Tag Archives: history

The Problem with Textbooks

One really interesting activity I did in my Curriculum Theory course last year was to analyze a curriculum artifact. My department doesn’t use textbooks, but I really wanted to analyze a textbook after reading Michael Apple’s 1985 article “The Culture and Commerce of the Textbook.” I highly recommend this article, by the way. I found it fascinating, especially as it seems we are still discussing some of the issues Apple identified 35 years ago. This CBS This Morning segment on textbooks includes a really interesting statement near the end regarding the fact that textbook companies can make changes to texts to make them more accurate, but it’s up to the schools to adopt the standards and texts.

Apple (1985) argues that the textbook is one of the main means through which “legitimate knowledge,” which he defines as “the ‘cultural capital’ of the dominant classes and class segments” (p. 148), is transmitted. This becomes problematic because the market and production methods affect textbook production, and the textbook production industry is decentralized and caught between the tensions of profitable sales and obligations for transmitting knowledge (Apple, 1985). As a result, large markets, particularly in conservative areas of the country, sometimes drive the content of textbooks because these more conservative school districts will not purchase materials that challenge the ideological or political beliefs of those in power in these districts (Apple, 1985).

Textbooks can make things easier for teachers. There are handy questions for discussion in the teacher’s edition. You can assign questions after readings (if that’s your thing). But relying on them means that students often don’t get the whole story because what goes into a textbook is very political. At the time when the article was written, admittedly a long time ago, the top twenty publishers sold the vast majority of textbooks, and most of the people making editorial decisions about the content of textbooks were White men (Apple, 1985). I would imagine that it’s still true, but I’d have to do a bit more research to find out.

In 2015 a student at Pearland High School near Houston found his textbook described enslaved people forcibly removed from Africa as “workers” (Isensee, 2015). Apple (1985) questions “Who determines what this ‘public’ [that publishers respond to] is?” (p. 157), which is a question that I have as well. I would argue that, as Apple (1985) implies, the “public” whose “needs” publishers respond to is probably White, middle- to upper-class, and largely privileged in other ways (such as cis-gender, heterosexual, Christian, etc.) and thus are more likely to see themselves and stories of people like them reflected in textbooks. Texas is one of the largest textbook markets in the country, and textbook companies want Texas school systems to adopt their books, as seen in the CBS video.

Apple (1985) suggests that researchers should undertake a “grounded ethnographic investigation that follows a curriculum artifact such as a textbook from its writing to its selling (and then to its use)” (p. 159), and I think this would be well worth our time as educators to do. When I get a chance to do some digging, I’d like to find out if anyone has done it since Apple wrote this article in 1985.

In case you are wondering how my curriculum artifact analysis turned out—the world history textbook I analyzed devotes twenty pages to the history of the entire continent of Africa (Gainty & Ward, 2011). Gloria Ladson-Billings (1995) maintains that culturally relevant curriculum, including learning about topics that affirm students’ identities, will help students, particularly students of color, experience more success in school. The small amount of space devoted to learning about African history may communicate to students, particularly African-American students, that this history is not important or not worthy of study.

To be fair, the book is meant to accompany a larger textbook that I didn’t examine, and I also did not analyze the balance of coverage of societies on other continents in the book, mainly because the main crux of the assignment was to examine the curriculum artifact’s strengths and weaknesses, and in order to make the assignment manageable, I zeroed in on one lesson in the book. In my analysis, I found one strength is that the text asked students to analyze images. Students should learn how to analyze images critically, as this form of media is one of the most common communication methods in the age of Instagram and Twitter and is also not often considered important in schools. Another strength of the textbook is the use of storytelling (from the Epic of Sundiata) to capture a culture. As Geneva Gay (2002) explains, many cultures, including African American, Native American, Asian, and Latino cultures, use storytelling in their communication; thus, learning about a culture through its stories contributes to a more culturally responsive learning experience.

In terms of weaknesses, I felt the questions following the image and the passage are somewhat low level. Asking students to “describe [the] structure” (Gainty & Ward, 2011, p. 225) or “wedding ceremony” (Gainty & Ward, 2011, p. 223) are simple comprehension questions that do not ask students to draw inferences, interpret, or analyze or synthesize information. Even most of the comparative questions on p. 223 of the book are fairly low-level questions on Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001).

The book really does not adequately explore African history. According to Gay (2002) “culturally responsive teaching” involves “using the cultural characteristics, experiences, and perspectives of ethnically diverse students for teaching them more effectively,” and while she posits that “academic knowledge and skills are situated in the lived experiences and frames of reference of students,” it also stands to reason that the cultural history of those students is as important as their lived experiences (p. 106). Students, particularly African-American students, using this text are not learning much about African history from a text that purports to cover world history. Ladson-Billings (1998) argues that “the official school curriculum [is] a culturally specific artifact designed to maintain a White supremacist master script” (p. 18), and the space devoted to exploring African history in this text certainly supports her argument. This omission is particularly glaring in light of the text’s fairly recent publication date of 2011.

