Antiracist Activism for Teachers and Students/Literature for Youth/Historical Literature

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The topic we have decided to focus on is historical literature: we have chosen to examine historical literature in both elementary and high school through an antiracist lens. We define historical literature as literature that was written during or about a historical time period. We have come to this topic through a balance of individual interests within the field of history and literature. Through this compromise, we have discovered the power and impact that historical literature, particularly historical fiction has over the perceptions of students and the general society. For this reason the racism found in many pieces of historical literature is extremely problematic. Historical literature often reflects the racism of the time in which it was written. Even historical literature written more recently often does not address the racism of the time period. Because of the racism found in most historical literature, it is important for teachers using historical literature in their curricula to address the racism inherent in the books they choose. With regard to our research, we have reached a general consensus that many forms of historical literature are presently being identified as possible tools in creating social antiracist activism. While the discussion of this topic within the literature curricula has been encouraged, we have found few examples of the implementation of this. However, after a dedicated search we were able to find some examples of adequate lesson plans that have the potential to be used effectively in the classroom. We will discuss antiracist historical literature in a broad context in both elementary and high school education and then look at specific examples of the lesson plans that our search yielded.

High School Antiracism Historical Literature[edit]

There are many questions and concerns that educators face when attempting to create an anti-racist historical literature curriculum. For this process to even begin, it is central for the educator to be aware that the historical literature being used is primarily Eurocentric. The “Eurocentric critique” is defined by George Reisman as, “a pejorative term supposed to describe a provincial outlook that focuses overwhelmingly on European and Western culture while giving short shrift to Asia, Africa, and Latin America (Reisman, 1992).” Without the recognition of the present inequities and the implications that prejudiced texts provide, anti-racist historical literature is unable to be created and used. Through the recognition of texts that embody Eurocentrism, many educators and schools are attempting to eliminate the Western and European bias, and incorporating many different perspectives. For example, in California’s public school system, their history curriculum has been altered to include Native American and African cultures.

To allow for students to see through an anti-racist lens, it is imperative to provide at this present point, alternative book choices, specifically different sources in place of history textbooks. Since the 1990’s, the educational community has begun to move toward a new initiative towards anti-racist historical literature. Present educators who have recognized the Eurocentrism and racism within the present texts are proposing and searching for alternative texts and sources. These alternative sources have included historical fiction narratives that provides powerful messages and perspectives to the students. Also, since more educators are beginning to use alternatives texts, and antiracist teachers continue to change their curriculum, many high school textbooks are widely being rewritten. Here again, the perspectives and stories which were often orally preserved are being written down through adaptation, to go “beyond relying on accounts of Western travelers…” as said by Reisman. The key that seems to provide an effective anti-racist historical literature curriculum in high school is a culmination between awareness, activeness in search of other resources, and emphasis on activism in the educator and students. This can only be done through the self-reflection of the educator and the promotion of self-reflection to the students. Kathleen M. Sharp shares in her article “Reflection and Activity in my Classroom”, a teacher’s reflection on the present issues and concerns that occur when teaching an anti-racist lesson on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Sharp emphasizes the constant student reflections that occurred throughout the whole class activity. Here the reflection goes beyond the text, and challenges educators and students to look within themselves and their lives. Sharp presents an educational theory, Centricity, from Asante (1991) who defines it as “a process that involves the teacher in locating students within the context of their own cultural reference so that thy can relate socially and psychologically to other cultural perspectives.” Through reflection, teachers are able to introduce this theory into practice, strengthening the connection between the literature and the individual.

A concern and issue that has come up in the educational system within high school literature, particularly historical literature is the controversy over censorship. In both arguments for and against censorship, individuals have stated arguments about anti-racism. For individuals who are for censorship in the context of anti-racism, feel that certain texts instill negative perspectives of minorities that will perpetuate stereotypes, which in turn takes away any power and value the students of color may feel. This issue particularly came up in the discussion of the book, Heart of Darkness, which one teacher reflects and struggles with the overuse of the book within classes and the negative impact it has had on students of color. While this is a valid statement, it seems that rather than the issue of the book being the problem, it seems to be how the book/novel is used, and introduced and taught within the class.

Carey-Webb has written Literature and Lives: A Response-Based, Cultural Studies Approach to Teaching English, which provides tools for teachers in providing lessons on controversial issues such as the novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In providing anti-racist historical literature, this text not only addresses racially controversial issues, but also continues to encourage students to become active members in the fight for anti-racism.

