Local teacher Zoë Padrón believes telling a true and complete history of the United States to Albemarle County students prepares them to be citizens of the 21st century.
Key, she says, is ‘true and complete,’ an aspect not necessarily included in all history curriculum.
“Because we must teach them actual history,” said Padrón, a talent development teacher at Western Albemarle High School. “We have to teach them true history. We can’t keep teaching a narrative that prepares them for a world that does not exist.”
To do that, Padrón and more than 80 other teachers from around the state worked this past week to write a new U.S. History curriculum that represents diverse perspectives and encourages students to think critically. The foundation of the new curriculum is ‘inquiries,’ longer lessons that are focused on a compelling question.
The workshop was the culmination of a lengthy process that involved several workshops, trips to Montpelier and Monticello and a tour of local Confederate statues. The effort was a partnership between several school divisions and organizations, including Albemarle County and Charlottesville City Schools. Those lessons will eventually be posted online for teachers in Virginia and elsewhere to access.
The Albemarle County school division and Montpelier received a $299,500 grant from the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation last summer to support the curriculum redesign.
Charlottesville has partnered with the Jefferson School of African American Heritage Center in its own effort to improve school curriculum. Earlier this month, teachers from Charlottesville and other school systems participated in an institute on teaching local history, which was held earlier this month and created by the Jefferson School.
By the end of the week-long workshop, teams created 25 inquiries, 20 of which are focused on U.S. and Virginia history and span from 1492 to present time. The other five can be used in third-grade classrooms when students learn about ancient civilizations. Those activities will be tested out next school year.
“Teachers nerd out on this kind of stuff,” said John Hobson, the county’s lead social studies coach, of curriculum writing. “It’s a lot of positive energy. We’ve been doing a lot of learning as teachers but it’s nice to put pen to paper here. If you think about curriculum as a system to be interrogated, this is our opportunity to do that.”
This is the first phase of a multi-year plan to update the division’s entire history curriculum.
The division’s new anti-racism policy calls for creating an anti-racist curriculum, and teachers say this project is a key first step in that process.
As they wrote the inquiries, teachers pulled in lessons learned in the last year, in which they were asked to reflect on their own biases and learn about the area’s history as well as information and experiences that have not been widely taught in American classrooms.
Officials leading the effort said the first step to crafting an anti-racist history curriculum was to prepare teachers.
“Teachers are teaching what they were taught,” Padrón said.
In March, teachers toured local Confederate statues with Jalane Schmitt, a local activist and University of Virginia professor, a few days before the pandemic closed schools.
The national reckoning about racism hasn’t changed the objectives of the curriculum work but highlights its necessity.
“We cannot miss this opportunity to reach every child, to allow children to see themselves in everything they learn because they are the ones, literally, who are on the frontlines of everything we need to do going forward to actualize the change,” said Alexis Mason, an instructional coach in Charlottesville City Schools and a member of Padrón’s group.
Hobson said more divisions have expressed an interest in the project. A state task force also is reviewing how African American history is taught.
“There’s a lot of energy out there right now and we have a way to harness that right now and to do something productive and operationalize what we mean by anti-racist curriculum,” Hobson said.
Padrón’s team was assigned the Reconstruction Era and used the inquiry-design model to help students answer the question: How has freedom been constructed by African Americans?
The inquiry is supposed to last about a week and includes several other supporting questions, activities and primary sources that help students explore the central question and construct an argument.
“We have to put the sources before our country, before our students, before our educators that allows them to see the dignity and the scholarship of African Americans and other marginalized groups,” Mason said.
Padrón worked with Mason and Carl Jones, a history teacher in Fairfax County Public Schools, to develop the inquiry.
Mason has long pushed for the curriculum update, she said.
“It’s time,” she said. “I think my anger and impatience has really allowed me to channel that energy to really talk about the imperative of why now, and answer that … If we’re not holding ourselves accountable, particularly with current events, then we are not actually doing our jobs as public servants to develop young people.”
As the team worked to create the inquiry during a breakout session of the workshop, they discussed the best phrasing for each supporting question and what they wanted students to take away.
For example, a question about how African Americans used legislation as well as newfound political, economic and social capital to secure more freedom and independence could lead students to learn about Ida B. Wells and W.E.B. Du Bois, they said.
“There are layers and kids have to be able to flesh those out in each one of the [supporting questions] to really understand the impact of African American agency during the Reconstruction Era,” Mason told the group. “By the time you get to question four, the kids will know that the Reconstruction Era was short-lived in comparison, and that’s how we get to some of the legacy conversations today.”
The supporting questions also allow teachers to bring in local history connections, Mason said, an important aspect to the curriculum update.
Padrón said the purpose of creating an inquiry with an anti-racist focus is so students can start to see real narratives.
“We’re teaching kids an actual narrative of things that have happened that are true, that are facts, that they otherwise might not learn because it’s not included in the SOLs, because it’s not included in textbooks, because it’s not part of the narrative norm,” she said.
Mason said the curriculum update is not a rewriting of history or teaching an alternative history; it’s actively including pieces that have always been there.
“This is the history that has already been there,” she said. “We’re just choosing at this time to foreground other perspectives, marginalized perspectives, the perspectives of people who built this country and the world. And it’s always been on the backs of oppressed people. It is actually history. All of our history.”