Bringing history alive

January 14, 2015

(Top photo: Sammy Magnuson/Center for Inspired Teaching; all other photos: WETA)

Today’s piece is written by Cosby Hunt, Inspired Teaching Manager of Teaching & Learning and the course creator and instructor of Real World History, DC’s first citywide, competency based history course, which brings together high school students from across DC and combines rigorous coursework with student internships at historic DC sites.

“Perhaps after a serious discussion and debate…we may find that the country can never fully repay African Americans. But we stand to discover much about ourselves in such a discussion—and that is perhaps what scares us.” – Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations”

“I wish we could have talked for longer; there were plenty of comments I intended to make and conversations we [have] yet to delve into.” – Maret Student

“…all I can do is keep doing seminars because that is the only way to let go of the butterflies.”             – Real World History Student

“Overall–I want more! I wish this were established practice instead of innovation….”                          – Program Guest

As I worked over the past 10 years to make Real World History a reality, I’ve been driven by my vision of a course that makes history come alive for students, allowing them to build meaningful, authentic connections between past events and their own personal experiences.

I saw this type of engagement in action last week when Real World History students sat down with students from the Maret School to discuss Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article “The Case for Reparations.” Coates takes 16,000 words to lay out arguments that the United States should study the idea of paying reparations to African-Americans for “two hundred fifty years of slavery, ninety years of Jim Crow, sixty years of separate but equal, and thirty-five years of racist housing policy. ” Featuring Coates’ article, the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic was the top-selling issue in the magazine’s history.

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My Real World History students and I had discussed the article in class back in November, but we found we didn’t have a very wide-range of viewpoints from which to debate the issues. The reality is that all of us – myself and the 20 students from 10 different DC public schools – are all black and brown, and a good number of the students depend on discounted Metro cards to get to class. Coates’ article calls for all Americans to have an open discussion about reparations, so I reached out to Ayo Magwood, my social justice-minded colleague at the Maret School, a local independent school, to invite her and her students to have an interschool seminar discussion that would bring together students with a wider range of geographic, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Bringing together this many students meant that we had to split the seminars into two rooms. I could only facilitate one discussion, so I asked one of my students to lead the conversation in the other room. She accepted the challenge and prepared for and moderated the discussion between her classmates and a group of unfamiliar peers. It was wonderful to see her in this role, bringing to life one of Inspired Teaching’s 5 Core Elements: student as expert.

As it turns out, hearing young Americans lead an independent discussion of reparations and social justice issues from their own unique perspectives was of interest to adults as well, and many members of the community joined us as guests for the event. The interest from the adults who attended makes me imagine all the other seminar discussions we could have in the future, seminars bringing together individuals not just from different schools, but from different generations.

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The Real World History and Maret students are already talking about reconvening after a viewing of the film Selma. To me, their interest in continuing the conversation validates a belief that’s at the core of my identity as a longtime social studies teacher: the belief that history is relevant, meaningful, and alive in the minds and imaginations of students today. My excitement about our first interschool dialogue has already turned to excitement about what’s next.

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