Recent news articles are highlighting a request to ban access by Florida elementary students to Amanda Gorman’s poem A Hill We Climb. The reason for the request? “it is not educational and have indirectly hate messages.”
The specific passage that “have indirectly hate messages”?
“We’ve braved the belly of the beast. We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace, And the norms and notions of what ‘just is’ Isn’t always justice.
And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it. Somehow, we do it. Somehow, we’ve weathered and witnessed A nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.”
The ban request also lists the author / publisher as Oprah Winfrey and claims that the function of the poem is to “cause confusion.”
I’ve always been a fan of using a variety of resources to teach social studies, including non-fiction, literature, and poetry. And this poem by Gorman has a particularly powerful potential for encouraging and supporting historical thinking. So . . . to support the use of poetry as part of your instruction and specifically The Hill We Climb, today is Wayback Wednesday with a post from January 2021.
“. . . a history class should not be arguing about the facts of history – the most important argument we should be having is how do we interpret the facts. The discussions should focus on questions about meaning, not questions about facts. “
His book talks about the ways that experts interpret facts and question meaning. Sam suggests that we need to train our kids to argue meaning and to think historically. Of course, his suggestion relies on the idea that facts are facts. That we don’t spend time in our classrooms “arguing about the facts” but instead what those facts mean.
But a problem begins to emerge when the facts themselves are questioned and when people twist facts, or worse, when they discount the facts completely because the facts fail to support their beliefs.
I was reminded of the problem while reading through Leonard Pitts’ weekly column this morning. A writer for the Miami Herald, Pitts starts his column with
I got an email the other day that depressed me.
Pitts had written about a young African American soldier named Henry Johnson who, after singlehandedly fighting off a series of attacks by a group of German soldiers in May 1918, was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government. Of course, these facts didn’t sit well with at least one reader named Ken Thompson who wrote Pitts. Pitts quotes Thompson verbatim:
Hate to tell you that blacks were not allowed into combat intell 1947, that fact. World War II ended in 1945. So all that feel good, one black man killing two dozen Nazi, is just that, PC bull.
Never mind that black soldiers have fought in every war in US history, that Nazis didn’t exist in World War One, that Thompson can’t keep his I and II straight, and that Johnson’s exploits have been well documented in books by Lerone Bennett Jr and Rayford Logan.
A Pitt’s assistant took the time to write Thompson back and referenced a site honoring Johnson maintained by the Arlington National Cemetery. These facts also didn’t sit well with Thompson:
There is no race on headstones and they didn’t come up with the story in tell 2002.
Mmmm . . . “a history class should not be arguing about the facts of history – the most important argument we should be having is how do we interpret the facts.”
Pitts suggests that Thompson is “not just some isolated eccentric”:
To listen to talk radio, to watch TV pundits, to read a newspaper’s online message board, is to realize that increasingly, we are a people estranged from critical thinking, divorced from logic, alienated from even objective truth. We admit no ideas that do not confirm us, hear no voices that do not echo us, sift out all information that does not validate what we wish to believe.
All of this solidifies for me the importance of high quality social studies instruction, of the need to train our kids to think and argue with facts, not feelings. Of the incredibly important place that social studies has in creating truly reflective citizens in a democracy.
It was helpful for me to go back to the American Historical Association article “Why Study History.”
When we study it reasonably well, and so acquire some usable habits of mind, as well as some basic data about the forces that affect our own lives, we emerge with relevant skills and an enhanced capacity for informed citizenship, critical thinking, and simple awareness.
Apparently, Ken Thompson somehow missed those skills while in school. And as social studies and history teachers, we need to take responsibility for that. We need to do a better job of creating informed, open-minded citizens.
So. What can that look like?
Simply put, our classroom instruction needs to focus on inquiry-based learning activities. We need to train our kids to examine primary and secondary evidence. We need to be asking our kids to use that evidence to address authentic and complex compelling questions. We need to help kids to make evidence-based claims and to share those claims with others. Simply put . . . it’s not that simple. But it’s important. Because we all need engaged, knowledgeable, and informed citizens in the world.
One way or the other, things will probably get a bit more . . . hmm, interactive in your classrooms over the next few weeks. As final results from this fall’s midterm elections trickle in and mail-in ballots are counted, you will most likely have some students with questions, parents who may have concerns, and admins who’ll worry about all of the above. Possibly making class discussions difficult and uncomfortable.
And that sort of learning can be difficult. I get that. Throw the current anti-teacher atmosphere into the mix and I can’t think of a tougher time to be an educator. And you’re not alone in being concerned about taking on controversial topics.
