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October 8, 2020

History Lessons for Hard Times: Why We Can't Just Teach SEL

Educators' role includes assisting students in understanding current events by providing a space for reflection, analysis, and critical thinking.
Social-emotional learningTechnology
Many of our nation's students have grown up with hashtags and media images that reflect the harsh reality for Black men, women, and children who have lost their lives at the hands of police. This year, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and innumerable other Black Americans were murdered in the midst of a global pandemic that continues to disproportionately affect Black and Latino communities and other communities of color. Many students of color remain isolated from the everyday routine school provides, as they search for answers and safe spaces to process a world that compromises safety for them and those who look like them.
While there has been a much-needed focus on students' social-emotional health, social-emotional learning (SEL) taught in the absence of a larger sociopolitical context and ongoing learning about the history behind race relations in the United States can actually harm students of color by amplifying feelings of helplessness and victimhood and upholding damaging narratives.
As educators, our role includes assisting students in understanding current events by providing a space for reflection, analysis, and critical thinking. I believe this is best accomplished by examining curriculum and texts that provide a lens for understanding our world. According to educator Gholdy Muhammad, students "need spaces to name, interrogate, resist, agitate, and work toward social change." How should we create these spaces?

A Holistic Portrayal

The answer lies in reevaluating how we teach history in our classrooms. The Southern Poverty Law Center graded the 50 states on how well public schools taught civil rights and found that 20 states received a failing grade, with five states having no mention of civil rights in state standards. In the context of ongoing protests for racial justice and public statements from President Donald Trump that rebuff calls to teach slavery and racism in U.S. history and tout what he calls a "pro-American curriculum," it is crucial that schools present an accurate picture of history. It's our job to help all students better understand their classmates' experiences and contributions while simultaneously working to mitigate the effects of widespread ignorance and racism embedded in our culture.
How schools across the nation deal with teaching history varies from state to state since there are no national standards. For example, in Nevada, where I teach, the standards say that students should be able to analyze the way in which Native, European, and African cultures were affected by conflict and compromise in our nation's early history. The inclusion of race, power, and identity can be found throughout the state standards, which is a notable starting point.
However, how schools actually implement American history is an entirely different story. We have the responsibility to present an accurate, holistic portrayal, which includes tackling difficult concepts such as violence and outright genocide against the country's own citizens.

Space for Complexity

I am an elementary-level ELA teacher, and it can sometimes feel challenging to directly address history—especially the more uncomfortable, and even violent, parts. I have had success using current events and stories from sources such as Newsela, which often touch on the historical roots of current conflicts in student friendly and objective ways. I plan to start our unit on expository texts with an analysis of an article about the ongoing controversy of whether we should remove historical monuments, since this became a huge focal point in the midst of recent protests.
To combat the discomfort I anticipate from students, I'm working on online norms drawn from Facing History and Ourselves' Guide to "Preparing Students for Difficult Conversations." Students journal about the meaning of safe space, discuss current events and personal experiences, and dive into media literacy. There may be a time when a student says something inappropriate or when parents object to discussions or content. When that happens, I will do what I've always done: draw on the standards, which clearly spell out what students should be learning, doing, and discussing in the classroom. Maintaining open communication with families can also diffuse tensions. I plan to let families know up front about our topics and share norms for discussion with them as well as students. This makes it easier to reach out if there's an issue with inappropriate comments or behavior.
Teaching Tolerance, Smithsonian History's Explorer, and the Zinn Education Project are other thoughtful free resources for having these complex and often uncomfortable conversations. They offer discussion guides, workshops, and webinars for teachers that serve as entry points into the work, as well as thoroughly developed lesson plans that include text, media, first-person accounts, and historical artifacts.
Teaching history accurately can help students understand and analyze current events. I teach students how police forces began as slave patrols and help them understand how this history continues to affect interactions between Black Americans and police. I teach the history of student activism during the Civil Right Era, where students as young as 12 years old were integral in the fight for voting rights and desegregation. This knowledge can help to combat the feelings of helplessness that students may be experiencing and instead empower them to embrace the power of their voice, activism, and resistance. It can also help boost student achievement by tapping into the cultural assets of students of color. Perhaps most important, true historic literacy avoids the danger of teaching a single story or feeding into harmful stereotypes that promote racist narratives.
The absence of an accurate historical lens in which to process current events is a mistake we can no longer afford to make. Teaching true history sparks student agency, civic involvement, and ultimately, social change. Failing to do so, especially now, would be a disservice to our students and our nation, as we grapple with complex topics that will affect every single one of us for years to come.

Tracy Edwards teaches at Odyssey Charter Schools in Las Vegas, Nev. She is also a curriculum consultant and 2019–20 TeachPlus Educational Policy Fellow.

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