Authentic Assessment in Social Studies: A Guide to Keeping it Real, by David Sherrin

Authentic Assessment in Social Studies: A Guide to Keeping it Real, by David Sherrin

Providing opportunities for authentic assessment is not just about putting on an “innovation” badge; instead, it is a teaching and learning strategy grounded in educational theory and research that will lead to deeper learning and a fairer and more democratic educational system. In fact, traditional assessments are some of the primary causes of academic anxiety for students. Many students find some pleasure in the day-to-day of school, but dread the test-taking experience.

This book is partly a call to social studies educators to allow our next generation of artists, singers, poets, activists, web designers, museum curators, historians, and non-profit leaders to make their arguments in social studies classes using a wide and rich array of mediums: the same mediums through which people actually produce history (and political action) in our world. It is also a guide to how to successfully do so in your classroom. For some of our students, this may take the form of traditional writing, for others it may be painting, and for others it may be dance, video, discussion, podcast, poetry, narrative perspective pieces, or even civic action.

David Sherrin teaches Social Studies at Scarsdale High School in Westchester. He formally taught at Harvest Collegiate in New York City. This book shows teachers how to move beyond tests and essay writing to implement authentic assessments in middle or high school social studies classroom. It explains the value of authentic assessments and offers practical ways to get started and dive deeper in your practice. Real-life stories of classroom successes and failures illustrate points throughout the book. The chapters cover a range of categories, including different types of written, creative, and civic action assessments. The book includes planning charts and rubrics showing how to use, grade, and give feedback on assessments so they truly aid student learning and progress; specific examples, useful tips, and ready-to-go instructions that you can use immediately with your class; and open-ended assessments encourage scaffolding or adaptation for individual or group work to fit your classroom needs.

Whether you are a first-year social studies teacher curious about how to move beyond multiple choice tests to assess learning, or you have long used authentic assessments and are looking to take your practice to the next level, this book has thoughtful insight on steps you can take to deepen and enrich teaching and learning in your classroom by incorporating authentic assessments.” ― Randi Weingarten, President, American Federation of Teachers

“A real page-turner, this engaging book illustrates the wonderfully varied ways students can express themselves in social studies class. David Sherrin presents a wide range of projects to embed in the curriculum, drawing from his own content knowledge of history and other social sciences as well as his deep pedagogical knowledge honed by teaching in a uniquely diverse set of schools. Teachers will find a text that is thought provoking and practical thanks to ample assignment descriptions, rubrics, and discussions of classroom practice.” ― Shira Eve Epstein, Associate Professor of Curriculum and Instruction, The City College of New York (CUNY)

Educated for Freedom: The Incredible Story of Two Fugitive Schoolboys Who Grew Up to Change a Nation, by Anna Mae Duane

Educated for Freedom: The Incredible Story of Two Fugitive Schoolboys Who Grew Up to Change a Nation, by Anna Mae Duane

Anna Mae Duane, the author of Educated for Freedom, is Associate Professor of English and director of the American Studies Program at the University of Connecticut. According to the book blurb, “In the 1820s, few Americans could imagine a viable future for black children. Even abolitionists saw just two options for African American youth: permanent subjection or exile. Educated for Freedom tells the story of James McCune Smith and Henry Highland Garnet, two black children who came of age and into freedom as their country struggled to grow from a slave nation into a free country. Smith and Garnet met as schoolboys at the Mulberry Street New York African Free School, an educational experiment created by founding fathers who believed in freedom’s power to transform the country. Smith and Garnet’s achievements were near-miraculous in a nation that refused to acknowledge black talent or potential. The sons of enslaved mothers, these schoolboy friends would go on to travel the world, meet Revolutionary War heroes, publish in medical journals, address Congress, and speak before cheering crowds of thousands. The lessons they took from their days at the New York African Free School #2 shed light on how antebellum Americans viewed black children as symbols of America’s possible future. The story of their lives, their work, and their friendship testifies to the imagination and activism of the free black community that shaped the national journey toward freedom.”

Duane argues, “The questions that plagued Smith and Garnet remain relevant today. The notion that somehow Black bodies are doomed – stuck on a historical wheel that keeps returning them to the same place – has powerful resonance in the twenty-first century, as the country continues to reenact bitter divisions over the role of race in remembering our history and imagining our future” (10).

According to Karen Ordahl Kupperman, Professor Emerita, New York University, “Duane unravels the story of two boys enrolled in New York’s African Free School” who “as accomplished adults . . . confronted the reality that America offered African Americans.” Derrick Spires believes the book “will become indispensible for those invested in deep and complex understandings of black life and letter in the long nineteenth century.” James Brewer Stewart, founder of Historians Against Slavery, calls the book a “methodological tour de force.”

