Wednesday, September 05, 2012

My first dissatisfied customer of this school year

After going over my syllabus and various rules/procedures at the beginning of the school year, I then spend about a week front-loading my students with lessons on generic aspects of history, such as a presentation on different historical sources, basic geography, B.C./A.D. and how to compute time, and a lesson on common fallacies of history.

It so happens that many of the fallacies my students bring to my classroom every year have to do with slavery.  The most common slavery fallacy of course is that only Europeans and Americans engaged in the slave trade.  Most of my students don't know that the African slaves brought to the New World were sold to the Europeans by other Africans.

I give my students a 20-question quiz on these common fallacies about slavery and other subjects (such as the "Wild West" was actually not so wild).  The students take the quiz home, they complete it, then we go over the answers together.  I always enjoy the quizzical looks that develop on their faces as I burst one myth after another that they always accepted as gospel.

The day my students brought their quiz back to class, the following email from a parent was waiting for me when I got to my classroom in the morning:
Good morning,
Just wondering if you are planning on lecturing on slavery all year, you did for the last 6 months of the last school year and already begun this year. I feel that there is much more to world/US history than slavery. That being said, if you can let me know if the major part of your teaching will continue along this path so that I can have my students class changed. Thanks [Parent]
First off, the reference to "the last school year" refers to the fact that I taught this parent's older child the year before, and now I am teaching the younger sibling. I mean, really, how do you answer an email like this? One that is so accusatory; so brusque; so ignorant? The parent didn't even tell me the child's name, and since the parent's last name in the address of the email didn't match the last name of any of my 180 students, I had to email the parent back and ask who the student in question was about whom we were discussing. Before I responded to this parent's email, I had to hold off for a few minutes, as after reading it, I had that "shot of adrenaline" feeling in my abdomen, and my hands were shaking. It wasn't from fear of this parent, mind you. It was pure frustration and anger that I actually had to dignify this inquiry with a polite response. After composing myself, I composed the following email response:
[Parent's Name],
I certainly understand your impression that slavery is mentioned quite a bit in my 8th grade U.S. History classes, because your impression is correct. The California state standards for 8th Grade U.S. History – which instruct me on what to teach my students – are full of topics that involve the issue of slavery in the United States, both before and after its colonial period. In your initial email to me, you mentioned “world/U.S. History,” and that is where some of our miscommunication might be found.
About the only world history I teach is when, at the beginning of the school year, I remind my students of the Age of Exploration (such as Christopher Columbus), which they should have learned in detail last year in their 7th grade Medieval World History class. In mentioning the Age of Exploration and its role in colonizing the Americas (including what would become the United States), one cannot teach the subject without mentioning the role of slavery, which included using Native Americans as slaves until they died en masse of disease, and Africans were brought over to replace them.
The 8th grade standards for U.S. History themselves do not address the entire history of our country – they only span from the colonization and founding of our country in the 1600s/1700s to the Frontier/Industrialization period of the late 1800s. It was during that precise time in our country’s history that the issue of slavery touched just about every major event my students study.
All of the following topics are in the California state 8th Grade U.S. History standards, which I am required to teach:
· The differences between the northern and southern colonies, which included slavery.
· The arguments about how to handle the slavery issue when drafting the Constitution, to include the 3/5 Compromise and the 1808 African slave trade deadline.
· The arguments over whether U.S. territories would enter as slave states or free states, to include the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, and the Wilmot Proviso of 1846.
· The War between Texas and Mexico, and the role slavery played in it.
· The Abolition Movement of the early-mid 1800s and its efforts to end slavery.
· The description of life for slaves in the Southern states prior to the Civil War. An entire chapter of our textbook (Chapter 20) is dedicated to that subject.
· The deterioration of relations between the Northern and Southern states, and the significant role slavery played in that deterioration.
· The Civil War, in which, among other factors, slavery played a significant role, including the writing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address.
· The Reconstruction period after the Civil War, in which the students are to study what happened to former slaves once they were freed, to include the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, Jim Crow Laws, and the Supreme Court case of Plessy vs. Ferguson.
Again, these are all subjects which I am required to teach by the state of California. Right when the issue of slavery becomes less of a factor in U.S. History also happens to be right when the California state standards for 8th Grade U.S. History come to a conclusion. The second half of U.S. History, that takes the student from approximately the year 1900 to modern times – when slavery was no longer a major factor in our country’s history – is to be found in California’s 11th grade U.S. History standards, which [your child] will study during [his/her] Junior year in High School.
If you wish to review the California 8th grade U.S. History standards for yourself, you can find them on pages 523-528 in [your child's] history textbook, which is called History Alive! The United States Through Industrialism, or visit the following link:
If you wish to discuss this further, please feel free to contact me by email, or call me at ###-####.
All the Best,
Did this parent ever look at the standards ahead of time? Did this parent ever look at the textbook - both last year and this year - and notice how often slavery comes up as a topic of study? Apparently not. Instead, the parent fired off a written equivalent of projectile vomit, and I had to spend my entire prep period cleaning up the mess. After sending my response, I received no further communication about this matter from the parent.

What is so funny about all this is that to the extent I do teach about slavery in my classes, I especially enjoy teaching about it in order to counter the many myths, fallacies, and outright lies that have presumably been taught to most of my students before they ever entered my classroom.

"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free... it expects what never was, and never will be."  -Thomas Jefferson


Anonymous said...

I doubt a lot of parents look at the state requirements. I never knew about them, which kind of makes sense, since I have no kids, but I was very involved with the child of a friend of mine. And until she had a miserable experience with a teacher in her fifth grade did I ever hear anything about the state requirements.

And it was such a different experience from the one you describe. You come across as a person who enjoys teaching, and who understands the intricacies (and ramifications) of how a subject can/should be taught. This teacher was an idiot who had a bad understanding of her subject matter, a terrible bias, and used the state's requirements/standards as a defense for poor teaching.

BTW, I would love to see your quiz!

Anonymous said...

I've had many similar experiences, including a meeting between me, an administrator, an angry parent and her daughter for teaching about Christianity in her history class (we were learning about Clovis). It's required by the Minnesota state standards that all the major world religions are taught; one cannot teach World History without teaching about religion. . .

I also pointed to the standards and explained I am not out to convert anyone to any particular religion or philosophy- I'm simply teaching the standards. At least we have the standards to draw upon and point to in these situations; it is much easier to remain objective and calm.

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