Texas Tech University

Distance Learning Doctoral Student Uncovers Lack of African-American Representation During American Revolution in Elementary School History

Amanda Bowman

December 26, 2017

Judy Rose

Judy Rose made the discovery while taking a content analysis class.

Judy Rose
Judy Rose

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "We are not makers of history. We are made by history."

It's true. Knowing our ancestors – what they believed in, what they fought for, what their dreams of the future were – allows us to better appreciate our lives now. But what happens when the faces on the pages of history books don't reflect your own? How can you connect to your past when it's not visible in the present?

For Judy Rose – a non-traditional, online student from Belton who is working toward her doctorate in curriculum and instruction through Texas Tech University's College of Education – it was a question her son asked that made her realize there was a significant lack of historical representation for African-Americans during the American Revolution in elementary school history curriculum.

"I stumbled upon something in my content analysis class," Rose said. "We were to examine children's literature and find groups who had been marginalized. At the same time, I was homeschooling my two kids. My daughter was in fifth grade at the time, so we were examining the individuals and events in the American Revolution that are covered in the TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) in terms of what's required by the state, looking at the causes and effects and important individuals who made a significant contribution to the American Revolution.

René Saldaña
René Saldaña

"My kids and I were discussing who was in the TEKS, and this paralleled with what I was researching for my content analysis class, when my son, who was 9 years old at the time, asked, ‘Mom, what about Crispus Attucks and James Armistead Lafayette? Why aren't they in the fifth-grade TEKS?'"

That simple question sparked an idea in Rose's mind and drove her to dive deeper into what she and her children, daughter Katie, 12, and son Andrew, now 10, had discovered.

"I asked my content analysis professor, René Saldaña, if I could look at the TEKS to see if there was weight to the idea, and he said, ‘Absolutely. You've hit something that's bigger than this class right now,'" Rose said. "It led to changing my dissertation topic to an area that resonated deeply for me and needed someone to champion this very important topic."

With the help of her astute children, Rose began putting the TEKS into categories and analyzing the data, also known as coding, and stumbled upon some alarming information.

"As I coded the fifth-grade social studies TEKS with my kids, we found that there isn't a single individual of African-American descent listed as an important person to know during the American Revolution," she said. "This is something huge that kids need to know early on in their academic career, especially if they're African-American. They're not connecting to history because they don't see themselves in history in meaningful ways during this time period.

"They don't know there were individuals of African-American descent who made significant contributions to the American Revolution. They're absent from our history lessons and texts in elementary school."

When African-Americans are mentioned as heroes during the American Revolution, it's not until later – too late, in Rose's opinion – in a child's educational career.

"Kids don't hear about any individuals of African-American descent in history during the American Revolution until the eighth grade," she said. "Kids are 14 years old before they learn African-Americans actually participated in the American Revolution. That's unconscionable."

Hitting the books

After poring over the TEKS, Rose continued to examine children's literature to see if the problem went beyond the state's requirement. The results, unfortunately, were the same.

"All of this led to children's literature," Rose said. "I wanted to find out if African-Americans were listed as heroes in the American Revolution, and I came up blank. I found very few books that listed African-Americans as heroes during that time in history, and those I did find were more like bylines. What's more striking is, if you look at the fifth-grade Texas social studies textbooks, they list Attucks, but he's listed with a picture and a caption, completely glossed over."

If, by chance, an important African-American figure was mentioned in children's literature, they were paired with someone who made no sense.

"My son was reading a graphic novel by Nathan Hale," Rose said. "In the book, it discussed Benedict Arnold. We all know him from the American Revolution as being a traitor. In the back of the book, however, there was a little chapter dedicated to Attucks. Why pair him with Arnold? Attucks is symbolic of the beginning of the American Revolution and Arnold represents the thorn in our side. Why pair them together? It made me wonder why the author made that decision and the message it sends to our young readers about Attucks and other individuals of African-American descent who supported the American Revolution in significant ways."

