A Teacher's Perspective on the Educational Framework
Like most teachers I know, I entered this profession to help those students in my classes but also to contribute to the greater good. Surely, my work as a teacher could bring about a society with fewer inequities.
The reality of the classroom, though, presents the ultimate creative challenge. How do I construct a learning environment for reducing inequities when my school is full of hierarchies, my textbooks are Euro-centric, and my students are left to wonder why I am not teaching their history?
Still, the central story line remains the same. In California, a state in which the "minorities" will soon be the "majority," the 10th grade World History standards focus on Europe. The U.S. History standards include Native Americans only as speakers of a language so exotic it could be used as an unbreakable code and, therefore, used as a tool for the U.S. military.
This isn't good enough; and, it's just not true. My students are Latino, African American, and Belizean American. To teach them that the protagonist in their nation's story is always and forever a 'white man' is to invite them to scream out loud or withdraw into a silent world of never being good enough. But, more than that, this version of who we are as a nation is incomplete.
Isn't our nation in a constant quest to become a "more perfect union?" This is what I want my students to feel in their bones, and feel it is a healthy place to stand. Being American is not only about speaking a particular language and eating apple pie. It does not have to mean denying one's history and culture. This is what I need to teach my students. Otherwise, I send them out into the world unsure of who they are, what their story is, and how they can come from a place of strength.
It is also what I want my niece and nephew to learn. They are growing up, much as I did, in a de facto segregated world filled with white people. For them, Western Civilization is the main story line of our nation. It is what they are taught; it is how they live. People of color occupy the margins of their world. But, again, I worry for them. Their great grandfather experienced the "No Irish Need Apply" signs. How would they make sense of that? Will they feel comfortable that they are no longer Irish and are, instead, white, and therefore eligible for privilege and able to ignore the struggle of those less fortunate? I hope not. They, I hope, will also grow into adults who come from a conscious place of strength - understanding the process of becoming "a more perfect union."
The National Center for the Preservation of Democracy Educational Framework is a tool for those teachers who want to prepare their students to live in a democracy that is a work in progress. It serves as shared knowledge about ourselves and our journey towards "a more perfect union." All peoples in our nation can share in its premise that "democracy is also shaped by those who have been denied power and privilege." This is its beauty. The central narrative is no longer about who is in and who is out. Instead, it is about a process which affects us all and in which we can all engage.
It is not, however, a ready-made lesson plan. This is its other beauty. It invites our participation. Instead of including a paragraph celebrating how the Navajo language was useful in winning World War II, the NCPD Educational Framework provokes a critical assessment of the fact that the Navajo language was useful in winning World War II. It encourages us to ask questions like "Why would a Navajo person jeopardize his life for a nation which denies him the right to vote?" and "How might an individual's action eventually contribute to the securing of more rights for all in the future?"
I find this work deeply hopeful. The NCPD Educational Framework supports my original hopes as I went into this work. Although it originates in a specific time and place in our history, the premise that "we, the people, shape democracy; and those who have been denied power and privilege have extended democracy's reach" is timeless. Using this as my conceptual framework, I have been able to connect History to my students' lives in a way that is hopeful and provocative. Should a Japanese American voluntarily join the military when his family has been removed from their home and incarcerated? Should an immigrant without legal status in this country voluntarily join the military to fight in Iraq? The NCPD premise that "those who have struggled for freedom and equality have extended democracy's reach for all people" and the understanding that "U.S. democracy extends promises that sometimes fall short in practice, and it allows opportunities and freedoms but also constraints and repressions" served as an anchor for historical content around World War II and for the students to react to and think through dilemmas. I teach about World War II by including primary sources on the inequities of life in the 1930s and 1940s but also the actions of individuals and groups to counter those inequities. My unit closes with presenting a dilemma both historical and contemporary regarding inequities, loyalty to our nation, and war.
Furthermore, the premise that "I, too, can shape democracy." is a guidepost as I think about how to help my students create their own paths. The issues we face can be daunting. We could paper over them and pretend that all is well in the Republic or we could dwell on the miseries and mistakes. Instead, these five words, "I, too, can shape democracy," give reassurance to my students that they, too, count. They, too, can change the world. They, too, are powerful.
The issues our nation will face when my students and my niece and nephew are adults will inevitably be versions of the issues in World War II. We are ever becoming a more perfect union. I can't think of a more important mission than giving the next generation an understanding of how we got to the good place we are in this journey and how they can take our nation further along towards a truly inclusive democracy. Isn't this why most of us go into teaching?
Leigh Ann Orr Teacher Manual Arts High School Los Angeles Unified School District