Example: Huckleberry Finn[edit]

This book illustrates the relationship of a young white boy and his efforts to save a slave that has run away and who like Huck is fleeing from oppression. They travel down the Mississippi river and meet many people - some of whom take advantage of them and others who are there to help. This book was written during the end of slavery. In this book the racial divide that separates Huck from Jim is nonexistent. They share a desire to escape oppression and find a better life which is what unites them on a deeper level, beyond the racial divide. Both Huck and Jim were considered property to those in power which united them in their struggle to become free. There were plenty of times Huck could have turned in Jim as an escaped slave but did not due to their loyalty and solidarity to one another. In regards to lesson plans, topics such as slavery and the ownership of another person is illustrated in this book. Huck's father treats Huck as nothing more than property, similar to Jim's treatment from society. An antiracist lesson plan to this book examines slavery and the ideas of freedom related to all people (http://www.classzone.com/novelguides/litcons/huckfinn/guide.cfm ). Part of the curriculum that is laid out by this website assigns role playing as well as research into the lives of individuals who were freed as a result of an abolitionist movement. This lesson plan not only encourages students to role play and reenact the injustice that freed slaves faced, but also has them do research on the movements that abolitionists were part of, resulting in the emancipation proclamation. This lesson plan requires that the student take a more active role in the learning of the slavery movement and the acts that went along in attempting to make up for the years of mistreatment.

Not only does the website encourage the active learning involved in role playing but also demands that the students to become an active member of history by writing a book about slavery and the repercussions of that time period. This lesson plan emphasizes the role of empathy that each student should take when dealing with such a volatile situation. Slavery brings with it some strong feelings about race and self worth, which are addressed by this lesson plan. Not only do the students act out situations that parallel the experiences of many slaves, but also highlights the oppression that they felt. The book they are asked to write is a continuation of the story Huckleberry Finn. It is used to address the feelings and rights that were not afforded to the slaves. In addition, the students can also have the opportunity to draw pictures or write poems through the eyes of the slaves in a time when they had no voice.

All of the above are strengths that this lesson plan provides in the context of an antiracist education. Some of the weaknesses are that this lesson plan only offers the students a glimpse into what slavery was like and how people in power could combat it. The lesson plan would be more beneficial if it was a continuous on-going topic that could be addressed throughout the year rather than a one time thing. It goes along with the idea that the curriculum needs to expand to include African American heritage throughout the course of the year.

While the focus of this lesson plan is to address slavery and the repercussions of such an oppressive state that all Blacks felt at this point in history, it also fails to address the treatment of Huck. He also faced oppression in that he was poor and an orphan. He dealt with the oppression in much the same way that the slaves did, by choosing to run away. I think it is this link that brings Huck and Jim together and unites them on a front to fight for their independence. The role playing that the students take part in should not only emphasize the oppression felt by Blacks but by anyone who has faced some form of oppression.

This lesson plan encourages students to take an active role in the discussion of slavery and the treatment / oppression that Huckleberry Finn encountered, as well as his role in helping a slave gain his freedom. The lesson plan around this book fosters the imagination of students to extrapolate the experience of slavery and life in the South. It illustrates the relationship between a boy and his friend who happens to be a slave and the adventures they go through to maintain both their freedom and the friendship that they both benefit from. The lesson plan encourages role playing and research into the effects of oppression.

Example: Uncle Tom’s Cabin[edit]

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is perhaps one of the most well-known books in America; certainly one of the most influential. Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped to raise abolitionist sentiment in the North and was one of factors that led up to the civil war. Abraham Lincoln is rumored to have said upon meeting the author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, “‘So, this is the little lady who made this big war?’” (“Uncle Tom’s Cabin”). Despite it’s abolitionist sentiment however, the book is also well-known for its controversial main character. “Uncle Tom,” the name of the main character, became an often-used derogatory term used to refer to a submissive Black person. Others defend Uncle Tom’s character, however, and blame the negative image of him on the many staged and film versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that later appeared (“Uncle Tom’s Cabin”).

The lesson plan “The Character of Uncle Tom” examines the debate surrounding Tom’s character. In order to introduce the students to Tom’s character, the students are given a handout of quotations spoken by, or about, Tom. This could be problematic because it only gives a partial view of the character and could give a distorted view of the character. It would be much more useful for the students to find their own quotes (if they have already read the book) or read a couple chapters of the book in order to form their own opinions. This would be more effective than the handout because students would be coming up with their own opinions and evidence rather than having it given to them.

A useful part of the lesson plan is the discussion on differences between Tom’s character and the man the character was based on, Josiah Henson. Although the lesson plan asks the question how does Josiah Henson differ from Uncle Tom, the plan does not ask the question why Stowe might have changed the story and/or character of Josiah Henson for her novel.

Another positive aspect of the lesson plan is that it examines the opinions of both supporters and opponents of Uncle Tom’s character. However, this lesson plan lists Frederick Douglas as a supporter, yet does not include any of his own words in support of his position. Likewise, although the lesson plan includes a handout of a letter from The Liberator opposing Tom’s character, the handout includes only selected quotes, rather than the whole letter.

