Part 4 – History
As activist Leslie Mac said, “Being anti-racist is a verb—and it requires consistent action.” This story is part four of a five-part series exploring the ways in which Nueva is striving to be anti-racist in the classroom. To read Part 1–Identity, click here. To read Part 2–Literature, click here. To read Part 3–Science and Math, click here.
For years, sixth-grade humanities teacher Sam Modest has incorporated the stories of marginalized people in the United States into his curriculum. When he taught second-grade, students explored the history of Chinese immigrants and the impact of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 on Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans. Now teaching sixth-grade, Sam continues to ensure students learn about the history of oppression in the United States.
“Going into this year, I knew that I wanted to give voice and amplify the voices of marginalized people in U.S. history,” he said. “To do that, we have to understand what power is, and who decides who has it and who doesn’t.”
In sixth-grade humanities, the overarching questions students are working to answer are: “Where does power come from?” “Who decides where power comes from?” and “How can power be reclaimed?”
To begin the year, Sam introduced students to the ideas of power, oppression, and identity. Students explored the ways in which history is about power and positionality. “That’s the lens we’re taking for every moment in history that we look at,” Sam added.
Students learned about the ways that monuments and statues in the United States express power, and they read a variety of current events articles about certain statues being removed throughout the country. As part of this discussion, Sam asked the class, “How might we reclaim power for the Indigenous people?”
“We start in the present, then go to the past to help inform what we know about the present,” he said. “We look at current events through a historical lens.”
Focusing on the Christopher Columbus statue in New York City, each student created a five-minute video explaining the controversy around the statue, sharing their recommendations about what to do with the statue, and elaborating the research they used to support their recommendations. And these videos were not solely for a class project.
We start in the present, then go to the past to help inform what we know about the present.”
— Sam Modest, sixth-grade humanities teacher
“I shared these videos with the Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office,” Sam said. “I want students to know their voices can be heard.”
Understanding the past in order to better understand the present is an important way for students to learn about racial and social justices issues in the United States.
Upper school U.S. history teacher Tom Dorrance approaches the history of racism in the United States in two ways.
“We look at race as a constitutive element of the creation of America,” he said. “So we’re not treating race as an anomaly, but rather as a core part of America. In the classroom, this means we look at the language that was used to describe race. We read how slavery was used to create binaries, the way Blackness was—and still is—used to describe the wrong behaviors. We look at the Gilded Age and the arguments about capitalism. Through these conversations, I want students to see that race in America is part of the air we breathe.”
The other part of Tom’s approach to teaching U.S. history is understanding the history of the Black experience.
“Reclaiming agency is a really important part of the story of Black people in the United States,” Tom shared. “We are talking about the history of subjugation and violence against a group of people, but with an eye toward finding agency and resistance.”
One way the class has been doing this is through an exploration of the 1619 Project, a New York Times initiative that, according to its website, “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”
Another teacher focused on capturing lost voices in history is third-grade teacher Erin Longo, who, with teaching partner Priscilla Jih, has worked over the last three years to incorporate a deep-dive of the Mali Empire of West Africa. At the time, the third-grade humanities curriculum already included an exploration of ancient Egypt.
“We wanted to bring in a study of another African civilization,” Erin said. “We decided to incorporate the Mali Empire because it was a very powerful and renowned African empire. It’s so important to provide students with a positive, uplifting view of these societies.”
Having students study these ancient African societies provides an important precursor to the students’ studies of slavery later in their academic careers.
“We want students to truly understand where slaves came from,” Erin explained. “We want them to have an appreciation and awe of the continent of Africa, so when they are older they will understand how far these societies fell when the people were taken into slavery. Amplifying these voices and stories is especially important to me because I’m a white teacher.”
Acknowledging their positionality is one way that Sam, Tom, Erin, and other history teachers have engaged in this work in an anti-racist way.
Alegria Barclay, director of social justice and equity, added, “It’s also important for white students to know, and see, that they too can engage in anti-racist work.”
In Part 5, we explore how students are learning to be activists in their own right and the hopes Nueva faculty have for anti-racist work at Nueva.