The Kidnapping Club: Wall Street, Slavery, and Resistance on the Eve of the Civil War by Jonathan Daniel Wells

The Kidnapping Club: Wall Street, Slavery, and Resistance on the Eve of the Civil War by Jonathan Daniel Wells

In The Kidnapping Club, Jonathan Daniel Wells, a social, cultural, and intellectual historian and a Professor of History in the Departments of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan, tells the story of the powerful network of judges, lawyers, and police officers who circumvented anti-slavery laws by sanctioning the kidnapping of free and fugitive African Americans. Nicknamed “The New York Kidnapping Club,” the group had the tacit support of institutions from Wall Street to Tammany Hall whose wealth depended on the Southern slave and cotton trade. But a small cohort of abolitionists, including Black journalist David Ruggles, organized tirelessly for the rights of Black New Yorkers, often risking their lives in the process. Taking readers into the bustling streets and ports of America’s great Northern metropolis, The Kidnapping Club is a dramatic account of the ties between slavery and capitalism, the deeply corrupt roots of policing, and the strength of Black activism.

“With New York City as its backdrop, The Kidnapping Club offers an important and compelling narrative that explores the long struggle for Black freedom and equality. Jonathan Daniel Wells offers a rich and timely account that uncovers a history of racial violence and terror in nineteenth-century Gotham. To no surprise, law enforcement, politicians, and bankers thwarted Black freedom time and time again. But the power and fortitude of Black New Yorkers pressed white citizens to remember and uphold the ideals of a new nation. The Kidnapping Club is a must read for those who want to understand current debates about the intersection of Black lives and structural oppression.”― Erica Armstrong Dunbar, author of Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge

“Jonathan Daniel Wells’ The Kidnapping Club is a necessary story of black agency and resistance. Bringing to life the competing strains of humanism and oppression that echo our present-day struggles, Wells paints a portrait of New York that reveals the best of American principles in the bodies of black resistors while showing us the economic complexity and complicity of America’s greatest city. It is a brilliant history perfectly suited for our times.”― Michael Eric Dyson, author of Tears We Cannot Stop and What Truth Sounds Like

The Kidnapping Club maps and specifies both the top-side financial connections between the capitalists of the North and the slavers of the South and the underbelly of police corruption, violence, and kidnapping that knit together. And it manages to combine acute historical analysis with literary drama and a persistent, gentle humanity. You should read it.”― Walter Johnson, author of The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States

“Nineteenth-century New York City was a battleground for African Americans, who most whites assumed to be undeserving of freedom. Jonathan Wells’ The Kidnapping Club brings to life the struggles in the courts and on the streets between those who sought to send blacks to slavery in the south; those who benefited from southern slavery; and the small group of interracial activists who fought against slavery and would eventually prevail in claiming freedom for all regardless of race. From politicians and jurists to newspaper owners, and from bankers to ministers to common laborers, everyone had a stake in the central question of the moment: the legality and morality of slavery and the status of people of African descent in the nation. Wells’ gripping narrative brings to life the real-life impact of these questions on every New Yorker, and how the struggle over racial equality affected every sector of life in antebellum New York City.” ― Leslie M. Harris, author of In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863.

Where We Started by Arthur Dobrin

Where We Started by Arthur Dobrin

Where We Started is a historical look at the United States from 1740-1864 that brings the past and its inhabitants alive and makes possible a very different understanding of the history of the United States, enslavement, and the struggle for freedom. Arthur Dobrin is an American author, Professor Emeritus of Management, Entrepreneurship, and General Business at Hofstra University and Leader Emeritus of the Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island. Dr. Arthur Dobrin served two years in the Peace Corps with his wife, Lyn, in Kenya. He has maintained his interest in Kenya since, having returned with his family and having led educational safaris to Kenya for Adelphi University School of Social Work.

“In Where we Started, Dobrin creates a world that leaves the reader enough space to make moral judgments themselves, while at the same time showing how perspective changes the weight of all these considerations. The novel reads like parables, strewn together and buoyed by historical context.”  – Christian Hayden, African American activist.

“The novel is a narrative on the development of American society, taking a realistic view of the social interactions between the Old and New World, and between the societal facets that coalesced to produce what we call Americans. This work does not shy away from some very sensitive and difficult narratives, and ones that require discourse today more than ever.” – Clifford J Pereira, Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

“I was touched by the individual events and stories. This book is very clearly in line with the telling of racial history in the USA country. No one would read this book and not be more aware of the ways in which it tells the sad story of race in the USA.” – Don Johnson, retired minister.

“Many historical novels are accurate in detail but not in the deeper reality of a period. Dobrin’s great accomplishment is that he places the reader in each period, as the people of the period would likely have experienced it.” – Dr. Michael S. Franch, President of Baltimore City Historical Society.