Overall, although this lesson plan provides a good base, it is in need of more supplemental materials in order to be effective. Giving the students original documents, instead of selected quotes, would require them to form their own opinions and arguments. Also, the lesson plan does not examine how the racism of the time the novel was written might have affected the character of Uncle Tom. In order to be an effective anti-racist lesson plan, “The Character of Uncle Tom” would have to discuss racism and how Stowe absorbed racist views of the time, despite her abolitionist sentiment, and how these views may have been reflected in her characters. It would also be useful to examine the racism of abolitionists as a group and discuss how many abolitionists, though strongly opposed to slavery, firmly believed in the inferiority of Blacks. Although this lesson plan is in need of original primary documents and a larger context, it shows some potential and, with work, could be used as an effective anti-racist lesson plan.

It is also important to keep in mind that this lesson plan is part of a larger unit on Uncle Tom’s Cabin and that students may receive a better understanding if the lesson plan is included as part of the larger unit. Other lesson plans include “The Peculiar Institution in Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which examines how Stowe portrays slavery as an institution in her novel rather than simply a relationship between a slaveholder and an enslaved person, and “Attitudes and Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which examines stereotypes in the novel as well as Stowe’s support for the African Colonization Movement. Both of these lessons, as well some of the others – there are nine in all – may also be useful in teaching Uncle Tom’s Cabin. With a bit of tweaking and perhaps some supplemental materials, the unit could be a thorough, relatively strong, anti-racist unit on Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Elementary Historical Literature[edit]

Why is it important to teach elementary school children historical literature from an anti-racist perspective? This is one of the questions that a teacher should ask him or herself, because many people do not believe that young children can understand the concepts of racism and might therefore criticize teachers for their decision to teach historical literature in this way. However, this is not entirely the case. Without getting into the arguments about what young children are and are not capable of understanding, children do internalize many of the messages they are given which will later lead to subconscious forms of racism, as well as affecting them in their day to day lives. "Racism attacks young children's growing sense of group as well as individual identity." Teaching anti-racism through stories also makes sense because “Stories are 'an extraordinary vehicle for communion and communication and expression, and for the knowledge that we all need in order to know where we're coming from and to help us to define where we're going.'” Teaching children anti-racist concepts when they are young sets the foundation for expanding on these concepts when they are older.

Eurocentrism is present in the historical literature written for elementary school level just as much as it is in texts written for the middle and high school levels. In elementary schools the students are going to be heavily influenced in their perceptions of the world by what their teachers tell them. Teaching historical literature in this way will cause children to internalize the idea that nowhere in the world existed until the European world discovered it.

Teaching in an anti-racist, non-Eurocentric way is sometimes harder than it might at first seem. While there are many books which are published specifically to be taught in an anti-racist way, not all teachers can use them. Many teachers are locked into a curriculum where they must teach certain books. In those cases, anti-racist lesson plans for some books can be found but is extremely difficult. Some examples of books where lesson plans can be found are Number the Stars and Island of the Blue Dolphins. However, for many other commonly taught books lesson plans cannot be found. However, something called a blank lesson plan is available online. I found one as part of a document entitled LESSON PLANS Developed by EMI Participants on page four. This chart provides antiracist questions that can be applied to any book that a teacher cannot find a lesson plan on. It would also allow a teacher to more easily modify a lesson plan that they have found which was not adequate. While this blank lesson plan may not have been designed solely for the elementary school level, it still asks pertinent questions. One example of a question is: what possible social action plans will evolve from this lesson. Not asking this question is often one of the flaws of a lesson plan whether it was designed to be anti-racist or not. Having the blank lesson plan is useful for ensuring that that the lesson plan that is being taught will not just point out instances of racism but actively work against it in some way. This document also included many examples of lesson plans made using this format, but none of them were for our example book for elementary school, Little House on the Prairie or even for another commonly read elementary school level historical book and are thus not included.

Example: Little House on the Prairie[edit]

Often in elementary education, teachers are required to include certain books in the curriculum. The Little House series, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, is often a required reading. Even when not required to include certain literature in the curriculum, many educators prefer to use literature written by those who lived in the time period under study. As a reflection of its time, such literature, written during racist times, includes a lot of discrimination. The Little House series is no exception.

Advocates of Antiracism highlight the racism in the Little House on the Prairie. Dennis McAuliffe Jr. is a descendent of Osage Native Americans who originally lived near the Ingalls’ residence in Kansas. His essay (http://www.oyate.org/books-to-avoid/littlehouse.html) discusses the experiences of the Osage. The settlers (including the Ingalls) were squatters on the Osage reservation. They stole horses, burned fields, forced the Osage to relocate, and settled on the land. Pa Ingalls explicitly states to Laura and the reader that they hope to drive the Osage tribe away. Debbie Reese is a professor who teaches a course “American Indians in Children’s Literature”. She maintains a blog (http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/) about the course and the literature covered. She references her student’s distress at discovering a line in the Ingalls' book: “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” She points out that Wilder presents American Indians as less than human. Resse, McAuliffe, and other antiracist advocates argue against using Little House on the Prairie in the classroom.