Education Weeksurvey data gathered back in 2017 suggested that many teachers find it difficult to talk about race, politics, and other controversial topics. Almost 30 percent expressly avoid it completely. Part of the problem is that many of us – 44 percent – don’t feel prepared to lead conversations that will probably get emotional.
So should you even try? And if you do decide to take on that challenge, what’s the best way to deal with those conversations?
You’re all busy with a lot of things. And I’m guessing one of the biggest this week is the upcoming Midterms. But this quick read from a couple of years ago might be able to help.
A big part of what I do every week involves spending time with teachers, especially social studies teachers, leading and having conversations around best practice, instruction, and assessment. And it’s almost always the best part of the week.
Think about it. I get the chance to sit and nerd out with other social studies people talking about our favorite history stuff. I know. It’s awesome.
A lot of our recent conversations have focused on the soon to be released Kansas state social studies assessment. At its most basic level, the assessment will ask kids to solve a problem using evidence and communicate the solution. This assumes, obviously, that the kid will have acquired some historical and critical thinking skills somewhere along the way.
And the more I get the chance to work with our current standards and the planned assessment, the more I realize that we need to do more than just train students to start thinking in certain ways. We also need to train them to stop thinking in other ways. We want them to be able to source and contextualize evidence. We want them to read and write effectively. These are useful skills.
But there are also ways of thinking that can slow that process down and even grow into habits that can lead to ineffective (and perhaps dangerous) citizens.
I recently ran across an article on my Flipboard feed that specifically addresses these ineffective and potentially dangerous habits. Posted by Lee Watanabe-Crockett over at the Global Digital Citizen, the article highlights both problems and solutions. You’ll want to head over there to get the full meal deal but because Lee focuses more on generalities than things specific to social studies and history, I’ve given you just a little taste below:
On June 7, 1776, the Second Continental Congress listened as Richard Henry Lee of Virginia proposed a resolution declaring the United States independent from Great Britain:
“Resolved, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”
It was a bold move. Several states including New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and South Carolina were not yet ready to support this potentially fatal step. Failure to approve the resolution could lead to the collapse of the shaky alliance between the 13 colonies. An earlier proposal by John Adams on May 15 declaring that “it is necessary that the exercise of every kind of authority under the said crown should be totally suppressed” barely passed. Four colonies voted against it and the delegation from Maryland stormed out of the room in protest.
Congress agreed to delay the vote on Lee’s Resolution until July 1. During that time, Congress appointed a committee to draft a formal declaration of independence to accompany the resolution. Consisting of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert R. Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson, the committee selected Jefferson to be the primary author of the document. A rough draft of the document was presented to Congress for review on June 28.
Debate followed. And on July 2, 1776, the Congress voted to approve the resolution that had been proposed a month earlier – declaring the United States independent from Great Britain. After voting for independence, Congress turned its attention to Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, a statement explaining their decision. Members debated and revised the wording of the Declaration, finally approving a final version of the document on July 4. (There is some debate on when the document was actually signed with the National Archives suggesting an August 2 date.)
We celebrate on the 4th but John Adams understood that it was the fateful vote two days earlier that is what we are really observing. In his famous letter to Abigail:
Current events have always been something that we as social studies teachers are acutely aware of. There are so many ways that we’re able to use them to connect past with present. But the last few weeks have been difficult. Ukrainian people are suffering. And it doesn’t seem like that will be ending anytime soon.
What’s the best way to integrate the events in Ukraine into our classrooms?
We all love Mister Rogers. Something he said once seems to fit here:
“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting and less scary.”
The more we talk, the manageable things become. Browse through this short list of resources that can help. And while the list is separated by grade level, don’t be afraid to cross-pollinate between the two.
Glenn Wiebe – social studies nerd, consultant, tech guy
Thanks for dropping by! As a curriculum consultant for ESSDACK, an educational service center in Hutchinson, Kansas, History Tech is my chance to rattle on about social studies and technology. Feel free to poke around.
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Evidence Analysis Window Frames and Tools for Teaching & Learning
At ESSDACK, we want to offer tools and products that encourage you to learn and work when and where you want. Check out these handy products that can be used as instructional tools and professional learning opportunities in ways that work best for you.
The very cool Evidence Analysis Window Frame that scaffolds historical thinking skills and helps kids make sense of primary sources.
But you'll also find C4 Cards and 25 Days of History Tech Tools to help you grow professionally.