Category Archives: Social Studies

Lies My Teacher Told Me : Everything Your American History Textbook Got WrongLies My Teacher Told Me : Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen

This was an absolutely fascinating read for the summer of 2012. Loewen examines a dozen or so American history textbooks for accuracy, and finds a lot of evasions, half-truths, misconceptions, lies, damned lies, and statistics. The story of the American nation, as we teach it to our children, is slanted to a nationalistic, Eurocentric, self-righteous angle. To protect our kids from unpleasant stories, we whitewash historical events. To avoid annoying vocal political groups, we soften stories to remove elements of racism, sexism, and greed. To inspire our children, we present our national heroes as perfect, unblemished souls–worthy, but impossible to emulate. Loewen makes the argument that by hiding controversy and teaching history three times removed from primary sources, we rob our children of the truth, and of the opportunity to think critically about forces in our nation today.

Do pick up this book. While you read, keep your Twitter stream open on the left, and follow all the conversations about the Common Core Standards and teacher evaluations. Check the newspaper and news websites for stories on teacher proficiency, and remember that all these poor saps who want to pay their mortgages are going to have to teach to whatever test will determine their teaching “quality.” The content of the test is going to drive what’s in the textbooks. And what’s in the textbooks will drive what Ms. Jones or Mr. Smith is teaching. Most likely, the test, the textbook, teacher licensure, and the professional development the teacher receives are coming from big companies like Pearson. Even if teachers and school boards want students to have a more realistic understanding of American history, the odds are against them.

In those news items, watch for the insidious presence of corporate backers, union bashers, and conservative politicians who want want to tell history “the right way.” And remember that Texas–the state with the GOP platform that proclaims critical thinking is dangerous because it might lead children to question entrenched beliefs–is pretty much the most important force in textbook approval in the nation.

Then ask yourself if anything is going to change.

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Cinderella’s Window

Cinderella_-_Project_Gutenberg_etext_19993What would Cinderella see outside her window?

That depends.  Does she live in a small village in France, near the walled city of Great Zimbabwe, or in  the mountains of the Czech Republic?  Is it her fairy godmother or Godfather Snake she asks for help?  Cinderella might see the pumpkin patch from which her transformed carriage will come, or she might see a volcano with smoke rising from the top.  The wicked stepmother might keep Cinderella from visiting that castle down the hill, but then again, she might send her stepdaughter out to find violets in the snow.

Young children rarely have any perception that their own culture is not universal.  They assume that everyone dresses the same, eats the same foods, and celebrates the same holidays. Our first graders are working on a project–Cinderella’s Window–that will introduce the kids to the fascinating differences between countries, while understanding that some things–like storytelling–unite people the world over. There are lots of methods–history, world languages, maps, cooking–teachers can use to introduce children to the rich variety of ways people live, but folktales make a nice lens through which kids can begin to examine culture since so many traditional tales have been published in picture book form.

We decided to use Cinderella stories as the focal point for a project that will meet learning standards in Social Studies, English Language Arts, Information Literacy, and Technology. Our stories were drawn from around the world, with versions from Nigeria, Zimbabwe, the Czech Republic, the Philippines, India, and France. We gathered nonfiction books on each country, and the page I made for our library wiki links to pictures, text, and audiovisual links for our students’ research.  You can see our book list, graphic organizer, and unit outline here.

The children began by hearing Cinderella versions from other cultures, and comparing them to the version most familiar to them (think stepmother, fairy godmother, and glass slipper.)  They are now using pictures, books, and websites to find out more about the countries where the stories were set. In another week, they’ll begin writing a paragraph that tells several facts about the country they’ve researched, and they’ll draw pictures of what a Cinderella character would see through the window.  The project will end with a field trip to the arts center at a local college, to see a play…Cinderella!