Teaching history in middle school is an exercise in bold nuance. No longer the highlights version of history — Betsy Ross and the flag, Francis Scott Key and the anthem, Ben Franklin and that kite of his — middle school minds are ready to grasp that history is wondrously messy and filled with conflicted heroes, dubious motives, chaos and good fortune. History, taught right, is no longer a timeline of dates and the proper ordering of presidents; it is the story of people and ideas, beliefs and motivations and how those can change over time.
In exploring those ideas, in opening middle-schoolers to the notion that history isn't so much right and wrong answers but necessitates thinking and debate about complex issues, there are some risks for teachers, students, parents and administrators. The risks, related to matters of racial sensitivity, are necessary and likely inevitable. It is how we respond to those risks that will tell us about our community.
A teacher at River Forest's Roosevelt Middle School ran into some conflict as the last school year closed. A veteran social studies teacher, she was working through a lesson on the 1857 Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court which went to pivotal matters of how America's legal system and value system regarded African Americans. In splitting her classroom into two groups, charged with making the case for each side of the argument, the teacher put the only black student in the classroom in the position of defending slavery.
On an intellectual basis that might be fine. On the basis of one seventh-grade girl's sensitivities, it was a harsh position to be in. The student's mother objected, school administrators have listened, the teacher has apologized. That's all appropriate.
What shouldn't happen though is for everyone to get cautious. There are big and sometimes painful matters to be explored in our history. A white seventh-grader really looking at our shameful history of slavery for the first time should also feel a welter of emotion, just as that young black woman did.
Can we do this in a way that teaches and challenges and connects? That's the issue here. We applaud District 90 for its approach to teaching history and we applaud it for listening well to how we can do it better.
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