Trying to Provide Perspective, Context and Other Pet Peeves

Guest blogger: Ron Hustvedt, Jr., Salk Middle School (Elk River)

The more I teach, the more I find myself working with students to understand the complexities and depth of subjects we learn about rather than just trying to hit a lot of different things. That definitely has positives and negatives associated with it, and it’s something I’ve always felt like I did, but with almost 20 years of experience behind me, I feel like I’m really just beginning to understand how to do it well.

That’s always a self-deprecating thing to wonder about: if I’m just getting it now, what was I like back in the day? So I have a few considerations for other teachers to ponder that are solely based upon my ongoing a-ha moments. Most of those a-ha moments come from two sources (I take little credit for any great discoveries of my own): many of the great educational philosophers and writers who publish articles and books I enjoy reading; and, the written reflections of my own students who provide me with the greatest insights into my successes and failures as a teacher.

The focus of these insights will center around how I provide educational opportunities for students to learn about American Indian history both in a 7th grade U.S. Studies classroom and in a 6th grade Minnesota Studies classroom. Anybody who teaches U.S. History should be able to relate to this in some fashion.

Perspective and Context

Is there really a difference between those two words? I feel as if maybe I’m being redundant. There is a wealth of writing out there about the need and value of teaching perspective and context, but doing so requires one thing more than anything else: a teacher who is constantly trying to learn about it all on their own. Hopefully we all tell our students that they can never know everything about a topic, and hopefully we not only encourage them to be lifelong learners but model that as well.

One of the ways I’ve been able to learn the most is by having my students participate in National History Day. If you ever want to be made aware of all the things you never learned, have 150 of your students select their own topics. But talk about modeling lifelong learning, they enjoy teaching me new things, and I enjoy helping them dig for things which usually means I have to try to learn about it more myself. This is where most of my a-ha moments have come from, in trying to help students understand perspective and context of their own topics. It’s uncanny how many times I have learned something while helping a student that I was able to fold into class the next day.

Even if you don’t have your students participate in NHD, you can experience the same results if you have them conduct their own inquiries and if you dig around for good primary sources to use in class. Better yet, do all the above!

Of, by, and for the people

My first a-ha that’s transformed my teaching comes in the spirit of the Gettysburg Address. If we truly believe in those iconic words by Abraham Lincoln, then we must also own what that means when we talk about the actions of the U.S. government. When teaching about “Indian Policy” throughout United States history, there are plenty of negative things to talk about, but seldom does the blame/credit go to anybody else than the ambiguous federal government. I often read in books, commentaries and articles people talking about, “This is how the U.S. government treated American Indians…” and it heaps it all on the government, ignoring the people who elected, supported, and allowed that to happen. It’s like letting the Germans off the hook for the actions of the Nazis. Let’s just be honest with students, and each other, in stating that the U.S. government carried out the actions of those who wanted American Indians to just go away through assimilation, war or by isolation. Those actions were supported by a majority of the population who were largely indifferent to the treatment of American Indians.

But with that needs to come a sensitivity as well. When I took an American Indian studies class at South High School as a senior back in 1993, I remember the teacher, who was himself active in the American Indian Movement, telling us that he doesn’t blame any of us for what happened and he doesn’t blame our families–he acknowledged the fact that most of our families had nothing to do with it since they came here after most of the damage was done. He was very clear, however, in telling us that it’s not about punishing people of today for what happened, but trying to move forward in the most reconciliatory way possible. You can’t undo wrongs from the past, but you can learn and you can build. That’s our job as teachers, to expose students to the stories of the past and let them know what happened, not to paint the lines of good guys and bad guys but to be able to know what you are seeing when you look at the world around you.

Address complexities

I’m very proud that my 6th grade Minnesota Studies students can tell me that Little Crow and Henry Sibley are complex people from history. They know that both men did things in their lives to be proud of and both did things to be ashamed of, and that history judges them differently over time depending on the evidence that’s examined. I love that my kids realize that they themselves are complex people. We are all much more like Batman than Superman in that we are complex, multi-faceted, sometimes good, sometimes bad, and that our ideals are often compromised by the limitations of our time. The classic case of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson–great men who fought for freedom all while owning slaves. This conversation comes up in so many places because while we celebrate Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., for getting arrested standing up for what they believe in, when at the time those arrests were not seen the same by many, including leaders of the NAACP.

Simply talking with students about their own lives helps them understand these complexities. None of our students are all good and none of them are all bad. In their friendships, they learn to deal with shortcomings of others and their friends learn to put up with theirs. These people from history are not fictional characters, they are people just like us who are prone to the same faults and quirks. Helping students see those character traits, helping students see the multifaceted layers within seemingly simple historical events, gives them the opportunity to apply that to modern issues.

You don’t have to get into every complexity with students, but letting them see the chaos amongst the orderly narrative of a history book, definitely helps them achieve a deeper understanding of history and our modern world.

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