Maryland school district revamps U.S. history curriculum after reviewing how topics like slavery are taught

Primary sources aid U.S. history lessons

A school district in Maryland revamped its eighth grade U.S. history curriculum after reviewing how it approached topics like slavery. Eighth graders at Montgomery County Public Schools, one of the largest districts in the nation, now mostly use primary sources like letters and speeches to learn about U.S. history, instead of relying on textbooks alone.

"It was really important to us to make sure that we are telling an inclusive narrative of American history," said Tiferet Ani, the social studies curriculum specialist at Montgomery County Public Schools. "And so to get away from sort of the dominant narrative that's focused on presidents, on generals, you know, the political history."

There is no national standard for teaching social studies, so it's often left up to individual states and districts to decide how to teach it.

"I haven't seen a textbook that is used in high schools that does not omit some very key, not just information but themes, and so part of our job as historians and teachers is to try and tell a more complete story," said Michael Williams, who teaches high school African-American history in the district.

The district's new curriculum now includes a unit on "stolen labor." Students also look at how and why the constitution protected slavery and have lessons where they rewrite portions of their textbooks. It's being used in Salvatore Assenza's eighth-grade class at Roberto W. Clemente Middle School.

"We as America, we did this," one student said in a class discussion about slavery. "We are guilty of it."

"For people who look at this part of our history and go, but it's over you know and everyone's equal now, do you guys feel that way?" CBS News correspondent Jericka Duncan asked the students.

"No," a student named Sophia said. "Because, yes there was racism before, but there's still remaining bits of it. It's better than before yes, but it's still bad."

Most parents likely don't know there's such a vast difference in how history is taught from district to district, said CBS News contributor Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, the author of the book "How To Be an Antiracist" and a professor at American University.
 
"One of the most precious things that we have in this society are the minds of our children," Kendi said. "Parents and non-parents … should be ensuring that children, their minds, are being shaped in the most accurate way possible."

Assenza's eighth graders said the new curriculum has taught them how to think more critically.
 
"I think it has changed how we study history because we look at history through a white, particularly male, American lens," said student Ava Milisits. "I feel like learning through this lens basically tells the whole story of America, about how slavery is the root and the foundation of America and its history."

Elizabeth Newton, another student, said, "We're learning how to be really, really analytical thinkers. … Really trying to discover for ourselves like the truth."

But not everyone has been on board with the curriculum changes.
 
"There were teachers that it was hard for them. I think a lot of times, history teachers — they love the national story, and the story that they were told and taught and studied is not necessarily the story that's part of this curriculum," Ani said.

Asked why parents and others should care about how children are learning history, Assenza said, "If we teach them everyone's story then they're going to become adults that believe in everyone's story, and if we don't teach the children correctly, it's going to be perilous for our society."

Ani is currently working on revamping the district's ninth grade curriculum, which includes the civil rights movement. She said it will go beyond well-known figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and include a focus on the ongoing struggle groups face in the fight for equality.