Fifth-Grade Detectives Uncover the Dominant Narrative
Illustrator: Christiane Grauert
Among a list of 35 people in the Texas 5th-grade social studies standards, the highlighted “heroes” include William Bradford, Roger Williams, Charles Pinckney, Eli Whitney, James Madison, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan. As a young, upper middle-class white woman, these were the same heroic narratives I had heard growing up, and I knew that administrators and my teaching team expected me to cover these standards. I also knew that it would be irresponsible to teach the standards as they are typically taught — as a single, narrow narrative centering the accomplishments of straight, cisgender, wealthy white males. So many voices and stories were being left out.
Where were the diverse figures who looked like my primarily Black and Brown students, and where were their stories of resistance, brilliance, and activism? Where were the rebels, the revolutionaries? Where was Bayard Rustin, the Queer civil rights activist and key organizer of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom? Where was Claudette Colvin, the 15-year-old Black girl who refused to give up her seat on the bus months before Rosa Parks did? Where was Sylvia Mendez, the young Mexican American girl whose court case challenged segregation before Brown v. Board? Where was Ona Judge, the young woman who escaped from her enslavers, Martha and George Washington? Where were the young people, the Queer people, the people of color, the women? I set out to design a unit to both cover the standards and open up space for my students to spend more time learning about these stories of resistance that had been pushed to the margins, excluded from the dominant narrative of U.S. history.
I had three goals for my students in this two-week project. I wanted students to see that there was a dominant narrative underlying what they were “supposed” to learn, I wanted them to recognize that there were important people and stories left out of this narrative, and I wanted them to have the language and tools to distinguish between these two kinds of stories. By understanding what the standards said, and who was included and excluded from them, I believed that we would be set up to critique these narrow narratives, decenter them in the classroom, and spend the rest of the year learning the awe-inspiring stories of those like Rustin, Colvin, Mendez, and Judge, alongside the thousands of other everyday changemakers in U.S. history.
Defining “Dominant Narrative”
To begin, I gathered students together on the carpet, and wrote the words “dominant narrative” on the whiteboard. Looking out at the 21 eager faces in front of me, I asked, “Has anyone seen these words before?” My question was returned with quizzical looks, so I prodded further. “What about the word narrative? I know you know this one!”
Maya thoughtfully raised her hand. “Well, in 4th grade we wrote personal narratives. Those are stories about ourselves.”
“Yes!” I exclaimed. “A narrative is a story.” I spoke slowly as I wrote the words out on the board. “We’ve solved half of the puzzle! Who knows what the word dominant means?” I flexed my muscles and laid down some clues. “If I played Mario Kart with Marcos, I would dominate him. Hmm . . . that sounds just like this word dominant. I must be the dominant Mario Kart player. What does this mean?”
As anticipated, Marcos couldn’t help but take the bait. “It means you would beat me!”
“Excellent. So . . .” I transcribed on the board as I spoke — ignoring Marcos’ side comment that I would not, in fact, be the dominant Mario Kart player — “narrative means story, and dominant means stronger, like the one in charge. So, if we put these two words together, what is a dominant narrative?”
Hesitantly, Alanna raised her hand. “It means, the strong story? The story that’s in charge?”
“Yes!” I applauded my students for their word work, and continued, “In our new unit we’re going to be learning all about the dominant narrative, or as you so eloquently defined it, “the story that’s in charge.”
Dominant narratives, “the stories that are in charge,” are heroic, commonly repeated stories devoid of context and nuance, and they are “in charge” of our state standards, our textbooks, popular media, and our collective memory. They are about what is valued, how progress is defined, who makes change, and both the roots and solutions to social injustices. Dominant narratives of U.S. history highlight singular heroes and exceptionalism, ignoring or co-opting stories of resistance, injustice, and continued struggle. This unit on dominant and counter narratives would reveal who is included in the story, but dominant narratives are about more than just who is in the story — they are also about how the story is told — what information is included? What information is left out? Who is controlling this narrative? This unit was just a starting point.
I handed out a page of notes and asked students to glue it into their notebooks. These notes would guide our learning and provide key concepts and vocabulary for us to refer back to as the unit progressed. Familiar with this routine, we read the dominant narrative notes page aloud together:
. . . A ton of different people and groups of people have fought very hard to make our country what it is today, but unfortunately, a lot of these stories get left out. These stories get left out because they’re pushed to the side of the dominant narrative.
