Declaring Our Independence from Ineffective History Instruction

Two hundred and forty four years ago, our nation first celebrated its independence. Had July 4, 1776 happened in our current environment, we likely would have watched Paul Revere’s ride via a Facebook Live video. Thomas Jefferson would have offered up the Declaration of Independence through a YouTube post. And Alexander Hamilton would have issued a call to arms to his colonial brothers and sisters on TikTok.

What we see as history should adapt to the time and mediums in which it occurs and also in which it is taught.

While George Washington and John Adams delivered their State of the Union addresses orally to the U.S. Congress, Thomas Jefferson changed the protocol and simply submitted a written address. That tradition continued until Woodrow Wilson in 1915. Harry Truman’s 1947 SOTU was the first to be broadcast on television. Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 address was the first to be broadcast during prime time, and 1966 was the first opportunity for the opposition party to also be granted a prime time slot.

FDR was known for his fireside chats, bringing the radio to presidential history. JFK introduced the nation to televised press conferences. And Donald Trump will go down in history as our first “Twitter” president. All adapted to the mediums that were most popular with the people at the time.

Despite all of these changes in how U.S. presidents have told their stories, how we teach history has largely remained the same as it was when public education was optional and provided in little red school houses. American history is taught through dusty textbooks. We still spend the first semester teaching about the American Revolution, and teaching it primarily through the lens of the white, male landowner. The winter and early spring are a lesson in the Civil War, taught through that same lens. Then after state testing, classes do a quick run from Reconstruction through modern times.

So we should not be surprised when those lessons don’t stick with today’s learners. Last year, I led a national research effort that explored what the average American knew about American history. Using multiple-choice questions from the practice tests for the U.S. citizenship exam, we surveyed 41,000 people nationally. We found that fewer than four in 10 could pass the test (meaning getting at least 12 of 20 questions correct). Passage rates were even lower for women and for people of color. And for those under the age of 50, only one in four could demonstrate a basic understanding of historical facts.

Late last year, I followed that history test with a national poll of American high school students about their attitudes towards American history. The results were disappointing, but not surprising. The average high school student found the learning of American history both boring and irrelevant. Historical knowledge played little value in their plans for college or for life.

Of course, learning American history isn’t about passing a multiple-choice test or doing well during a trivia night. Recent events have demonstrated how important it is for all of us to know our history – no matter how complex, confusing, or ugly it may be – and to think like historians. It is about asking tough questions and analyzing even tougher responses. It’s about beginning to understand what figures and moments and movements in American history we aren’t learning in class and asking why not and exploring what else hasn’t been taught. It’s about learning to think critically and focus less on just what happened and more on why things happened and the impact it had.

It’s about teaching a different type of history in a different way.

That’s why I am proud to officially announce the launch of the Driving Force Institute, a startup non-profit organization committed to transforming the teaching and learning of American history. This important work is based on a few key principles. First, video is the most powerful medium for teaching history to young people today, particularly video that is modeled after the YouTube videos learners are watching in their leisure time. Second, it is about making history more interesting and provocative for today’s learners. And finally, it is focused on telling our full history, with a particular emphasis on those important historical figures and moments that have been neglected for too long in our public school classrooms.

To launch this important work, DFI has collaborated with XQ Schools and its Rethink Together Forum to explore some of these important historical questions. We begin the month looking at the significance of the year 1619. Each week in July, XQ will share new DFI videos on the forum, exploring a range of issues important to today’s discussions of civic engagement.

I’m also proud to formally unveil “Untold,” a project of DFI produced and distributed by Makematic in collaboration with the USC Center for Engagement-Driven Global Education. We will provide an open-source collection of short, compelling history videos and animations designed to start new conversations shining a light on the stories that don’t always make it into the classroom and questioning what we think we know about those that do.

As the son of an historian, I was raised to appreciate the importance of history and to constantly ask questions about what happened and why. As the father of a teenage son whose lack of interest in history can be tracked to how poorly it has been taught in the classroom, I’m committed to seeking solutions to make history more interesting and relevant to young people today. And as an education advocate and agitator, I’m committed to breaking the learning models that have failed too many students for too long.

“Complaining about a problem without proposing a solution is called whining,” Teddy Roosevelt once said. Our collective lack of American history knowledge is indeed a problem. Hopefully, the Driving Force Institute is a solution for improving the teaching and learning of history.

Tearing Down Statues, Remembering History

These voices called out curriculum experts who they believed limited the study of anyone who wasn’t a white male landowners to February — Black History Month — and to only use those 20 or so days of instruction to study the same stories of Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King, Jr. every year, ignoring the vast contributions that Black America has made to our nation, our history, our society, our community, and our nation. Ignoring the importance of weaving those stories into the context of the times they lived and happened, and not as stand-alone examples to check a box.

