Understanding Impact: Changes to our History Curriculum

This year, the History Department faculty met with student affinity groups on campus to discuss and understand the social-emotional impact of the curriculum. We sat down with Johanna Lanner-Cusin, History Department Chair.

Q: What do you think are some of the unique challenges that history teachers face when constructing curriculum for high school?
JOHANNA: Well, for starters, I think History is inherently political. I think the history we choose to teach inevitably gives more weight to certain places, certain time periods, and certain people. That's inevitable. I can say, for example as an alum, that when I was in ninth grade, what I remember most about my history class was learning a lot about the Soviet Union and the Middle East in the context of the Cold War. We don't teach those things to ninth graders anymore because the times have changed and the perception of what is critical and relevant information has changed. Also, because history includes real stories about real people who are fundamentally relatives of all of us in some form or other, we see ourselves in these humans. Sometimes we see our own struggles or our own weaknesses. As a result of that, when we teach history, it has a very specific and sometimes quite intense interaction with identity. Very often, depending on the way that you see yourself in the world and you understand your identity, you are going to understand history and have very different feelings about the story that I'm telling you about what happened in the past. You might have feelings of pride, sadness, guilt, or anger. Because we are responding to things that really happened, these feelings can be uniquely acute. History has a degree of social emotional learning, and it has to because it's about people. I'm a firm believer that you teach the history that you need in the moment. That has to be at least a part of your thinking. The events of this year have substantially impacted the kind of history we need to teach, so we're responding to that. Part of our conversations with student affinity group leaders have been around really trying to look at these two facets of what we teach.
Q: What kinds of discussions about curriculum and teaching practices are you having with students and with teachers in the history department?
JOHANNA: As a faculty, we've been having a lot of conversations about our impact, the ways that students are experiencing our classes, both what we teach and how we teach it. That has spurred us to start a series of conversations with affinity group leaders in which we invite those leaders and any members of that group who want to speak with us, namely me and usually another history faculty member. At this point, we've had meetings with the Jewish Culture Club, the South Asian Alliance, the Black Student Union, and Students with Interracial Lives (SWIRL). They all have had slightly different tones because these groups have different needs or questions about what we do and why we do it. I think all of the teachers who have attended these meetings have really appreciated these focused conversations with students on these questions.
Q: What are some key takeaways that you’ve learned from these meetings so far?
JOHANNA: I think one thing that came up a lot was that many students are very attracted to personal stories. Obviously, we do assign primary sources and first-person sources, which is a slightly more specific version of a primary source, but many students suggested that in moments of difficulty, when we're particularly talking about what we would call “hard history,” a term we’ve borrowed from Teaching Tolerance, that’s where they crave those kinds of sources. I think these kinds of sources make the topic more relatable and, to some degree, they invite students to engage with the individuals in the material. I also heard from students that there are times when others in the classroom can be quite insensitive when difficult or uncomfortable topics are taught. Some reactions have been to make jokes or to check out of the conversation. I think that’s a very real response to a moment of racial stress, but I also think we need to teach our students better coping mechanisms for these moments.

Q: There has been much discussion about the Atlantic Worlds course. What are your thoughts about the course in general?
JOHANNA: The Atlantic Worlds course was designed to explain the emergence of the ideas, identities, and social hierarchies in the Atlantic world between 1500 and 1900. I think it’s a well-conceived class that seeks to examine the intersection of capitalism and race, democracy and race, and the construction of the identities of many people in this country: the construction of Blackness, whiteness, Latin-ness, Indigeneity, and alongside all of these the position of mixed-race people in a racialized society. It discusses what happens when cultures mix together and create something new. This class was part of why I wanted to come back and teach at College Prep. I'm a mixed-race person; my father is of Carribean descent but was born and grew up in France. I went to École Bilingue and I learned a lot of French nationalist history, yet I grew up in the United States. I've experienced the reality of being a light-skinned Black person in this country. For me, this course helps to explain a lot about who I am as a person and my experience in the world. That said, I think that when you are teaching these things, you have to be very careful because sometimes the way things are felt in the class is not how you intended them to be, because these are such difficult topics. I see this moment as a reminder for us to keep considering and thinking about what we're trying to do and what we're trying to provide for our students. In this case, it's complicated because quite honestly, I think that when we teach slavery, more than when we teach other subjects, the service that we are doing for different kinds of students is genuinely different. What a Black-identified student wants to learn and needs to learn about slavery may actually be quite different from what a white student or a child of immigrants needs to learn about slavery. It is a tricky balance to figure out how to serve those needs, which are critical, but there is no more important thing I teach. We should be regularly revisiting how we are serving both individual students, groups of students, and our wider community with this course.

