How Can We Connect to U.S. History?

By Schneider, Debra; Threatt, Susan | Social Studies Review, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

How Can We Connect to U.S. History?


Schneider, Debra, Threatt, Susan, Social Studies Review


Both of us teach United States history in two different northern California high schools of significantly different SES/demographics, in different districts and communities about 45 miles apart. We collaborate, plan, examine, assess student work, and we tell stories about our teaching lives over the phone, in emails, and at occasional monthly meetings. Because we rarely have time in the teaching year to work in long, uninterrupted blocks of time, when we write together, we sometimes take responsibilities for different sections of a paper after thorough discussion, outlining, and diagramming. We constructed this account of an emerging pattern of response to our assignment to connect a family member to United States history in that way. We have changed our students' names and do not reveal which of the two schools the students attend:

Irina: "We came here just a few years ago. How can we be connected to U.S. History?"

Anh: "My mom is Vietnamese and she immigrated here so she is not part of U.S. History."

Rose: "I can't do this because I don't have family. No, I mean no family from the 20th century. I mean, no one who is in history like we study in class."

Jim: "My grandmother was just a housewife. My grandfather drove a truck or something like that. We don't have any World War II generals in our family."

We know this collection of articles in the Social Studies Review is about women in history. As teachers of history, we also know that canonical accounts prior to the mid-20th century emphasized men's roles and did not fully represent the contributions of women. During the sixties, historians made a concerted effort to invite women and other previously excluded people to the history table (see Zinn, 1980). By the nineties, black feminists and gender theorists had identified a broader variety of possibilities for women than did a Western model of feminism (see Collins, 1990, Butler, 1990).

Two standards, the 5th and the 11th, specifically address women's changing roles in the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries. Despite this movement toward inclusion and variation, still-powerful ghosts of old versions lurk in the state-sanctioned canon. For example, the 11th grade U.S. history standards in the History-Social Science Framework (2005) still identify eight times as many men by name as women. Why Teddy Roosevelt by name as a Progressive and not Mary "Mother" Harris Jones, Ida B. Wells or Jane Addams in Standard 11.2.9? Why not Constance Baker Motley and Diane Nash alongside the names of Thurgood Marshall and James Farmer in Standard 11.10.4? Granted, a knowledgeable history teacher would most likely try to include these women in a comprehensive and inclusive study of 20th century U.S. history. But given the state-mandated testing emphases, there may be consequences for presenting other versions and broader possibilities than those explicitly and implicitly sanctioned by the state.

This project has not been about women, per se, but rather about those perspectives and processes that have contributed to their exclusion from United States history and the distortion of their potential. Therefore, our primary focus in this project was the state historical and social science analysis skills of historical research, evidence, and point of view which ask us to distinguish "between sound generalizations and misleading oversimplifications." It is our thought that a history that overemphasizes the accomplishments of any one group is just such an oversimplification.

For both of us, teaching involves on-going inquiry, intellectual challenge, and a profound sense of ethical and moral responsibility. We want our students to learn that the study and critique of historical versions can be helpful, far beyond axiomatic formulas, graduation requirements, and API indices. In fact, as classroom teachers we note that formulas and indices have the power to make ritualistic obstacle out of meaningful lesson.

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