All Children Are All Our Children, by Doug Selwyn

All Children Are All Our Children by Doug Selwyn

Review by Peter Lang, 2018

What would schools and communities look like if the health and well-being of all our children were our highest priorities? More important than test scores, profits, or real estate values? What actions would we take if we wanted to guarantee that all our children were growing up with what they needed to be healthy, happy, and successful—and not just some of them? The United States was once among the healthiest countries in the world. As of now, it is ranked no better than twenty-ninth. Those who bear the brunt of our worsening health are the poor, people of color, and, most of all, our children. All Children Are All Our Children situates our ongoing health crisis within the larger picture of inequality and the complex interplay of systems in the U.S. based on class, privilege, racism, sexism, and the ongoing tension between the ideals of democracy and the realities of corporate capitalism. Public education is caught in the middle of those tensions. All Children Are All Our Children begins by defining what we mean by health, looking at the many factors that support or undermine it and then identifies steps that can be taken locally in our schools and in our communities that can support the health and well-being of our young people and their families, even as we work towards necessary change at the state and national policy level.

“Accessibly written with sharp-as-nails political analysis, in All Children Are All Our Children, long-time teacher and education activist Doug Selwyn indicts the inhumanity of corporate education reform while righteously arguing that healthy schools start with healthy communities and healthy kids. If you are interested in understanding how to really fix our schools, read this book.” – Wayne Au, Professor, School of Educational Studies, University of Washington Bothell, editor & author at Rethinking Schools

“In All Children are All of Our Children, Doug Selwyn asks us “What would it look like if we decided that the health and well-being of our children was our number one priority?” The answer is our schools and education system, indeed our entire society, would be transformed. In the tradition of John Holt and Herbert Kohl, Selwyn draws on his five decades of teaching experience, conversations with students, parents, health care professionals, social workers, educators and a deep dive into the research literature as he constructs a devastating portrait of the well-being of American children. But this book is not about despair, rather Selwyn fashions hope for children, schools and society with the message that the only education for social change is action to bring about that change and he offers us a multiple pathways to follow as we, step-by-step, transform ourselves and our society into one that makes the health and well-being of all children our first priority.” – E. Wayne Ross, Professor of Education, University of British Columbia

Dr. Selwyn takes a wide-angle view of the US educational system, allowing the reader to see how many variables in our imperfect society impact our students’ education, health, and happiness. He poses the uncomfortable question of whether we truly care for all our children and pushes us to reflect on our own compliance, lack of action, and even ignorance of the big picture. As a former student of Dr. Selwyn and now a classroom teacher, I am familiar with that nudge into the uncomfortable which inevitably pushes me to action.  His conclusion is a hopeful one: if our communities have the power to erode our educational system, those same communities have the assets to work together and begin the difficult and necessary work of change. – Diane Dame, Teacher, Saranac (NY) School District.

Supporting Civics Education With Student Activism by Pablo A. Muriel and Alan J. Singer

Supporting Civics Education with Student Activism: Citizens for a Democratic Society by Pablo A. Muriel and Alan J. Singer

This book empowers teachers to support student activists. The authors examine arguments for promoting student activism, explore state and national curriculum standards, suggest activist projects, and report examples of student individual and group activism. By offering suggestions for engaging students as activists across the K-12 curriculum and by including the stories of student activists who became lifetime activists, the book demonstrates how activism can serve to bolster democracy and be a component of rich, experiential learning. Including interviews with student and teacher activists, this volume highlights issues such as racial and immigrant justice, anti-gun violence, and climate change.

Support Civic Education with Student Activism: Citizens for a Democratic Society is an exemplary contribution to civics by showing how students can take part in democracy with social activism unafraid of expressing views and showing up personally when confronted by political and social issues, a noted contribution for the usually dull and legalistic way social studies and civics are taught. Filled with excellent examples of participatory democracy in action by students and their teachers.” – Jack Zevin, Professor Emeritus, Macaulay Honors College/CUNY, and Co-Director, The Taft Institute for Government

“Every social studies teacher should read this book. It is about how students became involved in their democracy and made critical changes in their communities. Pablo Murial and Alan Singer taught students the tools of activism and leadership. Students believed in social justice; their actions come from the heart.  Get to know the stories of the students and their teachers. This is an extraordinary book.” – Valerie Pang, Professor, School of Teacher Education, San Diego State University

“In today’s challenging times, social studies teachers are more important than ever in developing student civic literacy. A core component of this effort is in promoting student activism, so they can both exercise and benefit from such practices.  Pablo Muriel and Alan Singer, in their book Supporting Civics Education with Student Activism: Citizens for a Democratic Society, provide a template for teachers to help students become the type of citizens we profoundly need today.” – Mark Pearcy, Assistant Professor, Rider University, College of Education and Human Services, Executive Editor, Teaching Social Studies

“This is the book social studies educators K-12 across the nation need today. As an advocate for civic education, I find this book practical, informative, and most importantly, empowering for young people. It takes you on a journey of the authors’ own self-discovery as activists and their experiences as teachers encouraging student voice in and outside the classroom. A true guide for any educator who supports students as change agents.” – April Francis-Taylor, Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Eastern Suffolk BOCES and member of the NYSED Civic Readiness Task Force.

