About Jake Miller

Mr. Jake Miller teaches middle school history near Harrisburg, PA. He is the 2016 National History Day Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year and a 2017 NEA Foundation Teacher of Excellence. His articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, WeAreTeachers, and several other periodicals, but Miller has called TER home since 2012.

I’ve been challenged by parents plenty of times in my career. However, one that often protrudes in my mind is a 12-page email I received 7 years ago. In teaching about the post-Civil War Reconstruction, I shared both the late Abraham Lincoln and Radical Republican plans for what the South would look like as the nation attempted to attend to its rebellious population and also mend its wounds.

For one parent, the label of “Radical Republican” was too much. In an email he sent later that day, he accused me of “denigrating the Republican brand.” What made Republicans “radical” when they were instead “right,” “correct,” and “honest.” The radical people were the teachers, who were “taking history and rewriting to fulfill a libtard mold” to “brainwash all our kids to believing our lies.”

Yes, these are exact quotes lifted from that email.

My reply to him involved plenty of holding my tongue, but I kept it simple. In the textbook, I noted, it was a bolded vocabulary word, was employed by the State Standards, and “Radical Republican” was a term that originated from the moderate Republicans didn’t want to “radically” punish the South for their transgressions of revolting against the United States, costing the country more than the millions in damages and 500,000 lives in the process.

This is the world we lived in 7 years ago, and it hasn’t changed much since then.

Welcome to the politically-charged era. Who wants to teach social studies in it?

This guy.

You see, social studies comprises so many fields. While most of us teach some form of history, we’re also trained to teach anthropology, criminology, philosophy, sociology, geography, psychology, world cultures, religious studies, economics, current events, civics, American government, among other disciplines. Each one of the social studies fields has some type of political charge to it. Always has. Always will. 

Each one of the social studies fields has some type of political charge to it. Always has. Always will. Click To Tweet

That doesn’t mean we need to run away from having the conversations. Instead, we should embrace them. Channel them. Turn them into the conversations all Americans should have about the politically-charged topics.

As you yourself dig in, here are some tips on teaching social studies in a politically-charged era.

1. Teach with the FACTS in mind, and acknowledge their interpretations change.

You see, the facts in history – just like math, grammar, or science – don’t change unless we find new evidence. But the interpretations of them will be respective of the era that we teach in. We need to remind the interpretation of history is much like the famous Heraclitus quote:

“No man ever steps into the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he is not the same man.”

For example, I learned about John Brown in 1oth grade, but when I learned about him again in college (my freshman year began August 2001), my views of him changed drastically because the learning environment changed.

Part of my first semester at college in the fall of 2001 involved my peers and I trying to wrap our heads around the tragedy of 9/11. The view of violence to promote a political cause – like John Brown and his ardent opposition to slavery or Osama bin Laden and his horrific attack on New York and D.C. – caused us to examine history in a new way. By the end of my college career, my final research paper’s thesis labeled the devout abolitionist as “America’s first terrorist.” I labored in comparing and contrasting Brown to modern terrorists. I found records of him beheading slaveholders, blowing up their buildings, attempting to place a weapon in the hand of every slave to personally kill their owners, and, eventually, giving his life as a martyr to the cause.

2. Teach FAIRLY by labeling and curbing your biases.

Things haven’t changed since 2005 much. As social studies teachers, we need to walk that fine line to teach about politics in our politicized era. We should not shy away from the difficult lessons, for if were are going to have an educated and engaged populace that is not only ready to vote but willing to participate and ask the difficult questions.

But we need to do that fairly.

In teaching fairly, teachers need to acknowledge their biases and share them with the students. As an ardent Hamiltonian, I believe, like he did, in the value of capitalism and government to improve the lives of people. So, by default, I tend to lean very anti-Jeffersonian; I’m more ardently opposed to his self-proclaimed predecessor, Andrew Jackson. When I teach about these two individuals, I highlight their accomplishments in addition to my perceived shortcomings. Afterward, when I poll my students on who they learned about that they were able to connect with most, many choose one of these individuals. This corroborates the idea that I’m teaching about them fairly.

One student of history has proclaimed his support of Andrew Jackson, and that’s President Donald J. Trump. Instead of shying away from the “fight,” I dig right into it. This year I asked students to research why they found Jackson’s presidency an ideal for our current President. What happened when students jumped into what several of my colleagues told me “might be the stupidest thing” I could’ve done with 7th graders? I witnessed one of our most meaningful Socratic discussions yet.

3. FACTOR in your population.

Indeed, elementary students aren’t going to be able to have this type of Socratic discussion, but they’re not also able to handle all the issues that we face. With the attacks on unions, pensions, curriculum, and a host of other events, its hard to pick up your head each day and go to school without feeling you’re going into battle. It’s also even more difficult to keep your mouth closed about it with the students we teach. However, they’re not there for our pontifications. They’re there to learn from us. And part of learning from their teachers is being an unbiased source of information in the classroom, even if they’re running for office outside of it.