We defined the dominant narrative as “the story that is in charge.” The dominant narrative of U.S. history is the story that you can find in textbooks . . . that pretends to be the only story. . . . However, peacemakers, activists, and truth-seekers know that this story isn’t the only story, and we are constantly uncovering dominant narratives and searching for different perspectives and really important stories that don’t get the attention they deserve. . . .
Building upon our previous unit on “peacemakers,” students were already familiar with some of the terminology. The note sheet ended with a reference to the “detective work” we were going to do to uncover the dominant narrative inside of the state standards. These standards included things like standard 5.1B, “describe the accomplishments of significant individuals who settled for religious freedom and economic gain during the colonial period, including William Bradford, Anne Hutchinson, William Penn, John Smith, and Roger Williams,” and standard 5.2B, “identify the Founding Fathers and Patriot heroes, including John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, the Sons of Liberty, and George Washington, and their motivations and contributions during the revolutionary period.” This representational inquiry would help us find out whose stories were centered in the dominant narrative given to us by the state standards, and who is considered a “patriot hero.”
I had compiled a list of every person included in the Texas social studies standards for 5th grade, ending with a list of 35 people. A few of these “people” were actually more than one person, such as the Sons of Liberty or the Wright brothers, but were counted as one person because they were grouped together as such in the standards.
Connecting my computer to the overhead, I revealed the list. “These are all of the people the state of Texas wants you to learn about this year. To find out what this story is, we’re going to have to figure out who all these people are. Each of you will research a person on this list and teach the rest of the class about them. Together, we’ll be able to put the puzzle pieces of this story, this dominant narrative, together.”
I gave students a few minutes to read the list and think about which names they were interested in researching. Drawing popsicle sticks with students’ names written on them, I called students to pick which person they would research. The first names to go were the ones we were most familiar with already — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King Jr. Once the familiar names had been claimed, students began choosing the less-known names like John Wise and Roger Sherman. Because the list included 35 people, a handful of enthusiastic researchers volunteered to take on additional names.
Then I passed out research questions. Although I am a huge proponent of open-ended research, for this project I asked students to research a specific set of questions. These questions would get at the demographic information we would need to piece together whose stories were included in our state standards.
Maya volunteered to read:
• Name of historical figure, date of birth, date of death
• Family and childhood: Where did they grow up? Did they have siblings? Did they go to school? Were they free or enslaved?
• Influence: What did they do? Why are they famous?
I thanked Maya and explained the questions a bit more. “You’re not going to be able to learn everything about your historical figure. It’s more like fast facts, like the stats you might find on a Pokémon card or on a baseball card. You’ll only have two days for your research, so we can’t get too deep, but I do expect you to find the information to answer these questions.”
I then directed students toward the second sheet, which included an empty picture frame. “In this picture frame, I want you to draw a picture of your historical figure. Because we want to know who this person is, it’s super important that we represent them correctly. When you’re ready to start drawing, use the skin color markers and crayons to match the historical figure’s skin tone as best as possible.” With the mention of art supplies, a murmur of excitement rippled through the room.
Students spent the next two days researching their assigned historical figure. I directed them to start with our favorite document database, Newsela, a digital news and primary source website that presents articles in multiple reading levels. Newsela provided leveled biographies on all the big names, like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. If information was not available on Newsela, I directed students toward search engines like KidRex and Google to find the information. Our school was fortunate to be one with technology, and we were able to conduct our research from our classroom. Students who had tackled the more accessible figures quickly moved on to their second historical figure, or helped out their classmates.
On the morning of the much-anticipated portrait day, students sat at their tables. “Remember,” I said as I walked around passing out bins of skin-colored crayons, markers, and colored pencils, “to match the skin color as best as possible! When your projects are complete, we will be doing a gallery walk, and your classmates will be collecting information based off of your drawings. Be as accurate as you can!” I released students to begin drawing, many of them opening up their Chromebooks to reference the photos they had found on the internet.