The City, by Deborah Stevenson

The City, by Deborah Stevenson

Review by Thomas Hansen

Deborah Stevenson presents here an in-depth philosophical and sociological portrait of global cities and their changing nature.  As many cities change—from Chicago to Mumbai—millions of people are impacted by the altered spaces, increased costs, morphing purposes, and altered neighborhoods that are part of the transformed blocks and buildings we call cities.

Stevenson presents mesmerizing images of how cities change, the difference between daylight and nighttime commerce, and the role of the city in providing a playground for alternative and anonymous persons.  One interesting note is that many people fill up the cities at night, coming to town to drink and carouse and then abandoning the cities once again in the wee hours.  The city has many roles and many functions indeed.

Currently, most people live in cities, and therefore they work, eat, shop, travel within a space apart from rural areas where most of the food is produced on this planet.  This disconnect is something very important to consider.  The author is informed and shares information from others who can help describe the city and explain it.

            The author gives us a great deal to think about and draws on experts in other fields who contribute to the study of urban spaces.  Part of the “Key Concepts” series from this publisher—there are about three dozen titles currently—this book draws upon a variety of schools, fields, and frameworks (p. 3).  Stevenson makes good use of all the fields and how they connect to sociology.  Stevenson also gives alternative views of urban sociology a chance (pp. 12-14) and incorporates other perspectives as she profiles the city.  

            Among other interesting concepts the author presents here is the notion of the “Trojan Horse of gentrification (p. 46).”  Certainly in many cities there are many cases of upheaval when neighborhoods change.  I think personally of Chicago and how families are in shock as their spaces are destroyed, rearranged, removed, refashioned, and otherwise conquered by others.

            I think of a friend who said recently, “Look what they did to my room!”  He was referring to a small basement space in a one-bedroom apartment which through gut rehabbing had been turned into a two-bedroom condominium.  His room had disappeared—had turned into part of a new living room.  It is radical change—and the huge impact of the city upon its people—that needs to be studied and recorded in books such as these.   

            The text has several uses for educators.  For example, social studies teachers can use it as background reading for recent historical information about immigration, movements toward cities, and the changing face of the metropolis.  In addition, there are implications for its use in a variety of advanced high school courses as a resource for students doing projects on spaces, the environment, financial investments, banking, and global issues, patterns, and problems.

            The book could also be used in various college courses as recommended or additional reading for giving students more information on “spaces” and also for talking about the “progress” of gentrification.  The disconnect between dwelling in the city and producing food in the country, the policies generated in the city far from the fields of food production, the loss of intimate spaces within cities, and the anonymous and entertaining aspects of the city at night are all interesting themes to explore in student reports and in further expert research. All of the above positive things being said, the book is theoretical in tone and sometimes dense reading.  The difficulty level should be considered if it is to be used in classes for students in high school or for lower undergraduate courses.

Great American City: Chicago & the Enduring Neighborhood Effect by Robert Sampson

Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect, by Robert Sampson

Review by Thomas Hansen

This book explains in very technical ways why, and how, neighborhoods matter.  Using questions over time, this compilation of studies looks at a wide variety of what makes neighborhoods safe, effective, and secure.  Sampson presents here some interesting questions to pose citizens throughout the City and then provides technical explanations and presentations of the results.

The book comprises several studies that look at a variety of questions.  For example, Sampson wants to know whether a given neighborhood is safe and what that means.  Is there a great deal of crime?  Suicide?  Poverty?  Loss of jobs?  What is the family structure like in that neighborhood?  Do students succeed in school?  Is there purpose within the family?  Hopelessness?  Support from parents or other adults?  From members of the church?

Another emphasis of the book is how neighborhoods differ.  If X exists in a given neighborhood, does that mean Y also exists?  What about a neighborhood bounded by another one with rampant Z?  If someone finds a letter on the ground, will they place it in a mailbox?  If someone sees a crime, will they report it?  What influences school completion?  A lack of violence in the neighborhood?  Parents with gainful employment?  Being in a neighborhood near another one with elevated school completion rates?

This is an in-depth study of neighborhoods.  Readers with a good deal of background in statistics and quantitative research will have no problem dealing with the variety of data and presentation of the data here.  Readers without such background can still get a lot of information from this book—just not on the level at which the book is constructed.

I recommend the book, especially for teachers, researchers, and policymakers who need very clear and very detailed information on the topics presented in the book.  The book will fit into advanced sociology courses about Chicago, into courses on how to show the results of a grouping of related studies, and into discussions on policies and governance. 

Although the text fits into graduate and advanced undergraduate levels more easily because of the level of background knowledge, information on statistics, and familiarity with social sciences required, it can also be important for teachers of advanced high school students.