4. FACE your FEARS with politics.

So many teachers I’ve met are afraid to discuss politics. I’ve come to embrace it, writing about it why teaching is the “most liberal profession” (with friend Jeremy Adams taking the conservative approach), and teachers excoriated us for even mentioning politics with the profession. Are you kidding me?

We teach in a political job because politicians set our course. Embrace that. Be a steward of democracy in it. Be better than the politicians, because that’s what’s expected of us. But don’t be afraid to be involved in politics. And we need to engage our students in it.

I’ve embraced this by continually writing my politicians to hold them accountable (most teachers call this “practice what you preach”). But I’ve also hosted the largest political debate in our county in the last 5 years, where 100s of people showed up at my school district to learn from and listen to candidates vying for a State Senate Seat. (Shameless plug for articles on why I did it and how to do it)

5. Don’t ignore the FAITH of people. Teach it.

I’m not going to lie, I was very nervous teaching about religion in social studies. I mean, when I was thrown into the 10th-grade curriculum, we had a whole unit on how Judaism, Christianity, and Islam originated and borrowed ideas off of one another. I knew there were going to be some difficult questions about the topic, especially as Americans doubled down their military intervention in predominantly Muslim countries. Additionally, there’s some type of hearsay that’s leading to supposed heresy, where we’re teaching kids about the 5 Pillars of Islam and possibly, to borrow words from that parent I referenced earlier, that “we’re brainwashing them.”

What happened, instead, was students began to find connections with other humans who worship differently than they do. They learned some of the interesting customs of all different types of people from all over the world. Indeed, they were able to follow what I call the Aristotlean theory of learning, which is,

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

I had no Muslim conversions that year, but I did have students from a variety of religions feel more included in the process. Instead of me teaching about Islam, I had a Muslim student share it. Instead of teaching about Hinduism, I had a Hindu student do it. Instead of teaching about Sikhism, I had a Sikh student do it. Instead of teaching about the Church of Ladder-Day Saints, I had a Mormon student do it. And instead of teaching about mainline Christianity, I had a Christian student do it.

When I teach about early American history today, I’d be remiss if I didn’t teach specifically about how Christianity was a major impact on the settlement of The United States of America. Consider the following questions all historians should share with students:

  • Why did the Puritans feel they didn’t fit in the Anglican Church in 1617?
  • Why did the Catholic Spanish attack the Protest settlement of Jamestown?
  • Why did the Christian Europeans look down on the “savage” American Indians?
  • How did the states that had freedom of religion (like my home of Pennsylvania) clash with other states that had a state-sponsored religion?
  • Why did Thomas Jefferson proudly post on his gravestone that he was the author of the Virginia Statue of Religious Freedom (that built a wall between church and state), but not that he was President?
  • How did slaveholders use their religion to bolster their argument for bondage, while abolitionists used the same Bible to argue how it’s something Jesus would never do?
  • And so many, many more…

6. Let’s FIX the problems in our democracy by teaching about them.

In my social studies class, this is the first time that 12-year-old, 7th-grade students are introduced to civics and citizenship. Instead of simply providing them a general background on the Constitution, checks and balances, federalism, and the functions of government, I have students jump head-first into the politics of it all. Students are required to research an issue that’s important to them and then find an elected official to receive the letter. I then invite our State Representative and State Senator to our school to talk about their job and have students ask them some tough questions in regards to so many topics that are part of today’s political lightning rod.

Believe it or not, all hell doesn’t break loose. Instead, it’s just the opposite. Those same elected officials often say some of the best questions they ever hear “come from these [7th grade] students.” Students, in an informal poll, almost unanimously declare themselves to be active future voters. And many of those letters and emails that are sent out by the students receive feedback, including a change in school board policy, a state bill passed into law, a video message from the governor, and a personally handwritten note from the President of the United States.

By not being ignorant of high-charged topics means I’m going to be continually challenged by parents and students alike. But I want in order to kill that ignorance, I need to bring it to light. And I’m unafraid of pushing that envelope.

Since my defense of teaching about Radical Republicans, I’ve had to defend several other lessons that I’ve taught. But that doesn’t scare me, and it shouldn’t scare other social studies teachers. It should not cause them to shy away from teaching about the tough topics in our field. Following these 4 F’s: facts, fairness, factoring our population, facing our fears, faith of our people, and fixing our democracy, I feel like I’m fulfilling my mission of empowering students be leaders of our future.

Why? Because those we teach in the school house will one day be leaders in the state house.

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