Or, Teaching Milwaukee's Open Housing Marches
Last week, I was forced to admit something: My students want me to lecture. They like it when I stand up and tell them things while they sit back and listen.
That feels sacrilegious to say, but it also feels true.
For the past nine weeks, my colleague and I have been trying to craft an active, student-centered, place-based learning experience for our high school learners. Learners who, for one reason or another, have not passed social studies and are therefore in danger of not graduating. We know that virtual schooling during the pandemic was hard for many of them, but we also know that the problems with social studies in most high schools stretch much farther back than March 2019.
In his book Lies My Teacher Told Me (first published in 1995), sociologist James Loewen systematically showed the public how the standard history curriculum is often only loosely connected to historical fact. While his content analysis of textbooks was groundbreaking, the argument itself was not: people of color have been questioning the truth of history curriculum and the role it plays in maintaining white supremacy for far longer. For example, Carter G. Woodson wrote The Miseducation of the Negro in 1933. In it, he argued that the lies of omission in schooling paint Africans and African Americans as “human being[s] of the lower order, unable to subject passion to reason, and therefore useful only when made the hewer of wood and the drawer of water for others” (p. 34). These dehumanizing lies served as the “perfect device” for controlling and subjugating African Americans. Similarly, in his 1963 “Talk to Teachers,” James Baldwin argued that the “bad faith,” “cruelty,” “brainwashing,” and “mythology” perpetuated by schools was nothing short of a “criminal conspiracy to destroy [the Black child]” (para. 19).
What Baldwin, Woodson, Loewen and so many others have been saying is that the myth-making that passes for history in America’s classrooms too often serves not as an introduction to the historical record nor as an invitation to inquire about our social world but rather as an elaborate justification of the racialized and racist social structure we live in.
No wonder the group of mostly Brown and Black girls we teach on Wednesdays is failing social studies.
Now, I’m not saying anything about the specific teachers that my Wednesday students have encountered at their high school. I don’t know what happens in their classrooms. I’ve never spent any time in these classroom. But I am saying that within our system of schooling in the United States, the social studies have served as one of the primary vehicles for passing on dominant narratives about the United States, narratives that likely run in direct opposition to what my Wednesday students’ lived experiences tell them.
Added on top of this curricular problem is the instructional problem we find in a lot of high school social studies classrooms: the ‘sage on the stage,’ where the teacher knows everything and students are passive receptacles waiting to be filled with names and dates to be regurgitated later on a test. Brazilian educator Paulo Freire called this the “banking” method of education, and he argued in his 1968 book Pedagogy of the Oppressed that it is a fundamentally dehumanizing process:
The more students work at storing the deposits entrusted to them, the less they develop the critical consciousness which would result from their intervention in the world as transformers of that world. The more completely they accept the passive role imposed on them, the more they tend simply to adapt to the world as it is and to the fragmented view of reality deposited in them. The capability of banking education to minimize or annul the students’ creative power…serves the interests of the oppressors, who care neither to have the world revealed nor to see it transformed (p. 73).
Again, I’m not saying that the teachers in my Wednesday students’ school engage in banking. I have no way of knowing that. But I do know that our current testing regime in the US is built upon this idea of students as empty vessels waiting for instructional communiqués, which they are expected to spit back out onto endless high-stakes tests.
In listening to these critiques of both curriculum and instruction—critiques that are especially common in the social studies—it becomes understandable why the students in our Explore MKE course may have checked out of past versions of social studies. This is why my co-teacher and I are so determined not to recreate those conditions during our weekly two hours with the students. We are trying to create a learning space that invites our students into historical and social inquiry, that incites curiosity, and that helps the students see themselves in history and the social sciences.
Which is why my students’ rapt attention to my lecture last week felt so wrong.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I wasn’t interesting. (I was definitely interesting.) I’m just wondering why a moment of instruction that felt a little too much like what we’re trying not to do held their attention for far longer than the student-driven inquiry we had tried to facilitate for the hour before.
See, for the hour before my lecture on Milwaukee’s civil rights history, Candance and I had struggled to fully engage our students. We had prodded and brainstormed, coaxed and questioned, trying to get our students to identify something (anything!) in Milwaukee they wanted to learn more about and that could guide their final ‘project’—in quotes because all that project entails is putting a single pin on an interactive map of Milwaukee with some kind of explanation. While a handful of students ran with the task, most did not. “I don’t know anything about Milwaukee,” Tanya said. “There’s nothing interesting in this city,” Mayte said. “What about Jeffrey Dahmer?” Ana said. So Candance and I slowly moved around the room, working one-on-one with students in order to help them think through their lives in Milwaukee and the things that held their curiosity. Meanwhile, all those other students not deep in conversation with us were… FaceTiming friends at the grocery store. Playing CandyCrush. Folding origami. Teasing one another about their crushes. Napping.
Eventually we made our way to every student, and eventually every student found something that piqued their interest, but it felt like a slog to get there. And it took a lot of self-control from me and Candance not to police and manage how the students spent their time. After all, that’s not why we are here. Ultimately, we agreed that the “off task” behaviors ended up providing a cognitive break for students, which in turn provided a generative space for them to sit with the task at hand. But wow—getting to that point was hard. We thought that giving students power over what we researched and experienced in our remaining time together would be inherently engaging, but it wasn’t. It was a task met with reluctance and, if we're being honest, resistance.
That’s why when it was time to move onto the “schoolish” part of our session—where we would learn about Milwaukee’s Open Housing Marches—I was nervous. I had spent hours over the past few days trying to figure out how to provide this historical content in a meaningful and relevant way, but in the end I wound up with my version of a lecture. Not a standing-at-a-podium-and-droning-on-monotonously kind of lecture, but a lecture nonetheless. It would be interactive and feature imperfectly drawn maps and timelines and strategically placed audio clips, but it was still, essentially, a lecture.
