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For History Teachers, It's Not Always Easy to Get Students of Color to Connect with Curriculum

Filipa Rodrigues, KUT

James Brewster and Candace Hunter have tough jobs.

They teach U.S. history at the new single-sex middle schools in Northeast Austin: Gus Garcia Young Men's Leadership Academy and Bertha Sadler Means Young Women's Leadership Academy. Both schools are located in low income neighborhoods with majority minority students.

Teaching students in low income neighborhoods brings its own set of challenges, but teaching social studies brings more difficulties. Many times their students have had little to no exposure to U.S. history before entering their classrooms.

'That's the nature of the beast, that's living in Texas right now'

“Theoretically they’re supposed to get in fifth grade at the elementary level," Brewster says. "But I’ve spoken to fifth grade teachers and it’s just not being taught or not being taught at the depth it could or should because there’s focus on other areas." 

Plus, eighth grade is the first time students are tested on U.S. history, which puts additional pressure on teachers to make sure these kids pass the test.

"They’re getting hit with the full load of eighth grade U.S. history, of Exploration through Reconstruction," Brewster says. "And it’s by March, because the STAAR test is April. That’s a lot of documents, dates, people, places to contextualize, get down, in addition to other classes."

Texas students take World History in sixth grade and Texas History in seventh grade.

"That's just the reality," Brewster says. "That's the nature of the beast, that's living in Texas right now."

Both Brewster and Hunter have lived in Texas their entire lives; they grew up in the neighborhoods where they're now teachers, and they're determined not to let history repeat itself. Not just United States history, but their own.

"I'm a product of AISD in northeast Austin," Brewster says. "I had an eighth grade teacher tell me that I wasn't going to amount to anything. I would end up in jail or dead. I wanted to make sure my students never heard anything like that."

Hunter says she went to five different elementary schools and four middle schools in Austin. 

"I am just like those students. If rent was cheap, mom moved. I didn't read well, so I spent a lot of the time skipping because I didn't want to be in school because that's all they want you to do."

According to district data, eighth grade students at Garcia and the Bertha Sadler Means Young Women's Leadership Academy, and across the district,  continue to struggle on the history tests.

Only 15 percent of the students at Sadler Means were proficient on the most recent district-wide test, and only half of the students at Garcia passed.  

Getting students to connect with what they're studying

Principal Sterlin McGruder at the all-boys school says part of it is that extra focus on reading and math, but sometimes it's also hard to get students to connect to some parts of U.S. history — especially students who don’t look like the people they’re studying.

“As we are having a conversation of boys and even girls of color, sometimes the American Revolution might not be the thing that’s the hook for them," McGruder says. "We talk about the preamble, the Constitution, 'all men are created equal,' sometimes the young men think about, ‘Well, were my ancestors equal at that time?’ So maybe that part of U.S. history is not as interesting.”

Credit Ilana Panich-Linsman, KUT
James Brewster is the U.S. History teacher at Gus Garcia YMLA. He says he mostly hears questions from his Latino students, who was where there people are during colonial times

Brewster and Hunter say they get a lot of questions from their Hispanic students. They want to know, 'What's going on in Mexico at this time?' or 'Where are we at?'"  

"Once we move to the 13 colonies, suddenly it’s a bunch of white people, bunch of black people and Native Americans, where are the brown people?" Brewster says.

"We talk about that this is an English colony, we talk about New Spain over here, but it’s hard. It’s a real challenge to find that voice that’s missing when you’re looking at your population out there in front of you, [and they're] going, ‘OK, I’m having a difficulty connecting with this because I’m not in it or I’m not included in it,'" he says.

In-depth conversations v. memorizing facts

Another factor? There’s so much history to cover, many times students are taught facts to memorize for tests. Teachers don’t have time to have thoughtful, in-depth conversations about these people in the context of the entire historical narrative.

On this particular day, Hunter drills students for a test. As she's reviewing test questions with them, she notes that. She reads a test-prep question to the students:

What is the role of blacks and women in the American Revolution?

"That’s when you go, ‘Thanks Mr. Testmaker,' because there’s only four blacks and three women and one of those women is black! Give me one black dude!

"Crispus Attucks," says one student, referencing the first man to die in the Boston Massacre. 

Hunter says new Texas social studies standards do include more women and people of color in the history curriculum than before. In this unit, Texas students are required to identify Abigail Adams, John Adams, Wentworth Cheswell, Samuel Adams, Mercy Otis Warren, James Armistead, Benjamin Franklin, Bernardo de Galvez, Crispus Attucks, King George III, Haym Salomon, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, the Marquis de Lafayette, Thomas Paine, and George Washington.  

Trying to make history topics relatable

Hunter also likes to use real-life examples to make some of these topics more relatable for her students. When she teaches the Mayflower Compact, she compares it to when students go to the grocery store with their parents.

“I say, ‘What’s the talk?’ and the kids all go, ‘Oh, when your mom says don’t ask for nothing?’ And I say, ‘Okay, this is that same talk, only it’s 'Here are the rules we’re going to have before we get off the boat and go into this new world.''"

She uses the same idea when teaching the American Revolution. 

"I say, how much abuse would it take you to walk away from your boyfriend? A push? A shove? American took a lot of abuse before it walked away from its king. Unfortunately, domestic violence is something they're going to be familiar with."  

But Hunter says the struggle to teach these students is more related to socioeconomic status than their particular race.

“We do have white students here who have never seen those things, and it’s just as difficult to explain it to them as it would be to an African American or Hispanic kid.”

What's missing from history lessons is a lesson itself

Cinthia Salinas is a UT professor who specializes in social studies curriculum. She understands Hunter’s hesitation to say students of color are only interested in history if it includes minorities, but says it’s important for young people to learn about people like them as they think about their own racial or gender identity.

“I didn’t think much about being a Latina until I got to college and that idea of my identity as a woman and woman of color," Salinas remembers. "I think there was space that could’ve been created well before and I often wonder if I didn’t think about it because I was so not included in the teaching of history.”

Salinas says one positive for history teachers is the growth of digital primary sources. Students are able to access journal entries and letters from a variety of sources, instead of just the documents or examples in textbooks. Social studies researchers argue another problem with history curriculums is that when women or minorities are included in the narrative, they're usually contained to specific parts of history rather than sprinkled throughout. Digital primary sources can help teachers diversify the voices students hear from throughout the entire year, instead of just learning about women during the Suffrage Movement or Mexicans during the Mexican-American War. 

But Brewster says sometimes the lack of minorities in history lessons can be a lesson in itself.

“Unfortunately, that’s the history of our nation," Brewster says. "I’m not going to make up and insert characters that are not there. I’m open and honest and we talk about inclusion and how we’re trying to build a more inclusive society."

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