Austin Schools Step Outside Comfort Zone To Teach 'Hard History' Of Slavery

Mar 12, 2018

Part 1 of a two-part series.

During the debate about renaming Austin schools, a recurring theme emerged: The problem isn’t just about schools being named for men who served in the Confederate military or government, but how schools teach about the Civil War and slavery.

“Never once, not even once, did I hear in my four years at Lanier that Sydney Lanier was named after a Confederate soldier,” said Terry Ayers, an alumnus who spoke at a January meeting of the Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees.

Ayers went to Lanier decades ago, but that lack of awareness around school namesakes still exists.

Board member Ted Gordon said he found it distressing that students at Lanier, Eastside Memorial and Reagan high schools, as well as Fulmore Middle School, still don’t know the history behind the names.

“I don’t know how in this day and age, or in a school district – that is a fine school district as we have here– that we can have folks who don’t understand why these names might be painful," Gordon said, "or who these people were and what they stand for."  

That made many people involved in the conversation question how the district teaches this part of America's history.

A Struggle Nationwide

The Southern Poverty Law Center released a report last month on how each state teaches slavery and the Civil War.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries, a history professor at The Ohio State University, co-wrote the report on teaching what he calls “hard history.”

"We think about American history as being about perpetual progress. In our early grades there's really nothing bad that happens. We really focus on the heroes."

“We’re talking about that complicated history,” Jeffries said. “That difficult history that is hard for a number of reasons.”

Jeffries says history classes around the country don’t spend enough time looking at the realities of slavery.

“We think about American history as being about perpetual progress,” he said. “In our early grades there’s really nothing bad that happens. We really focus on the heroes.”

Too often, he says, the early grades teach only about Frederick Douglass’ accomplishments as an abolitionist, for example. He says there needs to be age-appropriate lessons on the realities of slavery that Douglass was fighting against and that these hard lessons shouldn't be saved for high school students.

“Last time I checked, Calculus was quite hard as well,” Jeffries said. "You create building blocks and stepping stones so that by the time you get to the older grades, students are ready, have been prepared, to sort of wrestle with the topics.”

An Uncomfortable Lesson

To thoroughly teach the subject, teachers need be comfortable with these lessons. Jeffries' research found that isn’t always the case.

This resonated with Jessica Jolliffe, social studies supervisor for AISD.

“One of the things mentioned in the report is it’s difficult for teachers to talk about the oppression of other people,” she said. She says she sees this level of discomfort with teachers when talking "about the system of white supremacy that allowed slavery ... about the dehumanization of people who were enslaved.”

And she says this affects a student’s learning.

“If it’s difficult for the teacher to talk about, and the students sense that it’s uncomfortable," Jolliffe said, "then it’s difficult for students then to access.” 

She says she recognizes these blind spots in the district and is trying to improve AISD’s teaching of slavery. One way is by promoting books that talk about life as a slave. She has also implemented a program called Facing History and Ourselves.

Context In The Classroom

Jeffries said teaching slavery involves more than just presenting historical facts; students need to understand that what happened before and after the Civil War is still relevant today.

“Nothing that they are experiencing in their lives today was created yesterday or even the day before or even during their lifetime,” Jeffries said. “What they are feeling are the effects of generations of sort of racial discrimination.”

Chad Timmons teaches an ethnic studies class at Akins High School.
Credit Montinique Monroe for KUT

This year, AISD introduced a social studies elective called "ethnic studies" to try to bring some of that context into the classroom. The point of the class is to have students talk about race, sexual orientation and gender in American society.

“We’re doing a lesson on privilege,” Chad Timmons said as his Akins High School students worked on a writing exercise. “We’re going to start with white privilege.”  

“Nothing that they are experiencing in their lives today was created yesterday or even the day before or even during their lifetime. What they are feeling are the effects of generations of sort of racial discrimination.”

The students in this class are mostly black and Latino. They start the lesson by watching some videos about the talk many parents of color have with their kids. In one, a mom tells her daughter what to do if she’s pulled over by the cops.

Then they read an article on white privilege and write a reflection on it.

“I wrote that white privilege is kind of like a go-free card that those of a lighter complexion get,” senior Jhyzel Rojas said. “It’s just like a given. However, they aren’t taught to acknowledge it; they just see others at a disadvantage, and they are kind of neutral in this world.”

Timmons then leads the students in looking at everyday examples of white privilege.

“Being able to go into a store and get a box of Band-Aids that are labeled ‘flesh colored,’” he reads from a list of examples of privilege. “I mean, what do they all look like, whose skin tone do they match?”

The students all say "white people," prompting a passionate discussion among the female students about makeup.

Senior Izadia Buyce shares a story about a popular makeup brand coming out with a new foundation.

“There were three dark shades and 11 light shades,” she said. “There wasn’t even one that would fit me, and it was like pale ivory, ivory, satin. It was all just the pale or the light or the neutral.”

The class will also discuss male privilege and economic privilege.

Ethnic studies is offered at only six AISD high schools. Timmons says it’s great to help put history in context, but it doesn’t change the fact there are challenges when he’s teaching his regular history classes.

“I do think we try to step outside the box and fill the gaps a little bit," he said, "and try to present more perspectives than we think are present."

Part 2 looks at Texas' history standards and calls to change them.