But here’s the rub: They loved it. They were so engaged—more engaged, it seemed, than during the past hour and a half of student-driven inquiry. And in the moment, I was reminded of what my pre-service teachers (my undergrad students) tell me every semester. They tell me that they can’t get their students to do inquiry or active learning or creative projects. They tell me that their students are so much better behaved and engaged when they stick to a traditional instructional script. They tell me their students ‘can’t handle’ inquiry. They tell me their students whine when they are asked to think. They tell me it’s just so much easier to give a lecture and assign some questions. As I looked out at 25 young women, eyes glued to me and my messy map of Milwaukee, I worried that maybe my undergrads were right and that maybe I have been wrong all these years about what good instruction looks like.
But in that moment, I told myself what I tell my undergraduate students when they recount their failed interactive lessons or the chaos that ensued when high school students were asked to engage in independent research. I reminded myself that thinking is hard. It’s much harder than what schools typically ask students to do. Consuming information and spitting it back out is so much easier than designing and conducting an inquiry; it’s so much easier than navigating the peer relationships of cooperative learning or the physical demands of experiential learning. What’s more, schools give students very few opportunities to practice these harder skills because they are too busy prepping students for standardized tests. Of course our K12 students prefer the easier path, but with practice and persistence they will come to love the vibrancy of real intellectual work more.
All of this is true. But I realized in that moment that something else important is going on, too.
Learning involves gathering information—encountering it, processing it, making meaning out of it. Sometimes that information is most meaningful when encountered through students’ own questions and inquiries. Sometimes that information is most meaningful when unexpectedly revealed through a book or a movie or some other creative source. Sometimes that information is most meaningful when it blooms out of lived experience. Sometimes that information is most meaningful when it intersects with a skill to be practiced or acquired. And sometimes that information is most meaningful when it comes from someone you like or trust or respect. In other words, there are a lot of ways we gather information, and there are a lot of ways we learn. But what matters most across all of these is that what is learned is meaningful and relevant and true. And Milwaukee’s civil rights history (the topic of my lecture), when told honestly and completely, is all of those things.
As I outlined the route of marchers on the night of August 28, 1967, I asked if anyone knew why Milwaukee was called the Selma of the North. “I’ve seen the movie Selma!” Cara said. “That’s when MLK marched across the bridge.” I pointed to the 16th Street Bridge on our Milwaukee map. “This is where the marches in Milwaukee started. This bridge. And they went on for 200 nights.”
Milwaukee’s Open Housing Marches were a youth-led movement, organized by the NAACP Youth Council in response to lived experience with Milwaukee’s housing segregation. When I showed pictures of Youth Council members, Aaliyah noticed that they were probably the same age as her and her classmates. What would have been their peers marched nearly four miles from Milwaukee’s North Side to Koszciusko Park on the South Side. The marchers had chosen this route specifically because it was called in Milwaukee “the quickest way from Africa to Poland,” a crass joke about the deep racial segregation in Milwaukee’s housing. As we went over the history of housing segregation in Milwaukee—redlining and highway construction, restrictive covenants and white violence—students talked over each other to say that Milwaukee was still segregated. We remembered that we, a class split pretty evenly between Black and Latinx students, had not spent any time in one another’s neighborhoods, a fact we were regularly reminded of on our field trips. I also reminded them of their nervousness the first time we went exploring around St. Joan, which Jade said was because they didn’t belong to the neighborhood. As I talked, they jumped in with connections that made it clear that this history was still the world they lived in.
The lecture covered a lot: the wealth and vitality of Milwaukee’s Black neighborhoods before they were destroyed, the role of Father Groppi, how demographics have changed in the city, the federal Fair Housing Act, the 200 nights of marches organized by Black Lives Matter protestors this past year, the role youth play in current protest movements. We were learning history, and we were using history to make sense of the city we live in now. Yes, I was giving a lecture, but that lecture was proving to be a powerful way of encountering our city’s history together. And our collective meaning making was changing how we understood Milwaukee in real time.
On the first night of marching, the few hundred youth marchers were met halfway across the bridge by an angry white mob. That mob of thousands of white folks threw bottles at the marchers and carried signs saying “White Power;” they stood on cars and broke street lights and wielded bats. That mob even scared the police, marchers later remembered, who begged Father Groppi to turn around and lead his youth back to their neighborhood. When I showed images of that mob, raging just outside the gorgeous Polish basilica we’d visited a few weeks earlier, Sheree raised her hand. “But my old social studies teacher told me that racism like that didn’t exist in Milwaukee. It was a Southern thing, not a Northern thing. Is that true?” The pictures of white crowds carrying swastikas and wearing KKK uniforms answered that question for her.
That afternoon, my students told me that they genuinely didn’t know that Milwaukee was an important city in the Civil Rights Movement. They told me that they genuinely didn’t know that the Civil Rights Movement happened in the North, too—angry mobs and retaliating police and all. They didn’t know that all around us was hallowed historical ground.
And that, I think, is what made that lecture so meaningful. It was the right method to introduce them to a slice of history that had been hidden from them, and it allowed us to make connections and ask questions together. I had information to share that I hoped would help them see their city in new ways. It’s not that they were empty receptacles waiting to be filled; it’s that I wanted to share what I know in the hopes that it would inspire them to ask more questions. I wanted them to meet their city anew, and they were grateful for the introduction.
What mattered most wasn’t how they encountered this history; what mattered most was that they were getting to encounter it all.
While living in Mexico, I joked that speaking Spanish forced me to be far more Zen about life: Since I could only speak in the present tense, I was forced to just live in that present tense.
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