Proposal For A New History (Teaching U.S. American History)

June 30, 2008 at 4:12 am Leave a comment

Originally published at Liberation Frequency

“In [the student] comes, this curious, patient, determined, energetic, skillful learner. We sit [the child] down at a desk, and what do we teach [the student]? Many things. First, that learning is separate from living. ‘You come to school to learn,’ we say, as if the child hadn’t been learning before, as if learning were out there and learning in here and there were no connection between the two. Secondly, that [the child] cannot be trusted to learn and is no good at it… In short, [the student] comes to feel that learning is a passive process, something that someone else does to you, instead of something you do for yourself.”

-John Holt, The Underachieving School

There’s a constant amongst the way that United States history, or really any history, is taught: it follows a linear path. It starts at a given point, and then something happens, which is followed by another event, then something else takes place, and then another person does something else, and then that person over there did something, so we responded in this way, but then this event took place, and now things look somewhat like this. And, in a way, that makes sense. History is a review of events that took place and people who took actions. Theoretically then, when we learn about history, we come to understand why our worlds and our communities are the way that they are. Again, theoretically, the understanding of our past would thus allow us to make informed decisions about where to go for our futures.

Yet, I want to suggest something: I don’t think that this effectively happens. When we start at the “beginning” of a history, we lose sight of the now, and as a result we fail to make the connection between the two. When history is taught it is often viewed as a method to remember actions, dates, events, movements, and etc. However, I propose that we should not teach history in a linear path like this. We should not start at a point A and then make our way to point B. Instead, we should constantly be using history as a tool to review and understand the present. One reason that U.S. history is most often taught in this way is because it is based in a class that takes its cues from a textbook. The essential point of a textbook is to state, “In this order, these things happened.” They are standardized texts, giving all of the learners the same information in one dogmatic tone. They follow a time-line, telling United States history as a series of events – one after another. Textbooks might pose such questions such as, “why did the United States declare independence from Britain?” But these questions aren’t meant to help learners understand why events took place, why people took actions, or how these have direct influence on our world today.

Instead, the goals of these questions are simply meant to have the learners regurgitate the information they have just consumed. So, very simply, textbooks present history as a series of events in a dogmatic tone. On top of that, they decide what information is important for the learners to know. What is wrong with this is that it is not conducive to the process of learning history. The history of the United States is composed of many different histories of many different peoples and viewpoints. A learner of this complex and controversial subject should be able to view these multitudes of histories, controversies, and disagreements and begin to sift through them and come to their own conclusions. However, textbooks attempt to settle these debates and conglomerate the vast array of different stories into one solid linear event – and they do so without room for questioning by the learners. Effectively, this kills the true purpose of conceiving history – to discover, decide, and engage it for oneself.

Recently I took this mode of thought and applied it to two objectives: the teaching of a United States history class to a group of teenagers (ranging from fourteen to nineteen) and the creation of an “anti-textbook” to go alongside it. Now, before I go on, I should take a moment to explain that I believe in the pedagogical theories often known as free schooling, unschooling, and/or self-directed learning (amongst other names). What this means, essentially, is that the education of the subject at hand is dependent on the willing participation of the students (so: non-compulsory), it is not teacher dominated or controlled, and it is based on the needs and goals of the learners. The students I worked with were thus voluntarily engaging in the discovery of history. This happened in a class I facilitated called Controversies in United States History at North Star, a community- learning center for teenagers in Hadley, Massachusetts. The goal of the class was to explore United States history under the light of its many controversies and to help students understand the impact this history had on their lives. Consequently, the purpose of the anti-textbook was to create an educational tool that exposed the controversies that have comprised the history of the United States of America, that served to help facilitate the learning experience in accordance to the students’ lives, and to make the learning experience (and the anti-textbook itself) financially equitable and reproducible by all people that wanted to emulate the process. These were the goals I began with, and appropriately enough they changed drastically through time. I came to realize, through trials and errors, that while these aspirations were noble – they were not truly enough of a break from the traditional way of teaching U.S. history. These realizations would pile on over time, and I would take action on them. I intend to explore and extrapolate on this, but I plan to do this by exploring the story of the class and the anti-textbook and how the experience directly changed and affected my viewpoints on the subject. The class lasted for roughly three months, and of this I will more heavily focus on the first three classes – as these were where my pedagogical ideas were challenged and transformed the most, alongside my thoughts on the functioning of the anti-textbook.

It should be noted that a teacher who follows the pedagogical views previously mentioned would most likely acknowledge a few things. First, education – when being facilitated by a teacher – is a joint learning process between the teacher and the learners. The former is not the master and the latter is not the obedient crowd. Second, the teacher does not take a dogmatic approach to the subject. It is not the teacher’s place to say, “Learn this, this is right” and for the students/participants to accept it as fact. Instead, learning is an act of discovery and self-motivated investigation. Third, students are not pitted against each other. It is not the goal for some students to succeed and others to fail, students are not ranked against one another, and learning (when not being done independently) is seen as a group effort in the attempt to benefit everyone to their fullest extent. These goals, although simple enough in their statements, can be trickier in application – as the cultural status quo is pitted against them.

