Picture courtsey of Thomas Hawk
As a former Maryland citizen, it is disturbing to see such anger and hatred in my home state. But as I think about my own classroom today in Kentucky, I see that some students have difficulty seeing through the fog of their own biases to look at things from another’s perspective. That is where I find my role as a social studies teacher most impactful. When situations arise as they as they did earlier this month in Baltimore with the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, it is important to make that connection to history for my students. Referring back to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s or the fight for freedom in the Civil War, my students can see the path that racism and resistance to it has taken in US History. I find that it is very important for them as future citizens of our country to understand social and cultural change, recognize how history repeats itself and how to avoid playing a role in the cycles of negative action.
In addition, I encourage my students to look at the situation close to their home here in Lexington, Kentucky. As a member of a recent school redistricting committee, I had the opportunity to take a deep dive into the politics, socioeconomic status and housing patterns of my current community. In that investigation, I found that parts of Lexington have engaged in de facto segregation, meaning that the community has voluntarily separated themselves by race or socioeconomic status. Creating neighborhood schools that are diverse in racial and socioeconomic demographics is nearly impossible, especially in certain areas of our city, because the neighborhoods are so segregated. In 2015, it is clear that social classes, economic status and racial profiles still play a role in a how our community lives with each other. A seemingly peaceful and diverse town still carries hidden perspectives, including some prejudices, beneath the surface. It is something that social studies classes can help inform our students about, and it is something for our society as a whole to recognize.
Within the current framework of our graduation requirements, social studies is relegated to secondary status with only three credits needed for a high school graduate. In many ways, the social studies content has been pushed out of the way in favor of skills-based learning. While critical thinking skills in the social studies are important, and I believe strongly in the use of skills based assessments, I also feel that we cannot overlook content. The content that falls under US History and other historical categories needs a platform; understanding the long fight for African Americans to obtain freedom and equal rights in the United States is an important lesson for all people as they interact with diverse ideas and opinions and try to understand multiple perspectives. As the new C3 Framework begins rolling out across the country, it is important that we don’t lose the stories that have been told throughout history that inform our present reality, and the lessons that a study of government bring. It is necessary for social studies to remain a key part of a student’s educational experience. Without it, misinformed citizens could unknowingly replay an ugly part of our nation’s past which many fought so hard to leave behind.
As the fires of protests and unrest continue to rage in Baltimore and around the country, the need for strong social studies content is higher than ever before. Modern events usually tie in well with social studies concepts; however, now I see a greater need for students to receive the complete story, as it connects with images on the news and in social media. Too many citizens in these situations fail to recall the lessons that the past provides. It is important for our students to understand the pain and triumph from the history textbooks lives on today. Furthermore, they must see those events not as just stories of long ago, but real actions that people took. There were reasons why Rosa Parks decided to sit on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama when she did and context for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech regarding his future dreams for America. And there were reasons why other individuals like Malcolm X and the Black Panther group looked to achieve equality in other ways, some of which included violence. The examples that social studies content provides us with are invaluable for the next generation to grow and experience a brighter, peaceful future. As I teach through these topics in my own classroom, it is my hope that my students take these examples with them so that they can have more productive conversations, greater awareness of others’ perspectives, and a powerful knowledge of how to improve their world, wherever they may go.