Related to the Common Core Standards, the book dovetails into units on grades 11-12 technical readings and units including perspectives to explore and argue.  It is also a fine reference work for grades 11-12 honors students and AP students writing research papers on topics and conclusions supported by the advanced data and presentations provided here.  

American Dialogue: The Founders and Us by Joseph J. Ellis

American Dialogue: The Founders and Us by Joseph J. Ellis.

Review by James J. Carpenter

            While ordering lunch at a deli in South Carolina, the young cashier noticed I had a book with me. “Whatcha readin’?” he asked. “A book on American history” I responded. He then went on to lament how history is being deemphasized in school and to question how were we to avoid repeating the errors of the past if we don’t know what they were. The book I had that day was American Dialogue by Joseph J. Ellis.  Ironically, Ellis’ book deals in part with the very issue the young man raised; namely, what we can learn from the “ongoing conversation between past and present” (p. 4). I must confess I am a fan of Ellis’ writing and have read several of his books on early American history. The sub-title to his latest work, The Founders and Us, especially piqued my interest. Was this another attempt at deciphering the intent of the founders as it pertains to current issues or was it something else?  As I read each chapter, I discovered this work was significantly more and I saw important connections for classroom teachers.

            Following a preface, Ellis divides four chapters into two parts each: Then and Now. Each chapter focuses on what he identifies as four enduring issues that are more salient and challenging in the first quarter of the twenty-first century. Ellis establishes the historical foundation for each subject and then examines the complexity of each in the context of a divisive political climate complicated by domestic and international obstacles. Acknowledging that a true conversation with the founders is obviously impossible, he attempts to connect their concerns regarding these controversial topics with those of modern America. Hence, his use of the term dialogue in his title. The four areas he identifies are race, equality, law, and foreign policy. In each case, Ellis chooses one member of the founding generation as the central figure with whom to engage in his “dialogue”: For race, it is Thomas Jefferson; for equality he chooses John Adams; James Madison is his focus for law; and for our diplomatic relations abroad he uses George Washington. In the Now portions of each chapter, Ellis situates each current issue “as recent entries in long-standing patterns” (p. 8). His choice of both issues and founders reflect, he argues, “what is still an ongoing argument about our destiny as a people and a nation” (p. 7). Ellis’ final chapter is an epilogue he uses to discuss the successes and failures of early American leadership because he believes “the founders managed to maximize the creative possibilities of their time more fully than any subsequent generation of political leaders in American history” (p. 228).

            His discussion of each issue is both insightful and challenging. For example, choosing Jefferson for his chapter on race is perfect given Jefferson’s conflicted and apparent hypocritical relationship with slavery and African Americans. Ellis argues that Jefferson’s criticism of slavery “operated at an elevated region of his mind, which never descended to the ground that he walked and that his slaves at Monticello worked” (p. 22). He was incapable, according to Ellis, of imagining a biracial society, let alone a multiracial one. In the modern context, this darker element of Jefferson’s legacy is reflected in a more subtle version of racism fueled “by white assumptions of black inferiority” (p. 58). The resurgence of more strident voices on this issue only complicate the fulfillment of the democratic ideal of racial equality as implied, if not expressed, by Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence. In examining equality, Ellis compares the views of John Adams with those same famous words: “all men are created equal.” He portrays Adams as more of a realist or even a cynic who “insisted that inequality was the natural condition of mankind.” Not only did Adams mean differences in physical and mental attributes, he also believed distinctions based on money and social class “always were and always would be a permanent fixture in all societies on earth, including the aspiring republic called the United States…” (p.81). In twenty-first century America, Ellis argues “we currently inhabit a second Gilded Age” characterized by “unacceptable levels of economic inequality” (p. 114); A result Adams “tried to tell us … was virtually inevitable over two centuries ago” (p. 115).

Considered the “Father of the Constitution” by many if not most, Madison was the “obvious person to focus on” in his chapter on law. Ellis argues that during the period of 1787 to 1789, Madison’s actions “just might constitute the most brilliant political performance in American history” (pp. 121-122). Considering him to be a pragmatist, Ellis describes Madison’s changing constitutional interpretations from opposing Hamilton’s plans for strengthening the national government to later rejecting John C. Calhoun’s secessionist arguments not as inconsistency but rather a reflection of Madison’s willingness “to accommodate what the evolving political context required” and “as political adaptions of principle to changing conditions” (p. 149). Ellis contrasts this Constitutional adaptability to the originalist interpretations perhaps best exemplified by the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. For Ellis, if arguably the chief architect of the Constitution interpreted its words differently according to the historical context, how can modern jurists rigidly apply eighteenth-century understandings to twenty-first century issues by “channeling the wisdom of the founders” (p. 170)?

