Activity Group 1: Before Beginning: Teaching History

Kara Walker’s body of work asks us to not only question how history is represented but it asks us to consider how we represent each other and how we represent ourselves; and importantly, how these depend or rely on each other.

Exercise 1: Representing Ourselves

Before engaging with Walker’s work, we would like you—whether an educator or learner—to first experiment with different kinds of identity maps, considering how each map asks you to picture yourself, reflecting on what gets highlighted and what gets left out.

Please complete each map in the order below. As you do so, take note of what this experience is like for you. What surprising discoveries do you make? What aspects make you feel uncomfortable? Take a moment to write in response to these questions as you finish each map. This process is not about judgement, but about self-reflection. Identity maps are often starting points, places to begin, and from which we can continue to think and rethink.

Starburst Identity Map: Print or draw your own starburst map, naming how you see yourself and how you think others see you as signaled by the direction of the arrows.

Mapping Borders and Identities: Developed by the Smithsonian Institution Center for Cultural and Folklife Heritage, this mapping exercise asks you to begin visualizing and questioning how you conceive of borders and identities in your life.

Universe of Obligation Map: Print or draw your own version of this map. This can be a more difficult one, as it asks each of us to prioritize who matters most to us and to begin to visualize how our “universe of obligation” may look. Once completed, however, we can reflect, rethink, and reimagine.

Other resources:
Who am I
Universe of Obligation

Exercise 2: Having Difficult Conversations Together

A number of the education organizations from which this resource draws (linked below) provide particular frameworks and strategies for responsibly setting up difficult conversations. These approaches ask you—educators, librarians, and learners—to make explicit your reflections, questions, and assumptions, and to find connections to those who may, at first, seem different.

If you are guiding a group, whether large or small, through this Reading Resource, it is important to start by asking them what makes a discussion productive versus what makes it unproductive. After hearing from everyone in the room, together you can draw up clear guidelines and even a contract for how you will engage in difficult conversations as a group. This will help support the work you want to do, encouraging and challenging learners to reflect and rethink, while also ensuring they are safe from the kinds of macro and micro-aggressions which can often shut down both particular learners and/or whole group conversations.

Personal note and a strategy:
The day after the 2016 election, I went to teach my first-year college students who I knew would have strong feelings, thoughts and reactions to process about it. In order to find a way to make sure everyone was heard, but also not knowing everyone’s political affiliations or opinions, I gave each student a notecard. On it, I asked them to reflect on how they were feeling in relation to the election results, guided by three questions: What are your questions; what are your concerns; what are your hopes. Everyone took 5-7 minutes to write in response to these questions but I told them not to write down their names. They handed in the notecards, which I shuffled and reordered, then I redistributed them. I then asked each student to read what was written on the notecard. Each student read someone else’s words, not knowing whose, after which we all wrote and reflected about what we heard. This strategy somehow brought all of us together while also honoring the differences of opinion and reaction existing in our class. I do want to note that this was not a first-day-of-class strategy, that we had had some time together, and I had worked hard to build a class community. Even still, I wanted us to hear each other without the heated emotions of calling out one person over another for their views, or without reactions getting in the way on this particular day during the semester.

"Let's Talk!": Teaching for Tolerance's Guide (on talking about race in classrooms)

Restorative Justice Circles

Classroom Circles (developed for San Francisco Public Schools)

Resource from Facing History and Ourselves

Exercise 3: Representing History

A number of mainstream newspapers, educators, and educational organizations across the United States have begun reflecting on and rethinking how slavery is taught in schools, if it is taught at all. Some of these efforts are compiled in our Additional Materials section.

Please take a moment to respond in writing to the questions below, considering your own experiences learning about slavery in school versus what you may have learned about it outside of the schooling context. Some additional questions to consider: In what course subjects did you learn about slavery? What kinds of topics and questions did you discuss in relation to slavery in the United States i.e., did you discuss the Underground Railroad, particular people like Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman, the Civil War, etc.?

Loop writing
These questions are meant to follow each other and ask you to write down first impressions/responses:

1. What is slavery?

2. What have you learned about slavery in the United States?

3. Where did you learn this (in school, through friends/family, through media, etc.)?

Exercise 4: Brief Introduction to Slavery in the United States

There is no one way to do this and, in fact, learning history of any kind—most particularly about slavery—is not something to teach or learn in one quick session or even in one unit. Stressing the importance of inquiry, and that there is always more to know, helps learners position themselves in relation to a given content area as a process of asking questions and learning over time. Below, we have assembled some ways to start a conversation or a learning unit around slavery in the United States.