While teaching U.S. history at North Star, I would not always be successful in including all of these aims. Other times I would be able to include all of them, but would struggle with the content. Regardless, it was essential for me to come up with creative teaching and learning techniques to achieve each one of the aforementioned goals. However, what was accomplished, which I’m sure of above anything else, is that the facilitation of this class was a learning experience both for the participants and myself. Now, I don’t mean that in a paternalistic way – as in, “oh, I learned how to deal with kids and it was great to see them grow.” No. While I helped bring information, activities, resources, and tools to the table that assisted in the investigation of history – the participants brought their own knowledge, wit, and ideas that made me evolve both as a teacher and a historian. In our discussions and investigations as a class, the participants challenged both information and notions that I had; and they also gave me advice on how to make activities and lessons better for the future.

As stated, my ideas on how U.S. history should be taught evolved over time. One particular quote that affected my thought process came from James Loewen in his book Lies My Teacher Told Me (Pages 91-92):

Historically, American Indians have been the most lied-about subset of our population. That’s why Michael Dorris said that, in learning about Native Americans, “One does not start from point zero, but from minus ten.” High school students start below zero because of their textbooks, which unapologetically present Native Americans through white eyes… Even worse are the authors’ overall interpretations, which continue to be shackled by the “conventional assumptions and semantics” that have “explained” Indian- white relations for centuries. Textbook authors still write history to comfort the descendants of the “settlers”… Our journey into the history of Indian peoples and their relations with European and African invaders cannot be a happy excursion. Native Americans are not and must not be props in a sort of theme park of the past, where we go to have a good time and see exotic cultures.

This quote, alongside my research of the Americas before Europeans, absolutely convinced me that the starting point for a U.S. history class had to come before the arrival of Columbus. Not only that, but the focus on this subject had to be formidable and well explained. Though I believe I was right with this judgment, focusing heavily on the pre- Columbian Americas, I came to learn that more than just that was needed.

Certainly, I thought that this act would be rebelling against the status quo way of teaching U.S. history classes. By focusing heavily on pre-1492 American Indian societies, I was challenging the dominant mode of U.S. history that “the history didn’t really start until Columbus arrived.” Surely, it was not tradition to show the complex and vast societies and peoples that inhabited the Americas and the controversies that surround them. Generally the tale of the U.S. starts with Columbus. Sure, we acknowledge that the Native Americans were living on the continents, but it doesn’t really “begin” until we learn about the white guy who “made it all possible.” Briefly, the indigenous peoples are acknowledged and discussed – but only fleetingly and in a passing way. Most of the time it is said that some Indian ancestors came over via the Bearing Straight a few thousand years before Europeans arrived in the Americas, and they spread out and lived mostly simple, brutish, nomadic, scarcely populated, etc. lives (there are some exceptions to this, but the controversies and different histories are in no way explored in detail).

I sought out to counter this custom by helping facilitate the learning of the complex societies and vast amount of peoples that populated the Americas. In addition to this, I wrote a full first “chapter” to the anti-textbook. This anti-textbook “chapter” and the class based off of it had their similarities and differences to the typical way things are done. How was it similar? First and foremost, this process was typical because it provided the students with a text that said, “This is what’s important, this is what you need to know.” I did a grand amount of research for this lesson plan and anti-textbook “chapter” – reading and rereading such books as 1491 by Charles C. Mann (a detailed and thorough account of the Americas pre-Europe, and also an explanation of all the different controversies and theories), A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen, and more. The chapter detailed the different societies, peoples, and etc. of the indigenous Americas – and also the different historical perspectives that made them up. Yet, I provided no alternative information, resources, or tools for the students to take advantage of. The information given in the “chapter” was qualified as the important information, and I did not ask the students to play an investigative role.

Now, the lesson and the anti-textbook “chapter” were different for a number of reasons. While the anti-textbook did follow the “this is important, this is what you need to know” format – it did not try to claim to be neutral, unbiased, or try to hide the controversies within different topics. Instead, it explored these and asked the students to think and learn about them in an active way. Yet, here’s something that might be surprising: no teenagers want to read a report I wrote about the Americas – that’s not interesting. That is something that textbooks, and myself in this case, do wrong – the information is presented uniformly and completely unattached to the students’ interests. If we want to spark the interest in a young and budding historian, we should not take the discovery process – the most thrilling part – away from them at the start. But what continued to be different about this “chapter” is that, when presented to the class, the attention was not supposed to be focused on the text. Instead, several different activities were presented to the students – and these were supposed to spark the interest of the participants so that they would read the rest of the “chapter” on their own time. One of these activities was my attempt to demonstrate to the students the different foods that originated in the Americas. I supplied these students with two simple tasks: 1) to think of a meal they would want to eat and then to list all of the ingredients in it, and 2) to look at a series of foods and guess their origins. The students discussed out loud which foods they thought originated from where and why (it could be anywhere in the world). It was then revealed where each food actually came from, that it is estimated that anywhere from 1/2 to 3/5ths of the current crops in cultivation first came from the Americas, and it was asked of the students to compare what foods they listed in their “dream-meals” to those that originated in the Americas: potatoes from the Andes, tomatoes and peppers from Mesoamerica, and so on (additionally, this allowed for the introduction of such terms as “Mesoamerica” and other important aspects). An eruption of questions ensued from the students: “What did people [non-Americans] eat before they had all of these?,” “Wait, the Americas had agriculture?,” “How did they grow so many things?,” and so on. Through these questions, many topics were open for discussion: the impact of American crops around the rest of the world and on our lives today, other Native American cultural and technological influences, and American Indian societal constructs. There were additional activities, including the students painting maize and corn in a pretend process of “genetically engineering the corn” – which opened up discussion about how maize was created by American Indians and allowed the students to act as if they were taking part in this process and making some of the same decisions some of the American Indians would have. Thus, this class and anti-textbook differed from the traditional approach by asking the students to play an active role in the process, by focusing the learning on their activities, and by making the readings optional and secondary.

