2010-06-18 / Schools
Giving context to history textbooks
Chavez didn’t like history then. She felt, like many critics of traditional history books, that U.S. history is told solely from the perspective of the controlling class. Many students find history boring because it presents a one-sided narrative, Chavez said.
“You knew America was going to win,” she said. “We could do no wrong, ever.”
Chavez came to appreciate history in college after reading about events and people traditional textbooks ignore, such as women, people of color and social movements.
“History spoke more to me,” Chavez said on a recent Thursday morning between classes.
Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” was one of the books that impressed her.
She wanted Zinn’s book in her classroom so it could fire her students’ imagination and excite them about history as it had done for her. Her students would see the industrial revolution through the eyes of women working in textile mills, the U.S.-Mexican war from the standpoint of slave owners and abolitionists, the American Civil War as experienced by Irish New Yorkers.
Determined to acquire copies of Zinn’s book for her students— even if it meant she had to buy it herself—Chavez scoured the Internet for the best deal. She figured she’d have to spend about $700 for 35 copies of the book.
“That’s how good this book is,” Chavez said.
During her search, an invitation from the Zinn Education Project caught her eye. The project would award 25 copies of “A People’s History of the United States” to 20 middle and high school teachers around the country.
Chavez applied and was chosen earlier this year, from among 88 applicants, to receive a classroom set of Zinn’s book.
Zinn and two education nonprofits, Teaching for Change and Rethinking Schools, created the project in 2008 to promote the use of “A People’s History” in the nation’s middle and high school classrooms.
Zinn, who received a PhD in history from Columbia University, was a former professor at Spelman College, sought-after lecturer and author of dozens of books. He died at the age of 87 in January.
Deborah Menkart, executive director of Teaching for Change, said that although the winners were chosen at random, Chavez’s teaching strategy as outlined in her application essay was impressive.
Menkart particularly liked the Gallery Walk, an activity Chavez created about the labor movement of the 1920s. Her students drew posters about the experiences of workers and union organizers and learned from each other by touring the classroom like an art gallery.
“Camarillo should be proud to have such a strong teacher as Angelica Chavez,” Menkart said.
This is the first year Chavez has taught U.S. history at Camarillo High. A teacher for the past five years, Chavez taught for two years at Santa Paula High and two years at Oxnard High.
Chavez said students who learn a one-sided view of history tend to see little or no relevance to it in their lives or modern events. Teenagers tend to have a limited view of the world, and Chavez wants to open their eyes to other positions and cultures.
She said that selling textbooks to schools is a business, and publishers don’t want to jeopardize it by deviating from a traditional historical perspective.
But Chavez said students exposed to different perspectives learn that history is made by the actions and choices of everyday people like them.
Marissa Hernandez, a junior in one of Chavez’s morning classes, was shocked to learn that doctors in California emergency rooms sterilized three Chicanas without their consent in the 1960s and ’70s.
“I didn’t know they could do that,” Marissa said.
Chavez said that’s a typical response from her students. She counters by asking why they think they’ve never read about these events before.
She wants her students to think critically and ask questions. Knowledge and critical thinking will empower them for the rest of their lives, she said.
Chavez said that in her classroom politics, including her own, are left outside the door. She provides her students with a variety of facts and allows them to make up their own minds.
“I would say I do a really good job of that because I don’t preach at my students,” she said.
Chavez is a lifelong learner. She expects to hear later this month if she was accepted into a doctoral program at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks. She said she’ll reapply if she is turned away.
“I’m not much of a quitter,” said Chavez, who became a mother in her sophomore year of high school.
She defied statistics by graduating from high school with honors and earning a master’s degree. Now divorced, she lives with her 13-year-old son in Oxnard.
Whenever she can, Chavez signs up for teaching workshops to learn the latest in classroom strategies or more about students’ learning styles.
“I think I just like being a student,” said Chavez. “I think that’s what makes me a good teacher.”