Nan Austin

Reframing history: Lessons dip deeper into the well

Civil War reenactors participate in a skirmish at the Knights Ferry Recreation Area in Knights Ferry, Calif., on March 20, 2016. The history of African Americans and other groups get a deeper look in social studies standards just adopted by California.
Civil War reenactors participate in a skirmish at the Knights Ferry Recreation Area in Knights Ferry, Calif., on March 20, 2016. The history of African Americans and other groups get a deeper look in social studies standards just adopted by California.

California has officially made history, releasing an updated social science framework for students in kindergarten through high school that includes the contributions of gays, folks with disabilities and at least a nod to the controversies of an imperfect past.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson announced the adoption July 15 following the State Board of Education approval for the History-Social Science Framework for California Public Schools.

“This is a big win for our students,” said Torlakson. “This document will improve the teaching and learning of history and social science. It will give our students access to the latest historical research and help them learn about the diversity of our state and the contributions of people and groups who may not have received the appropriate recognition in the past.”

This framework gives far greater emphasis to civics lessons and voter education, in line with the California Task Force on K-12 Civic Learning that Modesto City Schools trustee Cindy Marks helped to craft.

Across the grades, the framework says, “Students explore the meaning of liberty and equality by considering the actions Americans have taken to organize in support of and opposition to government policies, both in California and the nation as a whole.”

In middle school, kids are expected to analyze laws and public policies for effectiveness, cost and weighing the consequences. They are asked to consider multiple points of view and debate issues citing evidence, not just how they feel about it.

That issue of seeing multiple perspectives has gone from an intellectual exercise in previous generations to being an essential reflection for civic life in this one.

What TED talker Eli Pariser called filter bubbles have invisibly shifted the internet from being a way to connect to the wider world to serving up a tailored menu of what we feel most comfortable reading. Other points of view get edited out of our Facebook feed. Google searches return a personalized set of results. Each click funnels us toward a community of like minds, Pariser says.

Kids by sixth grade will be expected to do rudimentary research, looking critically at what they find – i.e., basic internet skepticism. They are asked to “use democratic procedures,” which suggests a class vote, to plan ways to address a school or community problem. Can service projects be far behind?

The California Department of Education noted there was a record amount of public comments taken during the framework’s development. An online survey netted 700 comments from 480 submitters. From Dec. 17, 2015, to Feb. 29, the CDE received more than 10,000 email comments.

“People are passionate about the way they are portrayed in history,” said Torlakson. “We are glad so many people and groups participated in our lengthy public comment and review process.”

Many topics in the framework sparked spirited debates, including “comfort women” in World War II, the Bataan Death March and the Battle of Manila, the roles of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) Americans in U.S. and California history, the Armenian Genocide, and discrimination faced by Sikh Americans.

“The adoption of this framework today is an important part of our instructional program,” said President Michael Kirst of the California State Board of Education in announcing the adoption. “Hundreds of people representing broad perspectives contributed to the development of this important tool for teachers and classrooms.”

The announcement does not mandate including the contributions of specific diverse individuals, and a quick skim of the documents suggests it will be largely left to districts and teachers to make that happen. However, the jam-packed outline does include a more nuanced view of American life, for example discussing the anti-immigrant sentiments and laws of the early 20th century in history standards tackled in 11th grade.

High school juniors also learn about the contributions of the Tuskegee Airmen, women and gays in the military and the Navajo Code Talkers in the discussion of World War II. The year covers segregation, the Harlem Renaissance and expansion of LGBT culture in the 1920s.

The study of Alexander the Great’s accomplishments in sixth grade does not include that he is widely believed to be gay, though teachers are urged to be sensitive to students in gay families starting in second grade, and the fight for gay rights in California is discussed in fourth grade.

There is a greater inclusion of black history throughout, though Harriet Tubman, the new face on $20 bills, is only mentioned in a list of African American abolitionists in eighth grade. Slavery also appears in fifth-grade discussions of the colonies, and the unpleasant reality that forced Native American labor built the Spanish missions is included in fourth grade.

The 1998 framework this replaces calls upon teachers to delve more deeply into a few key events of history, “in recognition of the shrinkage of time allotted to history-social science instruction” in early grades. By contrast, the new framework calls on teachers to use the springboard of history throughout the day to develop core skills – writing, analysis and oral persuasion.

That pivot, from teaching English skills by themselves to learning them in tandem with other subjects – on the job, you might say – is a Common Core theme visible across all updates to subject frameworks.

While the new framework opens doors to robust debates, it leaves to local control whether and which of those will happen. So much in how we view the world has changed in 18 years, and this academic shift only seems to get us part of the way there.

Still, recalling the history lessons we grew up with, learning about Pilgrims as the generous hosts in the tall hats and the American Revolution as a series of good (white) guys shouting brave slogans, the change is breathtaking.