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Centering Racial Justice in History and Foreign Language Education

By Jonathan, IvyWise Tutor

Students around the world are confronted daily with the topics of social and racial justice, whether in their own experiences and communities or, at the very least, in the news and on social media. Students who care deeply about these topics or want to learn more about them might be wondering how to integrate them into their own lessons.

There are numerous resources, such as the Zinn Education Project, which provide grade-level-specific teaching materials that center racial and social justice across a variety of subject areas, including art and music, world history and global studies, economics, and even math.

But this is just one of the many ways students can further develop their understanding of racial justice and engage with the topic in a meaningful way.

Integrating Racial Justice and History 

Of the various subjects for exploring racial justice, history might seem like one of the most obvious candidates, right? And yet, as the teacher who publishes the “Antiracist APUSH” blog points out, there is a “shameful gap that exists between what professional historians have proven and what gets printed in state standards regarding issues of race, slavery, and injustice.”

To address this issue, a great resource that APUSH teachers across the U.S. and around the world have been increasingly using in their classrooms is Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” in which Zinn “tells U.S. history from the point of view of, and in the words of, America’s women, factory workers, African Americans, Native Americans, the working poor, and immigrant laborers.”

As the original edition may be better suited for upper-level history students, I recommend the Abridged Teaching Edition, which makes the book more approachable for younger high school students, and offers a wealth of critical thinking questions at the end of each chapter, as well as “A Young People’s History of the United States,” which adapts the content to be more accessible to ages 10-15. I like to complement these resources with Zinn’s “Voices of a People’s History of the United States,” which is a compilation of primary source documents including speeches, letters, poems, and songs “by the people who make history happen but who usually are left out of history books.” This book is especially useful for preparing students for the infamously challenging Document-Based Question on the AP Exam.

I should also stress the importance, as Zinn does, of centering the perspectives of people of color in the history curriculum. To do this, I like to introduce my history students to the 1845 text “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,” and the 1861 text by Harriet Jacobs titled  “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” both of which recount their respective authors’ lived experiences of surviving slavery, escaping it, and learning how to read and write so that they could challenge it.

Of course, there are also European and World History classes, which have had their own share of controversies regarding such topics, of which this exchange between an AP World History teacher and a representative of the College Board is especially noteworthy. Even in those classes, a bottom-up approach to history, which amplifies the voices of those traditionally marginalized and excluded from the curriculum, would be an important, and necessary, way to reckon with racial justice.

Racial Justice in Foreign Languages 

When it comes to foreign language education, it might not seem as immediately apparent what it has to do with racial justice. However, racial justice is relevant in some shape or form in all modern languages.

Students are often taught only where languages are spoken, but not why. Indeed, studying a foreign language often enables students to scrutinize their own native language, which, in the case of English, has a wide-reaching colonial history that partly explains how globally widespread the English language came to be.

Students can be introduced to these important colonial contexts by reading poetry, short stories, novels, and watching movies by authors and directors from countries such as Guatemala, Peru, Senegal, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among other former Spanish and French colonies.

For upper-level Spanish students, I recommend “I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala” (in Spanish, of course) and Ousmane Sembène’s “Black Girl”, which is the first major film by a Sub-Saharan African director, based on his earlier short story by the same title. I especially enjoy introducing my French students to the short story collection titled “Diversité: La Nouvelle Francophone: An Intermediate Reader and Francophone Anthology,” in which they can read “Black Girl” in French, among other important stories about identity in the modern Francophone world.

All the stories are either written by women and/or contain strong women protagonists, which I have found my students especially appreciate. With my Spanish students, we often read from an anthology titled “Latin American Folktales: Stories from the Hispanic and Indian Traditions” to consider the perspectives and world views of Indigenous communities, which are often invisible in Spanish curricula.

An additional topic to consider at the intersection of foreign languages and racial justice is immigration. Indeed, modern day migration patterns have been significantly influenced by histories of colonial and racial injustice. Migrant communities around the world today face pervasive and deeply-entrenched discrimination and exclusion. In the case of Hispanic and Francophone cultures, there is a rich body of literature, films, music, and other media that centers the experiences of marginalized migrant communities, and which would merit attention in an entirely separate article.

Students of other languages – and their parents and teachers, for that matter – could ask themselves: where are the voices of the socially excluded communities in the curriculum, and how can we remedy these gaps? What are migrants and other minority communities saying about their own experiences in languages such as Chinese, German, Hebrew, Italian, and Korean, among the various other languages studied around the world today?

To sum up, it is entirely possible for students, parents, and educators to stay engaged with the ever-pressing topics of racial and social justice, and this engagement can take place within the curriculum.

Here at IvyWise, we are committed to having honest discussions with our students about these topics in order to encourage them to be critical and compassionate thinkers and actors in the world, in their education – and beyond, in their future pursuits. To learn more about how our tutors can help your student expand their curriculum, contact IvyWise today.

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