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  • Writer's pictureerinclune3

Miss Erin vs. the textbook

It's been too long since I posted on here, and I'm sorry about that. I got all busy drafting another novel, which is not yet ready for public consumption. And believe me, I'm sorry about that, too. More recently, I also started substitute teaching in the public schools, to try and help alleviate the teacher shortage. And because everything is learning and learning is everything, spending a few days in a third grade classroom has brought me back round to this blog about writing history.

A brief word on third graders: They are adorable. Just look at these pictures the students drew of me:

Now, you may wonder whether having a PhD makes me somewhat overqualified to teach third grade. I think it makes me simultaneously over and underqualified because while I do know a lot of history, I don't know much about third grade curriculum or lesson planning, and most of my knowledge of child development comes not from school but from parenting.

In fact, this weird ambiguity announced itself during a social studies lesson a few weeks ago, when I stumbled over a summary paragraph in these tiny persons' textbook that sent me hurtling down a spiral of babbling. (One great thing about third graders, of course, is they don't really care or even notice if you're babbling.) There I was, standing near the screen that displayed this textbook page, thinking: Should I correct an error?

Well, it wasn't an error, as it turned out. It was just, not a totally complete rundown of literacy law in the antebellum South. It threw me. This is probably why I only get $15/hour -- officially, a babbler's wage.

In retrospect, I decided this was still a good topic for this blog. Academic teaching and third-grade teaching obviously can't be the same, for very good reasons. See, academics are trained to write history books, which then inform textbooks. When complex notions in history must be filtered down to younger minds, using necessarily fewer words, those who write the curricula must make hard choices about what ideas to summarize, what nuances to omit, what facts to include. That's how it has to work. And the resulting textbooks aren't wrong. But they're also not entirely right, at least from the perspective of people who may know more about the complex narrative than a third grader can comprehend.

Here's what I mean. At the start of the lesson, I read this sweet storybook about Booker T. Washington as a nine-year old boy. In the story, he met a man who read a newspaper and wanted more than anything to learn how to read himself. The kids absolutely loved it. They loved hearing about a child their age with ambitions and yearning. I told them how important Washington later became: Founding schools, going to the White House, becoming a philanthropist and educator and author. We talked about how little kids with little dreams can grow up to be adults of great consequence. They got it.

Then we read this textbook page together.

For those who can't or don't want to read the text, what this excerpt basically says is that while enslaved people in the antebellum South were prevented from learning to read and write, freepeople after the Civil War could legally learn to read and write. But it wasn't quite that simple in reality. The more nuanced version of history is that there were actually very few restrictions about reading under slavery until the 1830s, at which time all of the slave states except a few (Maryland, Tennessee, Kentucky -- I had to look this bit up) passed laws to prohibit it.

What happened in 1831? Nat Turner's Insurrection.

When an educated man led an uprising against slavery, slaveowners and their political representatives quickly decided that education was empowerment. Even those white men and women who might have previously allowed enslaved people to read, who might have wanted to continue teaching them to read for religious or personal reasons, were now legally disallowed. But of course, there was already a significant literate population among the enslaved, and that mattered to the course of history. Just consider this one detail: Memoirs of captivity, otherwise known as slave narratives, fueled abolition! Before the Civil War, white people up north -- without internet or television or radio, obviously -- got a lot of fake news from the slaveholders in the form of books and articles, about how pleasant and great the system of slavery allegedly was for enslaved people. To fight this disinformation, enslaved people's first-hand accounts of life in southern states -- written or related to editors -- corrected the record, and swayed public opinion. Education was empowerment. Of course it was.

I don't know whether Booker Taliaferro Washington knew that as a nine year old, but I bet he did. I'm always amazed when I read Black history how much information people were able to share and convey through generations, without access to the tools of formal education. And when I think about a story about a little boy with a small dream, I guess it occurs to me that it's a pretty big dream, and that he probably knew it was a big dream, and the story seems a lot more intentional and political when you put it in the longer context of literacy and freedom.

Anyway, what do you think? Should I have kept babbling?

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