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History Education and the Organization of American Historians Conference

This blog is a continuation of a report on the cancelled conference of the Organization of American Historians. For the first post go to The Organization of American Historians (OAH) Conference: What Would Have Been Presented? and the second post Organization of American Historians Conference: II. The first two post focused on the Plains Indians. For whatever reason, the Woodland Indians were the not the subject of the presentations. In this post, the focus is on teaching history.

The following presentations are mainly educational and related to the challenges in teaching.

Teaching Hard History: Preparing Students to Teach about American Slavery

Research by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2018 drew attention to the need to do a better job teaching about the nation’s history of slavery in American schools. Participants at this session will use the “Teaching Hard History: A Framework for Teaching American Slavery” and “Teaching Hard History: American Slavery” report (both 2018) and draw on their experience working with secondary teachers to address ways to teach both the history of slavery and its persistent legacy for the nation.

This description serves as the introduction to a sessions with multiple presentations on this topic.

Teaching Students to Critically Evaluate How Slavery Is Taught

In 2018 the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) published a scathing report about how slavery is taught in American schools. The report demonstrates that teachers feel uncomfortable teaching about slavery, textbooks inadequately address slavery, and students have a limited understanding of slavery. To supplement their report, the authors produced a guide for teachers to help them bring slavery into the classroom in a more intentional way that will enable students to gain a thorough and nuanced understanding of slavery.

In my presentation, I will discuss how I integrated the SPLC report into my U.S. history survey. After spending two class sessions teaching students about slavery in the antebellum South, I assigned the report and asked students to reflect on their K–12 experiences learning about slavery. Then, using the textbook rubric provided by the SPLC, they evaluated our course textbook. Finally, exploring the resources provided in the supplementary material, students designed lesson plans for teaching slavery. Flipping the perspectives of students by having them look at slavery from a teacher’s perspective enhanced their understanding of slavery, enabled them to identify the problems with how slavery is taught, and provided opportunities to address those problems. By sharing my success with this approach, my presentation will provide an effective model for teaching slavery to undergraduates, and more generally demonstrate the benefits for students when the class is turned upside down and they are asked to investigate how a historical topic is taught.

Presented By Daniel Phillip Kotzin, Medaille College

Teaching Difficult Racial Histories in Post–Civil Rights America

The papers in this session address both the history of teaching about race and innovative pedagogical techniques for teaching the histories of racial discrimination, American Indians, and slavery. Teaching about race and race relations became a much more important part of history curricula at every level in the 1960s, as the influence of the Civil Rights movement, Black Nationalism, the American Indian movement, La Raza, and other organizations that supported minority rights impelled educators to incorporate previously neglected topics into the curriculum and in classrooms ranging from elementary schools to colleges and universities.

Educators and activists sought not only to include the history of minority groups in the curriculum, but to change the way that race relations and history were taught. Because teaching about race relations was a new topic, it inspired new pedagogies. Collectively, these papers offer a history of the inclusion of race into the curriculum and a look at significant approaches to teaching race from the 1960s to the present, ranging from to innovative pedagogies on American Indians to “flipped” classrooms in which students interrogate the way that slavery is taught in schools and textbooks to simulation games designed to model racial inequality. 

This description serves as the introduction to a sessions with multiple presentations on this topic.

Role-Playing, Poverty, and Race in the Simulation Games “Ghetto” and “Blacks & Whites”

This paper examines two widely used classroom simulation games to analyze debates over race relations, poverty, social science, and pedagogy in the 1960s and 1970s. Social scientists and policy makers devoted enormous attention to racial inequality, segregation, and ghettos from the 1940s into the 1970s, as the civil rights and black power movements confronted racial inequality in the United States. As scholars strove to understand America’s combustible race relations, simulation games generated enormous enthusiasm among many social scientists and educators, who believed that these games enabled both scholars and students to model social problems, understand them more intuitively, and explore possible solutions to them.

Proponents believed that gaming, unlike textbooks and lectures, offered a dynamic and interactive learning experience that permitted students to engage in role-playing and understand the gestalt of a social problem. The simulation games Ghetto, created by social worker Dove Toll and the Johns Hopkins Game Program in 1969, and Blacks & Whites, devised by two professors of psychology and the magazine Psychology Today in 1970, sought to provide players a vicarious experience of the hardships endured by black Americans—poverty, racial discrimination, and residential segregation.

