College Preparatory School for Girls Grades 3-12

LW3 CLASSROOM SPOTLIGHT: Examining Intersections of History, Identity & Society in History Classes

The political and social upheaval of 2020 has put a spotlight on the complex relationship between our histories, identities, and society. It shows how important it is that we, as history and social studies teachers, open up courageous conversations with our students about connections between the past and the present, between our lived realities and the stories we are told through the media and indeed through our textbooks. These connections make history come alive and also invite comparative analysis as students work with primary sources and identify patterns of change over time. “I feel like everything is structured in a way for us to really think about what we are learning, to consider the impacts of historical ideas and events especially on today’s world, which I think is really crucial,” commented Caitlin Wang ’22.

In Lower School, students learn first of all to think about their place in the world and how their lives connect to peoples, places, and societies of the past and present. To teach students to reflect on identity and stereotypes, the Social Studies unit on Native American Culture starts with the question, as fifth-grade teacher Sherry Wells explains, “When I say Native American, what do you picture in your mind?” She helps students analyze the song “What Makes the Red Man Red” from the Disney animated movie Peter Pan (1953) for stereotypes and, in the process, teaches them the ability to see one’s own role in creating, sustaining, or shattering stereotypes. To move beyond the stereotypes, students do authentic research on four Native American Nations and present their results in a website. 

In the Middle School, students practice skills to analyze the complexity of human societies. As of this year, the seventh-grade World Studies course takes a deep, year-long dive into the histories, geographies, and cultures of Africa. Students learn not only about the rich histories of indigenous African societies, but also about the encounter with the West, which has been so defined by racism and colonialism. It exposes students to a continent with which they are less familiar and provides context for the materials covered in Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, the young-adult version by Jason Reynolds of Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning. All fifth graders have read excerpts from the book, while all students from grades 6-12 are reading Stamped in Advisory. 

In the Upper School, students learn to do historical analysis and identify the various historical forces and ideologies that have shaped our world. This year’s 10th- and 11th-grade classes have read and discussed excerpts from Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning. The terms that Kendi uses to identify positions—“anti-racist,” “assimilationist,” and “segregationist”—give students another lens through which to look at people in the past as well as the present. “Past historical figures are very idealized,” observed Mari Clark ’23; for example, “we don’t learn a lot of the negative aspects of past presidencies.” A more realistic picture of the past leads to a deeper understanding of our complex world.

To align with the LW3 goals of social justice and engagement at the local, national, and global levels, teachers create experiences that foster curiosity, empathy, and a problem-solving approach to challenges in the world. To culminate a unit on the European Reformation, students in 10th grade researched current religious conflicts and proposed potential steps toward resolution. Harkness discussions, which frequently occur in all Upper School history classes, give students “a chance to learn from other people’s perspectives,” said Billi Hall ’23. She appreciates active learning that “creatively incorporates solutions” to issues. She also emphasized that it is important to “incorporate more of the triumphs” of people who have been marginalized.

Nationwide debates over monuments formed an entry point this year for 11th-grade studies of the antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction eras. Students explored these topics from a variety of perspectives. They read the works of Black authors of the time, including Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Booker T. Washington, and W. E. B. Du Bois. In Harkness discussions and analytical essays, they compared and weighed the efficacy of these thinkers’ ideas. In the second trimester, they analyzed the experiences of Indigenous Nations, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, and Irish and Chinese immigrants during 19th-century industrialization and urbanization.  

Issues of race and gender are central to the art history elective. This year, the course began with a study of contemporary artists who engage with these issues. “We have such a diverse range of artists,” said Msangwa Ogada ’21, who described the unit as “impactful and relatable” because the artists’ works connect to current events. She and Talia Desai ’21 created an “Art History Daily News” show (featured below) that focuses on themes of Black beauty in the works of Kerry James Marshall, one of the most prolific and acclaimed Black artists of the 21st century. Marshall “uses three different shades of black to really emphasize the beauty of skin color,” explained Ogada. The video project made it possible for students to address serious issues in a way that was “engaging and informative,” said Desai, who also noted that the assignment was structured in a way that did “a really good job of keeping everyone safe” during the pandemic. 

Desai commented that the History Department’s shift away from AP courses brings “the freedom to include more diverse narratives and diverse accounts of history” in the curriculum. We concur with her and continue to work on making this happen across all history courses.