Exploring a Dark Past to Prepare for a Brighter Future

Exploring a Dark Past to Prepare for a Brighter Future

When we think about the founding of America, it is important to acknowledge the country’s tough and complex history. Race and racism are topics that receive regular circulation across news platforms. Discussions about these topics can be difficult and provoke strong emotions. Yet most students leave high school without an adequate understanding of the role slavery played in the development of the United States—or how its legacies still influence us today. Teaching grade school students about America’s shameful history can seem daunting and impossible for teachers who want to inspire hope in their classrooms. But teaching difficult history helps teach students tolerance.

In 2016, Dr. Magda Gross, then an assistant professor of curriculum theory and social studies at the University of Maryland College of Education, conducted a pilot study with 200 students in a New England public school. For the study, students were asked to write a brief narrative of slavery in the U.S. In their answers, nearly 10 percent of mainstream students identified Martin Luther King Jr. as the politician who ended slavery. And while some 30 percent of the students in advanced placement classes (many of whom were white) called slavery “dehumanizing,” they also stated it was “necessary” or “essential” to building the America we have today. Perplexed by these results, Dr. Gross and a team of researchers and practitioners sought funding for a new project.

After reviewing the state standards and curriculum, the researchers found gaps. The gaps in the Maryland curriculum, coupled with the responses to Dr. Gross’ pilot study, suggested a need for a greater presence of the history of slavery in the social studies curriculum. In an effort to remedy this, Dr. Gross, along with Alison Jovanovic, M.Ed. ’98, launched the Difficult History Project at the University of Maryland College of Education, supported by a grant from the Library of Congress.

The Difficult History Project aimed to bring historical richness and primary source-based resources to the classroom, with a focus on local Maryland history of enslavement. The key goal of this project was to elevate how slavery is “remembered” and taught in American society and schools.

“We believed that teaching teachers to examine primary sources, like those available in the Library of Congress archives, would help them understand the important difficult history, like slavery, and make connections to local stories, as well as make sense of present-day issues,” stated Jovonavic.

“We decided to create a professional learning experience for novice teachers that focuses on teaching difficult history. This comprehensive professional development would also help develop crucial historical literacy skills and critical citizenship skills.”

During project planning, the team initially began by exploring the question “where does enslavement show up in the Maryland state curriculum?” “In a quick review, we found that slavery, enslavement and related terms only showed up seven times in the 4th grade content standards, one time in the 5th grade, eight times in the 8th grade, and not once in 9th or 10th grade standards at the time,” Dr. Gross said.

To deepen student understanding, the Difficult History Project sought to bring light to the myriad and important stories of perpetrators, resistors, heroes and victims of enslavement in the American South. In particular, the intention was to bring together the global and the local—encouraging teachers to face difficult history in their classrooms by zooming in on stories of this dehumanizing institution in and around the University of Maryland.

Due to the political shifts and increase in racial tension in the U.S., the importance of the project continues to grow.

Students have had an overwhelmingly positive response to the teacher training course, which took place in Spring 2018.

“The chance to engage with/in and dissect actual lessons on the subject was very encouraging. I feel better about some lessons/topics to teach and questions I need to think about before approaching a unit like this,” one COE student wrote about their experience in the course.

So what’s next for the Difficult History Project? Jovanovic is coordinating opportunities for COE students to visit the Library of Congress archives, so they learn to navigate resources that will help them teach difficult history in an in-depth manner that reflects local stories and context.

The principal architects of the project are Dr. Gross, Ms. Jovanovic, Dr. Lisa Eaker, and Catherine McCall. They worked closely with a group of experts: Robert Bell (University of Maryland), Joel Breakstone (Standford), Chris Bonner (UMD, Ethan Hutt (University of North Carolina), Alana Murray (UMD, MCPS), Ted Rosengarten (University of SC), Campbell Scribner (UMD) and Eric Shed (Harvard).

(Original news story by Lauren Benning-Williams)

July 6, 2020

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