‘We Need To Know This!’

Student power and curriculum

By Jody Sokolower

Illustrator: Chris Mullen

Illustration: Chris Mullen

Five minutes into the period, as I was explaining the industrialization project to my 10th-grade World History class, Tiffany had her hand in the air.

“It’s almost the end of February and we haven’t done anything about black history! Why don’t we ever do anything about black people?” she demanded. A chorus of voices, all African-American, backed her up.

“But we just finished studying Haiti,” I protested. “Doesn’t that count?”

“No!” they shouted. “This class is racist!”

As a white teacher, this accusation always hits me in the gut. My initial reaction was defensive — hadn’t I started the year with a section on medieval Africa? Didn’t I expand the curriculum to include more on the transatlantic slave trade and the Haitian revolution?

My mind was a jumble. On one hand, I could see my plans for the next months and my relationship with my history teaching partner shattering before my eyes. On the other hand, I knew they were getting at something really important — and that I needed to acknowledge the justice of their demand. I took a deep breath and promised to come back with a plan for discussing the issue.

“I can see three different approaches to adding more black content to the curriculum,” I explained to both World History classes the next day. “We can look at what was happening to African Americans at each point in world history; we can focus more on African history; or we can look at what African-American and African leaders were saying about world events. What do you think would be best?”

I was amazed at the discussions that resulted. No one asked which alternative would be less work, or more points. Students took the question seriously, listened to each other, and shared their frustration at their previous experiences with African history.

“I don’t want to learn about slavery any more,” said Rachelle, a conscientious and high-achieving African-American student. “Every time we learn about black people, it’s just about us being victims and it makes me feel terrible.”

“What about Haiti?” I asked. “We learned about how Toussaint L’Ouverture led a successful revolution that created an independent country.”

“I only remember the part about slavery,” she responded.

“Every year we learn the same stuff about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King — that’s it,” added another student.

After much discussion, the classes agreed that they wanted to focus on African history.

“We know less about Africa than anywhere else in the world,” Emily, a white student, explained.

“OK,” I agreed. “The next unit is on imperialism — that’s the fight over land and resources before World War I. I’ll look for information on the fight over Africa from an African perspective.”

“I don’t want to read a bunch of stuff that’s just going to make me feel worse,” Rachelle warned as the bell rang.

Rethinking History Teaching

As a college student in the late 1960s, discovering the historical truth behind the lies in my history books was a liberating and empowering experience. But most of my students see things differently. In the 1960s and ’70s, revolutions around the world and boundless activism in the United States reinforced the connection between real history and social change. In the absence of that exciting tumult, many youth today experience the bitter truths of U.S. history as depressing — it only feeds their feelings of powerlessness and alienation. My African-American students often express anger at a history where their ancestors are overwhelmingly portrayed as victims, relieved by a few pasteboard heroes.

I hoped that this unit, demanded by my students, would have a different effect. Their energy helped soothe my anxiety about falling even further behind in our race to finish all of world history by June. I revised my goals for the unit. To my original goal:

Students will demonstrate understanding of the Era of Imperialism in Africa,

I added the following:

Students will begin to explore their stereotypes, thoughts, and feelings about Africa. (I hoped this would free students like Rachelle to look at the positive and negative aspects of African history.)

Students will analyze historical sources for point of view, including “bias by omission.” (I wanted them to see that no historical source is neutral — textbook authors, like all historians, express a point of view.)

Students will recognize the power of articulating their own questions about history. (All students have “enduring questions” about the world and how it got to be this way — I hoped to validate those questions and bring them into the classroom.)

I started my research by looking for something to read that would enable us to talk about Africa — about the images of Africa in the media, and about the complicated relationship between African Americans and Africa. I chose the first chapter of Mandela, Mobutu and Me, by Lynne Duke, a young African-American journalist covering Africa in the 1990s. In the first chapter, she talks about her feelings of connection and pride at Africa’s beauty and strength, her angst about the level of brutality and corruption, her hope for the future.

As we read the chapter aloud, I asked students to keep a dialogue journal — noting quotes and images on one side of the paper, their reflections on the other. Almost every student in both classes completed the dialogue journal, including Ida, an English language learner from Brazil, who hadn’t turned in a piece of written work all year, and Kyla, an African-American student who had just transferred into my class and up to that point had kept her head buried in a book. Here are a few excerpts from Kyla’s reflections:

Lynne Duke and her co-workers were hecka brave to go to Africa. It was sad to read about the chaos that was going on there. I could tell how frustrated Lynne was getting from the blackouts, the food shortages, the violence that went on in the streets and just to see how Africa was in ruins…. I didn’t think that Africa was still in wars and stuff. I thought that Africa was like peaceful and full of fun and beauty. I didn’t know about all the struggle and violence… I think she finished the chapters with the drummers on the boat because it was like symbolism. She said with each beat she was further away from despair and she called it her rhythm of salvation.