In essence, these young leaders were calling for a learning environment that moves beyond the basic names of generals and battles and the dates where they happened. They wanted an approach to American history that allowed them to ask why. An approach that explores understanding what happened, questions why society allowed it to happen, and probes what we can learn from it so it doesn’t happen again. They were urging educators to let them think like historians.

From Eduflack’s latest on Medium, Removing Statues Does Not Abdicate Us from Teaching History

My Kids Should Be Friends With All Comers

Over the weekend, The New York Times made dear ol’ Eduflack incredibly sad. No, it wasn’t the rash of stories on President Donald Trump’s latest statements or the most-recent revelations of what celebrities did what despicable things from their position of power. Sadly, many of us have become immune to that. Instead, I was troubled by a commentary piece from Ekow N. Yankah, Can My Children Be Friends With White People?

The law professor concludes, in the Times’ Sunday Review, that children of color — particularly African-American children — just cannot be true friends with white kids in Trump’s America. That real friendship is just impossible in the toxicity that is modern-day America.

Those who know Eduflack know that I am, by nature, a cynical pessimist. But I just cannot, and will not, accept Yankah’s conclusion. For if I did, I just play into the the same thinking that gives rise to every torch-wielding hater out there today. And I just won’t do that.

As the father of two Latinx children, I refuse to accept that hate and lack of understanding should win. I cannot accept a world when my own children live in some sort of DMZ, where their mixed race family ensures that they have no true home, no center of trust they can depend on. I refuse to oblige a notion that says my young children can only truly trust the handful of other brown children they might find in their schools, and should distrust the white, African-American, Chinese-American, and Indian-American kids who dominate their classrooms and social activities. I just won’t do it.

Years ago, I wrote about observing my son’s birthday party, a party held shortly after the AME Church shooting in Charleston, SC. My son had just turned nine, and I watched him enjoy an afternoon with friends representing a wide range of races, colors, religions, and creeds. As our nation was trying to come to grips with the horrific actions in the Palmetto State, I found warmth in realizing that hate — and racism — was not something our kids are inherently born with.

Five months later, I asked my daughter about the start of her new school year. The previous year, she was the only Latinx in her class. There also were no white kids in her class. So as we were talking about her new classmates, I casually asked if she had anyone in her class who looked like me. She paused for a second and replied, “no daddy, there are no bald kids in my class.”

Just this fall, I had the honor and privilege of helping coach my daughter’s junior pee wee cheerleading squad. I was the only male among four coaches, three junior coaches, and 17 cheerleaders. The only Latinx, my daughter spent the past three months training and working and cheering and laughing and crying alongside a squad of white, African-American, and Asian-American girls. These girls weren’t identified by their race or their family income. Instead, they were all Wildcats. That was what mattered to them. That’s what should matter to all parents today.

So while I can appreciate where Yankah is coming from, it is not a thinking I can or will subscribe to. I recognize all too well that the color of my kids’ skin means they are treated differently when they are with me than when they are out alone or with friends. I also want my kids to live in a world where they can believe in humanity. I want them to understand that while they may face hate or discrimination in their lives, that is on the individual hater and the individual only.

Perhaps I am being pollyannish. It won’t be the first time I’m accused of such. But coming off an election week where so many are preaching that love defeated hate, how can we embrace the notion that we must teach our children the only individuals they can truly trust, can truly confide in, can truly be friends with are those who come from the same backgrounds, the same neighborhoods, and are the same same race?

First and foremost, I want both of my kiddos to be seen as fine human beings. I don’t want to have to teach them to prioritize race in determining trust or friendship. When I do so, I’m just handing the future to those who muddied my alma mater of the University of Virginia this past summer. I refuse to do that.

Are We Coming for Surnames Next?

I also worry about letting our sensitivities and concerns for “what if” drive our decisionmaking. We cannot embrace free speech or assembly if we believe it only applies to those with whom we agree. We cannot embrace a free press if we do not acknowledge that includes media with stark biases that may conflict with our personal beliefs. And we cannot embrace inclusiveness if we are afraid a surname will engender concern or outrage.

From my latest on LinkedIn Pulse, exploring ESPN’s head-scratching decision to remove a broadcaster from a U.Va. football game because of his “Robert Lee” name

Another Reminder to Learn Our History

And for those who think this lacking grasp on American history is limited to those writing on the right-hand side of our historical ledger, one only needs to look at recent responses from the left on what needs to be done to get rid of President Donald J. Trump to understand that a broader understanding and appreciation of American civics is needed by all comers.

