African American History Class Should Speak to Larger Issues and Values of Democratic Citizen

Posted on 08.08.2012


I am going to teach African American History to Sophomores for the second year in a row.  To be candid, I thought I did a horrible job my first time out.  It was done in a chronological manner, little discussion or reflection took place about race, society and the structures of power, history or any issues of “social justice”.  Sure, there was some critical thinking and that skill got developed over the course of the year; but something was lacking.

In history, I find I fall victim to playing the “causation game” – that the distant past informs the past which then informs the present.  This is true.  That idea of cause and effect is interesting. To me at least.  However, there is nothing to be said that history should be taught chronologically.  Sure, maybe that does show cause and effect accurately, but I really doubt that meaningful reflection about human values and enduring understandings can really flourish in the classroom.

I want to try a different approach this year.  I would like to focus on some enduring understandings that are fundamental to how a democratic society should operate.  I would like work with my students to develop what it means to be a reflective, active and critical citizen in our community.

In essence, I want students to entertain the thought that the way our society is constructed – the power structures and systems in place regarding race, class and gender (and others for sure) – are not just by accident, they aren’t “just the way it is because…”  Our communities are this way because we let them be this way.

I’d like to first focus on what our society is like today – where people are living, how they are living, how they are treated and reflect on solutions to these problems.  Every unit will contain cause and effect events, that paint a picture to a social issue that I think we can work on for today’s society.

I need help.  I need help with content, I need help framing the problems.  Here are the issues I would like to explore with students so far:

  1. The culture of race – it takes many forms throughout history
  2. Race is a social construct – so how did we, in America, as Americans, construct the ideas of race?
  3. We Philadelphians (and Americans) live in a still segregated society – can we figure out how migrations work and why people live in the areas they live in?
  4. Efforts of the racist: how do people in power stay in power using race
  5. How do leaders (from both “sides” and all races) talk about race and society? How do they lead?
  6. Traditional racism vs. subversive racism – different forms that racists can take: It’s racism if someone says it is… lets explore that!
  7. How can we talk about race?

A few allowances about this list: I have idea what these units can contain; no clue if it covers everything or if I am missing a larger issue that we face in society; I also am not sure about the content surrounding these units.  I do know that each unit should takle an issue facing our society and culture from the immediate future that we all face.

Just an inkling of some thoughts for now, hoping to develop this further as more time frees up…

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