Department of Education Black History Month videos touch on deeper debates

By: - February 8, 2022 5:58 am
A classroom of students wearing headsets and looking at laptops

The Department of Education partnered with the Woodson Center to produce the four videos. (George Frey | Getty Images)

This story was updated on Feb. 8, 2022, at 11:20 a.m. to more fully explain the provisions of House Bill 1255, the “teachers’ loyalty” bill.

The latest divide over New Hampshire’s school curricula could be seen in four YouTube videos. 

One three-minute video highlights the efforts of Booker T. Washington to found 5,000 Black schools throughout the Jim Crow-era South, partnering with businessman Julius Rosenwald. Another shows Elijah McCoy, a Canadian-born Black inventor who helped develop improvements to steam engines in the 1870s in the face of discrimination.

The videos are meant as additional instructional materials for teachers during Black History Month and were unveiled at a press conference Jan. 31 in Concord. But for their creators and the New Hampshire Department of Education, they’re also part of a bigger project: 1776 Unites. 

Founded by the right-leaning Woodson Center, 1776 Unites seeks to present the story of America in a manner that highlights the country’s strengths – and to act as a counterweight to the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which presents America’s founding and development as inextricably linked to slavery.

This year, the Department of Education partnered with the Woodson Center to produce the four videos – as well as supplementary instructional materials – for optional use in New Hampshire schools. 

In total, the lessons are meant to “offer authentic, inspiring stories from America’s past and present that show what is best in our national character, and what our freedom makes possible even in the most difficult circumstances,” said Ian Rowe, a senior visiting fellow at the Woodson Center, and the narrator of the videos. The overall goal is “to provide a more complete telling of the history of African American experience in the United States,” Rowe said, speaking at the Concord press conference. 

“There’s a deep narrative by some today that paints America as a permanently oppressive nation,” Rowe said. “That there is a white supremacist lurking in every corner. That if you are a young Black person, you are inherently oppressed, and if you’re a white person, you’re inherently an oppressor. That kind of language leads to a victimhood ideology. And we think it’s a defeatist ideology.”

But not all New Hampshire social studies teachers are on board with the full curriculum. To some, the campaign behind the videos points to a disconnect between the vision for education among conservative politicians and parents and the realities inside the classrooms. 

“I haven’t heard of anyone using it,” said Jennifer Given, a world history teacher at Hollis Brookline High School. Rarely do teachers adopt curricula from outside groups, Given added, though some people may have pulled individual materials to augment their existing class materials.

“One of the great things about any of these projects is that they provide you resources like primary sources,” Given said. “…Those are great and when people offer those to us, we are happy to use them. But it’s usually within our own course and not because we’re also using the materials that went with them.”

Rowe and other backers of the optional curriculum say the education project is not meant to exclude or downplay the ugliness of certain parts of America’s past. 

The intent, rather, is to “acknowledge America’s history of racial discrimination yet recognize the pathways taken by millions of Black people past and present,” Rowe added.

Part of that approach is an effort to reject that “victimhood culture” and demonstrate African American prosperity, Rowe said. 

The Woodson Center curriculum is not designed to apply or be directed only to Black students, according to Rowe; all students can benefit from the message, he said. New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut agreed with that approach. 

“I hope (the videos) will be inspirational, encouraging to all of our children in our schools to say that they too can have these high aspirations,” Edelblut said. “That in spite of – sometimes life, you know, deals you difficult circumstances, (but) those can be overcome.”

But to Given, who has taught history for 19 years, the 1776 project is out of place with her methods of teaching. 

To start, Black History Month is already something of a misnomer for many teachers, Given said. Most social studies and language arts teachers attempt to incorporate diverse perspectives into the curriculum throughout the year.

“We don’t really do anything different, because we’re really focused on making it a universal approach,” Given said. 

More broadly, Given and other history teachers say they don’t teach children what to think or how to interpret history. Instead, much of the instruction in and out of the classroom is centered on primary source materials from individuals in history. The teacher teaches the basic events – the dates, the places, and the people – to give the students a grounding. But then they pivot to using historical figures’ words and documents to fill in the rest of the topic. 

Many social studies teachers teach a mnemonic approach to primary sources: HIPPY. Students look at the historical context of the statement; the intended audience; the purpose; the point of view; and why the document matters and helps explain history. 

It’s the teacher’s role to teach the critical thinking skills to analyze source material and formulate research strategies, Given said. But it is the students themselves who provide the analysis. 

“A lot of the criticism of education right now is this: ‘You’re indoctrinating our kids,’” she said. “First of all, if we could do that, they would all wear deodorant and they would show up on time. But the other thing is, it’s just factually inaccurate. It’s like, I don’t know how many more ways I can give a kid the direct information and let them draw their own conclusions than by giving them the source itself.” 

To Given, not only is any form of indoctrination incompatible with that classroom method, but the solutions provided by lawmakers to fight supposed indoctrination are also mismatched. If students are being taught to think and analyze for themselves, then curricula designed to present a positive or negative portrait of the country’s history are equally ill-suited, Given argued.

Still, concerns over politically driven classroom instruction have taken hold among some lawmakers and led to legislation this year seeking to more closely regulate that instruction. 

House Bill 1313 would extend New Hampshire’s ban on teaching certain concepts to K through 12 students to state-run colleges and universities, a move civil rights advocates have warned could impinge on academic freedom. And HB 1255 would create a new “teachers’ loyalty” statute explicitly prohibiting teachers from advocating for “any doctrine or theory promoting a negative account or representation of the founding and history of the United States of America” in a classroom – including the idea that United States is founded on racism – without also including “the worldwide context of now outdated and discouraged practices.”

Rowe said he hoped the curriculum would inspire a reframing around Black history that could provide examples of agency. 

“Our young people must understand American history, warts and all,” Rowe said. “They all should know that they live in a good, if not great, country, one that is not hostile to their dreams.” 

So far, the curriculum has been downloaded 50,000 times nationwide by educators ranging from school teachers to homeschooling parents. It’s been downloaded 150 times in New Hampshire, Rowe said. 

Given says her classroom will not be using the 1776 Unites curriculum – just as it hasn’t adopted the 1619 Project – though she supports telling stories that are more representative of Black experiences and successes. 

But when it comes to the bigger debate, Given has bristled at the push for a more positive vision of U.S. history. 

“People are fearful of conclusions that critical thinking children and teenagers will reach because perhaps they will disagree with their parents,” she said. “And to me, this whole push is simply an act of cowardice. If your ideas are so good, they can withstand criticism, analysis, and open discussion.”

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel.