Education Opinion

History Has Its Eyes On You: Asking Tough, Contextual Questions

By Christina Torres — December 07, 2016 3 min read
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“What am I going to talk about today?” I thought this morning as I folded laundry. We rarely acknowledge dates in our blogs, but today is December 7th, the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

There are, of course, the general questions I can ask: What do you know about the attack? Why do you think it’s important to discuss history?

Then, my mind flashes to a propaganda poster I recently saw of the Japanese during World War II. It had popped up because, unfortunately, some had felt it acceptable that the internment of Japanese citizens during that time was an idea to reconsider.

When we consider context, though, propaganda has always been a part of war. While, of course, internment was a despicable and unlawful act, and the use of racism within the propaganda ignorant and unfair, the use of propaganda itself was what many believe an essential tool that helped America raise funds and resources to win the war. An uncomfortable question that I don’t have an answer to pops into my head: is propaganda an acceptable and useful tool given the context?

And I know exactly to whom I should take that question: my students.

Am I a little hesitant? Of course. I don’t know what the answer will be, and I am unsure if my own lack of a clear answer will be able to guide them as well as I’d hope.

Still, I also know that this is an important question to talk about. Many of my students feel the effects of the military presence on island every day (and, as my own partner is in the Navy, so do I). Some of my students have family members who spent time in Honouliuli or on Sand Island, the internment camps in Hawai’i. They also, as I do, have family members that fought in WWII as a result of that attack and have families that benefited in some ways from the G.I. Bill that followed that service because we “won” the war.

There are no easy answers to this question. The only thing I’m sure of is that the question must be asked if we are to grow as a society.

Discussing our history and community context is essential to create engaged and informed citizens. Here are some methods and things to consider if you bring that context into your own classroom.

  • Place Matters. I say this often, and it’s especially true when considering what to do in your own classroom. No matter what subject you teach, taking the time to invest in and understand the community you are teaching in will help you better find ways to engage and build relationships with your students. Take the time to look up important historical and revolutionary events and figures in your communities history. Finding a way to incorporate that history into a lesson—percentage rates of change for businesses in a neighborhood, revolutionary thinkers from the area, literature about that place, climate change in a community—even in a small way is incredibly impactful.

  • Make Text-to-Self and Text-to-World Connections. I use “text” here to mean any content matter. The more we can connect what we are doing to real world events, the better students see the relevance in their lives. As we read To Kill a Mockingbird, my students will eventually also read about the Massie case, a trial in Hawai’i that shares similarities with Tom Robinson’s trial. With Pearl Harbor events this week, I ask my students to think about internment and how those ideas may continue to be dangerous today. Ensuring students are able to see themselves, in some way, in the content can help ensure they are not only engaged but building empathy as well.

  • Ask Difficult Questions. At one point in To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout says that she has learned since birth to never ask a witness something you don’t know the answer to already. I sometimes feel like we are trained to do this as educators as well. The problem is that this creates a space devoid of truly critical questioning—even of ourselves. When we create questions designed to get a certain answer, we lower the odds that students will answer as truthfully and critically as possible. It also means we automatically assume our answer is the correct one which, depending on the topic, honestly my not be true. I am eternally grateful for the times my students have pushed me.

So, today, I’m eager to jump into some history and context with my students. I have no doubt that, while the event we’ll discuss is 75 years in the past, my students will have something new to add to the story.

By the way, if you’re not listening to The Hamilton Mixtape, please get on that ASAP.

Sketch by Dan Toru Nishikawa.
via JCCH/Dan Toru Nishikawa Family Collection.

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The opinions expressed in The Intersection: Culture and Race in Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.