I definitely think teachers who have to use textbooks should do such an analysis of their text. In fact, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to focus narrowly on one issue that you want to make sure students learn thoroughly. For example, it seems to me that a lot of people don’t understand the actual causes of the Civil War, as evidenced in the CBS video, and if you teach American history (or even American literature), see what your textbook says, and if it’s inadequate or misleading, make sure students know that.

In fact, I’d be willing to bet students would be interested to know the textbooks they use are not politically neutral. What if you asked students to analyze the way a topic is presented. Whose point of view is centered? Whose is missing? Why?


Anderson, L. W. & Krathwohl, D. R. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives. New York: Longman

Apple, M. W. (1985). The culture and commerce of the textbook. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 17(2), 147-162.

Gainty, D. & Ward, W. D. (2011). Sources of world societies (2nd ed., Vol. I). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Gay, G. (2002). Preparing for culturally responsive teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 53(20), 106-116.

Isensee, L. (2015). Why calling slaves ‘workers’ is more than an editing error. NPR, https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2015/10/23/ 450826208/why-calling-slaves-workers-is-more-than-an-editing-error

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32(3), 465-491.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1998). Just what is critical race theory and what’s it doing in a nice field like education? International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 11(1), 7-24.

The Haudenosaunee Influence on the U. S. Constitution

Something I never really learned in school whenever I studied the United States government was the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) influence on the U. S. Constitution. In fact, I don’t think I learned about this until I was a high school English teacher, teaching American literature. I am fairly certain the Prentice-Hall textbook I was using had excerpts from the Iroquois Constitution in it. And that was my first exposure to the notion that the U. S. Constitution wasn’t born fully formed from the heads of our Founding Fathers, like Athena from the head of Zeus.

The [Haudenosaunee] constitution, also commemorated on Wampum (beads fashioned from the shells of whelks and quahog clams), included more than a few familiar concepts: a restriction on holding dual offices, processes to remove leaders within the confederacy, a bicameral legislature with procedures in place for passing laws, a delineation of power to declare war, and a creation of a balance of power between the Iroquois Confederacy and individual tribes, according to later transcriptions. Founding Fathers such as Benjamin Franklin were in regular contact with the Iroquois Confederacy, and Great Council leaders were invited to address the Continental Congress in 1776. (Wali)

You can read the Constitution here, along with commentary by Gerald Murphy, who remarks, “You will find it very difficult to keep in mind that it survives after some 500 or 600 years, and was originated by people that our ancestors mistakenly considered as ‘savages.'” PBS also has an article about how the Haudenosaunee Constitution influenced the U. S. Constitution.

We have even used the ideas of Native people against them. We really don’t learn enough about what our country’s founders thought about Native people or what their dealings with Native people were like.  Take, for example, the myth of the first Thanksgiving, which has become enshrined in our curricula for elementary school. I asked my students this year how many of them played the parts of Pilgrims and Indians in a school play. Most of them did. Most of them had learned the story that Native people helped the Pilgrims, and everyone was so friendly that they sat down for a meal together in commemoration of their gratitude.

I dressed up like an Indian for a play in fourth grade called How the West was Really Won. My grandmother made my costume, and I remember going barefoot because of my lack of education about Native people. The costume was made out some kind of felt, but it was meant to look like animal hide and had fringe meant to mimic Native dress (read: a White person’s notion of Native dress). In fact, it didn’t look too different from this outfit, which you can purchase for $19.99 from Party City.

Can someone please explain to me why it’s okay to dress up like this in 2020? This is so racist.

In the play, I had a solo in a song called “The Iron Horse,” and the lyrics were essentially about how the White man was coming to destroy the Native way of life. None of this was seen as problematic.

The United States has perpetrated a genocide against Native people. The erasure is compounded by the fact that we do not bother to teach the truth about Native people and Native history in our schools. I highly recommend Rebecca Nagle’s podcast This Land, which is available in a variety of formats linked on their website. Also, David Treuer’s book The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present (reviewed on my other blog) and Tommy Orange’s There ThereThere are so many amazing passages, but this metaphor for systemic racism stands out in light of the subject of this post.

This is the thing: If you have the option to not think about or even consider history, whether you learned it right or not, or whether it even deserves consideration, that’s how you know you’re on board the ship that serves hors d’oeuvres and fluffs your pillows, while others are out at sea, swimming or drowning, or clinging to little inflatable rafts that they have to take turns keeping inflated, people short of breath, who’ve never even heard of the words hors d’oeuvres or fluff. Then someone from up on the yacht says, “It’s too bad those people down there are lazy, and not as smart and able as we are up here, we who have built these strong, large, stylish boats ourselves, we who float the seven seas like kings.” And then someone else on board says something like, “But your father gave you this yacht, and these are his servants who brought the hors d’oeuvres.” At which point that person gets tossed overboard by a group of hired thugs who’d been hired by the father who owned the yacht, hired for the express purpose of removing any and all agitators on the yacht to keep them from making unnecessary waves, or even referencing the father or the yacht itself. Meanwhile, the man thrown overboard begs for his life, and the people on the small inflatable rafts can’t get to him soon enough, or they don’t even try, and the yacht’s speed and weight cause an undertow. Then in whispers, while the agitator gets sucked under the yacht, private agreements are made, precautions are measured out, and everyone quietly agrees to keep on quietly agreeing to the implied rule of law and to not think about what just happened. Soon, the father, who put these things in place, is only spoken of in the form of lore, stories told to children at night, under the stars, at which point there are suddenly several fathers, noble, wise forefathers. And the boat sails on unfettered.