Whether a teacher, librarian, or learner, use this image-driven and chronologically organized resource by the New York Times’s 1619 Project to introduce aspects of slavery’s history.

Pedagogical ideas for using the 1619 Project:
1. Show all or particular images to learners to both introduce the topic of slavery’s history and to introduce protocols around ways of viewing and analyzing images. Use a graphic organizer, such as this journal, to support a learner’s observation work. Focus on “what do you see” and “what do you wonder.” Learners can write this down for each image or you can print and place images on the wall so learners can conduct a gallery walk activity.

2. Ask learners to assemble a timeline of this “brief history of slavery.” They can do this in groups: give each group images and the corresponding text, and ask learners to order them along an actual timeline.

Exercise 5: Who writes history?

How is history represented? How might a scholar or teacher’s point-of-view shape what you learn about a given subject? In the following exercise, ask learners to:

1. Read this NPR text “Why Calling Slaves 'Workers' Is More Than An Editing Error,” which features how a high school student alerted his mother to a problem with his textbook.

2. Analyze at least two different text book entries on slavery to analyze how POV and word choice shape how learners understand a topic and its relevance/importance.

Exercise 6: Ways of Reading

To introduce learners to the problems of representation in writing the history of slavery, consider this New York Times article on Slavery in American Schools. Find some suggested excerpts below or locate others you would like to use.

Ways to Read:
Read aloud together: learners can read one sentence or excerpt, or teachers/librarians can read aloud while students have excerpts in front of them.

Ask learners to annotate the excerpts, using methods relevant to your institutional context. You can also ask learners to underline or mark important ideas or words. You can ask them to ask questions. You can ask them to summarize an important idea. Learners can do this independently and debrief with a partner or group before sharing out.

1. "Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance, a program at the Southern Poverty Law Center that promotes diversity education, said the rubric used to analyze the textbooks was about seeing how the history of enslavement was integrated throughout a book and exactly what those contents were. In most teachings, she said, slavery is treated like a dot on a timeline. 'The best textbooks maybe have 20 pages, and that’s in an 800-page textbook,' Costello told me. 'At its best, slavery is taught because we have to explain the Civil War. We tend to teach it like a Southern problem and a backward economic institution. The North is industrialized; the South was locked in a backward agricultural system.' About 92 percent of students did not know that slavery was the war’s central cause, according to the survey."

2. "About 80 percent of this country’s 3.7 million teachers are white, and white educators, some of whom grew up learning that the Civil War was about states’ rights, generally have a hand in the selection of textbooks, which can vary from state to state and from school district to school district. 'These decisions are being made by people who learned about slavery in a different way at a different time,' Costello told me."

3. "A report published last year by the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy, a research institute focused on K-12 issues in American public schools, examined social-studies teachers and found that there is limited testing accountability. Social studies is 'largely absent from federal education law and policy,' the report found, which arguably makes it a 'second-tier academic' subject. More than half the high-school seniors surveyed reported that debate in the classroom—a proven practice of good teaching—was infrequent."

Exercise 7: Final Reflection Questions

Having learners assess and reflect on their own learning is important preparation for engaging Walker’s work in all of its complexity. The more learners ask their own questions, reflect on what they have learned and what more they want to know, the more engaged and centered they will be in relation to the art work and its subject matter.

Reflection Questions:
1. Name the two most important things you learned about the history of slavery and/or the ways the history of slavery is most often taught in schools.

2. What more do you want to know? What resources can you use to do your own research?


Reading Resources: Kara Walker was produced by Wendy Tronrud (A. R. T. Education Consultant) in collaboration with Art Resources Transfer (A.R.T.) in 2019-20.

A.R.T. acknowledges the invaluable generosity, assistance, and enthusiasm of all who contributed to Reading Resources production:

This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council.

We also thank:
National Endowment for the Arts
H.W. Wilson Foundation
Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
Mackenzie Salisbury
A.R.T. Board of Directors
A.R.T. Advisory Board
and most specially, Kara Walker.

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Copyright © Art Resources Transfer, Inc 2020.

All images are protected under copyright by the original rights holders.

A.R.T. is a 501(c)3 nonprofit.

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