Just as Madison was the logical choice for the previous chapter, George Washington, as “the primary architect of American foreign policy in the founding era,” was the clear option to review the origins of American foreign policy (p. 173). Ellis concentrates on the contradiction inherent in a democratic republic being an imperial nation at the same time. His first example of this is Washington’s failure to protect the sovereignty and rights of Native American tribes in the western territories acquired in the Treaty of Paris (1783). He continues with problems of neutrality during the war between Great Britain and France in the 1790’s culminating with the highly partisan debate and vote over Jay’s Treaty (ratified in 1796). In analyzing Washington’s Farewell Address, Ellis believes that focusing on the prescription for an isolationist foreign policy overshadows a more important, “deeper message” to be found in the address; namely that “foreign policy must be based on a realistic appraisal of American interests, not on popular referendums or nostalgic memories” (p. 193). It is this advice, he argues, that has been ignored since the end of the Cold War, a period distinguished by “nearly perpetual war” without “successful outcomes,” despite “the overwhelming military superiority of the United States” (p. 211). This has resulted in a policy that “became an inherently improvisational process” (p. 209). American exceptionalism today means the opposite of its original understanding: “In effect, precisely because the conditions shaping the American founding were unique, it was highly problematic to presume that the American model was transportable beyond the borders of the United States” (pp. 215-216). The future of our foreign policy, according to Ellis, is destined to continue to be an erratic one.

            Ellis emphasizes that the founders, and especially the men he uses in each chapter, were not godlike or superhuman. Rather, they were men of talent who were able to make the most of that particular moment in time. Ellis also stresses that the founders did not speak with one voice. They “harbored different beliefs about what the American Revolution meant” (p. 232). These differences were at the heart of the arguments that occurred when major issues arose. For Ellis, this “made dialogue unavoidable” (p. 232). It is this diversity of opinion that prevents any political party or special interest group from claiming to know or represent the framer’s intent. Ellis alleges that “it is the argument itself, not the answer either liberals or conservatives provide, that is the abiding legacy” (p. 232). And it is this assertion that makes this book important reading for social studies teachers. It can serve as a springboard for ideas to get students to see history as relevant and not as a dead discipline. Teachers can pose interesting questions for students to consider and have them consult historical references for evidence to support their answers. For example, students can probe the meaning of the democratic ideal of equality. How has this concept expanded over the century? What does equality mean in a society still grappling with issues of race or of enormous economic differences? What is the relationship between equality and equitable treatment? Teachers can also have students investigate the complexity of current issues in historical context. For instance, what did the Second Amendment mean in 1791? Given the extent of gun violence in the United States today, is there a need to revisit or revise the existing amendment? Is there a role for the federal government in addressing economic disparity? What should the role of the United States be in world affairs?

            The value of this book for teachers is the emphasis Ellis gives to the importance of history. Not just to memorize dates and events but to illustrate the differing opinions held by our revered historical figures. Making students aware of this reality will enable them to better evaluate sources and to critique current arguments surrounding controversial issues. Indeed, Ellis is openly critical of “the most flagrant forms of ideological prejudice” employed by leaders or analysts who are guilty of “cherry-picking the evidence” to support a current political or social issue (p .7). An informed citizenry in a democracy requires more than a knowledge of facts; it requires the necessary critical skills to detect political bias and to make better informed decisions.

            We are living in one of the most polarized eras in American history. Citizens are regularly bombarded with claims as to what the framers’ intent was in grappling with twenty-first century problems. In part, Ellis rebuts this practice by reminding us that appealing to the past to shed light on current solutions is problematic. “By definition, all efforts to harvest the accumulated wisdom of the past must begin from a location in the present, so the questions posed of the past are inevitably shaped either consciously or unconsciously by the historical context in which they are asked” (pp. 6-7). Ellis’ goal is not to resolve any dispute as to the founder’s intent or “to find answers” but rather “to argue about [these questions]” (p. 9). And this, to me, is the value this book has for educators entrusted with teaching future democratic citizens. Democracy is built on deliberation, debate, and even arguing. However, as Ellis demonstrates, the founders understood the value of compromise as a means to keep moving forward. Not all compromises were successful but they at least enabled the nation to avoid remaining stagnant. In an era when both parties employ a “my way or the highway” approach to solving critical issues, our students need to understand that reason can facilitate problem solving. Dialogue, even intense disagreement, about issues is at the heart of democratic government. Ellis’ book offers examples of how teachers can use the founders to confront controversial questions in the twenty-first century.

Caste and the Origins of Our Discontent

Caste and the Origins of Our Discontent

Isabel Wilkerson

Book Review by Hank Bitten, NJCSS Executive Director

I decided to read Caste in my search for new perspectives for information and resources to guide teachers with the teaching of ‘hard history’ about institutional racism in our country. From the events in my lifetime (since the civil rights movement) and more specifically the events of the past few years, I was skeptical of the claim of systemic racism in America. Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste convinced me that the problem is real and needs to be addressed by social studies teachers K-12.

