When I first started teaching, I worked in a suburb of Atlanta. Not far from where I lived was a popular tourist attraction, Stone Mountain Park. Many of my eighth-grade students would talk about the “cool laser light show.” Families would bring a picnic and watch the show, which included cartoon depictions of sports figures and American flags; the show was accompanied by patriotic music.
The light show also included glorified renderings of three Confederate figures: Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
New generations of children were being told a sanitized version of history, for nowhere in the laser light show was shown the institution of slavery nor the dark history of Stone Mountain.
Stone Mountain was the site of the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915. One year later, the Daughters of the Confederacy commissioned a relief carving of Davis, Lee and Jackson into the side of the mountain. The KKK was given perpetual rights to meet on the mountain until the state of Georgia purchased the property in 1960.
Now the park is the most popular tourist attraction in Georgia. It offers field trips for schools and even a teacher’s guide void of the true history of the site.
As teachers and as parents, it is easy to inadvertently sanitize our history through what we include and what we leave out of our lessons. Covering all content in a superficial way can actually give students a worse understanding of history.
The new California Social Science Framework calls for the use of many different resources to help students understand history.
As the framework states, “Teachers carefully select documents that will engage their students in historical thinking, geographic practices and economic reasoning. The teacher can introduce students to a wide array of primary sources that include written texts and letters; excerpts of speeches, diaries and ledgers; visual materials such as photographs, paintings, maps, political cartoons, charts and graphs; digital materials; and oral histories.”
By acting like historians, teachers and students are able to dig deeper into events of the past and discover more accurate details. This is a great opportunity for educators to help their students find areas where history is being sanitized and create an accurate narrative of our past.
This type of inquiry need not be limited to the classroom. Parents can encourage their children to go beyond superficial online articles when researching historical issues of interest to them by guiding them to libraries, historical societies and local experts, to name a few.
For a list of websites where teachers and families can access primary resources, visit scoe.org/investigatehistory.
Note from Sonoma County’s superintendent of schools: “This year, California schools will be using a new history-social science framework, which guides how teachers implement the state’s history standards. It emphasizes deeper student inquiry into the subject matter as well as student literacy and citizenship. As we roll out this new framework, we have a moral commitment to our democracy to develop students who can think deeply about issues and who have the tools to investigate the truth. This work couldn’t be more important, given current political debate over divisive aspects of our nation’s history. “I am grateful to Matt O’Donnell, who is leading the Sonoma County Office of Education’s efforts to implement the framework in secondary schools, for this message about the importance of deeply investigating history. This was originally printed as a blog post on the Sonoma County Office of Education website.” — Steven D. Herrington