Social Studies class is the type of place where a student can have a variety of different experiences. Most of it depends on the type of teacher leading the class. Is the teacher engaging? Is the teacher knowledgeable about their content? Does the teacher have a good relationship with the students? Of course, those questions matter in every class. But in Social Studies there is another question that profoundly affects the experience of the student: What are the backgrounds of students in the class?
Identity is never of zero consequence in any class, however, racial, religious and gender differences tend to be a lot more noticeable in history class.
I learned this the hard way. I am a Social Studies teacher. When I first started teaching, I fell into the trap of believing that all I needed to do was regurgitate some facts and have the students write some notes.
One of the assignments that I usually gave was perspective writing. Students were to pretend to be someone in history. One day, as I was grading an assignment on the middle ages, I noticed all the girls in my class had chosen to write from the perspective of either a servant or a peasant. I asked them why and one of them simply said, “Well, that’s all you told us that they did.” A similar situation happened with my black students when I did this assignment during my slavery unit.
The crazy thing is I often preached against the racism and sexism they were learning about in my lessons, but through forcing my students to take on those identities I had inadvertently subjected to them racism and sexism. Additionally, I unwittingly propagated the false narrative that black people and women didn’t do anything else in history besides help around the house and be slaves, which can’t be good for their self-image.
Another mistake I made was not considering how students could feel during a lesson. For example, we often underestimate the effect that constantly seeing images of black slaves could have on black students or the effect that news stories about the border wall could have on my immigrant students.
None of this is to say that students can’t learn the cold hard truths of history and current events. For the bulk of human history, women were relegated to secondary roles. For most of American history, blacks were second class citizens. Immigration is currently a controversial issue. Students need to know history and they should feel some type of way about it, but teachers need to make sure that they are considering the identities and the backgrounds of their students when planning lessons and assignments.