Every day in seventh grade social studies is the same for Ángeles Mora Dominguez. PowerPoint slides pass by as she jots down notes from a book that offers praise for Christopher Columbus and suggests some slaveholders were benevolent.
For years, the 13-year-old said, the message from her white social studies teachers and the curriculum they teach has felt clear: White people taught people of color like her to make butter and milk cows. They taught them to bathe and farm. White people showed them how to build a nation from the bottom up.
“They’re trying to push on us that white people are our saviors,” said Mora Dominguez, who attends Norris Middle School in Omaha Public Schools and hopes to enroll in college as a first-generation Mexican-American student. “They … make it sound like everything we’ve gotten is from white people.”
Mora Dominguez’s experience is typical. Conversations The Reader had with half a dozen metro-area middle and high school students reveal a social studies curriculum that centers white men and pushes BIPOC to the margins, if not off the map entirely.
But that has slowly begun to change. A team of 65 educators from throughout Nebraska sat in countless meetings to revise statewide social studies standards that were completed at the end of 2019, and they were intentional in their efforts not to whitewash history. Curriculums can change –– in some classrooms they’ve already begun to –– but centering marginalized voices remains an uphill battle, from textbooks that present a glossed-over version of history to teachers who fear saying the wrong thing will put their careers in jeopardy.
While students were more than willing to talk, the schools responsible for implementing state recommendations were not. Requests to interview teachers at multiple school districts were denied or never received a response.
Inside classrooms, students say Nebraska’s efforts to diversify education has yielded mixed results.
“We always learn about the winners. We never learn about the culture that ‘lost,’” said Will Ramsey, a junior at Millard North High School who remembers learning about Native American genocide as a series of displacements.
“These cultures are only [portrayed as] defeated, broken and degraded … I want to hear about different cultures’ successes … and accomplishments, not just how colonizers killed them.”
To combat what Millard West sophomore Megan Shepherd calls sugar coating the brutalities of U.S. history, she and Ramsey joined the Millard chapter of Diversify Our Narrative, a nationwide initiative to promote anti-racist and historically accurate K-12 curriculums. Co-led by Shepherd and Millard North junior Shreeya Shapkota, the Millard Chapter is building a petition to add anti-racist texts to English reading lists. The chapter’s Instagram page educates more than 1,000 followers on topics ranging from BIPOC in history to debunking the white savior narrative.
Ramsey and Mora Dominguez are also members of What YOUth Can Do, a student-led organization fighting for equity in Omaha schools. In addition to demanding that OPS remove armed officers from schools and offer more mental health resources, WYCD pushes for schools to diversify upper-level classes (honors, AP and IB) and teach Black history, including that of Omaha.
“In every American history class, [the teacher’s] like ‘Black history starts in slavery,’” said Isabel Gott, a senior from Omaha South High Magnet School involved with WYCD. “No it doesn’t. There’s so much to learn, and I’ve been deprived of that.”
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Too Many Dead White Males
A grandfather of three and veteran of Nebraska social studies education, starting as an OPS teacher in 1979, Harris Payne believes every student down to first graders can grasp concepts like social justice and fairness. When he spearheaded the 2019 revisions, which took place from October 1, 2018, through November 8, 2019, Payne was determined to create more inclusive standards for the next generation.
“Way too much of our narrative in social studies has primarily been about dead white males who oftentimes had a lot of power,” said Payne, who retired from his role as social studies education specialist in late May. “Including groups that have oftentimes been left out of the story is the spirit of [what these] particular standards are trying to do.”
Throughout the process of evaluating and updating standards –– which each core subject area undergoes every seven years –– Payne and 65 social studies educators from across the state worked with representatives from marginalized groups, including the Native American and LGBTQ communities. Over 13 months, college professors, civic leaders, content experts, administrators and members of the general public offered input on multiple drafts. After undergoing review by the Midwest and Plains Equity Assistance Center, the Nebraska State Board of Education approved the standards on November 8, 2019.
