District discusses layered approach to teaching unvarnished U.S. history

The curriculum committee of the South Orange–Maplewood Board of Education discusses the social studies curriculum at its Dec. 14 meeting.

MAPLEWOOD/SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — South Orange–Maplewood School District social studies supervisor Christopher Preston gave an update on curriculum to the Board of Education’s Curriculum Committee on Dec. 14, saying that grade-level proficiencies were created by the district in 2019 for kindergarten through 12th grade and aligned with the state Amistad curriculum.

“This actually goes beyond what was stated in the New Jersey standards by addressing topics with specificity that are Afrocentric and Atlantic world centric, and got away from a Western-dominated narrative,” Preston said at the meeting. “This begins as early as grade four, when we look at the peopling of Africa and the Americas prior to the arrival of the Europeans. The Europeans are viewed and portrayed as someone who came into somewhere that is already preexisting with their own civilizations, ways of life and ways of approaching the world.”

Teaching history begins in fourth grade, according to Preston. Introductory lessons are taught about what history is, along with human migration, the empires of West Africa and the Americas before Christopher Columbus.

“This is an introductory lesson about perspective, whose story is taught and the i
mportance of being mindful of who is not mentioned in the story,” Preston said. “The study of history is really a construction. It’s not something that just is. There are conscious choices and we as educators realize that this is a constructed narrative. What’s left in and what’s left out is an important thing to consider.”

The district also goes beyond the state guidelines when naming specific historical figures.
“What we are looking to do early on in history is give students names and events and their stories, to really teach the larger narrative that we want to portray,” Preston said, adding that as students reach sixth grade, more names are introduced into the curriculum. “The story of abolitionists and people who were involved in civil rights is something that we do.”

For instance, students in fourth grade learn about Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and William Livingston, the first governor of New Jersey; then Harriet Tubman and Nat Turner are introduced in sixth-grade social studies, which focuses on U.S. history. The curriculum from fourth through sixth grades starts with basics and then adds context and varied perspectives as the children grow.

World history is the focus of seventh- and eighth-grade social studies, preparing students for the world history class that all freshmen at Columbia High School take.
“At the high school level, one point of emphasis that we begin to do is really focusing on race as a social construction and delving deeply into issues of race and racism,” Preston said.

High school students are also learning about the history of slavery in New Jersey, using the Durand-Hedden House in Maplewood’s publication from this year, “Slavery in New Jersey: A Troubled Past.” An exhibit in the CHS gallery is currently exploring the topic with sophomores, who are covering the historical period in their classes.
“In the state standards, it mentions nothing about enslavement or abolition in the state of New Jersey, and we wanted to take something that was typically associated with grade four and really turn this focus on as well,” Preston said.

BOE member Courtney Winkfield asked Preston how the district is incorporating implicit bias training into professional development for staff.
“I want to ensure that there’s a link between what we’re expecting our history teachers in particular to teach in the Amistad curriculum and how we expect them to utilize the tools in these implicit bias and cultural competency trainings to ensure that they’re prepared for what might come up in the classroom and also feel empowered to be able to address some of what the students may bring up,” Winkfield said at the meeting.

According to Preston, individual lessons are cross-referenced with the professional development that social studies staff takes to see where they meet and what needs to be improved. He also discussed upcoming lesson plans with teachers about two weeks before they begin teaching a unit to come across any potential pitfalls and what should and shouldn’t be included. BOE First Vice President Shannon Cuttle said the district should be mindful of not just checking off benchmarks to meet curriculum requirements.

“We don’t want Amistad to be here, AAPI curriculum to be somewhere else and LGBT curriculum there,” Cuttle said at the meeting. “There should be a clear understanding of an ebb and flow and how it interacts with everything that we do. That’s the intent of all this curriculum that we’re doing that’s diverse. It’s intersectional, and I want to be mindful of that.”