By Kendall McGee | June 16, 2020 at 7:09 PM EDT – Updated June 16 at 10:30 PM
WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) – As the movement spurred by the death of George Floyd continues to grip the nation, calls continue to go out to talk about our country’s difficult history and the institutions that have perpetuated structural racism for generations.
When students return to class in the fall, there will be more pressure than ever to have conversations about our past and the forces that shaped the society we live in now.
North Carolina’s era of slavery, tumultuous reconstruction period and legacy of civil rights demonstrations all play an important role in our history, but can be a challenge to teach to our state’s children. Dr. Cara Ward of the UNCW Watson College of Education points out the events are emotionally charged, controversial and teachers don’t always feel informed or supported enough to tackle topics head on.
“It can be really hard for teachers to discuss these things in the classroom and sometimes they may shy away from them. But we cant act like they didn’t happen because so many of these issues are impacting society today. The remnants of some of the decisions that were made then are affecting us now, whether its laws or the way society is structured and that’s why its important for us to look at this past that is difficult to cover and figure out what the lessons are for today,” said Dr. Ward.
According to the NC Department of Public Instruction, lessons of Wilmington’s 1898 events weren’t included in state learning standards until December of 2010. Now, material on the massacre is taught in 8th grade social studies and American History II in high school.
Ward says drafts of the state’s new curriculum propose introducing the 1898 coup to students as early as fourth grade. The notion of introducing such complex events to students so young reinforces the importance of age-appropriate resources and professional development opportunities to make teachers feel confident sharing Wilmington’s story.
Ward was one of the organizers of a three day institute planned for this month to educate teachers on the 1898 massacre. While the coronavirus forced them to postpone the event to next year, Ward says a one-day workshop they held last summer at the Bellamy Mansion addressing hard history booked up in minutes.
“We were able to invite 15 local teachers to come and learn a little more about 1898 and how they could teach it in their classroom and we had an amazing response. We had spots for 15 and within 30 minutes, we had 30 teachers sign up,” said Ward.
By the end of the registration period, 72 teachers had signed up for those 15 spots. The desire for teachers to learn how to address the topics is there, and Ward says she’s encouraged by the programs she’s seen and the introduction of new books and films on the 1898 massacre that can be utilized in the classroom.
“I see some efforts and I think we’re moving in the right direction in terms of providing teachers with the resources they need, but I think we can do more.”
Educators are coming up with new strategies like the history lab; providing students with primary sources like letters and photographs and asking them to use those pieces of evidence to formulate answers to compelling, open ended questions about history for themselves. Its a far cry from problematic strategies that have made headlines over the years where teachers have tried to use a simulation or a game to teach history, inadvertently putting their students in a role as an oppressor or a victim.
“We really do have to approach it in a very careful manner and we need to be very thoughtful about the instructional choices we make because these are difficult pieces of the past to look at and it brings about a lot of emotion. Its important to carefully select sources, to carefully select activities, its important to facilitate your instruction and the discussions that take place very carefully to make sure all voices are heard and sometimes you need to intervene when a viewpoint is brought up that’s unfair or a viewpoint reinforcing an injustice.”
Until 2020, students took NC Final Exams in both 8th Grade and American History II courses, but due to new legislation, the NC Final Exams for social studies have been eliminated after this school year. Moving forward, districts will be responsible for assessment in those courses, the DPI says.
Educators like Ward emphasize that teacher’s goal is more than just coaxing their students to recite facts from a history book. The hope is to make sure our children are equipped to handle the complex world we live in.
“To teach students how to have conversations about difficult topics in a meaningful and civil way that leads to real understanding and not just anger and I think that’s important not only in the classroom it’s a skill they’re learning for getting along with others in society it’s a skill for learning how to analyze sources they find online and figure out if they’re accurate,” added Ward.
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