On this Juneteenth, a day to commemorate the end of slavery in the US, we hear from an EL Education teacher about using language that humanizes instead of harms when teaching the history of enslaved people.
The last time that I taught fourth grade full time was in 1997 and ‘98, but as I began preparing to teach this school year, I knew that I wanted, and needed, to teach California and American Social Studies and History in a much different, more accurate, and more responsible way. History can and should inform us in a way that compels us to make the world a better place.
As someone with Mexican ancestry, I have always identified with other indigenous groups. I can recall feelings of shame when learning about how Indigenous American tribes were treated and are portrayed. I felt it when touring local California missions. That discomfort was mirrored in the faces of my Black and African American fifth-graders when we opened our American History books. Now, in 2021, more than ever, I owe it to them to do better.
As I began to explore the EL Education curriculum, I was pleased to see robust representation of women and people of color in each unit. Diverse perspectives provide those mirrors and windows that we strive for. One of the things that I appreciate most about the EL Education curriculum is the space it provides for adding additional representation and for tailoring the lessons to meet our students’ unique needs.
All children need rich content that provides windows to the lived experience of others as well as mirrors of their own lives.
When I spotted the lesson titled, “An Incomplete Revolution,” about Black people excluded from the freedoms idealized during the American Revolution, I thought, “Yes! We are on the right track!” And we are on the right track. The proverbial train has left the station, but we have work to do to ensure that our lessons reflect and sustain the full humanity of the people represented and of the students who identify with them.
In preparing students to look at primary and secondary source documents, students created journal entries detailing their own very unique experience of living and learning through the Covid-19 pandemic, to build understanding about what a primary document is and who produces it. As I previewed the module lessons once more, words from the readings like “slave,” “Negroes,” and “masters” stood out to me and brought back those same gut-wrenching feelings that I’d experienced in the past, both as a student and as a teacher.
It can be uncomfortable, but simple enough, to explain that language changes over time and that terms such as “negro,” used in historical documents, are offensive and are no longer used today. Certainly, we can not let our discomfort get in the way of doing the crucial work of pioneering and developing anti-racist education practices in our classrooms. But we are equally charged with facing both history and current events in ways that do not retraumatize, evoke a shame response, or disengage our students, especially those who experience systemic racism every day of their lives.
Our sacred duty is to affirm and empower our children. We must help each of them to build a positive and powerful self identity.
As an educator, a more difficult, and yet most essential task, then, is that we also do the nuanced work of unpacking, confronting, and transforming language that harms. Understanding our history, from diverse perspectives, is part of what we must do to heal and to move toward our shared dream of equity and unity.
So I took a deep breath, and I got brave, and I told my students that I have a lot of difficulty with the word “slave.” Every time I see that word being used, I wish the writer had used “people who were enslaved,” instead. I emphasized that these were my personal feelings, and took ownership of my ideas. I talked to my kids about how the word “slave” hurts my heart, because, to me, the most important thing about the people we are discussing is that they were people, not that they were enslaved. To me, that word is dehumanizing. Those who were enslaved were not the horrific thing that was done to them, they were so much more.
I am confident that articulating my own feelings about how history is presented worked to help my students to begin to develop their own critical consciousness and begin to find their own voice. Heads nodded; students leaned in closer. Some used our hand signal for “I agree / I have the same idea.” Others found ways to use the word enslaved in their text annotation that very day. I know from what they said and did that day, that it affirmed what they may know and feel, themselves, but do not yet see reflected in the content.
Why did I need to take a deep breath and muster up my bravery, you might ask? As we work toward becoming culturally relevant, anti-racist educators, I think many of us, myself included, still have a lot to learn. We are going to have to practice, and sometimes stumble, but hopefully make the kinds of mistakes which ultimately make us more effective as we do this work.
Later, when I reflected on my teaching, I hoped that I had not in any way minimized the importance of surviving that enslavement and living on in the generations that triumphed over this profound tragedy. This is but one of the reasons why we need to have many, many conversations like this one, with our students and our colleagues. For if we teach only the struggles and never the joys, of any group of people, our work is incomplete… yes, incomplete, like the revolution our students study.
If we are too reticent to make our voices heard, unwilling or unable to stand shoulder to shoulder with our historically marginalized brothers and sisters, the work will never get done. To rely on the emotional labor of others, in the guise of not having enough expertise yet, simply isn’t ethical.
So stand beside me. We’ll walk along those tracks before we can run. And one day we will hear the rails sing, as the train gets closer. Come with me. We can, we must, do the hard work of building equity in education today. The time is now.
*EL Education is proud to host diverse voices and offer a platform for dialogue on topics impacting educators and students. Views of guest bloggers are their own and may differ from the views of EL Education.