The Problems of Unexamined Normative Assumptions

Essential Questions:

  • How do we teach students to see historical events through multiple perspectives?
  • How does changing the “voice” of the class materials challenge stereotypes about non-Western civilizations and cultures?
  • How do we teach students to value the achievements of civilizations that are not their (or our) own or that have traditionally been seen through a deficit lens?
  • How can highlighting examples of interactions between oppressed and dominant groups throughout history reveal injustices that affect our students’ lives?

I started out the year working to redesign the 9th grade history curriculum, along with my colleague Tom, in the hopes of decentering whiteness. We planned to do this by providing multiple perspectives on historical events, including the voices of non-white scholars whenever possible, critiquing white appraisals of the value of other civilizations’ achievements, and highlighting unjust interactions between dominant and oppressed groups. I was happy with the progress that we made in our redesign, and was looking forward to a second attempt with the additional resources that we gathered. But I spent a lot of the Fall and Winter on a paper for a graduate school Fieldwork course, and it became a bit of an obsession. While I joked that I was getting a degree in playgrounds and that I needed to rush off to take notes at recess, I spent countless hours rolling over my observations in my head. I hope that you will indulge what seems like a break from the trajectory that I set out in my first post—and that I can make clear the problems of unexamined normative assumptions in both Middle School recess and 9th grade History.

To state my conclusion briefly, I believe that while both 9th grade history and middle school recess provide some students with a great experience of something that they badly want, their normative assumptions about what is valuable—and the resources provided based on those assumptions—explicitly devalue the contributions of many students, and ultimately harm everyone. What follows is an exploration of the relevance of the conclusions of the playgrounds paper to the 9th grade history curriculum:

  • Freedom to experiment promotes agency.

I saw over and over on the playground that kids were capable of making their own decisions and handling the consequences—whether positive or negative—and that most students, even those who had bad experiences of recess, valued the expansive freedom more than the protection that they might have gained from more structure. In History class, this conclusion is going to be the toughest for me to translate. I know that more freedom will be necessary going forwards, but I’m going to have to do some unpacking on what differences there should be between a playground and a history class.

  • Providing limited play opportunities values students unequally.

The Houston Ballfield was a project that was set aside by Robert Moses, but never taken up. The City’s benign neglect has served generations of children and families from the neighborhood, Little Red students, dogs, and skateboarders. But it has almost always been a “ballfield”. Kids have played countless games that they treasured dearly throughout the ballfield, but ultimately, when kids wanted to play baseball in the southeast corner, or basketball in the northwest, it happens. When some kids want to play ball, the others give way. It is taken as natural that when kids want to play on the court or field, the other kids clear out. It’s polite and it conforms the use to the space. Repeated over time, it becomes tradition that is ingrained in the space and in the kids. Across generations, people who played basketball at Houston Ballfield as kids speak fondly of their memories (especially King of the Court). But… the space and equipment offerings constrain students’ options for play and for experimentation with novel social relationships. Basketball on the basketball court, four-square between the lines, and sitting on the benches: all pretty much as intended by the park’s creators.

But it was never inevitable that this plot of land be set aside for throwing balls into a hoop—or that this ballfield would be where our students play during recess. There are other parks in the neighborhood, but the lower and middle school is on the same block as Houston Ballfield and kids want to play in the ways that it offers. During the progressive era, basketball was created as a game for children and promoted because it rewarded the traits that were valued in boys at the time: strength, toughness, personal responsibility, subordination of self, etc. Basketball is now a multi-billion dollar industry (professional four-square opportunities are limited by low consumer demand and fan engagement). Girls were formally excluded from playing “organized sports” initially, and only gradually were they incorporated, though with significant rule modifications.

This exclusion from high-value opportunities continues, essentially as a matter of tradition. Students know that they can play freely whatever they like. But it is “common knowledge” that girls aren’t allowed to play basketball. In the 5th and 6th grade, most of the players in the basketball games were girls. By 8th grade, there were almost none. Many students, especially boys, feel pressure to play basketball and play it well for fear of derision. Many students feel pressure not to play because they won’t play well. Many kids fall into both categories and can tell vivid stories of negative experiences that taught them about the ways that society connects their physical abilities, their gender, and their access to social and physical resources.

What sort of social relationships would predominate in the middle school if recess was at the Downing Street Playground twice a week? If they walked to Washington Square Park and back? If there was one grade in Houston Ballfield at a time? Four grades? If there were four basketball hoops? More four-square courts? More benches? Fewer benches?

When I think of these questions, I can’t help but think of their transfer to the history classroom. I hope that by consciously considering the ways that my choices as an educator perpetuate and reproduce normative assumptions about history classrooms, I can combat the systemic harm that is perpetrated on our students according to race, gender, sexuality, ability, class, and religion. While I do believe that students will need to learn to move efficiently and enjoy it, there is more than one way to accomplish that goal. The same is true of making a convincing historical argument: writing a five paragraph essay about the French Revolution is not the only way.

But how many basketball hoops is too many? Where can I find great scholarship about globalization written by African scholars for the high school level? Ultimately, these are both questions about valuing a wider variety of perspectives and providing our students access to them.

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