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Teacher Talks: Examining the Past; Preparing for the Future

On this anniversary year, as we look back on the institutional milestones and individual recollections that make up the story of Calhoun, it seems apt to reflect on how history is covered in the classroom. We sat down with a few of our history teachers to learn more about how they teach students to understand the complexities of the past and apply those lessons to the present. At Calhoun, students are empowered to engage with the material in a deeply inquisitive manner and question how historical knowledge is created and passed down. This informs how teachers structure classroom discussions around bias, different forms of oppression, and current events. From connecting historical moments to the present to encouraging students to think critically about sources, our teachers are demonstrating the importance of studying the nuances of history.

We talked with faculty members from across divisions: Meghan Chidsey, who specializes in ancient world history and anthropology in the Upper School; Giovanni Pucci, fifth-grade social studies teacher; Marco Sanchez, eighth-grade social studies teacher; and Jason Tebbe, who covers American and European history in the Upper School. With their different academic and personal backgrounds, they each have a unique perspective on teaching history. In the conversation that follows, they discuss how examining the past helps to prepare Calhoun students for the future.

How do you introduce diverse perspectives and voices into your history curriculum? 

Giovanni: Here are the questions that guide us: Who gets to tell us about history? How does that change what is told? Whoever’s in charge of the story gets to tell the story a certain way, and it changes the story itself; whoever’s in charge of making the laws usually makes laws that favor themselves. We’re always looking at how systems of oppression perpetuate themselves.

Marco: I don’t teach from the dominant perspective because I’ve never experienced it. In my classroom, it’s more about remembering to include the dominant perspective, because we learn everything from the perspective of the people who were not in power and who were disenfranchised. 

Meghan: Part of my goal is for students to become co-creators and interpreters, instead of it feeling like I’m preaching the knowledge or reiterating what some archaeologists or historians said. The nature of what I teach is a very cross-cultural analysis of places and cultures. I’m always trying to bring in a series of different cultures and voices, and decenter whiteness and Eurocentrism; if we do center it, I try to be very explicit about it and the shortcomings therein.

“Here are the questions that guide us: Who gets to tell us about history, and how does that change what is told?” Giovanni Pucci, Fifth grade social studies teacher

What are some of the activities and strategies that you employ to teach students about history?  

Jason: I try to keep classes as interesting as possible by using a variety of different methods. I want students to actually do history the way that they do science in science classes and math in math classes. They’re doing their own research and drawing conclusions from it.

Meghan: I’m an anthropologist by trade, and so I approach history through an anthropological lens, which for me means humanizing the process, but also questioning historiography [the writing of history] and the processes by which we study and consume history. We spend a good deal of time talking about things we often take for granted when we study history, such as geographic knowledge or the power inherent in history.

I try to make the courses very inquiry-based. I cover what archaeologists, professionals or culture members suggest, but I also want students to feel brave enough to voice their own opinion. Half the time, [what historians are sharing] are still theories—your interpretation is in some ways just as valid as the ones I might be presenting.

“I want students to actually do history the way that they do science in science classes and math in math classes. They're doing their own research and drawing conclusions from it.” Jason Tebbe, Upper School history teacher

As one example of an activity that helps bring history to life, Jason Tebbe asked students to use a database of editorials from the Civil War era to craft a Twitter feed as if they were living at the time and responding to one of the major crises of the period.

What types of sources do you use in your lessons?

Marco: I use primary sources and editorial texts as examples. With these sources, I can focus on characterization versus action through history, as well as explore themes of bias and framing. One of the key things we do is try to get sources from opposing viewpoints. That way, the students are able to look at what media, textbooks and writing say about a topic, formulate their own opinion from the original source, and discuss the discrepancies and how bias plays a part.

Jason: Pretty much everything we read for the class is either a primary source, or if it’s not, it’s something that’s written by a scholar. I keep telling students they’re learning about not only the study of the topic we’re covering, but the different interpretations of it.

Meghan: I’m always pulling from a lot of books, podcasts, primary sources or videos. My attempt is to try to diversify where I’m getting my information from so that it isn’t just one textbook, or one author’s voice talking the whole time. We also talk about cultures where it’s harder to find information. Why were these cultures deemed “not worthy of study”? How could colonization or racism impact whose artifacts get stolen or destroyed?

How do you discuss systems of inequality and oppression in your classroom?

Meghan: It’s always front and center in what I’m trying to analyze. We try to create an open space for students to express what they’re recognizing and then hopefully unpack the structures that have led to systems of inequality or hierarchy. Often toward the beginning of the year, I’m the one introducing it, and showing students that it’s okay to talk critically and become comfortable with each other as a community. Later in the year, it becomes an expectation that we’re going to be talking about these topics and the structures of power that exist. I think the more direct you can be about it, the more critical students can be in their analyses.

Marco: This is something we always talk about in the classroom, because it comes up often. I never want to only teach the white man’s side of history, because that would be providing my students with only one side of the story. I teach my students about the people that challenged white men, that were the most vulnerable but stood up to those in power. . . . because those are the people who changed the world. We always have a choice: We could learn about history through the powerful people that all looked the same, or we could learn about history through the diverse groups that pushed for change. I think it’s a much more interesting story when we look at it through their eyes because they are the ones who really changed things.

