Occupying the History Classroom

This is a history-centric follow up to my post asking Who Should Occupy the Classroom?  

The Rethinking Schools blog has an interesting post called “Occupy the Curriculum” up, by Bill Bigelow.  There, they celebrate responses to the Zinn Education Group’s Facebook page question: what are you teaching now:

Chris Conkling is teaching about “Forced removal of Native Americans/Andrew Jackson.”

Ariela Rothstein is teaching about the “Haitian revolution and the effects of colonialism on the Caribbean.”

Samantha Manchac is teaching about “the early women’s movement” from Chapter 6, “The Intimately Oppressed,” in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

Bigelow celebrates teachers’

defiant We’ll decide what our students need to learn, not some distant corporation” needs to happen in schools across the country

While I think the re-evaluation of what is taught in history classrooms to include erased and marginalized history is important and necessary, I think those of us who approach things from non-tradiational perspectives miss the point when we ask “what should be taught,” rather than “how should it be taught?”  If we teach our students different information in traditional methods, it’s not radical nor transformative; we’re just stuffing a different ideology down students’ throats, and we’re no better than teachers who consider the textbook the curriculum.

Rather, we need classrooms that develop democratic citizens capable of of original, critical thought.  I don’t care too much if my students read Zinn.  I do care that students in my class could become the next Zinn (or Burke, for that matter).

Radical educators need to ask their selves, “am I a teacher who happens to be radical?”  or, “am I a radical educator?”  It’s the latter group, who equip students to make their own independent and potentially radical decisions, that give me faith for the future of the world. The former group, who think they’re radical because of what they teach, are just reifying existing power structures.

4 thoughts on “Occupying the History Classroom

  1. Absolutely! Many years ago I went to a week-long workshop called The People’s Economics Seminar. They offered us lots of good information and analysis, but taught in the same old lecture format, and it drove me crazy. I knew I could have learned lots more if it had been more interactive.


  2. Stephen, I agree absolutely that it is not simply a question of what is taught but also how. Check out the materials at the Zinn Education Project and you’ll see that we argue for a “people’s pedagogy” to match the “people’s history” advocated by Howard Zinn and others. I write about this at some length in the introduction to “A People’s History for the Classroom,” posted at http://www.zinnedproject.org. See an activity like “If There Is No Struggle…” about teaching a people’s history of the abolition movement, for a good example of how we not only need to address silences in the curriculum — like teaching about the impact of social movements — but we need to do this in a way that shows students that history is choicepoints and not a string of events. Thanks for taking the time to respond to my Rethinking Schools blog


  3. I use a 4-Source Comparison Packet with my students, which asks them to compare and contrast four different sources on the same topic for perspective and bias; the central questions are, “Whose Voices Are Heard (in this source)? Whose voices are not heard? Who or what is made out to be the hero? Who or what is made out to be the villain?”

    I would love to hear more from other teachers reading this about the concrete activities, strategies, and documents they use to try to get at that spectrum of opinion and “choice-points” (I like that term). Thanks!


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