From dear ol’ Eduflack’s latest commentary on Medium, exploring recent rhetoric on removing President Donald Trump, rhetoric that flies in the face of everything on which the United States is built

My Fellow Americans: Reflections on Charlottesville 

As a proud graduate of the University of Virginia, Eduflack was disgusted by the terrorist actions in Charlottesville this weekend. I was also frustrated by the lack of a meaningful address from President Trump on this important topic. 

So dear ol’ Eduflack decided to record his own alt presidential remarks on the situation. My apologies for the stutters and stumbles, but this is from the heart, with no script and no notes. 

Give it a watch, and then please give it a share. 

We Need Your Help: Letters for Latino Students

Today, I am want to give a shout out to a new initiative that Eduflack has recently launched. As loyal readers know, I am incredibly proud of my family and the story of how we became a story. As chronicled in my award-winning book, Dadprovement, both of my kiddos were adopted from Guatemala. They are full birth siblings. And we are all incredibly proud of their heritage.

Next week, the entire family is headed out to Missouri as part of a national gathering of families who have adopted from Guatemala. MoGuat provides families like ours a sense of community and of belonging. And it helps our children, in particular, to see that they are not alone.

It’s no secret that now is not the ideal time to be young and brown in America. Talk of walls and sending families “back to their own countries” sends the wrong message to kids. It can also be very difficult for young people to understand, as they feel they aren’t wanted. That is why I launched Letters to Latino Students. I want to begin a national movement that shows what a bright future our young people have ahead of them. The first phase of this is seeking encouraging words from leaders across the country — Latino or not — on what is ahead. The call for these letters is below. I ask all Eduflack readers to please share this post with any and all who can contribute. All notes will be posted to the Letters to Latino Students website and will be shared as part of a broader effort.

Instead of walls, let’s build some bridges. We need those letters, folks.

You understand how important it is for children to have quality role models. But in the U.S. today, millions of Latino students hear far too often that they are part of the problem and that their dreams count less than those of many of their classmates. I am writing to you not seeking money but simply asking for your inspiration for those students who need to hear that they can be successful and that they are as important as their more privileged counterparts.

Through Letters to Latino Students, we are seeking motivational works for so many of today’s young people. So I write to ask you for a favor. Can you share with us some motivational words for today’s students? Can you offer a story from your own childhood that inspired you to finish school, go to college, or seek your passions? Can you share those quotes or movies or songs or books that gave you the inspiration to become the success you are now today?

Too much of today’s media communicates – intentionally or otherwise – that brown children are somehow at fault for many of our nation’s ails. They are told we need walls to keep them away and that they should “go back to where they came from.” And while they will soon represent the single largest group of students in our public schools, Hispanic students are too often made to feel inferior.

Let me be honest with you, this is a very personal subject to me. As the father of two Latino children, I have heard, seen, or experienced what can be said or done to kids that look like my beloved children. I know how brown students can be seen as a burden in the public schools, having heard from my own elected officials that we need to “do less” in our public schools to make them less attractive to “those families.” And while I know that my children can achieve anything, many others don’t share that view.

Letters to Latino Students seeks to share with all Hispanic students that anything is possible. It hopes to show today’s young people that there are generations before them that have succeeded, embracing and proud of where they come from and who they are. We hope to ensure that all Latino students can be inspired to persevere, regardless of the options placed before them.

I hope that you will take a few moments to write some inspirational words that can be shared with today’s Hispanic young people. All responses will be shared on our website, and all will be heavily promoted through social media. You can send your letters or thoughts to letters@letterstolatinostudents.org.

My kids, and the millions of children like them, look forward to your response.

Respecting the “Modern” Family

In today’s age of blended families, alternative families, and just play different families, it is hard to believe some still see the good ol’ nuclear family as the norm in the United States. It is even harder to believe that an school teacher would hold such a view.

But over at Medium, I write about how a teacher’s failure to recognize the 21st century construct of the American family can do real damage to the children in her classroom. In my latest contribution to Ashoka’s Changemakers in Education series, I write:

We worry about how testing is affecting kids today. We wring our hands over how standards or higher expectations are impacting our children. We fret over whether students are expressing enough grit or enough skills to succeed in the future. Maybe, just maybe, we should also realize that there is no one cookie cutter to define today’s kids. There is no one way to describe their abilities, their interests, learning achievements, or even their family structures or backgrounds.

Give it a read. I promise it’ll be worth it.

 

Teaching True Meaning of First Amendment Rights

For weeks, Eduflack has been biting his tongue on the rash of intolerance offered in the name of tolerance on our college campuses. Too many stories of free speech being squashed in the name of “safe zones,” too many instances of aspiring “activists” believing Constitutional rights only apply to those individuals and causes that one completely agrees with.