The new guidelines mandate that, starting in fourth grade, students “analyze and explain multiple perspectives of events in Nebraska, including historically marginalized and underrepresented groups.” In eighth through 12th grade, students should:
- examine historical events from the perspectives of marginalized and underrepresented groups;
- identify how differing experiences can lead to the development of perspectives; and
- interpret how and why marginalized and underrepresented groups and/or individuals might understand historical events similarly or differently.
For example, students may “compare primary accounts by American Indian peoples and American settlers regarding the expansion of the United States.” Or they can study the Stonewall Riots and perspective of LGBTQ persons.
“We are making a concerted effort to make sure that … our curriculum is inclusive of all people, regardless of race, color, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic statuses,” said Ebony McKiver, the new social studies education specialist since Payne retired.
McKiver became a social studies educator because, as a child of color in a predominately white school district in Colorado, she said she longed to figure out more about herself and her history. But she never got those answers in the classroom.
“I didn’t want to continue pushing the same stories that I heard growing up,” McKiver said.
When she was Mora Dominguez’s age, McKiver said she read the epic saga Queen by Alex Haley, which tells the story of the author’s mixed-race grandmother born into slavery. McKiver also began studying U.S. presidents and realizing they made mistakes. Now an educator, McKiver remodeled the social studies website with the passion and curiosity for her discipline that came naturally to her at age 13.
The revamped Nebraska Department of Education Social Studies website provides educators with extensive culturally inclusive material, including resources on anti-racism, the 1619 Project, which suggests the nation’s founding should be marked the same year the first enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia, the LGBTQ community, and social and emotional learning, which helps students build empathy for marginalized groups.
“I really want students to take a look and say, ‘Why are these [whitewashed] stories being told?’” McKiver said. “And what can we do?’”
“A fundamental flaw”: Why Students Aren’t Seeing Change
But that’s where the state’s control stops and the districts’ begins.
Nebraska is a local control state. Although districts must follow the 2019 Nebraska State Social Studies Standards, as well as abide by laws and state board policy regarding social studies (including a 2012 multicultural education law), how institutions implement the guidelines –– in other words, the specific curriculum –– is up to each school district and, to some degree, classroom. Unlike English, mathematics and science, there’s no statewide social studies assessment.
So McKiver can’t mandate that teachers bring specific content into the classroom or review anti-racist resources. A lot of her work amounts to suggestions and recommendations.
Local control is common in the U.S. As McKiver explained, “one curriculum doesn’t fit all” in states where school districts range from small and rural to large and urban.
But local control doesn’t guarantee that all, or even most, classrooms will implement a curriculum that is culturally diverse in the way that McKiver, the Nebraska Department of Education and students themselves envision it. Individual districts (some of which haven’t finished implementing revisions) decide on activities, assignments, textbooks and in what ways –– and, arguably, how much –– to center underrepresented voices.
“Classrooms are where the learning happens,” said Kevin Bower, an associate professor of history at Nebraska Wesleyan University who consulted on the changes. “Teachers are the front line.”
Teachers have a lot at stake. The Reader’s requests to speak with teachers and administrators at several districts across the metro, including OPS, Millard and Gretna, in addition to Walthill and Umóⁿhoⁿ Nation (located on the Omaha Reservation), were either denied or ignored. A Millard educator and OPS administrator agreed to interviews but had to back out when their districts got involved.
An education coordinator for the Institute of Holocaust Education and former Millard teacher who works with teachers across the state, Kael Sagheer, said delving into topics like genocide and systemic racism in the U.S., which some parents consider controversial, can cause teachers to fear for their livelihoods.
“Teachers … have said to me ‘I weigh [the] risk every day because my students will … talk to their parents,” she said, “‘then their parents talk to the principal, then the principal talks to me, and I may lose my job.’”
Sagheer knows one English teacher who was accused of “bludgeoning her students over the head with the truth” after showing them the film 12 Years a Slave.
Career social studies educator Sonya Stejskal, who teaches in the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s department of history and offered input on the state’s social studies standards, isn’t confident in district administrators’ willingness to defend teachers against parental attacks.