My Personal Perspective

First, allow me to comment on my perspective which is reflected in my experiences as a white citizen and teacher.  My experience in Paterson as a teenager and student at Eastside High School in 1960 reflected fear of the black community which is based on two unprovoked attacks on public transportation and theft of our family’s car. My experience in college was positive and some of my closest friends were black. As a first-year teacher in New York City in 1969, when busing was instituted to integrate schools, my experience was also positive.  I introduced an African American history course and was the advisor to the Harambay or diversity club for students. My black students were very successful even though they were victims of harassment on their route to school on public transportation.  I even rode the B52 bus to school for several weeks during a time of increased racial tension in Queens to offer protection and security to students in our school. Many, perhaps all, of the black high school students I taught over 46 years, were successful in their dreams of attending the colleges of their choice and in their careers.

I recognize that my perspective is influenced by the zip codes of the districts where I taught, the ability level of the students in my classes, and the faculty in the schools and departments in the three districts where I taught. Your experience is likely different than mine and the events of the past four years have motivated me to reflect on what I taught, how I taught, what my students may have remembered, and the importance of teaching about the African American experience with empathy and problem-solving strategies in addition to historical documents and videos. My students learned history in teams and I listened to what they were telling me. I want to think that I contributed to their self-esteem and gave them confidence to make smart decisions in their interactions with people.

My Great Awakening

In my research for this book review, I participated in a Zoom with my New York City students from 45-50 years ago. Both black and white students commented that the racial issues of 2020 were greater than what they experienced in the 1970s. I have very little to offer about this observation except to say that the lessons I taught about Emmett Till, the Starpower simulation game I used to teach about privilege, the movie Roots, and the discussions motivated by current events in those years gave my students an understanding about the power of individuals to abuse, the inequalities of wealth, respecting authority, and the importance of education.

Caste is a valuable resource for teachers and students based on the voices of victims, citizens, leaders, and historical examples.  The information in each chapter is authentic and provided me with new insights into America’s past.  In my reading of Caste, I found myself repeatedly saying “I wish I had known this” or “why didn’t I know this?” The three resources below are reasons to read Caste and supplement the way you are likely teaching United States or World History.

The first resource is the metaphor of an old house.  I have used this metaphor to illustrate the need for reform or renovation in my teaching of the Protestant Reformation and progressive reforms in the 19th and 20th centuries.  I have also used the metaphor of tearing down an old house to teach the concept of revolution.  Isabel Wilkerson’s use of the metaphor reflects on the generations who occupy the house and the need for each occupant to look at what is behind the paint or wallpaper on the walls.

She uses this metaphor to present the idea of the architecture of caste or our place in society. Through this metaphor I have come to understand that the problem is deeper than race and it is the way all of us dehumanize individuals, use stereotypes, and forget that we are all the same. In Caste, we are confronted with the framework of joists, beams, and headers in the way the colonial era used labor, viewed property, and labeled indigenous populations, people from Africa and the Caribbean, and individuals from the Middle East, Far East, and South Asia by the color of their skin.

The new owners of this house in 1776 wanted to end the importation of slaves and offer liberty to those who fought in the American Revolution.  But the framework of caste, race, inequality, and social injustice remained as some of the occupants from the Enlightenment generation owned slaves and supported segregation.

The occupants of the antebellum generation were more radical in their renovations of this house through abolition and voices to end slavery. Unfortunately, others sold slaves breaking up families, captured fugitives, and exploited cheap labor.  After the Civil War, part of the house was replaced with constitutional amendments while the other half of the house added structural supports to the foundation of segregation, racial tension and lynching.

The 20th century generation, including the 30 years I was a teacher and administrator, saw significant renovations to the architecture of ‘this old house’ through the civil rights movement, educational opportunities, and Supreme Court decisions.  Unfortunately, the problems present since 1619 continued as black populations had the highest rates of high school dropouts, incarceration in prisons, divorce, health problems, lower life expectancy, targets of racial profiling, and the list continues.

Even with the appointment of black justices to the Supreme Court, the election of President Barack Obama, and notable leaders of color in every sector of the economy, the problems of race, injustice, violence, fear, and discrimination are continuing and escalating. Isabel Wilkerson explains this as evidence of the caste system in American society.

As a grandparent, I observed the questions our grandchildren asked in their discovery of people of color around the age of three. This is why education in the home and in pre-school is essential.  Parents and educators, siblings and peers, have the ability to rebuild ‘the house’ in this generation. 

My Epiphany Experience

The second resource is how the book presents the claim or argument of caste in America and the evidence used to present this argument. I had the opportunity to listen to Isabel Wilkerson in a presentation about Caste, and was intrigued by her response that she does not present an argument in her book but instead presents a ‘prayer’ for going forward. This is a powerful and inspiring statement!  However, my review found powerful examples documented in history, by historians, and from the news in support of her thesis that systemic racism in inherent in the way we think and behave.