Lack of resources

People don't know what they don't know. How are children to know there are important historical individuals who reflect themselves if they're simply omitted from the TEKS, and thereby omitted from classroom instruction?

Some teachers, Rose learned, don't want to exclude certain individuals from history, but the lack of resources forces them.

"During my research for my thesis, I interviewed a teacher of record," Rose said. "I asked her if she knew of African-Americans involved in the American Revolution, and she did. So, I asked, ‘Do you at least teach about Attucks from what you know?' And she said, ‘No, not really.' I asked her what she meant, and she basically said it was lack of resources. There aren't as many resources in terms of children's literature to teach fifth-grade students about these individuals, and the state-mandated textbooks don't feature these individuals in the text.

"She also mentioned a lack of time. All of the information that needs to be covered for the STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness) exam has to be taught, and she said she can't fit anything else in the schedule. I think that's every teacher's fear – not having enough time for kids to learn what's needed to be successful on the standardized test and what's needed to develop as critical thinkers and global citizens."

Another teacher Rose spoke with mentioned that the district for which she worked told her to place more emphasis on reading than social studies.

"That blew me away," Rose said. "Why not incorporate social studies in your reading? It's a lovely thing for kids to do because then they're getting to learn about history while reading, and teachers can create authentic learning experiences for students in this cross-curricular format. They're getting the best of both worlds."

Pursuing her passion

Everyone knows it takes a special type of person to become a teacher. But ask most teachers, and they'll say they can't imagine doing anything else.

It was Rose's passion for helping her students that led her to get her master's degree.

"I started my master's because I wanted to know current research to support the kids in my classroom," Rose said. "At the time, I was teaching third-grade reading, and I didn't understand why I had kids who were coming into third grade on a first-grade reading level. I kept thinking, ‘Our system is failing these kids.' I needed more than the professional development being offered.

"I wanted to be able to meet my students' needs, so I went to get my master's and fell in love with education all over again. Now, I get to serve even more as I pursue my doctorate. It's been an absolute joy."

In fact, Rose is so passionate about her work that she was selected to be a presenter at the 2018 American Educational Research Association's (AERA) annual meeting in New York City April 13-17.

"The AERA conference is a major platform to present research," Rose said. "The opportunity to present my research is a true honor. I'm thrilled and humbled all at the same time."

Rose also will present her findings at the National Association of African-American Studies conference Feb. 15-18 in Dallas and the Texas Association of Literacy Education conference Feb. 23-25 in Canyon.

Bringing reform

Sometimes, a simple question is all it takes to bring about change. Our forefathers asked, "Why have taxation when we have no representation?" That mere question changed history. To perhaps change the way history is taught in Texas, it just took a young boy asking his mom why Crispus Attucks and James Armistead Lafayette weren't mentioned in his studies.

Rose hopes her research leads teachers and those in administrative positions to be empowered and emboldened to evolve how history is taught.

"I hope we can do something with curriculum reform so teachers aren't just teaching the TEKS, but they are culturally responsive and given the latitude to create authentic learning experiences for students," Rose said.

Saldaña thinks Rose's research can have an extraordinary impact in the way the American Revolution is taught.

"It's an awesome topic for research," said Saldaña, an associate professor of language, diversity and literacy studies. "She didn't quite see how enormous it is. I told her this sort of work could change the direction of American Revolution studies in Texas, if not the nation, and she took charge. It's been a whirlwind journey she has taken me on, and I'm happy to hang on for dear life. What she's doing is huge."

In the end, however, it all goes back to the kids. If nothing else, Rose wants students to be able to see themselves in their studies.

"One thing I think about is how often classrooms change," Rose said. "The demographics change every year. To continue to teach the same curriculum every year doesn't address the student body. Teachers need to be able to provide real learning experiences for students; not just teaching Samuel Adams, Thomas Jefferson and others, but being able to teach other individuals and events where they can connect to history. Students can connect to the history and reading, giving them the chance to find themselves in the text and seeing themselves as change agents not only in their lives, but also in their communities."

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