“Usually administrators are trying to be on the safe side and not rock any boats. That really drives me crazy because you should rock the boat,” Stejskal said.
But Stejskal also said these new standards are designed to protect teachers against uneasy administrators. At least in some schools, they seem to be working.
Payne recalled his conversation with a rural educator who expressed gratitude for the standards’ inclusion of LGBTQ communities, about which he can now talk without administrative pushback.
“The state taking the lead in putting marginalized groups into the standards makes a big difference in [supporting] teachers to have courageous conversations,” Payne said.
Not all teachers are equipped to talk about tough topics in the classroom. Tim Royers, who recently began his tenure as president of the Millard Education Association after teaching social studies in Millard for 13 years, is concerned about what he considers a fundamental flaw in social studies educators’ training: the narrow lens of history with which they graduate college.
“If teachers aren’t [able] to take classes that give them the foundational knowledge to [teach an inclusive curriculum], they’re going to look at these expectations and get frustrated because they haven’t been equipped to do it well,” he said. “That’s a piece we need to still address.”
Most of the time, these teachers are themselves white.
Neither Mora Dominguez, Ramsey, nor Shapkota said they’ve ever had a social studies teacher of color. Royers, who’s spent more than 20 years in Millard schools, said he’s only ever had one Black teacher.
If kids don’t see teachers who look like them, white educators will remain overrepresented, Royers said. He and fellow Millard educators are recruiting students of color for their district’s in-house education academy. He hopes, six or so years from now, those students will return to Millard as educators. They’ll have to be patient, he said, because this is the first time Millard has prioritized those perspectives. But it’s worth it.
“Unless we have people that are truly, authentically speaking to the different experiences of what it’s like to be in America, we’re not going to fully move the needle,” Royers said.
Learning from a teacher of color impacts how –– and what –– students learn. OPS senior Gott recalled her freshman year history teacher, a Hispanic man who was born and raised in Omaha and attended her high school. Seeing him at the front of the classroom, particularly when he taught Mexican-American history, showed Gott that it’s possible for someone like her to be a strong adult who is proud of their heritage.
“[Teachers at my school] understand what it’s like to be a person of color in the United States [and] what it means to be an immigrant,” she said. “It makes me feel at home.”
“Ignore what the textbook is saying”
Mora Dominguez is a member of the LGBTQ community; yet, only three of the 936 pages in her textbook, American History, published by textbook giant Pearson, mention LGBTQ issues. When Mora Dominguez reads about slavery, she finds political deals made by white men –– the Missouri Compromise, the Fugitive Slave Act –– and next to nothing about the lived experiences of enslaved people from the perspectives of BIPOC.
So students like Ramsey, Shepherd and Shapkota turn to social media.
“I’ve learned more from [Diversify Our Narrative’s] Instagram page than I probably ever have in public education,” Ramsey said.
Shapkota’s teacher did tell his class to “ignore what the textbook was saying” about Christopher Columbus and indigenous populations, but not all teachers are willing to push back against textbooks.
“We mostly read word for word from the textbook, like ‘This is what you need to … remember for the test, and then we’re gonna move on,’” Shepherd said. “The authors of these textbooks are white people getting their notes from white journals.”
Gott said she challenged her book’s whitewashing, and the teacher responded, “I don’t know; that’s just what the textbook says.”
Some educators use textbooks as an opportunity to teach students about the danger of consulting just one whitewashed narrative. When Royers taught, he said he reminded students that there are multiple versions of history and presented them with competing sources that offered radically different viewpoints.
Educators in the Native American community are acutely aware of textbooks’ limitations. Shelly Stark, Native American liaison for the standard changes, said her former social studies students at Walthill Public School in Thurston County were not engaged in a curriculum that failed to represent them. So she ditched textbooks, instead using novels and other alternative sources that taught U.S. history from an indigenous perspective.
