Telling the truth: Local schools overhaul history curriculum

Adrienne Oliver, an instructional coach for Albemarle County Public Schools, believes all students will be able to see themselves in the history of the United States, once the Reframing the Narrative program is implemented. PC: John Robinson Adrienne Oliver, an instructional coach for Albemarle County Public Schools, believes all students will be able to see themselves in the history of the United States, once the Reframing the Narrative program is implemented. PC: John Robinson

As protests against police brutality continue around the country, school districts are tackling another form of systemic racism and oppression: whitewashed history. Since last year, Albemarle County Public Schools has been working to create an anti-racist social studies curriculum, elevating the voices and stories of marginalized people and groups, which are often misrepresented by (or entirely excluded from) textbooks. And now, the district is one step closer to implementing the curriculum—called Reframing the Narrative.

Last week, the district’s history teachers—joined by over a dozen partner organizations and more than 100 educators from Charlottesville City Schools, Virginia Beach City Public Schools, and other districts across the state—met virtually to begin constructing a more comprehensive and inclusive U.S. history curriculum as part of the Virginia Inquiry Collaborative.

Fully addressing our country’s legacy of slavery, racism, and inequity is not an easy task, and “dependency on textbooks of any kind will only preserve the status quo and dominant narratives,” says Adrienne Oliver, an ACPS instructional coach who participated in the virtual workshops. “The current state standards continue to uphold such narratives, and so a heavy reliance upon outsourced materials is, in my view, antithetical to our work.”

Rather than find new textbooks (Oliver says she has yet to see an anti-racist one), the curriculum will rely on relevant texts and resources, primary source materials, and classroom discussions and activities—all working to “resist a retelling of dominant narratives and put learning into students’ hands,” says Oliver.

After a team of editors reviews and refines the results of last week’s workshops, inquiry-based U.S. history units, containing learning plans and assessment tools, will be uploaded onto an online platform for ACPS teachers, along with those from CCS and other districts, to use starting this fall.

Under the anti-racist curriculum, all students will be able to see themselves in the history of the United States, examining it from a variety of non-traditional perspectives, says Oliver. Black and brown students, along with others from marginalized backgrounds, may feel more acknowledged and empowered, as they study untold stories of resilience and resistance.

The revamped history courses will also better prepare students, especially those who are white, to deal with uncomfortable issues in our country, points out Bethany Bazemore, who graduated from Charlottesville High School this year.

“The only way as a society we’re going to get past this is if white people learn to be uncomfortable,” says Bazemore, who is Black. “Black people have been uncomfortable for 400 years and counting.”

“You need to understand and reckon with your history to really address the problems of the present,” adds program leader John Hobson. “It’s all connected.”

Last summer, ACPS partnered with the Montpelier Foundation to jump-start the Reframing the Narrative program. With the support of a $299,500 grant from the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation, history teachers from the division participated in professional development workshops at Montpelier, along with other field experiences and learning opportunities, during the school year.

Through these initiatives, educators “are able to understand possibly their own bias, and reflect and grow from there,” says Virginia Beach social studies instructor Nick Dzendzel, a participant in the Virginia Inquiry Collaborative. “It provides a whole new atmosphere inside of a school [or] department for those educators to start pushing for what they know and want to be right for the students—and not just adhering to what’s been done before.”

The CACF grant also helps to pay teachers as they develop the new curriculum outside of school hours, and funds student field trips to Montpelier, “centering the voices and experiences of enslaved people and the descendant community” at the former plantation, says Oliver.

Next year, the process will start over again, as Albemarle teachers update the division’s world geography curriculum for freshmen and world history for sophomores. The following year, the eighth grade civics and 12th grade government curriculums will also get an anti-racist makeover.

In partnership with ACPS and other state school districts, Charlottesville City Schools also began updating its social studies curriculum last summer. Participating teachers (who receive a stipend) have taken professional development courses at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center focused on local Black history, as well as curriculum-writing workshops and field excursions around Charlottesville.

Last year, CCS Superintendent Dr. Rosa Atkins was among those appointed to the Commission on African American History Education, which is currently reviewing the history standards and practices for the entire state. By September 1, the commission will offer recommendations for enriched standards related to African American history, as well as cultural competency among teachers.

The white supremacist violence of August 11 and 12 was a catalyst, says Oliver, but these massive curriculum overhauls were years in the making. Grassroots organizers and activists, along with individual educators, have been advocating for and implementing anti-racist curriculums across Virginia for some time.

“If you’re doing this [alone] in your own classroom, it’s easy to get weighed down by barriers, by administrators, and by parents for working against the grain. It’s hard to do that every day,” says Virginia Initiative participant Sarah Clark, who teaches U.S. history in Virginia Beach. “But when you’re involved in projects like this, it’s like a rejuvenation…I’m not doing it alone.”

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