“Ms. Green,” Asher called out, holding up two crayons next to his Chromebook, “would you say that he [Roger Sherman] is more of a light golden, or very light golden?”
Sarai asked, “My picture is in black and white. How am I supposed to know what color he is?”
Our classroom oscillated between the excited energy and discussion of choosing appropriate skin tones, to the quiet concentration needed to accurately draw their portraits.
Analyzing the Data
The following Monday, it was time to see the puzzle pieces of all 35 figures put together. Portraits with short biographies underneath hung on the wall outside the classroom.
Back in the classroom, I gathered students on the carpet and passed out the data collection sheets. “I’m so proud of your incredible work!” I exclaimed. “We talked about how there’s a dominant narrative underneath the story we’re ‘supposed’ to learn, right? Today we’re going to go out into the hallway to do a data walk. We’re going to collect data on exactly who is included in this ‘dominant narrative.’” With a blank data sheet under the document camera, I called on student volunteers to read the categories of data we would be looking for: race, gender, sexual orientation, profession/reason for fame, and time period in which they were alive.
I grouped students by having them count off and then assigned a starting category to each group. “If you have a question about the poster you’re looking at, please find the biographer (your classmate) and ask them. Once you’ve finished your assigned category, move on to collect data on another category.”
Nathan asked, “How are we supposed to know if they’re gay or straight? That wasn’t part of what we researched.” During the time periods that most of these historical figures lived, the 1700s and 1800s, expressing any sexual orientation other than heterosexuality was a reason for marginalization, oppression, and persecution. I wanted to avoid students searching the internet for terms pertaining directly to sexuality. Even if evidence of queer identities or relationships existed, they would likely be excluded from the narrative we would find in Newsela or through a broad Google search.
So instead of explicitly researching this piece, I asked students to look for information about marriages and relationships. “Mark a tally for ‘straight’ every time you see evidence of a male/female marriage. I know this information is limited, but it might be all that we have to work with today. What I really want us to be looking for is patterns. So, if most people represented in the standards were living in heterosexual relationships, or most were living in homosexual relationships, that’s important information for us to know. We’re looking for patterns.”
Armed with clipboards, pencils, and excitement, students walked into the hallway and began to collect data. I answered their questions, or pointed them toward a poster’s author when I was able to, hoping to inspire conversations between the students. I overheard many questions, like Marcos confirming with Josiah, “Hey, Josiah! Is Cesar Chavez Mexican? I think you colored his skin brown, yeah?” As the data collection progressed, the questions turned to shock and exclamations, especially as the tally marks for “white” and “male” grew.
After about 20 minutes, I called students back inside to rejoin their table groups. I gave students a few minutes to confirm with their research groups to make sure they had similar data sets, and asked them to each elect a group representative to report their findings to the rest of the class.
Marcos shared for group one, pushing his data collection sheet under the document camera. “So, we had . . .” the class watched as Marcos moved his fingers over the groups of tally marks counting by fives under his breath, “30 white people, four Black people, one Latino person, and we didn’t find any Asian or Indigenous people.” A couple hands went into the air, as some students who had also tallied for race reported slight discrepancies in the data. “Yeah, we had different numbers too, but most of us had 30,” Marcos explained.
“It sounds like we might have a little bit of a difference,” I said, “but does it seem like enough of a difference to really change our findings?” We agreed that even if some people had counted 28 white people, and some had counted 32, it was clear that the overwhelming majority of these people were white. The other group representatives took turns sharing their data.
At the end of our data collection, we found: Out of the 35 people we researched, 32 were men, 30 were white, and all were (according to the information we were able to find) straight and cisgender.
Students had a lot to say. “Ms. Green! This isn’t fair! Where are the women?!” “Yeah, Ms. Green! Why are there so many white people?” Marcos looked down and shook his head, muttering, “Somebody’s gotta change this.”
My students had been taught from these same kinds of curriculum documents since kindergarten, and I don’t think they had ever seen the whole picture put together like this. We were all reeling from what we had uncovered, and it was time to draw some conclusions and to do the work needed to disrupt the narratives we were “supposed to learn” in 5th grade.
To give ample time and space for individual reflection, I passed out a page containing reflection questions:
• What stands out to you from this data?
• Is this what you expected to see? Why or why not?
