Teachers work to broaden history lessons

  • Fifth-grade social studies teachers at Oyster River Middle School in Durham meet every two weeks to redesign the curriculum to reflect more inclusive narratives. Clockwise from upper left are Emily Burke, Kayla Livingston, Kyra Dulmage and Sara O’Brien. Courtesy

Granite State News Collaborative
Published: 7/15/2020 3:43:14 PM

Protests over George Floyd’s killing at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis amplified efforts to discuss racism in the classroom. However, the journey for educators to understand how racist systems perpetuate inequities began long before multicultural crowds rallied in the streets to support the Black Lives Matters movement.

Kyra Dulmage is a fifth-grade teacher at Oyster River Middle School in the Durham region, and a member of the newly formed Seacoast Educators for Equity (SEE), whose mission is to create more inclusive versions of history.

Last spring, Dulmage spent a lot of time thinking about her whiteness. She and seven other public school teachers participated in a book discussion group after reading Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? The event was sponsored by N.H. Listens, an initiative of the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire.

Dulmage says young white students don’t see themselves as belonging to a race. They don’t think about the advantages they have when they buy hair products or flesh-colored bandages at the drug store or walk into a classroom and not be the only member of their race.

“We talked [in the book group] about how many people of our time were raised to be colorblind and how harmful that can be,” says Dulamge.

Not seeing color is the comfortable default in predominantly white communities, says Valerie Wolfson, who also participated in the book club, teaches eighth grade at ORMS and is a member of SEE, which has among other action items an antiracist self-reflection checklist for teachers.

Wolfson says assuming everybody is the same invalidates the experience of students who don’t see themselves reflected in the heritage of the country or in the faces of their teachers.

“Talking about race isn’t racist,” she says. “A lot of families avoid the topic because it seems scary or inappropriate.”

Dulmage is part of a fifth-grade team rewriting the social studies curriculum to highlight contributions of marginalized groups, including Native American Indians. This summer, she and her cohorts are meeting every two weeks via Zoom with Bethany Silva, who directs the Community Literacy Center, a resource for pre-K-12 learners, families and educators at UNH. The teachers are a long way from finalizing lesson plans, but they’re collecting literature and resources that portray characters in heroic or empowering roles. Dulmage says many of the recommended books are sold out on Amazon. “That’s a good sign.”

In June, the fifth-grade teachers met on Zoom with Denise and Paul Pouliot of the Cowasuck band of the Pennacook and Abenaki people to expand perceptions of Indigenous peoples. For example, gender identities among Native Americans were more fluid than those of the Christian Europeans who tried to assimilate them.

“The narrative of pre-colonialism presented in textbooks, Dulmage says, “is written by white people.”

Dulmage is inviting the Pouliots to talk about their heritage in the classroom. She envisions asking students to compare what they’ve learned in the Pouliots’ presentation with what they’ve read in the history books.

Likewise, she hopes to contrast sanitized textbook versions of slavery with the broader systems of a slave-based economy that infiltrated the North as well as the South, fueled Jim Crow laws, and continues to stoke white supremacy.

“Some people might see the fact that we’re being responsive to the Black Lives Matter movement as political and they don’t want that in their classrooms,” she says. “But this is also about human decency, safety and human rights.”

Valerie Wolfson is focused on getting students to reflect on their identities and how those identities change depending on where they are, who they’re interacting with and how people perceive them. To clarify, she holds up a mirror to her own identities: the teacher as the authority in the classroom, the fourth of five children in a family whose members may still see her as a sweet 16-year-old; the female worried about safety as she walks alone on a dark street in Boston.

Getting kids to see how self-descriptions waver within the school community and then the world at large is the first step toward understanding that race is not biological but a social construct, says Wolfson.

To help students understand the origins and the language of racism, Wolfson is adding to her class library Jason Reynolds’s adaptation for young people of Ibram X. Kendi’s book Stamped from the Beginning, which chronicles the timeline of anti-Black racist ideas and explores what people can do about it in their present lives.

Starting hard conversations with literature works well for any age group, says Mandie Goodwin, a first-grade teacher at the Mary C. Dondero Elementary School in Portsmouth, and also a member of SEE.

Goodwin begins by establishing guidelines around language and empathy. “In my classroom they’re not allowed to say ‘weird’; you have to say, ‘oh that’s different’.”

Her circle of learners includes the parents of her 6- and 7-year-olds as they read books like I am Enough by Grace Byers, which illustrates an African American girl celebrating beauty in diverse ways. “It’s a conversation we’re having together.”

Challenges in creating constructive dialogue loom large. For one thing, teachers are juggling unknowns. This fall, will they be remote or in person? They will have to navigate heightened emotions in response to wearing masks and social distancing; they will have to build a community on Zoom with classmates who have yet to meet.

Secondly, they want to create spaces where students don’t experience shame or feel threatened because of past events they can’t change. Wolfson says to keep kids engaged, she takes a discovery rather than a prescriptive approach: “I provide background essential knowledge so they can go and then investigate for themselves.”

A third challenge relates to New Hampshire’s demographics and Goodwin and others acknowledge it’s not trivial: The teachers mapping out the lesson plans and exchanging ideas are, for the most part, white people. As earnest as they try to be, they don’t represent the African American community and they don’t expect a minority student of color to do that either.

“As educators, we constantly ask ourselves who’s not there,” says Goodwin. “There are people that are not in our classroom but still, their voices need to be represented.”

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.

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