However, I did something more that did perpetuate the tradition: I left out how the inhabitants of the Americas before Columbus are living now. Why is this a problem? Well, there are two reasons. First, I failed to draw the connection of how the now is directly influenced by the then. This could have easily been done using what Paulo Freire, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, called the “problem-posing” method of education. Problem-posing education, Freire explained, is a dialogue between students and teachers – where problems were posed and these problems were attempted to be answered, solved, talked about, or etc. by all participants. This is counter to what Freire called the “banking method” of education, which is traditionally used by our textbooks. Freire states:

The banking concept (with its tendency to dichotomize everything) distinguishes two stages in the action of the educator. During the first, he cognizes a cognizable object. The students are not called upon to know, but to memorize the contents narrated by the teacher. Nor do the students practice any act of cognition, since the object towards which that act should be directed is the property of the teacher rather than a medium evoking the critical reflection of both teacher and students.

Thus, textbooks simply state history as a series of facts set in stone that the students should know because the textbook say they are important. This causes students to think that they should know these “facts” merely to know for the sake of knowing. Rather, understanding the influence of history on the present is a task that takes serious critical thinking. In addition to using the learning of history as a reflective and decision making tool, it should also be understood that history is not a series of events that are set in stone. What the educator should attempt to show is that there are many different views and many different histories – all of which are filled with controversial events that are being viewed in different perspectives by different peoples. To state that history “happened this way, this is what you need to know” defeats what should be the purpose of learning history. It should be understood that history is a fluid thing, it is not constant, it has different perspectives – and as teachers we have no right to say that certain things are the only important things to learn. There are so many different important histories and outlooks to know and discover, and we can’t hope to cram it all in ourselves. It must be the teacher’s role to pose problems and questions to the students with the hope that this causes curiosity in the students to seek out more. It then follows that it is also the teacher’s role to attempt to give these students the tools they will need to seek out the
knowledge they desire.

Bringing our discussion back to the moral of my mistakes, I would like to again emphasize that instead of simply starting the Controversies in United States History class with an account of the pre-Columbus Americas, I should have started with what situation American Indians are in now. I could have, one way or another, posed these problems: Why do many Native Americans in the United States live on reservations today? Why are federal laws for Native Americans different in the United States than for other peoples? If these continents of North and South America were once lived on and populated by American Indian cultures, societies, and peoples – why and how has that changed? In what ways did American Indian societies influence the rest of the world? What part of their cultures can we see within us today? How have these things affected our lives? This would have assisted in exposing the situation as it is now for many American Indians, and this would have also helped the students start to think about the importance of understanding the pre-Columbus Americas for a variety of reasons (the extermination/removal of American Indians, the impact the Americas had on the rest of the world, the large contributions and vast societies of American Indians, and so on). By seeing what the status of American Indians are today, the students would have been better able to understand their great contributions and the great tragedies they encountered after the arrival of Europeans. The second reason that not using the problem-posing method was a misfortune is that it most likely reinforced the status quo conception that the European colonization of the Americans and the American Indian removal was natural and a part of “human progress.” By not posing these problems to the students, I allowed them to marvel at the contributions and societies of the Americas – but I failed to give them the tools to think critically about how drastically North and South America have changed since the arrival of the Europeans. The lesson was different in its approach to make the process of learning history experiential and what was learned was based on the decisions made by students – yet it wasn’t quite different enough.

However, I would not repeat this mistake again. Instead, I took an altered approach with the arrival of Columbus, and attempted to both use the problem-posing method suggested by Freire and to try to emphasize that learning about history was an investigative process. To do this, I made a board game.