“I approach history through an anthropological lens, which for me means humanizing the process, but also questioning historiography [the writing of history] and the processes by which we study and consume history.” Meghan Chidsey, Upper School history teacher

How do you teach students about bias in the telling of history? 

Giovanni: There’s this great children’s book called Zoom that starts off with a picture, and then the reader zooms out and the picture changes. [The experience of reading it] keeps changing your expectations of what the image is. That’s one way I introduce to my students that everyone and everything has a bias and an angle. To know a person or understand something takes a lot of work and research because we’re all biased as human beings. We all have ideas about people and things and we make judgments.

Meghan: It’s about trying to not only be aware of our own interpretations, but the historiography. Who wrote this? Why did they write it? Something we see throughout history is people trying to confiscate or erase history either through propaganda or through the actual erasure of the material. And so how does that create bias? How do we get beyond just the people in power and tell the stories of people who weren’t in power?

Jason: My goal for students is to not only learn about the past, but to examine how we investigate the past. One thing I try to stress is that every source is biased, and that’s okay. Every source has a perspective.

The sixth-grade social studies classroom was transformed into a museum exhibit about Ancient Egypt. Students walked around the gallery leaving Post-it comments on their peers’ displays.

What do you teach your students about their own personal biases that they bring to class? 

Meghan: I think it’s a lot about being self-reflective as well as understanding your own identities, and no matter how many privileged or unprivileged identities you hold, it’s going to influence the way you analyze and interpret material, and interact with others.

Jason: I try to model being cognizant of the fact that you come into everything with your own perspective. I tell students, “This source has a bias, but your perspective does too.“

Marco: I try to explain to students that we all have biases. We have to understand ours and how where we come from plays a part in how we look at issues in the world. But more importantly, I make sure that they understand that no matter how well intentioned a person may be, they have some sort of bias in their writings and thoughts. I try to explain that biases come from where they grew up, who their parents are, what their parents told them, how the world perceives them, how they perceive the world and so on. Lastly, I teach them that it’s important to hear those biases so we can understand different perspectives and formulate our own opinions.

“I try to explain to students that we all have biases. We have to understand ours and how where we come from plays a part in how we look at issues in the world.” – Marco Sanchez, Eighth grade social studies teacher

How do you reference current events when teaching history?

Giovanni: When we talk about the Constitution, we talk about the importance of the highest law and how these amendments protect our rights. For example, when someone takes a knee at the beginning of a football game to protest police brutality, I ask, ”Does he have the right under the Constitution to take a knee before the game?“ And I say, ”This is what the Constitution says we have a right to do. This is the act this man is doing. Does he have a right?” And we talk about the fact that he actually lost his job after doing that and the fact that these rights are always attacked by folks who are threatened by them.

Jason: We were talking about voter suppression in the Jim Crow South, and so I brought in material about modern-day voter suppression. After January 6 I did a class on the history of the modern extremist militia movements, because they probably have questions about this and we should actually talk about it.

Meghan: In my Ancient World History class, I try to pull the threads to where we are today and what persists from the ancient world. Whether it’s pop culture or current events or just modern threads of cultural practice, I try to weave them in as much as possible to make it connect.

In Giovanni’s class, fifth graders designed and created their own colonial money after learning about the various currencies in the thirteen colonies.

Given the impact of social movements in recent years, has the way you teach history changed? If yes, how? 

Meghan: My teaching is a call to continue to make connections with our lives today. Current events have made the material and the conversations we have around diversity and power more contextualized. I try to also create projects that tie into real-world activism and engagement. Instead of just analyzing museum politics, we might redesign the exhibit or compose a letter to the curatorial board about why the items should be repatriated and to whom.

Jason: I definitely have responded to a lot of the social moments, especially if it’s material that really matters to the students. I keep telling them we study history so that we can understand the present, because the present is the creation of the past. Nothing in the present exists that did not come out of the past.

Giovanni: My own thinking about these movements has led to me teaching what I’ve been learning and thinking about. Especially in this time of social changes and upheaval, it’s really important to be teaching history, bias and similar content. I just taught the Declaration of Independence to one of the clusters, and how there are folks who were not included in those words. It was always rich white men. For example, they’re seeing that the Black Lives Matter movement is really just a call to what was in the blueprint of this country. I want them to understand that the uprising on the streets has to do with the history of our country.

Do you have any closing thoughts on teaching history in today’s world?

Jason: Recent events have led to more people taking history seriously. I think there’s a general feeling that the way we tell our history really matters, and there’s material that we weren’t paying attention to that is going to change the way we think about the world. I feel that, in some ways, I’m on the front lines of social conflict right now. I’m very grateful I teach at a place that is pushing to be more thoughtful and intentional in its approach.

Meghan: It’s always very reassuring to see students having these hard conversations already, and questioning structures of power that they participate in every day—not in a way that causes guilt, but in a way that causes action, allyship, representation and empowerment. That gives me hope, and it gives me reassurance that what we’re doing as teachers matters.