Although there are excellent comparisons to Nazi Germany and India, it is the examples provided in the book that haunted me and convinced me that social injustice exists in schools, neighborhoods, government, business, and within me. Here are just a few examples:

Forest Whitaker, and Academy Award-winning actor walked into a gourmet deli in his Manhattan West Side neighborhood and was frisked in front of other customers.  The incident occurred in 2013. Whitaker said, “It’s a humiliating thing for someone to come and do that. It’s attempted disempowerment.” (p. 107)

“In 2015, the members of a black women’s book club were traveling by train on a wine tour of Napa Valley. When their laughter caused some white passengers to complain, the police were called and the women were told to leave the train.” (p.293 and The Guardian, September 13, 2015)

“In 2018, the owner of a Pennsylvania golf club ordered black women, who were members of the club, to leave because they were not moving along fast enough on the course.” The police were called. (p. 293 and CNN, April 25, 2018)

The unnamed college professor who picked up his mail in his luxury apartment opened one of his letters and was told by the man next to him in the elevator that “You’re supposed to be delivering the mail, not opening it.” (p. 213.)

At Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, a woman called campus police on a female graduate student who had fallen asleep while studying in a common area of her dormitory, Officers demanded her identification even after she unlocked the door to her room. She was told, “You’re in a Yale building and we need to make sure you belong here.” (p. 217)

Sgt. Isaac Woodard, Jr. was riding a Greyhound bus after he was honorably discharged in February 1946. The bus driver called the police at the next stop in Aiken, South Carolina where Sgt. Woodard, still in uniform, was arrested for disorderly conduct.  The police chief beat him with a billy club which left him blind. The NAACP brought this to the attention of President Truman who ordered an investigation.  The local prosecutor did not accept the testimony of Sgt. Whittaker and he was found guilty.  His defense attorney spoke racial epithets to his face. (p. 227-228)

“Offenders in Georgia were eleven times more likely to get the death penalty if the victim was white than if the victim was black.” (p. 241)

The examples of social injustice are carefully documented from multiple states and over three centuries.  It is painful to read these examples even though as a history teacher I am aware of the violence against Americans of color and women.  The evidence is overwhelming when presented in each chapter and on almost every page. Although I did not want to accept the claim that a caste system based on color is in the America where I live and teach, I became convinced and humbled by my guilt and silence that institutional racism is real.

My Call to Do Something

These factual observations opened my eyes to and ‘ugly America’ that I was not addressing with my circle of family and friends. The documented reports in Caste are not only discussion starters for a class in Sociology but a call for action to a five-alarm fire in K-12 social studies classes. As we learned in the 1968 Kerner Commission Report, we are living in two Americas.  Every history and social studies teacher and department needs to address the problem of injustice and unequal treatment in the curriculum. Behaviors are more likely changed by education than by legislation!

Conclusion

The first action I took while I was reading this book was to develop a comprehensive resource for teachers in middle school and high school on African Americans and Latinx Americans. The second step I took was to identify best practice curriculums on African American history. These are posted on the Links page of the NJCSS website, www.njcss.org  The third action I took was to write this book review and publish it. I am aware that I need to do more regarding human rights education, racial and social injustice, environmental sustainability, LGBTQ awareness, and teaching world religions.

In a webinar sponsored by Facing History and Ourselves, Isabel Wilkerson made the statement that she intended her book as a prayer for the future. I did not grasp the meaning of her statement until the Epilogue where she wrote, “Every spiritual tradition says love your neighbor as yourself not tolerate them.” (p. 387).  We must teach students how to live with courage in a dangerous world.

At the end of 2020, 335,000 Americans have died as a result of the Covid-19 virus. The death rate for African Americans is 2.7 times that of white Americans. What is not documented is the number of minorities, with health care insurance, who are not able to have a conversation with their doctor about how to get tested, the care they will be receiving, and the options for medications and treatment available to them.

Caste is written in 31 chapters over approximately 400 pages which allows for a debate in class or a faculty book discussion. This is a book that needs to be discussed and debated. Teachers are the catalyst for curriculum reform in social studies and English Language Arts. A thread is needed to weave the political, social and economic events between 1619 and the present with the horrific accounts of injustice, slavery, discrimination, and abuse.  The positive accounts of contributions to America’s stories of industrialization, democracy, service to country, are critical to ending the legacy of caste in America’s social and cultural history.

Perhaps this is best told through the voices and stories of natives, slaves, abolitionists, sharecroppers, immigrants, voters, athletes, entrepreneurs, and the families of victims. An interesting story that I enjoyed is the one on pp. 379-80. About Elsa and Albert Einstein opening their home to Marian Anderson who was denied a room at the Nassau Inn in Princeton, NJ after singing to an overflow crowd at the McCarter Theatre. For the Einstein’s this was not a one-time act of hospitality but an action of loving one’s neighbor as one’s self. This is how educators change the stubborn behaviors of caste and privilege.