The game started simply. I asked students to identify what they knew and how they felt about Christopher Columbus currently. We did this by using a nearby chalkboard, and there the students wrote down the different things they knew and felt. Some of what was written included Columbus “sailed the ocean blue in 1492,” “discovered the world was round,” “discovered America,” “he was EVIL!!!,” “he sailed on three ships,” and they thought he landed somewhere in Massachusetts. The students also debated amongst each other which of the statements were true, or if he was evil, and so on. I, of course, knew what I knew and could have easily said “no, no, Columbus didn’t ‘discover’ America, people already knew the world was round through centuries of sailors, he landed in the Caribbean, the names of the three ships he sailed on isn’t the important information” and etc. etc. But I didn’t: it wasn’t my role to shoot down the students or information they had. This way, the students felt that their voices had merit, they were open for discussion, and the focus of attention for information would not be on me – but instead on each other. After this, the students and I sat around the board game I made and I posed this question/problem: Many states in the U.S. celebrate Columbus Day. This obviously means that we are supposed to treat Columbus as a hero, which means we are supposed to want to live up to Columbus and emulate the things he stood for. So, what exactly would it mean for us to live up to Columbus – and is this something we want to do? I asked the students if they thought this was a fair question to ask, and they said yes. I then told the students that since we are supposed to look to Columbus as a hero, in this game and learning experience we were going to take on the role of Columbus. We would act throughout the game by doing what we thought Columbus would do, yet this could change as time went on and we learned more about him, and by doing this we would follow in his footsteps and examine how the actions he took affected the world. The students thought this was fair and selected their game-pieces, which were portraits of Columbus (each were portraits of different people who were supposed to be “Columbus,” as there were no paintings of Columbus done in his life-time, so no one really knows what he looked like – the first thing the students discovered while playing the game).

A brief description of the game goes as follows: the students select a Columbus piece, and the game begins as Columbus has made his first arrival to the Americas (on modern day Haiti – or as he called it, Hispaniola). I, as the teacher, identify myself as Queen Isabella – queen of the newly unified Spanish empire. I have just funded their journey and they are in debt to me. I tell the players that it must be the highest priority for them to find a way to pay me back, or else they (Columbus) will face the harshest of penalties. There are three “unit” pieces throughout this game, each of which Columbus had on his journeys, and the players are given a set amount of each of the “units” to begin with. The three units are ships, priests, and soldiers (I will explain how these work momentarily). There are also three “areas” on the game board: the students move from the Caribbean/”West Indies,” to the Atlantic Ocean, to the Kingdom of Spain, and back. In each different area, the Columbuses would face different interactions and have different goals. At their arrival on the “West Indies,” the participants would roll a dice and land on one of two spaces – a “card space” or an “action space.” If the player landed on a “card space,” they would pick up a card and read it out loud. It would have both a description of Columbus and his times relating to the “West Indies” (either a description of something Columbus and the Spanish did or a quote from people such as Las Casas) and then a description as to how this affects the player in the game. Here is an example card:

INFO: Las Casas, from History of the Indies: “…mountains are stripped from top to bottom and bottom to top a thousand times; they [the Arawak men] dig, split rocks, move stones, and carry dirt on their backs to wash it in the rivers, while those who wash gold stay in the water all the time with their backs bent so constantly it breaks them; and when water invades the mines , the most arduous task of all is to dry the mines by scooping up pansful of water and throwing it up outside…” Each crew of Arawaks were forced to mine from six to eight months by Columbus and the Spanish. During that time, up to a third of the men died.
You make 15 gold from Arawaks forced to mine.

The cards covered different actions and events that took place on the islands, but there were also cards that described the epidemics that were caused by the different diseases brought by Columbus and the Spanish, and there were cards that discussed the lives of the Arawaks/Taíno. At the same time, the students were exposed to how these different actions and events benefited Columbus, the Spanish Kingdom, and how it wore away at the peoples that populated the Americas. If a student landed on an “action space,” students had the options of interacting with the Arawak tribes through their priest or soldier units. The point, of course, was to retrieve gold and information. The students were playing as their interpretation of Columbus, so if they believed Columbus wouldn’t do any of these things, then they could simply do nothing – but if they believed Columbus would attack villages with his armies, they could act on that. Different results occurred depending on the different actions the Columbuses took and the different roll of the dice. The students then “traveled” across the Atlantic Ocean to the Kingdom of Spain. When reaching the Kingdom of Spain, the students could interact with Queen of Isabella and could “purchase” more soldiers, priests, or ships. At the same time, there were more card spaces that the students could land on to discover how Columbus’s journeys and actions affected Europe and the rest of the world. Here is an example:

INFO: Initially Columbus had a good outlook on the Arawaks, calling them an impressive people. His view changed later when he tried to sell them as slaves to Isabella, calling them stupid and brutish. For her part,
Isabella would eventually side against the enslavement of American Indians. She and Las Casas would work together to make laws against selling American Indians as slaves. Unfortunately, other European powers saw profit in slavery and followed suit from Columbus. Columbus probably sent more slaves across the ocean than any other person in the history of the world: 5,000.

ACTION: American Indian slavery wasn’t always banned in Spain. You sell Arawaks as slaves for 10 gold.

