Tapping history to make sense of today

Drawn to news of protests across the country over the deaths of black men and boys pursued or detained by police, the director of the UC Berkeley’s History-Social Science Project (HSSP) pondered how to help young people make sense of the associated conflict, confusion, fear and anger.

As she did, Rachel Reinhard said some of the defining moments in the United States’ long and arduous civil rights struggle came to mind, including:

Rallies around the theme of "Black Lives Matter" caught the attention of organizers of a summer institute to help teachers help their students make sense of the world.

Rallies around the theme of “Black Lives Matter” caught the attention of organizers of a summer institute to help teachers help their students make sense of the world.

• The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1857 rejection of the claim to citizenship filed by Dred Scott, an enslaved man taken to free territory, a ruling that actually helped fuel abolitionist sentiment and contributed to the Civil War
• Investigative reporter and civil rights leader Ida B. Wells’ documentation of white lynchings of blacks in the 1890s
• Striking black sanitation workers in Memphis in the 1960s marching proudly with “I AM A MAN” placards

“We felt like it was up to us to determine how we contribute to the latest conversation, and how to help teachers make sense of the moment,” Reinhard said recently in explaining the evolution of this year’s HSSP Summer Institute for K-12 teachers and its theme, “Struggles for Justice: Then and Now.”

Reinhard noted that incorporating the histories often absent from the traditional, “grand narratives” can arm students with the skills and knowledge needed to make sense of their world, especially one fraught with long-festering issues such as African American history, LGBT rights and immigration reform.

Empathy for the human condition

“While the study of history cannot solve everything, through deliberate instruction, I hope we can work to foster greater context, analysis and empathy for the human condition among our students and, consequently, in our world,” she wrote in a post on the HSSP website.

Housing discrimination history, not by the book


Jenna Rentz, who taught history and government/economics at Mt. Diablo and Ygnacio Valley high schools in Concord, asked to prepare the institute’s housing discrimination lesson plan after hearing an inspirational talk at her local church by Richard Rothstein of UC Berkeley’s School of Law, linking public policy to segregation in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere.

“One of Dr. Rothstein’s statements really struck me,” said Renz. “He noted that in The Americans, the most common U.S. history textbook and one I used myself in my classroom, there is only one sentence about housing segregation: ‘African Americans found themselves in segregated neighborhoods.’”

Renz, who is on a break from teaching while studying for her master’s degree in history at San Francisco State University, said she realized she had never covered housing segregation while she was teaching, and wanted to create a lesson that provides more context and more accurately reflects government involvement in purposeful segregation of neighborhoods.

Her lesson is divided in four parts:

  • One gives a history of zoning, restrictive covenants and the Federal Housing Administration’s “redlining” of African American communities that led to African Americans being denied mortgages for decades and reflecting government systems and processes that supported segregation
  • The second has primary-source accounts of those who experienced residential segregation, including a story from Giants slugger and Baseball Hall of Famer Willie Mays, who was initially denied the ability to buy a house in San Francisco because of his race
  • Part 3 covers the 1968 Fair Housing Act and its limitations
  • Part 4 explores the lasting effects of residential segregation for African American communities, including a connection to the recent protests around policing in predominantly black neighborhoods

For more detail about Rothstein’s assessments of public policy and segregation, read “The Making of Ferguson,” a piece he wrote for the Economic Policy Institute.

Nearly two dozen teachers as nearby as Oakland, Piedmont and Pittsburg and as far away as Fresno and Trinity County will convene on campus for the institute July 13-17, hearing from experts and learning how to infuse their lesson plans with more historical context .

The increased attention in recent years on improving student test scores has too often minimized the time allotted to teaching social studies and history, said Reinhard.

Teachers attending the institute will learn how to:
• Use model lesson plans from the institute to build historical context into their classroom presentations, teasing out information that aligns with state-mandated curriculum around California, U.S. and world history across all grades
• Integrate rich, primary online sources such as the Library of Congress into their lessons
• Develop students’ historical thinking skills

Keeping the pledge

Leading key discussion on African American history will be Waldo Martin, UC Berkeley’s Alexander F. and May T. Morrison Professor of American History and Citizenship and the author of such books as The Mind of Frederick Douglass and Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party.

UC Berkeley ethnic studies professor Alex Saragoza, an expert on modern Mexico and the intersections of Latin American and U.S. history as a result of migration, will head up discussion about immigration reform.

“This summer institute intends to make some sense to children of how we as a country have come to this moment in our history,” said Saragoza. “It represents a hopeful effort by educators committed to lessening the ravages of racism by teaching about why women and men struggled to find justice in a country founded on the idea of ‘one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.’ This institute expects to make it easier for school children to redeem that pledge by learning to join that struggle.”

California’s FAIR Act

Don Romesburg, an associate professor of women’s and gender studies at Sonoma State University, earned his Ph.D. in history at UC Berkeley, will take charge of the component on LGBT rights and California’s FAIR Education Act, which mandates that the roles and contributions of LGBT people and those with disabilities be accurately portrayed in K–12 history teaching and instructional materials.

Romesburg, co-chair of the American Historical Association’s Committee on LGBT History, co-authored a white paper defending the legislation. “Learning about how LGBT people and people with disabilities have fought for social recognition, political and economic equity and civic access, as well as analyzing how these populations have been discriminated against, provides students with tools to become more well-informed, robust citizens,” he wrote.

This image by famed photographer Dorothea Lange was taken of Mexican migrants in an El Paso, Texas, immigration station in 1938. The photo belongs to the Library of Congress.

This image by famed photographer Dorothea Lange was taken of Mexican migrants in an El Paso, Texas, immigration station in 1938. The photo belongs to the Library of Congress.

“More importantly,” the paper continues, “such curricular inclusions offer social studies teachers an opportunity to teach their students a vital truth: that categories like sexuality, ability, race, gender and class are historically constructed; they map specific relations of power onto biological, cultural and economic differences.”

Especially for teachers

Related teaching materials developed during the institute will be linked to the HSSP lessons site, and a housing discrimination lesson plan developed in conjunction with the African American history segment of the institute will be tied to KQED News’ “The Lowdown,” a site connecting news to the classroom and offering educator guides.

Institute participants will return in the fall for follow-up sessions with HSSP staff.


• To learn more about the UC Berkeley History-Social Science Project, click here.
• Examine the state-set history and social science content standards for California public schools, grades K-12.