Three Questions

Just a few thoughts on a social studies lesson today…

This afternoon in class, I showed a short video that discussed a few events that lead up to the American Revolution. In California, the American Revolution is quite a big deal in fifth grade social studies instruction.

Prior to watching, I asked my fifth graders to keep three questions in mind while the video was playing:

  1. Whose story is being told?
  2. Whose story is left out?
  3. Why?

I then wrote these three questions on the board. This was not our first time using these questions as a guide in the classroom. In fact, my fifth grade colleagues and I have been using these questions quite a bit. We’ve been using them for a few months now during social studies and with many read alouds. The conversation and lesson I’m about to describe is similar to many others from earlier in the school year. However, this is something I need to make the effort to do more often and to go even deeper with in discussions.

After writing the three questions on the board, we started watching the video. Throughout the short video, I paused here and there asking students to jot their thinking, chat with their partner, and then invited them to share out. Here are a few responses shared regarding the first two questions…

  1. Whose story is being told?
  2. Whose story is left out?
  • The colonists story is being told.
  • The European colonists.
  • A little of King George.
  • The white colonists.
  • Well, what about the native people? Where are they? I know they were on the land. Why isn’t this video showing them?
  • How about the slaves? It was the 1760s. What were they thinking or feeling? I want to know their perspective.
  • This video is trying to make us feel sorry for the colonists, but I just can’t knowing what they did.
  • Why isn’t the video telling everyone’s story? There are a lot of stories to tell, and this is only one.

I did not share this video to simply give my students information about the American Revolution or colonial life. Frankly, that’s not my goal despite what one might think a fifth grade teacher’s goal should be. Rather, my goal was to get them thinking, to get them questioning, to get them to ask the tough questions about how history is fed to us as a society. If my fifth graders leave my classroom not remembering every detail of the American Revolution, but asking these questions when they approach a text, a video, or really any source, I know I will have better prepared them to tackle and think about future readings, viewings, and discussions.

So, when it came time to discuss the third question of why, many of my students responded with followup questions.

  • Well, why did the writer of the video leave out the slaves? Do they not want us to know their story in these events?
  • Why are the Native Americans never discussed anymore in some sources? I know they were there! That seems wrong.
  • I don’t know why other stories aren’t being told. Can we watch other videos from other perspectives?

To answer that final shared response… yes. Yes, we will. We will continue to consult many different sources told from many different perspectives to try to understand more than the dominant voice’s story- the story that has been traditionally feed to us in our education system.

My goal is for my students to see America’s story as their story. But, if we, as a system, only share stories and sources from the dominant (white, Euro-centric) culture, we are communicating that America’s story is a white story. This is not ok. This is what has been communicated for decades in our system. This must change. We, teachers, have the power to start working toward that change. I could have made the choice to keep these ideas and conversations between my students, my colleagues, and myself, but I know that’s not enough anymore.

I’m taking a hard look in the mirror every morning and asking myself what I believe and how I will demonstrate that in my classroom. I believe my students should think for themselves, ask hard questions, and consider all perspectives when making a decision or trying to come to an understanding. It’s not easy work. I honestly feel as if I am just scratching the surface of this work. I am not an expert by any means. I’m just asking my students to continually ask three questions as we approach our learning.

I’m continually learning on this journey. My thinking is evolving and growing with every conversation, every time I sit down to write, and every time I consider perspectives other than my own. I’d love to know how you’re engaging in this work or if you have other ideas to add to the conversation.