These simulation games sought to reveal to players the near impossibility of keeping one’s head above water when one’s income remained below the poverty line. The games’ designers believed that these simulations would cause players to recognize the difficulty of climbing out of poverty, give players a better understanding of poverty and race relations, and imbue them with more empathy for the poor. Both Ghetto and Blacks & Whites focused principally on the lack of sufficient income and residential segregation that afflicted black Americans. Ghetto’s rules and structure emphasized that poor blacks lacked the economic resources to propel themselves out of poverty or improve conditions in the ghetto, while Blacks & Whites encouraged role-play, empathy, and focused on residential segregation. Modeling economic inequality and residential segregation was comparatively straightforward, but modeling racism and racial discrimination proved much more elusive. Ghetto and Blacks & Whites arose from social scientists’ effort to understand race relations in the 1960s, but these board games could hardly capture the gestalt of ghetto life or gauge the pervasiveness and irrationality of American racism.

Presented By Chris A. Rasmussen, Fairleigh Dickinson University

Educational Inequality and Native Americans: The Historical Development of Standards for Teaching Native American History

Prior to the 1970s, textbooks rarely addressed American Indian history seriously. Instead, Native Americans were more often presented as obstacles to progress. With the rise of the American Indian Movement and its precursor movements in the 1960s, some scholars and activists became interested in reforming how American Indian history was taught in schools. American Indian educators began organizing in 1969, and in 1970 formally created the National Indian Education Association (NIEA). Academic conferences were organized on the topic. In 1970 Jeanette Henry and her husband, Rupert Costo, edited a collection of essays entitled Textbooks and the American Indian. The couple would go on to spearhead the development of statewide educational standards for teaching about American Indian history in California public schools. Hundreds of thousands of children were taught lesson plans that Henry and Costo created, in which children constructed miniature models of missions and learned about their Indian inhabitants.

This paper analyzes how the reformist curriculum was influenced by the ideas that activists had regarding Indian identity and culture. The activists were concerned not only with educating non-Indians but also with educating Indian children. They wanted to remedy low academic achievement among the Native American population and believed that incorporating American Indian culture into the curriculum might be one way to address historical inequality. The reform movement not only tackled K–12 issues but also led to the development of an institution of higher education for American Indian students. Deganawidah-Quetzalcoatl University (aka D-Q University) was founded in Davis as a two-year college in 1971. It was the first college for Indians established in California and one of the first few in the United States.

This paper traces the development of K–12 standards for teaching Native American history in California, comparing and contrasting this process with similar developments in several other states. The paper examines the roles and contributions of the major participants in this process. By the twenty-first century, the methods and lesson plans of the 1970s progressives were coming under fire for working with stereotypical conceptions of Indian identity and for not being progressive enough. The paper also analyzes the recent criticism of the standards and how the standards are evolving in response to critics.

Presented By Thomas Brown, Virginia Wesleyan University

How to teach American history was a concern expressed at the conference. What should the infamous introductory survey college course include? I don’t know the answer, but as you can see from the four session titles below, it is a topic that college professors are struggling with.

Current Trends in Teaching the U.S. History Survey Course

Is the U.S. History Survey Course Dead? A Discussion of the Viability of the U.S. History Survey Course

From College to High School Classrooms: Closing the Gap in Teaching U.S. History Curriculum

Textbooks and Teaching 2020: Teaching the Introductory U.S. History Course in the Age of “Student Success”

Obviously education was a big topic at the conference.  Unfortunately the abstracts and session titles provide only a brief glimpse into what was presented. These are sessions where it does help to be there in person, to have the opportunity to participate in a discussion, to talk with people after the session has ended during the break or even over a meal. An online presentation with a lot of strangers doesn’t quite permit the same ease of communication as would be possible in person. These topics also show what can be discussed at the smaller conferences of teachers and the history community at the country, state, and regional level.

One thought on “History Education and the Organization of American Historians Conference

  1. Glad to see them teaching early Native American history now, too. Important.

    As for climbing out of poverty, too bad we can no longer interview my grand[artens and ll they “linesmen” they came over from Eastern Europe with. THOSE are to stories to emulate, not today’s :let’s pas out free money and hope tif rote best approach”….

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