Vida Woodhull Stabler, director of Umóⁿhoⁿ Nation Public School’s Language and Cultural Center and Title VI Native Education Program, teaches students about Umóⁿhoⁿ culture through immersive experiences, from hand making regalia to playing traditional games.
“[Culture is] not from a book. It’s from … our community members being brought into our schools … You can integrate culture into all aspects of education,” Stabler said. “Our focus has always been a more robust, deeper level of learning.”
McKiver, Payne and their colleagues likewise don’t believe textbooks prepare students for civic duty. The new standards emphasize inquiry-based learning and the College, Career and Civic Life (C3) Instructional Framework, which challenges students to ask questions, analyze primary sources, think critically and develop conclusions instead of being spoon-fed history from a book. For example, Royers said, students should be able to apply these skills to grapple independently with a news article about the experience of Latinos in the U.S.
“That’s really the ultimate litmus test if we’ve done our job or not,” Royers said.
But students insist that historical inquiry still isn’t happening in many classrooms, and if it is, it’s exclusive to electives and upper-level classes, such as honors, AP and IB. Nationally, Black and Latinx students are underrepresented in upper-level classes; for example, 15% of high schoolers are Black, but just 9% are in AP courses. Plus, AP exams are pricey, posing barriers to access for low-income students, who are often BIPOC.
Students also say regular classes don’t delve into the experience of marginalized communities. So BIPOC who populate these classes don’t see themselves represented.
Bower, who teaches racial justice to first-year students, noticed that most of his students’ existing knowledge comes from elective or dual enrollment courses on topics such as African American History –– not from regular classes.
Shepherd said that when marginalized communities do come up, it seems like an aside, briefly touched upon for the sake of getting it over with. This tacked-on feeling is precisely what educators like Royers want to avoid.
“Students can pick up on that in a heartbeat [because] they feel like it’s just this mandatory thing we have to get through,” he said. “Seamlessly [integrating] it so students feel it’s a core part of the historical experience takes time and practice and refinement.”
The new standards work to formalize diversity and inclusion, but until it starts happening in every classroom, students of color will continue to see their communities’ stories erased.
“That’s a way to alienate people,” Sagheer said. “Showing [students] that they are not important enough to be in the literature, to be in the history classroom, to be heard and seen and studied.”
“I don’t know why my school is trying to shield us”
For Mora Dominguez, racism isn’t a textbook concept –– it’s everyday reality.
Yet, the racism faced by Mora Dominguez, who said she experienced police brutality at age 12, remains conspicuously absent in classroom curriculums.
“I don’t know why [my school is] trying to shield us from the fact that people are getting killed just because of their skin color,” Mora Dominguez said. “That’s something that we’re gonna have to deal with, even people of color my age.”
Shapkota, who’s from Nepal, is asking the same question. When Shapkota told white friends she was being treated unfairly, they couldn’t relate. And they’re not going to better understand Shapkota’s experience at school, where Shapkota said she isn’t represented and the curriculum fixates on past wrongs.
The past has a material effect on the present, Sagheer said. It’s not enough to tell people that America has moved on from its racist history, painting a pretty picture rather than facing the ugly truth.
“There is this inability to look at the shadow side of our country, because then we have to look at the shadow side of ourselves, the icky stuff that we don’t wanna see,” Sagheer said. “There’s this fear then somehow that makes us lesser than we thought we were as a country. I happen to think it would make us stronger and better. I think that’s called growing up.”
Educators acknowledged that, while the 2019 changes were a step in the right direction, there remains significant work to be done. Come spring, McKiver said the state plans to review schools’ instructional materials, textbooks and curriculums to identify gaps, some of which may be in multiculturalism.
Meanwhile, students continue to fight. Whether challenging administrators to center voices like theirs or rallying for racial justice on school steps, they’re demanding a curriculum that is historically accurate, culturally inclusive and representative of all students.
“For the past seven, eight years, we’ve heard the exact same thing over and over again. It’ll be an eye-opener, and it’ll make [students] want to pay attention,” Mora Dominguez said.
“They’re going to be talking about stuff that directly affects them, and not stuff … from white people.”
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