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My first social studies superhero and Teaching What Really Happened.

I’ve always had social studies heroes.

The people who made and continue to make National Geographic magazine map inserts. My 7th grade geography teacher. Garden City High School’s Mr. Tomayko. James Clavell and Stephen Ambrose. Sam Wineburg.

But my first real social studies hero . . . the first person who I consciously recognized as someone impacting my career as a social studies teacher?

James Loewen. As in, the author of:

  • Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong
  • Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of Racism
  • Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong
  • And his latest, Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks and Get Students Excited About Doing History

Years after first reading Lies My Teacher Told Me, I’m not even sure now how and where I ran across the book. But for someone who had grown up in western Kansas and had sat in stereotypical history classrooms, with stereotypical 12 pound textbooks, led by stereotypical instruction, Loewen’s assertions were literally life changing.

Lies was funny and compelling and surprising and shocking and disturbing and mind blowing and led to all sorts of questions.

  • How had I missed all of this?
  • Why didn’t I know these things?
  • Why did my teachers not tell me this?
  • How had I gone through 13 years of public school and six years of higher education and never really had these conversations?
  • Where do I find out more?

If you haven’t read any of his stuff, do a quick Amazon prime two day delivery and set some time aside over the holiday break. You may not agree with everything he says but no question you’ll walk away smarter. Basically Lies describes how American history textbooks – and social studies books in general – have forever been oversimplifying, downplaying, and ignoring the uncomfortable stories and uncertainties of the past under a blanket of play it safe narration.

The book continues by sharing and highlighting some of those stories. For a young social studies teacher trying to find his way, Lies was exactly the right book at the right time. It told me that there are so many interesting stories we leave out. So many interesting people. That the story of who we are has always been and continues to be complicated. That we need to include multiple voices in the stories we tell our kids and the stories help them uncover.

Since Lies came out, there have been new editions, different books, articles, and presentations.

But I’m especially loving the latest update of his latest book – Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks and Get Students Excited About Doing History. If you’re a Loewen newbie, you might want to jump in with this one. Definitely go back and read Lies but for instant Loewen satisfaction and classroom impact, this is a great place to start. It’s more of a resource and how-to than Lies, providing specific strategies, ideas, and resources. This second edition also includes a “timely new chapter entitled Truth that addresses how traditional and social media can distort current events and the historical record.”

If you’re already on the Loewen bandwagon, this is a perfect holiday gift just for yourself that can jumpstart second semester and help you push through the winter blues of January and February.

The back cover goes on:

Helping students understand what really happened in the past will empower them to use history as a tool to argue for better policies in the present. Our society needs engaged citizens now more than ever, and this book offers teachers concrete ideas for getting students excited about history while also teaching them to read critically. It will specifically help teachers and students tackle important content areas, including Eurocentrism, the American Indian experience, and slavery.

You’ll find:

  • An up-to-date assessment of the potential and pitfalls of U.S. and world history education.
  • Information that helps you expect, and get, good performance from students of all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
  • Strategies for incorporating project-oriented self-learning, having students conduct online historical research, and teaching historiography.
  • Ideas from teachers across the country who are empowering students by teaching what really happened.
  • Specific chapters dedicated to five content topics usually taught poorly in today’s schools.

Loewen may not have the same impact on you that he’s had on me. Maybe you’ve got enough heroes of your own. I get that. But I will guarantee that you’re gonna walk away with a whole series of new thoughts, questions, and possibilities. And that’s something we can all agree is a good thing.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Michael M Yell #

    Interesting blog as usual Glenn. One of my first social studies heros was a tenth grade teacher named Richard Theisen. Seeing Rick’s name on the Social Education masthead as a board member was one of reasons that I got involved in NCSS. Years later Rick became president of the NCSS; he was serving on the board as past president when I got on the board. So we both ended up serving as NCSS president.

    December 20, 2019
    • glennw #

      Thanks for the quick comment! I think we all have at least one classroom teacher who inspired us. BTW – I still use so much of your stuff with teachers. Still remember sitting in a NCSS pre-conference workshop you presented. Thanks for all you’ve done and continue to do for the profession!


      December 20, 2019

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