Scholars advocate for more diverse approach to social studies education

February is Black History Month, and in social studies classrooms throughout the United States, it may be the only time of the year when students are exposed to diverse histories. CEHS experts in social studies education, Tiffany Mitchell Patterson and Natasha Murray-Everett, hope to change that.

“If we’re really moving toward anti-racist, anti-biased curriculum, then we have to make these histories a part of the natural fabric of education,” Mitchell Patterson said. “When students only hear about these histories during designated months, it seems as though these stories aren’t a thread throughout American history, or that these lives aren’t really embedded in our society.”

Mitchell Patterson and Murray-Everett, who train and prepare future social studies educators at both the elementary and secondary levels, contend that part of this problem is an overall lack of depth in educators’ approaches to Black history.

“Most students only have a basic and superficial understanding of key moments in Black history,” Murray Everett said. “Educators will typically focus on the same individuals and events over and over again. I want students to see the resiliency of the communities, but Black history is often taught with a focus on slavery or the civil rights area.”

Mitchell Patterson added that educators will typically focus on historical figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman, buy they will only teach about singular moments in these individuals’ lives. For example, students often learn about King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and his work with the Civil Rights Movement, but they don’t usually hear about King’s stance on the Vietnam War or his work in launching the Poor People’s Campaign.

When these figures are presented in such a simplified way, they become more like caricatures than real individuals who faced and overcame incredible obstacles. Mitchell Patterson even recalls a high school student who “didn’t know that Harriet Tubman was a real person based on the way she had been described, as almost super-human.”

Murray-Everett and Mitchell Patterson train future social studies educators to implement curriculum that counteracts these narratives and illustrates the significance of diverse populations as a thread throughout American history.

For elementary teachers, Murray-Everett’s top recommendation is to introduce diverse histories to students through children’s literature as an entry point. Some of Murray-Everett’s top recommendations for children’s books and educator resources include the following:

Mitchell-Patterson recommends that, regardless of the grade-level they teach, educators need to first educate themselves on diverse histories. She suggests the following resources as a starting point for those who want to learn more, and ultimately, implement curriculum about diverse histories in their classrooms:

Other suggestions that Mitchell Patterson provides based on her own strategies as a former social studies educator include finding local histories unique to the community where the educator is teaching. Sometimes, students’ family histories can also be useful.

Regardless of the teaching strategy that educators choose, Murray-Everett and Mitchell Patterson emphasize the importance of integrating Black history and other diverse histories as a regular part of their curriculum. These histories are more than a month; they are part of the fabric of American history.

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