• Based on our data, who is at the center of the dominant narrative of U.S. history?
• Who is being left out of this dominant narrative?
• What is wrong with this dominant narrative of U.S. history? Why do you think it is important for us to challenge this story?
I encouraged students to think deeply, to take their time, and to not worry about things like grammar or spelling as they responded to the questions. “You’ve uncovered some patterns that a lot of people don’t think about. Take this time seriously, and keep your pencils moving for 10 minutes.”
After journaling, I opened up space for students to share reflections with the class if they wanted to. Reading her journal entry to the class, Alanna told us that the narrative is wrong because “it doesn’t include many people who look like our class.” Many students agreed with this sentiment, and Asher added that “other people did stuff too.”
Students were demonstrating a beginning understanding of dominant narratives, recognizing that identity is a key piece to this puzzle. As the year progressed, we would continue to build upon this notion of identity as one component, though not the single determining factor, of dominant narratives.
Introducing “Counter Narratives”
The next morning, now the end of our second week of study, I gathered students on the carpet and wrote the words “counter narratives” on the whiteboard. I asked students what they thought this phrase might mean.
“Dominant narratives are the stories in charge!” Josiah reminded us.
“And what does narrative mean?”
“A story!” students chimed in.
“So what do you think counter is? What’s a counter narrative?” After a bit of back and forth, and again some referencing an epic Mario Kart battle, we arrived at the definition of a counter narrative as “the stories that fight back.”
“Counter narratives are the stories that push back against the dominant narrative,” I affirmed. “If the dominant narrative is the story we see in our standards, and almost all of those characters are dead white men, whose stories do you think we might find in a counter narrative?”
Alanna, circling back to her own reflection from the day before, called out, “People who look like us!”
“Yes!” I said, “The standards say we are ‘supposed’ to learn about this long list of people, and we will talk about them this year, but instead of having these white guys in the middle of the story, we’re going to scoot them over and spend a ton of time learning about counter narratives, stories that push back.”
On a last reflection page, students recorded the difference between dominant narratives and counter narratives, which included the questions “If a story is a dominant narrative, whose voice will be at the center of that narrative? If a story is a counter narrative, whose voice might we find at the center of that narrative?”
Student responses varied, from short answers of “men,” “white men,” or “mostly presidents,” to responses showing deep thought and reflection. Marcos wrote about dominant narratives: “At the center of the story, we will find the people who have power. (Straight, white men).” About counter narratives, he wrote “At the center of these stories, we will find women, people of color, gay and lesbian people, transgender people, and young people. Peacemakers!” Student responses showed we had learned that the state standards are heavily white, heavily male, and that story wasn’t OK with us.
The Rest of the Year
As the year went on, we continued to complicate our understandings of the stories we’re “supposed” to learn, and made an intentional effort to center resistance movements, instead of heroes, in our historical studies. We interrogated whether change is the result of a single hero or of hundreds and thousands of everyday people (especially women, people of color, and LGBTQIA+ people) working together. We asked whose perspective was at the center of the stories we read, whose voices were excluded or marginalized, and who had the power to make those decisions.
Our unit on civil rights centered the coordinated efforts of many figures, including Dolores Huerta, Bayard Rustin, and SNCC, and our unit on abolition displaced Abraham Lincoln from the center as we discovered how enslaved people fought for their freedom every day. Instead of a heroic narrative of Andrew Jackson and Manifest Destiny, our unit on Westward Expansion was framed as a narrative of Indigenous resistance. With each unit, we acknowledged the dominant narrative in place, and then worked to disrupt it.
Many students clung tightly to our definitions of dominant and counter narratives, so much so that at the end of the year while on a field trip to the Texas state Capitol, Asher politely raised his hand while the docent was explaining the heroic story of the Texans against the Mexican Army. When called upon, he calmly asked, “Isn’t that just the dominant narrative?”
As my own understanding of white supremacy, patriarchal power, and the way these powers are exerted over historical narratives has grown, my approach to this unit has grown and shifted. State standards are often invisible to our students, or are positioned as neutral curricular documents in no need of interrogation. By opening up space for students to critique these narratives, students learn more about how power works, how they can push back against injustice, and how other people have engaged in this same resistance.