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Teaching the Traditional Curriculum from a Multi-Cultural Perspective

Copyright © Adam Waxler

As a history teacher, I strongly feel that teaching is much more than a list of facts and dates.  In fact, I tell my students that what makes social studies such a great subject is that there are not always right and wrong answers.  Social studies is about making arguments and backing up those arguments.

Teachers, therefore, should be the objective guides that simply provide the needed material and information from which those arguments will be formed.  This type of teaching goes beyond the simple use of textbooks (way beyond).  For example, in a recent lesson from my World War II unit we studied the use of the atomic bomb.  The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic bombs is part of the New York State curriculum.   A teacher can present this fact for the kids to memorize, or the teacher can be much more creative by presenting information about the atomic bomb and allow the students to discuss and argue various critical thinking questions.

In teaching the atomic bomb, my students work in groups as if they are advisors to President Roosevelt and then President Truman.  Students receive reading material and advise the President on three different decisions concerning the atomic bomb.  First, whether to even build the bomb.  Second, whether to drop the bomb.  And third, whether Truman made the right decision.  In this lesson I provided the students with the reading material, but their argument, which they had to back up with specifics, was created on their own.  This teaching/learning style enabled the students to use higher order thinking skills and leads to an increase in retention of the material.  More importantly though, the students actual enjoy learning history in this manner.

As stated earlier, the use of the atomic bombs to end World War II is part of the 8th Grade New York State curriculum, I do not think there is anything wrong with having a specific and traditional curriculum, in fact, I think it is absolutely essential.  Where teachers have flexibility is how they teach that specific curriculum.

I wholeheartedly disagree with the many teachers today who are pushing the notion that in order to teach multiculturalism, teachers must move away from the traditional curriculum.  Yes, we must move away from the textbook, but not necessarily the curriculum.

Don’t get me wrong, teachers must include all the cultures that make up our history, but we must not do so in a way that we are forced to pull out each culture and teach it as a separate entity such as Black History Month or Women’s History Month.  This is what I call intellectual segregation and it is wrong.  All cultures should be taught throughoutall the units.  Having separate months for different cultures is exactly the opposite of what we should be trying to achieve as teachers.

Nor do we have to move away from the traditional curriculum to atheme based curriculum as many suggest.  Different cultures and perspectives can and should be incorporated throughout the various units within the traditional curriculum.  For example, when teaching the Progressive Era (part of the traditional curriculum), my students work in pairs to write and present an interview on one person from the time period.  I provide students with information from a variety of perspectives and from a variety of races and genders.  I do the same for many of my units.

Another example is from my World War II unit.  Part of the New York State curriculum is life on the “home front” during World War II.  My students are split into groups with each group receiving information on a different group of Americans (African-Americans, women, children, Mexican-Americans etc.).  Students use the information they are provided to create a five minute newscast about their particular group and present the newscast to the rest of the class.  Likewise, in my unit on Vietnam, students examine various perspectives on the war from various groups of Americans from different genders and races beforethey write their five paragraph essay arguing whether they think the U.S. should be praised or condemned for their involvement in Vietnam.  The students are allowed to form their own opinions and arguments.  My job is simply to provide them with the information and be objective.

Honestly, I can go on and on providing example after example, but my point is this: The traditional curriculum can be taught in way that is multicultural, that addresses various perspectives and allows students to draw their own conclusions.

The beauty of teaching history in this manner is that it addresses howstudents learn.  Arguing and judging are at the highest level of Bloom’s taxonomy and by having students make arguments and back up those arguments, whether you as the teacher agree with them or not, is how students will retain the information.  Fortunately, this retention will also translate into higher standardized test scores for the simple fact that students will remember the information.  This is why it is imperative that all teachers focus on how it is that students learn, rather than just the content (that goes for graduate professors as well).

The bottom line is this:  We can teach a variety of perspectives and cultures on a given curriculum in a student-centered classroom that inspires active learning and also increases standardized test scores.

Adam Waxler is a middle school social studies teacher, teacher mentor, and the author of eTeach: A Teacher Resource for Learning the Strategies of Master Teachers. Adam is also the editor and publisher of The Teaching Teacher’s Newsletter. For more information about his ebook or to sign up for your free monthly newsletter log onto: