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Did Columbus ‘discover’ America? Teachers re-examine how history is taught

Educators from around the country have been reflecting on what they teach and how they teach it in the wake of the death of George Floyd and the national protests that followed.
Some lessons up for reconsideration: the dismissive take that it was simply “the norm” that Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves in the late 1700s and language around Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of America.
“You’re messaging that people were not here thousands of years before Columbus,” said Stefanie Wagner, a former teacher in Des Moines, Iowa, who is president of the National Council for the Social Studies.
As the nation faces a moment of racial reckoning, many long-held conceptions are being challenged, as seen in the toppling of Confederate monuments and the push to defund police. What’s taught in U.S. classrooms is no exception. NBC News spoke with teachers around the country who said they were working to reshape lesson plans to better reflect the fullness of America’s multicultural history.
Additions to history classes might include lessons on intersectional figures, such as Bayard Rustin, the Black man who organized the 1963 March on Washington but was largely shunned in the civil rights movement because he was gay.
“I did hear a lot of responses from teachers about their need to have more education around Black history because of George Floyd,” said LaGarrett King, the founding director of the Carter Center for K-12 Black History Education at the University of Missouri.
He’s not alone.
LaGarrett King, an associate professor of social studies education at the University of Missouri, speaks during the Teaching Black History Conference in July.University of Missouri
Wagner said: “I think that has been on the forefront of everyone’s mind,” along with how they’re going to teach safely during the coronavirus pandemic. “These two big topics have been the talk of the summer for sure.”
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That was reflected at the third annual Teaching Black History Conference, which King hosted last month. More than 1,000 teachers about 700 more than last year attended to hear educators from around the world and to discuss improving their lessons. Unlike the previous in-person events, this year’s conference was held virtually with a series of video sessions.
King, who is an associate professor of social studies education, said it’s important to understand intersectionality within Black history in terms of “exploring the full humanity of Black people,” including women, LGBTQ people, the disabled, the poor and other groups.
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Janella Hinds, a global studies teacher at a high school in New York City, said teachers also re-examined those topics at the recent convention of the American Federation of Teachers, a major teachers union.
“There are educators who in the spring started to think about anti-racist instruction and conversations about how to uproot acts of supremacy that students are experiencing,” said Hinds, vice president for academic high schools at the United Federation of Teachers, a union representing New York City’s public schoolteachers.
“It’s not everybody, for sure, but we do have a lot of teachers, especially on the high school level, who have been doing some amazing work around incorporating the current events into the courses of study into our convention,” she said.
Hinds said she was working with her school, Brooklyn’s High School for Public Service, on creating an elective course focused on activism and movements against oppression, as well as linking current events into her global studies class.
Michael Veteri, 5, stands at an intersection where the road remained closed during a protest in Tampa, Fla., on May 31 over the death of George Floyd.Douglas R. Clifford / Tampa Bay Times via AP file
“It’s about thinking about this long history of oppression and resistance. This is part of the American experience,” she said.
Adina Goldstein, a seventh-grade social studies and English teacher in Philadelphia, said she had been thinking about how to turn her social studies class into more of an ethnic studies course to reflect more African American and Latin American history. That would, in turn, reflect the identities of the majority of her students.
Goldstein, who is Chinese American and Jewish, said she recently spoke with a former African American history teacher, who said “something really insightful to me: ‘We teach what we know.'”
Goldstein noted that while the majority of students are Black and Latino in Philadelphia, nearly 70 percent of teachers are white. She said she believes school districts should invest in giving teachers resources and continuing education so they can educate themselves and improve their curricula to better reflect their students’ identities.
Adina Goldstein is a seventh-grade teacher at Vare-Washington Elementary School in Philadelphia.Ashlee Mintz
“I need to take that time, and that’s what I’ve been doing a lot this summer, to learn about Latin America and really center not just on white academic voices but center on academic voices that are Latinx,” said Goldstein, who teaches at Vare-Washington Elementary School.
Goldstein said that before the end of the academic year, some teachers had a virtual “learn in” in which seventh- and eighth-grade students studied George Floyd, police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement.
The students undertook group activities, like writing letters to Congress and state representatives, creating art to express how they felt, and listing ways they could help and resources they could use to better understand what was going on, Goldstein said. They also discussed how the current situation applied to their community and school and how they could support the Black community within their school.
“That was something that was really, really powerful, and the things that my students wrote and the art that they produced was unbelievable,” she said. “It never stops just making me so proud and excited to see how much kids are able to really think critically about the world around them.”
Kimberly Rodriguez, an English language arts teacher at John Adams High School in the New York borough of Queens, said she would be working with her school this month to shift lessons to relate more to their students’ lives in the wake of the national moment.
Kimberly Rodriguez is an English language arts teacher at John Adams High School in Queens, N.Y.Kimberly Rodriguez
She said she would be working with all departments to see how they could fit culture-responsive teaching into their curricula, which includes bringing more diverse backgrounds into their lessons and then relating them to students’ experiences.
“It’s great for them to voice their opinion on how they feel and what’s going on in their life, and as educators, we need listen and be there,” she said. “How can we let that live in our curricula? How can we let that live in our lessons? How can we take a break from testing and ask students their perspectives of what’s going on in their lives?”
Anton Schulzki, a high school teacher in Colorado Springs, Colorado, said the state recently held a virtual conference at which dozens of social studies teachers discussed changing their approaches to their curricula to move beyond their own biases.
People with signs and masks reading “I Can’t Breathe” during a protest in Chicago on May 30 over the death of George Floyd.Nam Y. Huh / AP file
“Up front was the issue of race and how we need to change our approach,” he said.
Schulzki said the conversation specifically covered how Native American history, LGBTQ history and the histories of other minorities groups are taught.
“There’s a decided push for us to really begin to re-examine our own biases and how we approach things in our classroom. There’s a push among a lot of teachers, period, across the country to really examine how we approach things,” said Schulzki, who is president-elect of the National Council for the Social Studies.
That effort won’t be easy for teachers everywhere, especially in districts where progressive changes likely wouldn’t be well received, he said.
“For some, it will be easy to jump into. For others, I can understand their caution, because there are a lot of things that teachers have to deal with. There are some school districts across the country that don’t look favorably on changing an established curriculum, and that’s hard,” Schulzki said.
Still, he said, “we need to have these conversations, and it needs to start with the colleagues in your school.”read more

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