Q: What are your goals for Atlantic Worlds in particular? Have there been any changes made for this current school year?
JOHANNA: Yes, we have already made changes and we are going to continue to make changes. One of the first things we did this year was to send a letter home to all families of students who were taking the course explaining that we wanted to be upfront and immediately recognize that this course can be difficult. It’s specifically difficult because it is almost impossible to teach some of this material without having an emotional reaction, the most obvious being the teaching of plantation slavery and the colonization of indigenous Americans by the Spanish. The reality is this classroom is an emotional space and we need to be prepared to just recognize that and be comfortable with that as we approach these questions. This course has always been focused on the moment of contact between Europeans and other peoples but the unfortunate consequence of that is that this means there is very little, if any, moments in which the Black people in this course are not enslaved. That can be difficult and that narrative can feel incomplete. We are readjusting the content of that unit. As much as we have taught about slave resistance, and in that resistance, the sustenance and the survival of West African religions, cultural practices, and languages, I think that that teaching will have much more teeth if we spend more time at the start of the unit looking at West African culture prior to European contact.
Also, we changed that part of the curriculum that included a simulation of a debate that took place in Spain about the treatment of indigenous people. As you can imagine with such a debate, it required students to embody people whose ideas were fundamentally racist and who justified the violent treatment of indigenous people because they perceived indigenous people to be lesser humans, if humans at all. Instead of a simulation, we will just talk about that debate, but not try to embody it. I think for a long time these kinds of simulations were perceived to be really effective teaching tools, and I still think some students really enjoy that kind of learning, but we've also seen, for many students, these kinds of activities actually create an unjustifiable amount of harm.
Q: What kinds of things will you be doing for students in the classroom to help them discuss these emotional and charged topics with one another in a constructive way?
JOHANNA: We are going to try some processing protocols in our classes this year and show kids what will likely happen in any unit that is about race. The goal will be to show students that with every single thing we teach them in a particular unit, they are going to have a response and they are going to cope. Part of what we're trying to teach in those units is how to choose an appropriate coping mechanism. For example, if you are looking at a racial topic, it’s thinking about what are the emotions that you feel in relationship to this topic. Then thinking about the coping mechanisms that you used to deal with those feelings and literally drawing that on the board. Showing the students what is happening in their brains when I am showing a video of the middle passage. It is gross. It is tragic. It is horrific. It is disturbing and it is about race. Explaining to the students that they are having a feeling, whether it’s guilt, sadness, anger, disgust, or discomfort, and asking themselves “what am I doing to manage that feeling right now? What is my instinct? Is it to look away? Is it to share my feelings? To speak out? Is it to find a meme?” We need to give them some coping mechanisms that are acceptable and ways to find another strategy for those that aren’t. They need to understand that their coping strategies influence other people in the room and they need to make a choice.

Q: How do you personally approach equity and inclusion work in this moment?
JOHANNA: I do a few things. I try to visualize what a more equitable and inclusive version of College Prep would look like; what moments of racial tension or harm could be averted? How could we deal with moments of racial harm in ways that ensure that students emerge as stronger, more empathetic, and more culturally competent people. I talk with my colleagues and with students about their vision. From there, I try to think about the building blocks of that vision; what do I need to do differently? Who do I need to talk to and listen to? What needs to happen in advising? In the classroom? In assembly? I remind myself that we are putting together a process and building a community, and that history teaches us that progress is more than possible but that completion is an illusion. This school is more equitable and inclusive than it was when I was a student 20 years ago, so I also approach this work hopefully.

The College Preparatory School

mens conscia recti

a mind aware of what is right