A Word on History Lessons


by Zakiya Jackson

I must have been in 7th or 8th grade. I remember the awkward middle school vibes that accompanied me and my peers through each class of the day, after school at basketball practice and at home at night with our families. It was a lingering trail of innocence, defiance, body odor and curiosity that followed us everywhere. I remember the way my teacher made me feel that day and how it intensified my pre-teen angst.

Zakiya, your assignment is to be a lawyer for the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members of this town.

My cheeks started getting hot. 

What do I do? I am angry, confused, stuck. 

It was a history lesson in the form of our class role-playing a trial in a small town. 

My teacher was white, along with most of the rest of the class. I was one of a couple of other Black kids in the class. I was the highest performing student in, not only our class, but our entire grade. 

I knew that my teacher knew I’d probably win the argument – talking back was my most frequent reason for getting in trouble at home after all! I also knew that he picked me because I am Black. He all but said it when he talked about the importance of understanding opinions we don’t agree with. 

For me, it was a humiliating assignment. Do my best and probably win over something I didn’t believe in. Don’t do my best and forfeit my grade – I needed those good grades, for lots of reasons.

I hope you feel compassion for students across the country who are still having these experiences 25+ years after I did. Black children and children of color are often asked to do things that are inappropriate for the sake of a history lesson. This is not okay and we need to help ensure that their full humanity is honored while they are in school. 

Recently, a Washington DC elementary school had a history lesson that resulted in Black 5th graders being asked to portray themselves as enslaved people. The principal of the school said that it was wrong that it happened and the issue is being addressed by attending to the needs of the impacted students as well as sending staff to diversity training. 

This is a deeper issue than a one-time diversity training can address, however. All students, not just the Black ones, need better education on our nation’s hurtful and complex racial history.

What can be done? Especially if diversity trainings don’t fix everything! (insert chuckle)

  • Teachers need better training on how to educate on race and American history. This is something that can be advocated for while teachers are still in college AND for continuing education once they are working in schools. In Washington, DC there is an organization called Teaching for Change that supports this very type of work. I have attended one of their trainings on Reconstruction and was very impressed with how the event was organized and with what I learned about the late 1800s and early 1900s as pertains to slavery, race and our government. Teaching for Change also has resources online that can be used for educators across the country.
  • Bias needs to be addressed. Sometimes it’s implicit or unconscious bias (unsupported judgments in favor of or against one thing, person, or group as compared to another, in a way that is usually considered unfair). Other times its explicit bias (the attitudes and beliefs we have about a person or group on a conscious level). I believe, that though my teacher liked me, he also had some explicit bias that needed to be dealt with. Organizations like the Equity Lab can help schools develop ongoing plans to deal with implicit and explicit bias.
  • Representation matters in situations like these. Who is advising the principals trying to fix things? Are any of the history teachers Black? Which teachers have the authority to challenge grade wide lessons? Policies around faculty recruitment and retention can help have better representation for Black students. 

Better teacher and faculty training, ongoing education on bias and representation are all things we can advocate for in our local schools in order to reduce the number of students having these inappropriate experiences with history lessons. We don’t want our marginalized students to be humiliated and we also don’t want any students learning our history in a way that isn’t empowering. In a charged political climate, we want our students to be able to learn from the racial – and other – mistakes of our nation’s past and help us build better futures.

Oh, and if you’re wondering what choice I made, I left the end out on purpose. There were no great choices. It was unfair and I dealt with it the best I could – and I carried the consequences instead of the adults who put me in that situation. Adults, let’s stop doing that to children and face our discomfort with our racial history – I think we’ll all feel better in the end.

For more on the topic above, watch our webinar, “Inherently Unequal: Racism in Public Education.” 

January 8, 2020
The Expectations Project

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