This activity, like the one about the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans, had successes and failures. I want to begin by talking about what went right. First and foremost, this activity used the problem-posing technique discussed by Freire. I started the activity by asking the students to identify what they already knew and felt about Columbus and I did not shoot them down, thus validating their opinions and asking them to have a personal investment in the subject. Then, I posed the question/problem: in many places in the United States, Columbus is celebrated as a hero, and we have a day dedicated to him – is he someone that we would want to live up to and emulate? Instead of simply stating what happened, in what order it happened, I attempted to demonstrate exactly why this issue in history is relevant to us and how it affects our lives today. As a class, we began with the now and through the game we were taken back to the then. This allowed us to make a direct connection between our lives and the information we were learning. It was relevant, useful, and purposeful – we weren’t just learning the information for the sake of learning it, we were learning it for a reason. Additionally, through assuming the role of Columbus, making decisions as Columbus, and through putting together fragmented information, this activity was an investigative process. Now, in my opinion, that’s what learning about history should be: an investigative process based off the needs, wants, and questions of the learners. When learning about United States history, there is so much to cover, to learn, and to examine. Regardless of what we choose to cover and address, we are choosing something else to leave out or to not explore efficiently. Why not then help foster the student’s learning in the process by helping grow their curiosity on the subject, demonstrate to them that discovering history is an investigative process, and then help give them the tools needed to explore this history? To those who might respond that what I’ve described thus far is a biased approach to certain topics in history, I can only say that there is no such thing as a neutral history – and specifically there is no such thing as teaching history neutrally. To say that while you are teaching something you are remaining neutral is to really support the status quo by not challenging it, and to support the status quo is not neutral (the status quo in this case would be that Columbus was hero, and the actions he took were all part of human progression). Yet, what us teachers should not do is to force these views on the students as absoluteness. As stated by Francisco Ferrer of the Escuela Moderna: “[W]e should not, in the school, hide the fact that we would awaken in the children the desire for a society… without violence, without hierarchies, without privilege of any sort… [but] we have no right to impose this idea on the child.” (The Modern School Movement, Page 28). I also want to note that following the game and the discussion, there were a vast array of opinions on Columbus – some calling him a monster, others doubting that he really did these things.

Briefly, I want to touch on what parts of this activity could have been more successful in teaching history alternatively. While the information I presented in the board game was anti-dogmatic in that it challenged the status-quo conceptions of Columbus, it was dogmatic in the way that it was presented. As teachers, we have to realize that we are the de facto authority. Whether we are teaching in a democratic classroom, a free school setting, a standard classroom, or so on – we are the ones facilitating and organizing the class and the information that is brought forth. However, we can and should combat our inherent position of authority. With the board game about Columbus, I brought forth quotes and “facts” about Columbus. With these, I did not ask the students to challenge the conceptions, doubt them, and encourage them to seek out information, or give them the tools necessary to do these things. While as teachers of history we cannot be neutral, we can be anti-dogmatic. To do this we must first realize that the information we bring forth is inherently dogmatic in the learning environment, then we must give students the tools to combat all forms of dogmatic history – whether it be society’s or our own. Despite the successes of this activity, what I did not do was provide the participants with the tools to be active learners after they left the class. While I realized I could not hope to give the students every single piece of information for this subject, I failed to combat that by helping seek out the curiosity on this subject that this lesson sparked for them. If it’s not our purpose as teachers to spark curiosity and the desire to learn more, and then to provide the tools of how to further explore the information at hand… then what is?

Additionally, it should be noted that at this point the anti-textbook was taking a turn from the standard textbook approach of a class being based off a written text, and was becoming more based on the idea of encouraging lessons that could help spawn student-driven learning. At this point in time it remained dependent on the text I wrote or brought forth, i.e. the cards in the board game, but it was becoming more centered on experiential activities and student-controlled information. What’s more is that the conception of the anti-textbook was moving more towards one thing that I have left unmentioned thus far, but that I feel is important to address: fun. One conception that I had throughout the entirety of the class was that learning about history should be fun. Now, that’s hard work. But, in a completely uncompulsory setting, that’s essential. As much as I have talked about relating history to the learners’ lives, that can be done through another important aspect – dispelling the notion that history is boring, dull, and unmoving. With the class and the anti-textbook, one aspect that was heavily focused on was making the learning experiential: whether through activities, games, or other options. (I would also like to note that I attempted to make a counter-board game, that looked at the arrival of Columbus through taking on the role of an American Indian, but I ran out of time).

After the Columbus game, I decided to re-examine my role as a teacher. What was my purpose? What was I hoping to do? What sort of information did I want to bring into the class? In what ways did I want to interact with the participants? What sort of things did I want to leave them with after the class/activity was over? How could I battle the dogmatism I had already brought forth? And what could I do to challenge the future authority I would bring into the classroom? From that point on, I came to the conclusion that my role as teacher in an anti-compulsory setting would have to change into a more facilitator-esque role. I could bring in information, I should structure an activity for the class, and I was to organize and stimulate the action in the learning environment. However, my role as a teacher would no longer be to bring forth every bit of information that I thought was essential for the students to learn. Instead, I would put an activity and/or lesson forward, and what information was discovered would depend on the learners and their participation. My role would be to help the stimulation of learning, to bring forward some information, but more so to show why learning about this topic was important and then to help foster the continued learning outside of the classroom. I also decided it was essential first to give the participants the tools to challenge dogmatic histories, and that included any dogmatism I might bring to the class. Our next activity, then, was to explore how there are many different histories and how history changes through time and different perceptions.