I do not think the fact that people are toppling statues of Columbus at the same time as Confederate Monuments are coming down is happenstance or coincidence. Both are symbols of White supremacy and the erasure of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color). It is our responsibility to uncover whose voices we are missing in our education and listen to those voices.

In one of the most stunning passages of Yaa Gyasi’s phenomenal novel Homegoing, her character Yaw, a teacher, says the following to his class:

So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.

This post is part of the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge ©

St. Patrick’s Day

four leaf clover photo
Photo by forestfolks

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

I have always had a special connection to St. Patrick’s Day. It’s my half-birthday, which may seem like a silly thing for a woman my age to pay attention to, but you remember when you were a kid, and the distinction “and a half” was important? Even though that distinction is no longer important to me, and about 87% of the time I can’t even remember how old I am, never mind the half, I still feel like St. Patrick’s Day is a special day. Not just because I’m about half Irish, really, because the importance of the holiday in Ireland is somewhat lost given how long ago it was that most of my ancestors immigrated to America and also given its diluted nature in the States. We might lift a pint of Guinness and wear green. We might even go to a parade, depending on the concentration of Irish descent in our neck of the woods. But it’s really not a holiday in America the way it is in Ireland. My Irish ancestry is so far removed at this point that I actually don’t feel all that Irish.

Except… In some ways I do. When I took Celtic Literature in college, I really responded to the Irish and Welsh myths that we studied in ways I didn’t, necessarily, to Greek and Roman myths. I also respond in a visceral way to Celtic music—fiddles, whistles, Uillean pipes, and bodhráns speak to some part of me that goes deeper than my general love for music. Same with bluegrass or Appalachian music. I don’t always count it my favorite kinds of music to listen to, but if I hear it, it stirs something deeper inside me than even some of my favorite music does. It’s one of the reasons why Sharyn McCrumb’s novel Songcatcher was so moving to me. I responded to the idea of music traveling through DNA.

But there are no recipes that have been passed down, at least not traditionally Irish ones. There are no stories about family in the “old country.” I’ve tried to trace my family to Ireland using a paper trail, but it’s nearly impossible. Or I should say it has been up until now. I was actually surprised that a DNA test confirmed I had such a high percentage of Irish ethnicity. I expected to be quite English, and I was a tiny, tiny bit English, and that was all.

Tomorrow I’ll be putting a different DNA test from a different company in the mail. This company allows you to do a bit more with your results than the other test I had. It also has a larger user base, so I can potentially find more relatives as well as learn more about my genetic history than the first test I took will tell me. I wish you could just port your test results over from one place to another, but I guess it doesn’t work like that. I will be interested to see how the results from each test compare, since they focus on different aspects. I’ve been watching a lot of back episodes of Henry Louis Gates’s show, Finding Your Roots. Gates has Irish ancestry, just like I do. I learned watching an episode last night that about 1 in 10 Americans do. Gates tests the DNA of all of the guests on his show and compares them. Bill Maher and Bill O’Reilly were shocked (and I think mortified) to discover they’re related. One thing you learn about watching shows like this, however, is that we all are related and woven into this great tapestry of humanity. And we all have stories. If more people realized what connected us rather than focused on what separated us, it might be more beautiful world.

On this day when everyone’s Irish, may the luck of the (half) Irish smile on you.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

History and Twitter

I’ve heard many people say they think the subject with which is hardest to integrate technology is history. Nothing could be further from the truth if you have a little imagination! The folks at The History Press proved that yesterday with their live Twitter commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the sinking of Titanic. Followers could read events live from the viewpoints of passengers, Captain Smith, officers, crew members, and nearby ships in real time as the ship approached its doom. This kind of idea would be great for commemorating any historical event. Students could do the research necessary to plan such a Twitter event and select a date (an anniversary would be great, if possible) to hold the event, then drum up interest and build excitement as the event approaches.

A project like this has a built-in authentic audience. Students need to think about the audience who will read their tweets and draft the tweets in advance. They would need to find out, if they can, the exact timeline for the historical event. Students can feel experience history “live.” I know that as an audience member, I felt like a part of the event, almost like I was watching it happen. I was glued to the Twitter feed. Creating a Twitter commemoration would give students intimate knowledge of the historical event and even allow them to take on roles as major players in the event. I can’t think of a better way to learn about history. After all, isn’t that what made Oregon Trail so much fun?

Obviously, this kind of project has other implications. A book’s events could be reenacted for a reading/English class, for instance. More ideas for integrating technology in history to come. Exciting stuff!

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