Texas educators work to make state history relevant for today's students
03/01/2012 11:43 PM
03/02/2012 9:08 AM
When Andrew Marsh's students at Danny Jones Middle School in Mansfield walk around mouthing lyrics about the Runaway Scrape, Spanish presidios, Anson Jones and the Know-Nothing Party, they're not killing time. They're studying Texas history.
The songs, which borrow tunes from the likes of Dr. Dre, Eminem and Maroon 5, are the most popular of Marsh's classroom innovations.
Today is Texas Independence Day, marking the Republic of Texas' birth on March 2, 1836, and it is up to teachers like Marsh to make the rich story relevant for today's students.
He is not alone in trying new ways to school students on state history.
Texas history curricula have been a changing landscape since the Texas Sesquicentennial in 1986.
Teachers and researchers have refocused, trying to augment the swashbuckling tales of the Texas Revolution with broader studies of its background, consequences and multicultural nature.
"They've added some historical people and some more recent political people, and they've diversified," said Angela Whitaker, social studies director of the Fort Worth school district.
"It's the same timeline within the past and includes a higher-level vocabulary."
Students today learn about Juan Seguin, Rep. Barbara Jordan, the League of United Latin American Citizens and Gov. Ann Richards right along with Stephen F. Austin, Susanna Dickinson, the Treaty of Velasco and James Fannin.
"The narrative of the Texas Revolution itself has evolved since 1986," said Bruce Winders, curator and historian of the Alamo. "I'm not sure how much of the new interpretation has actually reached the public, let alone school and even university classrooms."
History teachers in those classrooms point out that standards keep evolving because of changes in accountability testing and the state curriculum.
"Our standards have changed," Whitaker said. "We examine Texas history from the early beginning to the present, within the context of influencing the United States' history."
Texas history is taught in fourth grade and with more context in seventh grade.
Seventh-graders get a more in-depth study of Texas after the republic period, Whitaker said, including the ages of oil, cotton and cattle, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and Texas' connections to World War II and the civil-rights and women's rights movements.
"When I first found out that I had to take Texas history, I wasn't really happy, because it's history," said Sydney Veatch, 13, one of Marsh's students. "But this is a more in-depth curriculum and it's more hands-on."
Educators say students originally from other states are at first perplexed that Texas schools cover the state's history so thoroughly. But native Texans understand the state's influence in the country and the world, they say.
"I think students are very passionate about Texas history because it's the state they live in," said Whitaker, a former U.S. history teacher in Keller. "They make those life connections to their own lives."
The new State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness and a scheduled rewrite of social studies curriculum standards have brought about the latest update.
"There has been an effort to make the narrative that's being taught more diverse and inclusive," said Stephen Cure, educational services director for the Texas State Historical Association.
"I don't think that was new. It was part of the oncoming trend to reflect the true diversity as part of the story. In order for them to connect with Texas history, students need to see themselves reflected in it."
Cure, a former seventh-grade teacher in Round Rock, was on the committee that made initial recommendations to the State Board of Education before the curriculum was rewritten.
Both groups received a deluge of public feedback about the new curriculum and the number of names added to the text.
"I don't think it changed that much," teacher Chad Hannon said. "We've always talked about Mexican history and how that intertwines with Texas history."
Hannon, who teaches Texas history at Grapevine Middle School, appreciates what he says is more clarity in the new standards.
Alamo historian Winders said scholarly study of the Texas Revolution has "greatly matured" and is now more in line with earlier historians' broader views that the conflict was more complex than Texans versus Mexicans.
"Their interpretations remove the 'us versus them' mentality that has made the Texas Revolution appear to be largely an ethnic conflict," Winders said.
While nodding to tradition, teachers are pioneering 21st-century methods for a 19th-century subject.
Besides the original songs about state history, Marsh's Mansfield students draw topical cartoons and use a website to simulate their own nation.
"The first part of the year they come in and think, 'OK, we did this in fourth grade,'" Marsh said. "I have to make some global connections and American connections, and by the end of the year, they have a deeper appreciation of Texas history."
Travis Moore, Marsh's principal, says the methods are backed by sound research.
"There's a lot of research about music and memory, and how one helps the other," Moore said.
"The political cartoons require them to do analysis and critical thinking."
Marsh's students adapt well to critical thinking. After studying the evidence, Jonathan Ramirez, 13, has concluded that Sam Houston was a better Texas Republic president than Mirabeau B. Lamar.
His classmate Christopher Morales, 13, says his favorite constitutional amendment is the Second Amendment and is drawing a political cartoon to show why.
"The way I'm going to do it is to draw people with their hands up, like they're a militia," he said.
The songs, cartoons, and opinion questions all liven up the subject for Ramirez.
"It refreshes me about Texas history and it gives me more information," he said. "You know how people would be bored reading from a textbook."
In Grapevine, Hannon uses music as well as visuals as teaching tools. He had his students do video projects on the Alamo and is marking each day of the siege with a classroom narrative to set the scene.
Seventh-grade standards cover Texas' past so thoroughly that even without the pressures of accountability testing, teachers can struggle to get it all in.
"It runs from the beginning of time to modern day," Hannon said. "That is, in my opinion, an impossible task to teach, but we really try."
Right now, classes are studying Texas' revolutionary period. Hannon said they must move on to the Civil War after spring break, then study oil and cattle and end on modern Texas politics and the shift from Democratic to Republican dominance.
"A lot of things have happened from Cabeza de Vaca to Spindletop," Hannon said.
Shirley Jinkins, 817-390-7657
Here's Chad Hannon's music video of the Battle of San Jacinto:
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