By Sam Chaltain
My wife likes to tell this one story from when she was in high school, and she asked her U.S. History teacher why the class wasn’t learning more about the Indians. “We don’t have time for the Indians,” he responded. “We have an AP curriculum to get through.”
Had I been as inquisitive as my wife when I was a teenager, I would have received the same answer. So, I suspect, would most of you; indeed, for too many of us, the study of American history ended up being little more than a linear, logical march through the years — filled with neat plot lines of cause and effect, victors and enemies, and a whole lot of triumphant white men.
Like so many others, I didn’t realize there was another way to imagine the chronicling of the American narrative, or the construction of history itself, until I first read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Once I did, my understanding of the world was forever changed.
By Jesse Gainer
This column is dedicated to the memory of Howard Zinn, who passed away this year at the age of 87. Zinn’s life and work — an unwavering pursuit of justice through focused attention on the marginalized and the oppressed — inspired countless people across the world. Zinn’s work highlighted what traditionally is not present in mainstream history texts, such as the voices and experiences of women, people of color, workers, and social activists. Readers of his work gain knowledge about historical figures and events that were not typically part of most people’s classroom experiences. However, the significance of his work is greater than the factual pieces of the puzzle he helped add to our historical narrative. His work points to a critique of larger systematic and structural inequities that lead to the privileging of a few and the oppression of many. His insistence on shining a light on unofficial history, or as he put it, the “people’s history,” is at the heart of what we call critical literacy.
Esmeralda Tello can’t wait to utilize a new set of history books in her social studies classroom at J. Taylor Finley Middle School. The books were presented to the teacher by the Zinn Education Project during a ceremony at the school late last spring.
Copies of historian-author Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” made their way to Finley following Ms. Tello’s successful participation in a contest that required an essay that described how she found the key to engaging her students is to emphasize the stories that are often left out of typical textbooks.
The Zinn Education Project encourages the teaching of a “people’s history,” including the perspectives and experiences of regular working class people, women, people of color and organized social movements, according to the group’s website.
By Elizabeth Limbach
The wall behind Jeff Matlock’s desk is covered with photographs and paintings of his heroes from American history: Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Abraham Lincoln, and Jane Adams among them. There is a photograph of women marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in 1913 with a sign that reads, “I wish Ma could vote!” And, as if to encapsulate Matlock’s “nothing is black and white” view on history, he also has two contrasting photographs beside one another: one of a group protesting World War I with signs that say “Don’t send our boys to die in a useless war,” and the other, a shot of U.S. soldiers wading ashore at Omaha Beach on D-Day. “There are two sides to every story,” he says simply.
Squeezed in beside these notable figures from history is the one who instilled this all-inclusive attitude in him, and perhaps his favorite hero of them all: late historian, author and activist Howard Zinn.
Matlock was a history buff from an early age. He hardly had to study for tests and could spout off historical dates without fail. But it wasn’t until he picked up a copy of Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” as a teenager that history became more than dates and places for him. “I felt like my world totally opened up into something I’d never thought of before,” he remembers. “I never saw history as being something that could be less than concrete. I thought ‘these are facts, this is the way it is.’ But what Zinn taught me was that nothing is absolute.”
Through the Zinn Education Project (www.zinnedproject.org), this teacher has received a free class set of 25 copies of A People’s History of the United States. Here she is on the local news talking about why it is important to teach from a people’s perspective.
By Michelle Knight
It’s difficult to distinguish Angelica Chavez from her students at Adolfo Camarillo High School. A little more than a decade ago, the 29-year-old U.S. history teacher was sitting in their seats.
Chavez didn’t like history then. She felt, like many critics of traditional history books, that U.S. history is told solely from the perspective of the controlling class. Many students find history boring because it presents a one-sided narrative, Chavez said.
“You knew America was going to win,” she said. “We could do no wrong, ever.”
Chavez came to appreciate history in college after reading about events and people traditional textbooks ignore, such as women, people of color and social movements.
“History spoke more to me,” Chavez said on a recent Thursday morning between classes.
Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” was one of the books that impressed her.
Jeff Matlock, an eighth-grade U.S. history teacher at Scotts Valley Middle School, is one of 20 teachers in the country who will receive a free class set of 25 copies of “A People’s History of the United States” from the Zinn Education Project.
Matlock used a Zinn activity regarding the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 to help his students gain another perspective on women’s history.
The Zinn Education Project was co-founded in 2008 by historian Howard Zinn, author of “People’s History,” and two nonprofits: Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change. It encourages people to look at history from different perspectives.
Angelica Chavez, an 11th grade U.S. history teacher at Adolfo Camarillo High School, was one of 20 teachers selected by the Zinn Education Project to receive a free class set of 25 copies of “A People’s History of the United States,” a copy of the film “The People Speak” and the books “A Young People’s History of the United States” and “Voice of a People’s History of the United States.”
To celebrate her achievement, on June 3 Camarillo High School students read their work and Chavez spoke on the importance of teaching history that includes multiple voices.
Chavez found that the key to engaging students is to emphasize the stories that are left out of the textbooks.