Beans & Rice for the Soul

teaching, learning and living around the world

What does it take to be a great historian? Part 2

Read part 1 here.

A grade 8 textbook writer recently asked me, “I’m writing about forms of colonialism.  When I write about Congo, do you think I should include a photo like this one?”

Amputees. Originally published by Mark Twain.

Amputees. Originally published by Mark Twain.


I took a moment to think about those 7 years I taught middle school social studies.
I thought about how fearless I was in exposing 13 year olds to the violent side of human history. The graphic images and harsh words we analyzed and wrote about.

I also thought about a former colleague who was absolutely appalled by my approach to teaching. Teary eyed and red faced, this colleague exclaimed, “How dare you share such things with such young children!”


I also thought about how I never, not even once, received a single student or parent complaint about my approach.

We live in a beautiful AND cruel world!
With a cruel AND beautiful past.
And I truly believe that it is difficult to be


by the good alone!  We need to first understand what the good was UP AGAINST!

And that usually involves violence.
So violent histories my students did learn.

I told this textbook writer about all of this. In the end I said,
“…If you’re asking me personally, what would I do?
Hell yes, I’d include that photo. I’d say, how dare I NOT include the photo.”

On that very same day, a colleague handed me Toni Morrison’s Beloved.
I dove into the foreword.  TM writes,

In trying to make the slave experience intimate, I hoped… that the order and quietude of everyday life would be violently disrupted by the chaos of the needy dead; that the herculean effort to forget would be threatened by the memory desperate to stay alive.

It perfectly sums up why I love teaching history, and why it’s important to include the photo of amputees.  It reminds me of when I first heard Alice Walker describe Howard Zinn’s “remarkable capacity for moral outrage.”
What wonderful teacher-writer-historian role models we have to channel!
As for the textbook writer, she was thrilled with my resounding yes.
We’re having coffee on Monday to chat more. Our calendars read:
Our calendars read...
I’ve already begun convincing her that she would make a great history teacher.
We both hope the photo makes the final cut.




4 comments on “What does it take to be a great historian? Part 2

  1. Lonnie Rich
    January 24, 2015

    I like historians who try to tell the whole truth — good and bad!

  2. Sara Rich
    January 24, 2015

    Totally! When my kids wrote letters to the rising 7th graders, one of them closed with “One last very important thing to remember is: there is always more than one TRUTH.” I love that!

  3. Alex
    January 24, 2015

    I agree, the last thing you want is a generation of naive children. This reminds me of the horseshit depictions of Columbus “discovering the new world” as some sort of patriotic victory instead of the nasty business that it was. Kids don’t need bullshit, they can handle the truth!

  4. Pingback: Why Nancie Atwell should be a household name | Beans & Rice for the Soul

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This entry was posted on January 24, 2015 by in books, humanities, teaching.
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