This activity followed the game-theme and the subject of Columbus (because I had already brought in my dogmatism about him, I thought it was now my duty to give the students the skills to combat that). As a class we played a game of “fax machine,” slightly altered to fit the subject of history. I’ll briefly explain this game for those who are unfamiliar. “Fax machine” operates essentially under the same premise as the popularized game known as “telephone,” except that it uses writing and drawing. We played the game in two sets, the first time as an example exercise that’s purpose was to also bring history into a more personal setting for the participants – the second as a reference to some of the history that we had gone over previously and to supply the learners with the ability to recognize how histories can become misconstrued over time and through different perspectives. Of course, it was also to give them the knowledge on how to recognize and then challenge dogmatic histories (mine included). During the first set, the participants wrote down a sentence from a story about their family’s history (“And then my brother and I put on a play about wizards,” etc.) or a sentence about their family history (“My mother owned a bed-in-breakfast when I was a baby,” etc.). After doing this, the participants passed this sheet of paper to the person to their right, who then drew a picture interpretation of the sentence they received (no words allowed!), folded the sentence behind the picture, and then sent it to the person to their right. Following this, the individual drew a sentence interpretation of the picture they received, folded the picture behind the sentence, passed it to the person to their right, who then drew a picture interpretation, and so on and so forth. After this was done numerous times, the participants opened up the papers they ended with and showed all the other students what the starting sentence was and then the subsequent pictures and sentence interpretations that followed. Though it may not quite sound like it in theory, this activity is actually a lot of fun and is a stimulating process for the students.

I then posed a problem to the participants: How does this activity relate to a class about U.S. history? Discussing this, the students seemed to understand our goal of the day: they conversed over the ways different people’s interpretations altered what was being told. After this brief discussion, we repeated the activity but with a few modifications: each student was given a different identity to act on and a sentence to start with. These identities were peoples who have different perspectives and views on Columbus and his actions (and they were to take action in the game as if they were these individuals) – and the sentences were different “facts” about Columbus and the repercussions of his journeys. Some of the identities included:
You are a historian that likes and supports Columbus. Emphasize him being a good person and diminish the bad things about him.

You are a historian that thinks Columbus was one of the worst people ever to live. Discuss the qualities that make him look like a monster.

You are a first grade teacher. Try to talk about Columbus in a way that won’t get you in trouble with parents or the school or scare the first graders.

While some of the different starting sentences included:

Columbus abducted the people from their homes in the Caribbean Islands as slaves and helped in the extermination of the Taíno people; he also sent new crops across the ocean that greatly benefited European societies.

Columbus started the transatlantic slave trade and sent more slaves across the oceans than any other person (5,000); he also helped Europeans start colonizing the Americas and settle in what they called the “New World” (where indigenous peoples were already living).

The students repeated the game/activity, but with these different sentences and identities. After this, the students relinquished their “identities” and showed the progressions that took place on their sheets. The activity allowed the students to see how the different sentences they started off with changed as it went through different hands/voices and through time – and sometimes the point of the sentences were distorted completely. A long discussion followed, with the students mulling over the possibility of the existence of “neutral” histories, how events and characters in United States history become distorted, and how certain viewpoints over history come to represent the status quo – while how others become less represented. We also dedicated a large portion of the class conversing on dogmatic histories – including my own biases and opinions as the facilitator of the class. The students also seemed enthusiastic to explore how this phenomenon impacted their lives and affected their own views on United States history.

As noted in the beginning of this piece, my intent was to heavily focus on the first three activities of the class – where my experiences challenged my perceptions the greatest and affected how I changed my role in the class the most dramatically. By doing this, I attempted to portray how my views on teaching history in an alternative learning environment shifted throughout the facilitation of the Controversies in United States History class while simultaneously constructing the anti-textbook. Yet, in less intimate detail, I want to summarize the remainder of the class. As I taught, I would continue to learn. Thus the goal of having the class to be a discovering experience for both the students and myself (the facilitator) was accomplished

The remainder of this class focused on different themes and ideas: power-structures in U.S. history, peoples who generally go underrepresented in tales of the United States, and so on. For these classes, I continued to exist in my role as a facilitator – rather than a teacher who brings in all the knowledge to disperse amongst the students. With this technique, I was able to heavily focus on Freire’s idea of the problem-posing method. Because of the non-compulsory and fun-based learning environment, the class was able to reflect Holt’s statement that living and learning should not be separated. Emulating Ferrer’s view that as teachers we should not pretend to be neutral to the students, but that we have no right to impose our opinions on them, I engaged in the activities and discussions with the students – but always at a level where their voices were more prominent and constant than my own (and I only spoke my opinions when the students and I agreed that it was okay to do so, thus combating the de facto authority that I brought with my position). Lastly, the class and anti-textbook were able to follow the recommendations of James Loewen and Howard Zinn by approaching United States history through the discussions of controversies and the debates over the controversies (rather than simply stating “this is what happened, this is all you need to know” in a dogmatic tone).

