Teaching An Anti-Racist, Inclusive U.S. History Course Using A Civic Education Framework

Teaching a more complete, inclusive U.S. History, within a civic education framework

  • Conceiving of “history” as a student interrogation of conflicting primary and secondary source viewpoints and as cycles of historical encounters with the same enduring national debates over conceptual tensions, rather than as a definitive, factual narrative.
  • Using timeless, universal “conceptual tensions” (e.g. “individual rights vs. the common good”, “civil liberties vs. national security”, “economic equity vs. economic freedom”) to analyze patterns across history, to gain a respectful understanding of differing ideological positions, and then apply that historical insight to current national debates.
  • Asking students to grapple with their relationship to our country’s triumphal and troubled history and our country’s competing values and principles.
  • Re-inserting the histories of women, Native Americans, Blacks, Latinos & Asian-Americans into the broader U.S. History narrative in ways that enrich students’ traditional understanding of history;.
    • For example, studying immigration and the Great Migration together leads to additional insight into—and more empathy for—both experiences.
  • Re-inserting commonly-omitted periods of U.S. history essential to understanding racial disparities and relations in the U.S. today, including:   
    • how and why the American colonies transitioned from a class-based to a race-based socioeconomic hierarchy and the construction of race, racism, and chattel slavery;
    • how Southerners developed extended slavery in practice for an additional 75 years after slavery legally ended;
    • Government-led housing discrimination and segregation during the post WWII period, and the exclusion of massive government programs that greatly expanded the white middle class. The combined effect of these government policies has had lasting effects on the racial wealth gap through intergenerational wealth transmission.

Organizing opportunities for taking and giving perspectives across identity difference

  • Organizing parent-student discussion evenings;
  • Organizing cross-school student discussions and activities across public and private schools such as the  public-private interschool meet-up between a predominately white private school and a predominately Black and Latino public charter school in April 2017. The meeting was featured in WAMU’s Morning Edition “Teens from Two Very Different D.C. Schools Hold Tough Conversations on Race” by Mikaela Lefrak, April 12, 2017, and re-broadcasted on NPR´s Here and Now on April 30, 2017. (Link);
  • Co-organized a public-private interschool group discussion between students from public, charter and private schools about the film Selma (link to blog about the event); 
  • Co-organized a public-private interschool student Socratic Seminar between students at my private school and 24 public school students on the subject of Ta-Nehesi Coates’ The Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations” in January 2015. The event was filmed by WETA and observed by social studies educators and administrators from across Washington, D.C.

Teaching about racism within its broader historic and systemic context

  • the historical roots of racism,
  • the intergenerational transmission of disparities, and
  • the systemic effects of racism.

Teaching U.S. History and U.S. Government through Magwood and Ferraro’s “conceptual tensions” framework (an application of “concept-based teaching”)

  • understanding facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, which facilitates both retention and application to novel issues and situations;
  • identifying patterns over history and apply the lessons of history to current issues,
  • increasing student relevancy and engagement.
  • Using a modern, engaging court case with a timeless, universal conceptual tension at its root and arguments for each side as a ready-made, “data set” with which to teach argument and argumentative writing.
  • Co-authored “Using Conceptual Tensions and Supreme Court Cases to Increase Critical Thinking in Government and Civics Classrooms”, published in Social Education Vol. 77 No. 4, Sep 2013. (link);
  • Recipient of 2013 Street Law Educator of the year, granted annually to an “exceptional law-related education teacher” (top of 3rd page on this link).
  • I also adapted this this deliberative approach to my U.S. Government class to shift students from a “cynical skepticism” of our government and country typical of many low-income, minority adolescents (see Meira Levinson’s No Citizen Left Behind), to one of “healthy skepticism.” This was in contrast to the previous years, when I found that when I presented an idealistic view of our democracy, I was met with a resentful backlash, and when I presented a critical view, I just fed into their cynicism. The third year, I provided my students with a non-committal safe space in which to grapple with the question of “How democratic is the United States?” using evidence both supportive and critical of our democracy.  As a result, all but one of our school’s 18- and 19-year-olds chose to vote in the elections, and all but one of the 17-year-olds indicated that they intended to vote when they were of age. 

Teaching about racism in elite, predominately white high/upper schools

  • helping white students push past both denial and guilt;
  • teaching strategies for reducing subconscious, universal, implicit cognitive biases;
  • focusing on issues and areas that directly implicate students’ communities, to prevent white students from intellectualizing anti-racist education;
  • addressing white privilege and racism as two sides of the same system, to discourage students from perceiving their privilege as the equivalent of “victimless crimes”; and
  • protecting students from identity groups in a numerical minority in the classroom from being offended or silenced—whether they be Black or conservative.
  • Authored the chapter “Teaching Elite High School Students about Racism: Lessons from the Trenches,” in Educating Elites for Social Justice: Promising Practices & Lessons Learned in K-12 Schools, edited by Dr. Katy Swalwell and Dr. Daniel Spikes´, to be published by Teacher´s College Press in 2020.

Teaching about racism through a civic education framework

  • Teaching students to construct a more complete understanding of complex issues by seeking out, assessing and comparing perspectives of various stakeholder groups, rather than universalizing their personal perspective;
  • Developing the skills and habits necessary to participate in a deliberative democracy where citizens engage in deliberations (vs. debates) to better understand differing perspectives and find policy solutions that promote the common good; and
  • Safely including conservative viewpoints by welcoming them after explicitly excluding “closed empirical” questions from classroom debate (an adaptation of Hess and McAvoy’s “political classroom” framework).
    • The question “Does systemic racism exist?” is not up for classroom debate as it is an empirical question with a right-or-wrong, discoverable answer, and it is closed as the vast majority of credible scholars agree on that answer. However, the question “What, if anything, should the government do to address racism?” is an open, political question that is up for classroom debate. 
  • Invited by Hess and McAvoy to give remarks on this adaptation of their framework to issues of racism at the John Dewey Society Centennial Conference on Democracy & Education in April 2016. 
  • My teaching featured in P. McAvoy’s Fall 2016 article titled “Polarized classrooms: Understanding political divides can help students learn to bridge them” in Teaching Tolerance magazine. (Link).

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