Tackling religion and race in the classroom: UD History grapples with tough topics

Amelia Feiner, Staff Writer

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“We live in a world that is so powerfully shaped by the legacy of white supremacy, racism, and patriarchy,” history teacher Dr. Kalil Oldham said. “It is difficult to teach the history of these forces that for many people, including our students, are still so present.”

Oldham is not alone in his struggle to tackle these sensitive subjects in history class. “It’s hard to think of a day in history class when we don’t touch on a sobering topic,” history teacher Dr. Elisa Milkes said.

It’s important to establish empathy for the people in the classroom from the beginning of the year, as teachers don’t know how their students are going to react at different times Milkes said.

To familiarize her freshmen with such personal and emotional learning, Milkes begins her Atlantic World classes with an assignment for students to investigate their own family history, she said. Later in the year, Milkes follows up by asking students to reflect on how their story overlapped, if at all, with the curriculum of the class, she said.

There is no standard departmental approach to dissecting and analyzing difficult topics in class, History Department Chair Dr. Daniel Link said. Instead, each teacher is given the freedom to develop their own methods.

To teach classes about slavery in the Western world, Link combines primary sources, textbook readings, and current events. “In order for students to understand slavery they need to understand it in the historical context in which it developed. In doing that you can help students to understand how the institution of slavery changed over time,” he said.

In his tenth grade US History class, teacher David Berenson uses as sources Frederick Douglass’ autobiography and March, a graphic novel series about the Civil Rights Movement written by Rep. John Lewis.

Julia Hornstein (12) had particularly positive experiences in her AP US History course last year. “We were reading [a document] from someone who was enslaved, which I found really powerful,” she said.

However, Taussia Boadi (11) still feels that conversations about race can be uncomfortable, and that certain topics have been avoided in class to prevent offense. “I was the only black person in history class freshman year and there were only two of us in my history class last year. When issues of race came up, I was looked at to talk or say something on the issue, and that shouldn’t be the case. Just because I’m black doesn’t mean that I should be the only one who knows what’s going on,” she said.

Particularly with the topic of slavery, Link has experienced students making false claims about the institution itself or demonstrating problematic understandings of and fundamental misconceptions about slavery, he said.

In fact, in a study conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in 2017, only eight percent of American high school seniors were able to identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War.

Oldham is frightened by this low figure. “That eight percent is definitely higher here, but is it one hundred?” he said.

To answer this question, the Record sent out a survey identical to the one conducted by SPLC to all Upper Division students. Of the 213 responses, 158 or 74.2% of those polled responded that “to preserve slavery” was the reason for secession.

Of the 55 students who chose alternative answers, 43 chose, “to preserve states’ rights. Oldham believes that this response is dangerous, as it adheres the narrative of the Civil War perpetuated by Southern states during Reconstruction, Oldham said.

A more standardized curriculum for underclassmen attempts to educate students effectively about the history of our country. “The History Department uses textbooks in ninth and tenth grade, and the curriculum emphasizes the history of slavery. Additionally, through department meetings and other collaborative efforts teachers develop thoughtful and comprehensive lessons,” Link said.

For example, the faculty spent the majority of a meeting in the 2017-2018 school year discussing the alt-right marches in Charlottesville and how to connect the past to the present, Link said. Teachers shared ideas about how to address the topic of race in the classroom, he said.

Shay Soodak (11) believes that the two history electives she is taking this year addresses social justice differently than standardized history courses.

Electives allow teachers to adapt the curriculum to spend time talking about issues not directly related to the courses, Soodak said. For example, she spent a full period of her Africa and Asia 1945-Present course discussing global warming and its effects on different cultures along the African coast, she said.

However, Boadi feels that the History Department needs to do more to make the curriculum include more global history and less Western history. “It’s really crazy how at a lot of predominantly white institutions around the country, not just at Horace Mann, the history of minorities is always an elective,” Boadi said. “It makes me feel like my history is not as important as the history of the white man.”

Josh Benson (12) believes that the school needs to place more emphasis on international history as well as political theory to better understand oppression, he said.

Despite their criticisms, both Benson and Boadi said that they have both had overwhelmingly positive experiences in history classes.

This is true for the majority of the Upper Division. In fact, in a Record poll asking “Do you believe that the high school history curriculum appropriately addresses complex issues about race, slavery, social justice, and societal inequality,”only 13 out of 118 respondents or 11% answered no.

However, the department is still open to change, and teachers are constantly reworking their curriculum and teaching styles. “It has to be an ongoing conversation, and every year I realize I can do better,” Milkes said. “I think it is important for teachers to consistently be reinventing and rethinking.”