On Making Sense of One’s World Through Inference

Jose VilsonEducation, Jose3 Comments

Dred Scott

Two weeks ago, I had the strangest dream where I was back in college on a panel in the midst of a few familiar people, one of whom I disliked for the majority of my organizational career. I remember her spouting some nonsense about the so-called Black Agenda and what we “need to be doing” (when someone says that phrase, it’s usually followed by more nonsense). Within the context, I remember her spewing some indirect comments in my direction, and me smiling throughout. As she wrapped up, the audience turned to me, waiting for some diatribe on my end. I turned to her and said simply, “Don’t tell me you’ve put a down payment on future reparations!”

The crowd laughed, and I woke up right after.

Today, I’m reminded of that dream as my 8th graders took their state social studies test. Their test centered around slavery as one of the reasons for the Civil War. The students moaned and bemoaned having to take this test, their fifth major one in seven weeks, and none of them relished the opportunity to discuss the government’s role in slowing down overt slavery or the individual’s role in helping to change the culture of America where the majority of us think it’s wrong. After reading it myself, and getting geeked from reading excerpts from primary sources, and getting reminded about Dred Scott and Sojourner Truth, I said, “Man, this crap MUST be boring to you all.”

None of the documents themselves are crap, and the assignment wasn’t crap per se. But if they don’t have the tools or experience to infer why these items had me giddy reading them, then this is just another way that the state oppresses them, too. If they understood that the South wasn’t the only place where the US kept slaves, that Abraham Lincoln didn’t care whether or not he freed the slaves so long as he got the Union united, that, after reading the whole thing, doesn’t free those in prison, that even after having done x amount of work for this country and helping to fight its economic and physical war, Blacks still didn’t get their 40 acres and a mule, that the parallels between the situation with Blacks then and underrepresented people now are uncanny, then they’d eat this stuff alive.

But that means that, upon seeing the map, they’d have to see past the stripes and dots. They’d have to get past the antiquated language and tattered photos of pamphlets and flyers. They’d have to get past the fact that they’ve been told they’re held accountable for their ability to interpret these documents succinctly and make it cohesive and concise enough to make as much sense as the test makers purport they do. They’d also have to understand why they’re sitting in the seats they are because of decisions and blood shed 100, 200, 300, 400 years prior.

Maybe what the standards-makers need to be doing is considering that no document they look at can be discussed in isolation. When looking at huge sections of United States of America’s history, students should try to understand the interconnectedness of this mess. If they’re not getting their 40 acres, they might as well get their reparations in the amount of knowledge.

Jose, who has another book giveaway tomorrow. Be ready.

Comments 3

  1. I like the DBQ for that precise reason: the students *aren’t* supposed to consider the documents in isolation, but rather in light of everything they know about the historical topic and/or time period. I explicitly encourage my students to think way outside the box on the DBQ: think of books your teachers read to you in elementary school (something like “Henry’s Freedom Box” would have been a great fit with the 2010 DBQ!), documentaries you half-watched on the History Channel, everything. You never know what might click into place. The documents are there to provide information and set up fairly shallow scaffolding questions, yes, but they’re also there to jog memory.

    I think my kiddies did pretty well, by the way. What did you think?

  2. I think you’ve hit on a key issue – that learning happens best in connections, be it connections across knowledge or connections between the knowledge and the students. To the extent that the legislators, standards-makers and standardized test-makers focus on a narrow collections of facts, they impede real learning. So the question becomes, how best to resist those dictates – by taking organized political action (ideally involving parents and students), by finding ways to place those narrow collections of facts into the service of real learning on behalf of the kids whether or not you’re “supposed to,” by… other means I’m not thinking of right now. If kids can learn to think critically not only about whatever resources they are using to learn from but also about how and why those resources were chosen… that would seem to be a huge boost to the goal of creating an informed citizenry ready to participate actively and thoughtfully in democracy. I think that’s part of why I love Mark Springer’s “Soundings” program so much – the kids, in explicitly being asked to contour their self-designed units to fit state standards and prepare them for the test, see exactly what is happening to our educational system and what they can do about it.

  3. Post

    Miss Eyre, I’m with you … and kinda not. On the one end, I thought the DBQ had the feel of a contextualized package. Many of the important documents / evidence was there, and clear for anyone worth their weight in knowledge could have inferred lots from it. However, I also saw that there wasn’t much connection to today’s present situations, or any space for kids to try and relate the message of then to now, as if we’re only catching a sliver of history.

    And that’s probably why they’ll always think history is just that. History. So only 1/2 of them probably did well. I’m a math teacher, so technically, it doesn’t bother me, but as a scholar, it does.

    bivey, you bring up some interesting points about connections, and I’m in concurrence. Now, about that “Soundings” program, I’ll have to read up about it soon.

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