In the case of the class on peoples who generally go underrepresented in tales of United States history, I provided the participants with a prompt question/problem to solve both individually and then as a group. The problem followed the theme that there is a certain group of individuals in U.S. history whose stories are widely known and repeated, while others go heavily unmentioned in comparison. Following this, each participant chose a different group of people who are underrepresented (such as people of color, people of non-Christian faiths, women, and so on). The students then took these peoples and traveled around North Star (their community learning center), asking different community members such questions as “Who were important [their specified group] in U.S. history?”, “How did they impact the world we know today?”, and “What lessons can we learn from them?”. In spirit with the title of the class, discussions erupted around North Star centering on different figures in U.S. history and controversies surrounding them (many of the discussions involving non-participants of the class!). After a sufficient amount of time, the students and I regrouped and discussed the different figures they had extracted from other individuals and how they felt about their answers. These ranged from Martin Luther King Jr., to Sitting Bull, to Albert Einstein, to Harriet Tubman, to Maya Angelou, to Sojourner Truth, and more. The students then asked their fellow participants in the class the same questions they had just been asking separate individuals. Finally, as a group we explored both the act of discovering history and the history that was discovered both individually and collectively with such questions as, “Was it easy or difficult for people to think of individuals who have contributed to American History from your groups?” and “In what ways do you think the influence these groups of people have had over the history of the United States has gone ignored or silenced?” Thus, through this process, I was able to help facilitate the learning of U.S. history for the students in an undogmatic way through the problem-posing method. Their curiosity on the subject was spurred, they took the learning into their own hands, and they were able to engage history in an investigative role. However, I also left them with another set of questions and problems to explore once they left the class – a tool to continue engaging U.S. history on their own time and to become self-constructed historians.

There is one final activity that took place that I would like to discuss. On this particular date, the class engaged two questions/problems through Creative Drama exercises: “Why is learning about U.S. history important?” and “What are different power-structures throughout U.S. history and how have they impacted our lives?” In particular, students attempted to interpret roles of different people of power, people whose job was to maintain power, and people lacking institutional power throughout the history of the United States (the students were the ones who decided what peoples fit in what groups, some examples include: slaves, slave-holders, teachers, soldiers, presidents, etc.). However, at one point, the planned activities of the class were interrupted by a discussion that had been spawned on race. I have to admit: at times, it was excruciating. The students’ discussion centered on whether or not racism was still a factor that put white people in a position of power in our society, if people of color “could be racist” against white folks, what racism was, and the role it played historically in our society and culture and how that affected us today. There were times where I strongly agreed and disagreed with the students, and had I not been the teacher in the classroom, I would not have been able to contain my viewpoint. However, I reminded myself of the commitment to being an undogmatic facilitator. As I watched and helped facilitate, I was thankful for my decision: I saw the students working through the different complexities and issues that faced the subject, and they certainly learned more from each other than had I simply stated what I thought was right and wrong and used my authority to end the argument at that. Again, it was not easy for me to remain a facilitator of the discussion and to not simply say “this is the way things are,” but I was reminded of the discussions on this issue amongst people of my own age – and really how it wasn’t that different from the discussion these students were engaging in. So, to see the strides that students made in their discussion was thrilling – and, in fact, I was asked by the students to share my perspective. We discussed the issue at length, and then agreed upon a way that my voice would not be the final authority on the matter (each student said one final thing on the issue after me). We eventually continued our activities based on Creative Drama exercises and focusing around power-dynamics in U.S. history. After the class was over, however, several of the students stayed behind to ask me to elaborate on my views that I had shared during the earlier discussion. They also asked me to engage in the discussion full on and to not limit what I had to say because I was their teacher; they wanted to continue the discussion and topic outside of the construct of the class. It was at that point that I realized my goal as a non-compulsory teacher was a success: the students were taking a topic from the class, seeking further information about it on their own accord, and applying it to their own lives. As a result, the students and I spent an hour extra of our own time on a topic taken directly from the class activities (the discussion only ended eventually because I had to leave). While some of the students and I ended seeing eye-to-eye on the subject more than others, I realized that even though we all could not come to an agreement it was still a part of the discovering experience. Learning about United States history is an investigative role and a process of discovery, where the learner must take fragments and pieces and put it together as a picture in their head. Thus, our after- class discussion was a fragment of the process that would be constructed and help shape their portrait of United States history.