Over at Medium this week, I wrote about our desperate need for today’s college students to truly understand the rights that they claim to embrace. Quoting everything from the First Amendment to President Andy Shepherd’s monologue from the movie, The American President, I just had my “I’m mad as hell” moment.

As I wrote:

But a funny thing happened between a generation known for its passionate advocacy for civil rights and an end to the Vietnam War and now. Today, too many see those freedoms and speech and assembly with self-inflicted blinders, believing such rights are meant to apply only to those who agree with us.

As originally conceived, the First Amendment was written to ensure a protected place for reasoned dissent in our new nation. Today, it is used as a weapon to protect against disagreement or opposing viewpoints and silence those who may see things differently.

When, exactly, did we allow the First Amendment to be bastardized to prevent civil discourse and public debate? When, exactly, did we determine it was OK to defend free speech, but only if it was speech we agreed with?

I know it is Thanksgiving week and all, but give it a read. We should all be thankful for our rights, whether we are red, blue, or purple with sparkly pink polka dots.

“The Strength of Street Knowledge”

Yes, I was one of the those fans that lined up this past weekend to see Straight Outta Compton, the bio-pic on the rise and fall of the musical genius known as N.W.A. And yes, I was one of those kids, one of those white boys from the suburbs, who was a huge fan of the powerful lyrics Ice Cube wrote about a world I would never understand.

As a kid, I didn’t listen to heavy metal. I wasn’t into alternative music like REM or U2 or Depeche Mode. No, I was into rap. As a young kid growing up in North Jersey, Run DMC was my gateway music. I was immediately taken by the lyrics and the poetry. As I got older, my preferences got a little harder. I loved the post-License to Ill Beastie Boys. I couldn’t get enough of Public Enemy. I cherished a bootleg cassette I had of 2 Live Crew (which I just told my mother about last week). And I got amped listening to N.W.A.

I looked at music like Public Enemy and N.W.A as I assume my parents’ generation looked at music by folks like Bob Dylan. It was protest music. It spoke truth to power. It gave voice to many previously without words. And to kids like me, it pulled back a curtain so we could catch just a glimpse of the world, of the struggles, and of the realities that were foreign to us, but important to our development into men (and into hopefully responsible men).

As I got older, my musical tastes matured. In college, I took a real liking to 3rd Bass (it was even on my college answering machine, where they sampled JFK). Jay-Z and Eminem and Snoop remain on my regular play lists today. But N.W.A and Public Enemy are still my go-tos.

I’ve introduced my kids to a little of it, namely Public Enemy’s Fight the Power. They sadly know Snoop from his work with Katy Perry. And they love Salt n Pepa from the Geico commercials (yes, I’ll wipe a tear).

Twenty-five years ago or so, I was taken in by the movie Do The Right Thing. Originally, the draw was the music (obviously). But I still regularly watch the movie (it is one of the staples on my iPad) because of the story it tells. As an Italian-American, I feel a personal connection. I still don’t want to accept that no matter how open-minded we all can claim to be, that we all have a break point, and we all have that inner Sal (or worse, the inner Pino) with us. I don’t want to ever be so blind to the realities around me.

So this weekend, I watched Straight Outta Compton, and was completely taken in. The music reminded me of my childhood, while the story was one I was aware of, but not completely familiar. In many ways, it was a Shakespearean story, as the lives of young men who would grow up to be the Dr. Dre of Beats headphones fame, the actor known as Ice Cube, the felon Suge Knight, the up-and-comers Tupac and Snoop, and the visionary Eazy E were intertwined over a relatively short period.

How does all of this relate to my regular writings here on Eduflack? I’m not exactly sure. I do know that my childhood, and the soundtrack of that childhood, is an important piece of who I have become and the work that I do. I know that the social, justice, and educational issues hit in those songs continue to be topics that we struggle with today. And I realize that there are still far too many kids, and they were kids back then, whose voices aren’t being heard.

This morning, I found myself listening to nothing but rap on my morning run. It gave me a lot to think about and a lot to reflect on. As luck would have it, I hit the home stretch as a song from Darryl McDaniels (of Run DMC fame) hit the shuffle. The song came out in 2007, just a few months before the adoption of my son was official. Every time I’ve heard the song since then, I think of my son. And those thoughts usually come with tears.

That’s why rap is the soundtrack of my life. It isn’t because I was a suburban kid thinking I was an OG. I wasn’t pretending I was understanding what it was like to come of age in South Central. It is because I happened to be listening to Public Enemy as I was driving back from a college internship interview, only to learn later that the Rodney King verdict had come in. And it is because in his song Just Like Me, DMC captures feelings about my kids and adoption that I couldn’t previously verbalize.

Taylor Swift (even when she tries to rap) and Meghan Trainor and even Katy Perry don’t make me think. Dre, Cube, and E do. each and every time.