While there are many lesson plans online to use with Little House on the Prairie, the problem is that very few address the racism, or acknowledge the presence of Native Americans in the book. It is integral to address these elements in fostering an antiracist education. There is one lesson plan online that has antiracist elements.

Lesson Plans for the Little House series: Pioneer Life With Laura: A Social Studies And Language Arts Unit The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, http://hoover.archives.gov/LIW/liwedu/liw_teaching_unit.html The teaching unit, Pioneer Life with Laura, was prepared with a grant from the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library. It is designed as a literature unit that can be used in conjunction with the study of the Westward Movement of the United States. (Please follow link, in the interest of space we will not be including the actual lessons on the wiki.)

This lesson plan is the only one online that includes an antiracist objective. It states, “the learner will develop an understanding of and an appreciation for: Destruction of the way of life of the Plains Indians and their forced movement to reservations.” The lesson plan is broken into several sections: The Journey, Life On the Frontier, Building a Community. In each section, the lesson plan presents discussion questions that challenge the students to consider the perspectives of the Plains Indians. In these discussions, the students can overcome some of the negative messages about Plains Indians presented in the Little House books. During reading, the class discusses “What the Osage might have felt about the Ingalls' and other settlers moving into their land.” They “Compare and contrast how the two families (from different books) viewed Native Americans and discuss what happened to the Native Americans as a result of the Westward Movement.” They “Then discuss what kinds of homes the Native Americans had before the Westward Movement: bark houses, earth lodges, tipis, etc. and ask how these houses were suited to each region.” Before reading aloud from some sections, the teacher “explains that when the Ingalls family came to the Kansas prairie they were settling on land that belonged to the Osage Indians who were away on a hunting trip. Although the land seemed uninhabited, it was not.” The class will “Also discuss with students the stereotypes of Native Americans found in the book,” “What happened to the Osage as a result of settlers moving onto their land,” and “What happened to the Sioux and other Plains Indians as a result of the Westward Movement.” These discussions will help the students develop an understanding of how the United States government and its settlers exploited the Plains Indians. The students will be able to critically analyze the racism in the Little House series, rather than learn that Native Americans are less than human.

The lesson plan also includes some antiracist activities. Included activities are: “Design an art gallery of pioneers and Native Americans. Use photographs of Native American beadwork, clothing, shields, etc. Include quilts and other folk art as well as works by famous artists. Artists to consider include Karl Bodmer, George Catlin, Grant Wood, Harvey Dunn ( nephew by marriage of Grace Ingalls Dow ), who painted scenes of early South Dakota, and Red Horse, who made drawings of the Battle of Little Bighorn. This project can be done by hand or by using a computer program such as HyperStudio or Kid Pix,” “Make an illustrated biography of a famous Native American from the Great Plains. You can use HyperStudio or do your biography by hand. Suggestions include: Sarah Winnemucca, Susan LaFlesche Picotte, Quanah, Red Cloud, Sacajawea, Black Hawk, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph, or Geronimo,” and “Investigate the history of your own town or city. Then make an illustrated timeline or mural of the development of your town. Include information about the earliest inhabitants of the area as well as information about the earliest Europeans who came to the area.” These activities will help the students develop an increased respect for Native Americans by recognizing that Native Americans are humans of cultured societies, instead of savages from which things can be taken.

This lesson plan is far from perfect. There are many racist comments in the Little House books, such as “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” that need to be addressed specifically as they come up. The lesson plan does not take the time to address the concept of racism and discrimination. The Little House series presents a great opportunity to present the concept of institutional racism, as the US government enacted many policies specifically to oppress and conquer Native Americans.

Conclusion[edit]

One of our greatest discoveries when researching our topic was the difficulty of finding anti-racist lesson plans for historical literature. Despite the frequency with which many historical books are used in the classroom and the availability of other lesson plans, it was extremely difficult to find effective anti-racist lesson plans. Although finding actively anti-racist lesson plans was difficult, there were lesson plans that, while not perfect, had the potential to be used effectively in the classroom if modified by the teacher. There were also other tools available such as blank lesson plans that could be modified to fit the book being taught. Despite the difficulty in finding lesson plans, there are some lesson plans and other materials out there that can be effective with the cooperation of the teacher and class. It is important for teachers to put in this effort for historical literature can be an effective tool in the classroom, but only if viewed through an anti-racist lens.

References[edit]