terminology used to pathologize black people and applies it to the system in which they operate. What follows is a medley of lessons that is disquieting in its contemporary applicability. “I would try to make him know that just as American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it, so is the world larger, more daring, more beautiful and more terrible, but principally larger—and that it belongs to him,” he writes, adding, “I would teach him that he doesn’t have to be bound by the expediencies of any given administration, any given policy, any given morality, that he has the right and the necessity to examine everything.”

After reading “A Talk to Teachers,” I altered my approach, placing less emphasis on the standardized tests and using literature to help my students examine their world. I realized that rigorous lessons were not mutually exclusive from culturally and politically relevant ones. Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” did not have to be sacrificed in order to make room for a discussion on community violence. Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” did not have to be abandoned in order to tackle immigration. “A Talk to Teachers” showed me that a teacher’s work should reject the false pretense of being apolitical, and, instead, confront the problems that shape our students’ lives.

The most quoted line from “A Talk to Teachers” may be this one: “The paradox of education is precisely this—that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.” A teacher, Baldwin believed, should push students to understand that the world was molded by people who came before, and that it can be remolded into something new.

  • Clint Smith is a writer, a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University, and the author of “Counting Descent.”

When History’s Losers Write the Story

Photo

A statue of Jefferson Davis in Richmond, Va. CreditChip Somodevilla/Getty Images

I visited a summer camp in western Russia in July 2015. Its theme was “military patriotism,” and it involved dozens of teenagers lounging around in tents, wrestling, carving wood and making garlands. They were also taking history classes. Joseph Stalin, the Soviet leader who killed millions of Soviet citizens, was remembered fondly.

“Whatever your view of Stalin, you can’t deny that he was a strong leader,” a counselor told me later over steaming bowls of cabbage soup. “Stalin won the war. He made it possible for us to go to space. You can’t just throw out a person like that from history.”

Russia has not faced the darker parts of its past, something I spent a lot of time thinking about as a correspondent there. But my own country has memory problems, too. Take the Civil War. Historians tell us it was fought over slavery. But an entirely different version unspooled last month at an Applebee’s in Delaware.

“It’s too simplified to say the war was over slavery,” said Jeffrey Plummer, head of a local chapter of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans. “That’s what’s been taught in the schools, but there’s more to it.”

Selective memory, it seems, is a global phenomenon. Think of Turkey and its blank spot where the Armenian genocide should be. Or Japan with its squeamishness about its aggression and mass murder in China. It starts as a basic human impulse to take the sting out of defeat or to avoid admitting some atrocity. But it’s also a way to help cope with a difficult present. And like a growth on a tree ring, it can keep the past off-kilter until some future generation is brave enough to right it.

“In most countries you are more likely to get evasion and nationalistic versions of history than tough grappling with the darker parts of your past, and the U.S. is no exception,” said Gary Bass, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton.

In the United States, the Civil War remains “the most divisive and unresolved experience Americans have ever had,” according to David Blight, a historian at Yale. “The Civil War is like a sleeping dragon. If you poke it hard enough, it will raise its head and breathe fire.”

That is, in part, because the loser was allowed its own interpretation. The South, facing catastrophic loss of life and mass destruction on a European scale, wrote its own history of the war. It cast itself as an underdog overwhelmed by the North’s superior numbers, but whose cause — a noble fight for states’ rights — was just. The North looked the other way. Northern elites were more interested in re-establishing economic ties than in keeping their commitments to blacks’ constitutional rights. The political will to complete Reconstruction died.

“The whole notion of honoring the Confederacy and the sacrifice that your family made became part of what we taught in the schools,” said Charles Dew, a Williams College historian whose book “Apostles of Disunion” describes the white supremacist arguments that underpinned the South’s case for leaving the Union.

To correct the record, Mr. Dew gave talks about his book in the early 2000s, as part of the National Park Service’s efforts to clarify the causes of the war. Some audiences pushed back, saying, “My family did not own slaves, so how could they have been fighting for slavery?”

“I’m not trying to denigrate your ancestors,” Mr. Dew said he told those people. “I’m trying to explain why the war came and ask everyone to consider the issue with an open mind.”

In Russia, people choked on memory. As the Soviet Union was falling, the sins of the past flooded the present. Newspapers wrote about Soviet repressions. Researchers began documenting political killings. All this, as Russians were losing their jobs, their savings, their respect in the world and their dignity. They could not afford to lose their past. So Stalin became the man who led the Soviet Union to victory in World War II and industrialized a peasant nation.

Germany is the exception. It took a generation, but German society faced its Nazi past and has emerged as an exemplary democratic culture. That is partly because of the extreme nature of the Nationalist Socialist regime and the devastation of the war it brought. Germans had to come to terms with the Holocaust. The Nazi regime had perhaps overcome the depression, but its increasing brutality left no redeeming qualities.

“In the United States, slavery was embedded in a constitutional regime that at least verbally offered universalizing rights,” said Charles Maier, a professor of 20th-century history at Harvard. “The German cause had no equivalent.”

But while top Nazis were put on trial right after the war, with the world watching, mainstream German society did not fully grapple with the crimes until the 1960s. There was a political shift to the left that encouraged young Germans who posed hard questions about their parents’ past. Even today, there are no major memorials to the perhaps half a million Germans who died in Allied bombing campaigns in Hamburg, Dresden and other cities, as that would be seen an assertion of equivalence.

In the years immediately after the war, Japanese society was actually ahead of German society in terms of facing its past, said Ian Buruma, author of “The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan.” Leftists then had a strong voice in the media and universities, encouraged by liberals in the American occupation, and the history being taught was starting to grapple with Japan’s wartime atrocities against other Asian peoples. But that early reckoning got bogged down in politics: The United States, together with Japanese liberals, decided the problem was Japanese militarism and gave the country a pacifist Constitution. That alienated the right, causing a rift that persists to this day.

“In Japan, history became politicized,” Mr. Buruma said. “Whenever you hear a right-winger say, ‘It’s all a left-wing myth, we’re not as guilty as people are saying,’ what he’s really saying is, ‘We want to revise the Constitution and postwar order imposed by the United States.’ ”

The argument over Confederate monuments has surprised historians like Dr. Blight, who has studied the war for decades. It is a moment for public education like no other, but with risks. When history’s losers get to define the story, it can create rifts — with allies, with adversaries or even with our fellow citizens. But so can a sudden, emotional rush to rectify it. Historians say the Confederate statues should be removed slowly, with deliberation, not destroyed in the middle of the night.

“This sudden, almost rage to get rid of monuments kind of violates our instincts as historians,” he said. “Be careful, slow down. If they are taken down, let’s preserve and curate them. These are part of our historical landscape. To just destroy them is not educational.”