Maria, a white student, quoted Duke: “I thought of all the people, so many, many people, who had every reason, every right, to lose hope in Africa but did not” and then reflected: “These kinds of people amaze me. To some degree, I strive to be one of these people. Believing in something is what gets people through things. I want that.”

Through African Eyes

Meanwhile, I began a search for Afrocentric (written from an African perspective) histories of African conflict with Europe from 1880 to 1918. I was appalled at how difficult it was to find anything at all. There were lots of histories of Africa, many of them anticolonial, but all of them quoted European historians and discussed the period from a European perspective. Eventually I found a brief section in Pan-African scholar John Henrik Clarke’s African People at the Crossroads: Notes for an African World Revolution that described the fierce resistance mounted by dozens of African cultures against European intrusions.

Before we read the Clarke, I had my students read the section on “The Age of Imperialism” in their McDougal Littell textbook, Modern World History, Patterns of Interaction. “Make a list of what you consider the most important facts,” I told them. They compared their lists in small groups and we came up with a class list of main events and concepts.

Then we turned to the Clarke reading. I had the students keep three running lists as we read the chapter aloud: important facts, personal reflections, and questions generated by the text.

I put the students into small groups and had them compare the two texts by answering the following questions:

  • What differences do you see between the two texts?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the textbook?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Clarke?
  • What examples of point of view do you see in each text?
  • What questions do you have now?

“Look at this,” a usually alienated white student named Eric shouted. “Clarke says Europeans always called African leaders chiefs instead of kings because they didn’t want them compared to European kings. Right here in our textbook they call Shaka a Zulu chief!”

“I don’t know,” Molly, also white, said. “The Clarke seems awfully biased. How do we know what he says is true?”

“Clarke has so many examples of resistance movements and Europe didn’t really control African land for that long,” reasoned Elijah, one of the African-American students who was angriest with me that first day. “But in the textbook it subtitles that whole section, ‘Unsuccessful Movements.’ That’s cold.”

Our discussions comparing the two texts was one of the most engaged and thoughtful of the whole year, and the quality and quantity of work I received was exceptional. It was the high point of the year for most of us.

Same Curriculum, Different Results

This year I taught World History again. At the appropriate point in the curriculum, I explained what happened in my class last year, and we studied the same texts in the same way. But the results were very different. Some students were interested in the readings, and students who were good at critical analysis wrote thoughtfully about the differences in perspectives and information. But the excitement was gone. It was an educational experience, but not an empowering one. Most importantly, it did nothing to support African-American leadership in the class. The student demand to learn something that they needed to know was an essential part of the equation.

I have realized more and more as I teach history that progressive content is not enough. Teaching accurate, multicultural history doesn’t necessarily have the impact on students that we, as progressive teachers, hope it will. If it’s disconnected from students experiencing themselves as architects of their own education and makers of history, it often reinforces their feelings of cynicism and hopelessness about social change.

Being receptive to student need and allowing space for students to think about and express what they want to learn is critical to education as a liberating experience, as a component of social justice. It’s more than offering a choice — would you rather create a diary or a graphic novel? It’s creating an environment in the classroom where students will make demands. And it’s listening, really listening, so we hear the demands and separate them out from the idle complaints.

The more substantive the choices we offer students, the more likely they are to articulate their ideas. (For example, “What should we do with the information we’ve learned about immigration — take a field trip to the capitol to lobby legislators or write letters to the editor? What ideas do you have?” And then, “What else do we need to learn before we do that?”) But some of it I experience as a kind of letting go, of being open to what they have to say, being open to messing up my plans for something exciting and unscripted.

This is not an argument for spontaneity or against the importance of planning and perfecting curriculum over time. Developing strong curriculum takes an enormous amount of time and energy. The first few times I teach material, I realize the problems, try to fill the holes and inject more scaffolding. Carefully constructed units that have been honed through trial and error remain the backbone of effective teaching.

Finally, there are clear tradeoffs to this approach. We never did get past Vietnam that year, and student demands probably won’t dovetail with state standards or the upcoming standardized test. But we each have to ask ourselves — in the final analysis, who are we answerable to? If we can help our students see that knowledge is power and that they have the right and the responsibility to demand the knowledge they need, it’s a good day at school.


Clarke, John Henrik. Africans at the Crossroads: Notes for an African World Revolution. Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press, 1991.

Duke, Lynne. Mandela, Mobutu and Me: A Newswoman’s African Journey. New York: Doubleday, 2003.

Jody Sokolower (soksha@igc.org) teaches at Berkeley High School in Berkeley, Calif. She wrote “Bringing Globalization Home,” in the Fall 2006 issue of Rethinking Schools.