It’s been quite a journey since this essay begun. Now, I want to take time to fully extrapolate on some of the themes that I’ve been going over and that I explored through the facilitation of this class and development of the anti-textbook. I started off with a notion and a concept about how history should be taught; these notions were based off of my experience with teaching, my pedagogical theories, and my knowledge about U.S. history (and further research done for the class). I started off by thinking that United States history needed to be approached in both a radically new way and in a radical new setting. I then set out to do three main things: 1) Teach U.S. history from perspectives outside of traditional tales, 2) make the learning process experiential and democratic, and 3) to create an “anti-textbook” that would allow others to follow a guide-line to repeat the process and to have it be as economically equitable as possible. In some aspects I failed and in others I succeeded. The point, however, is that I am glad I failed in all the ways that I did. In standard education, fail is a four-letter word. However, recognizing that failing is a part of the process and is a necessary step towards understanding the right way to do things is extremely important. I believe that is why non-compulsory education is so essential: it de-emphasizes the need to “fail” and “succeed,” and thus the learning process is allowed to be a true detective process. The learner must seek out information and its meaning, and thus they will be able to come to truly understand it.

Yet, what I discovered is that it wasn’t simply enough to redefine where U.S. history started and what constituted as important things to learn about. Instead, the truth is that the concept of discovering history in a linear way needs to be thrown out the window. What needs to be done instead is for history to be taught as connections between what happened then as to the way things are now – and how these things are related to or important to us. The way to accomplish this, as discovers and teachers of history, is to say: “This is what we have. Now, can we explore how this came to be?” There are numerous ways that this can be accomplished, but some of them include making the teacher’s role about inspiring curiosity in the students. We can’t possibly hope to cover everything in U.S. history in our classes, activities, or lessons – we will always inevitably miss something or de-emphasize another aspect that may be important to the learner. However, it must also be our goal to supplement this curiosity by giving the learners tools to start examining U.S. history on their own accord and to seek out the information, themes, and ideas that they are interested in. This is a difficult task, as it asks us to trust the students to learn on their own, and to not attempt to shove every detail we hold as important down their throats. That can be a temptation that is easy to give into. Yet, John Holt said it best, “All I am saying in this book can be summed up in two words: Trust Children. Nothing could be more simple, or more difficult. Difficult because to trust children we must first learn to trust ourselves, and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.” As facilitators of history, we can tell the discoverers what we think, but it is equally important – if not more important – to teach them to challenge dogmatic histories (and that includes our own) and to search out their own truths and their own histories.

What else is important in teaching U.S. history in a non-compulsory setting is making learning about U.S. history a fun and experiential process. History has a stigma amongst many as a boring, unimportant, and dull subject. By combating this notion, more students may stick with the topic and continue to play an investigative role. Additionally, this plays into the concept that learning about history – in a non-linear way – becomes about discovering, examining, and understanding themes, ideas, and peoples. Re-evaluating how we learn also allows us to re-evaluate what we learn. It makes sense that in a standard and dogmatic learning environment, many teachers of history tend to focus only on presidents or the “nation” of the United States – the goal is teach the students to respect and appreciate the authority. In a non-compulsory and democratic learning environment, however, the focus becomes the themes, the ideas, and the peoples that have been factors, forces, and influences (and of course: whatever it is that the students prefer to learn about)

As for the concept of the anti-textbook, my notion on that has shifted drastically since the start. At first, I thought it would be something resembling a textbook – but with an undogmatic tone, a text that explored controversies, and had activities built into it that could help learners explore the information and relate it to their lives. Time went on, however, and my perceptions on this became challenged. I’ve stated, and don’t need to repeat in detail, my commitment to anti-dogmatism. I believe that the function of a standard textbook is automatically linked to dogmatism, and thus an anti-textbook cannot function at all in the same manner of saying what is important and what needs to be known. Instead, the purpose of an anti-textbook in U.S. history should be like the purpose of the teacher: to inspire curiosity, to challenge dogmatic narratives, to trust students to learn on their own/together with others, to not try to force every detail down their throat, and to give students the tools to accomplish these things. In the end, the anti-textbook transformed into more of a guide – recommended activities, explorations, or exercises that could be done to tackle topics, themes, and ideas in United States history. This anti-textbook has also come to operate like open-source software, where it can be manipulated, added on to, adjusted, and improved by other learners and facilitators of history. Textbooks are centralized, with one dominant voice and pedagogy. The anti-textbook, then, is a decentralized learning tool that can be manipulated by its users, that does not shout out a dominant voice, changes through time, is financially equitable, and history lessons/activities can be cherry-picked from it.

It’s about time for me to end this rather long-winded essay, but I want to make sure this learning experience follows my pedagogical views. In the spirit of Freire, I want to leave you – the reader – with a problem/question to think about and ponder: Isn’t U.S. history a set of controversies, and as discovers of history we must sift through these controversies to shape a portrait in our heads? So, shouldn’t the point of a history class be to prepare students to be historians? Then what better way to do that then by preparing them to explore different controversies, and not one dominate text or voice? Our jobs as teachers and facilitators of United States history should be to inspire the student’s ability to seek out more and to help them paint their own portraits of controversies and understanding.


1. Avrich, Paul. The Modern School Movement. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2006.

2. Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York, NY: Continuum, 2006.

3. Holt, John. The Underachieving School. Boulder, CO: Sentient Publications, 2005.

4. Loewen, James. Lies My Teacher Told Me. New York, NY: Touchstone, 1995


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