Thursday, December 10, 2020

Teaching History for Justice: Our New Book Is Available December 25th!



I am excited to announce that this December 25th, Kaylene Stevens and my new book "Teaching History for Justice: Centering Activism in Students' Study of the Past" will be released from Teachers College Press. We hope this book challenges the field to center justice in the teaching of history and offer practicing teachers several vignettes of what this type of pedagogy could look like in practice. We also co-wrote several chapters with four excellent classroom teachers and elementary teacher educators.

You can order the book here:

Here is the summary from the publisher:

Learn how to enact justice-oriented pedagogy and foster students’ critical engagement in today’s history classroom. Over the past 2 decades, various scholars have rightfully argued that we need to teach students to “think like a historian” or “think like a democratic citizen.” In this book, the authors advocate for cultivating activist thinking in the history classroom. Teachers can use Teaching History for Justice to show students how activism was used in the past to seek justice, how past social movements connect to the present, and how democratic tools can be used to change society. The first section examines the theoretical and research foundation for “thinking like an activist” and outlines three related pedagogical concepts: social inquiry, critical multiculturalism, and transformative democratic citizenship. The second section presents vignettes based on the authors’ studies of elementary, middle, and high school history teachers who engage in justice-oriented teaching practices.

Book Features:

  • Outlines key components of justice-oriented history pedagogy for the history and social studies K–12 classroom.
  • Advocates for students to develop “thinking like an activist” in their approach to studying the past.
  • Contains research-based vignettes of four imagined teachers, providing examples of what teaching history for justice can look like in practice.
  • Includes descriptions of typical units of study in the discipline of history and how they can be reimagined to help students learn about movements and social change.


1.   Centering Justice in Students’ Study of the Past  1
Why Do We Need to Teach History for Justice? 2
Where Does Teaching History for Justice Originate? 8
How Do We Teach History for Justice? 11
Conclusion 15

2.   Thinking Like an Activist  16
Approaches to History Education  19
Types of Thinking in History  20
Using Activist Theories to Understand History  24
Thinking Like an Activist Classroom Tool  30

3.   Social Inquiry  32
Making Inquiries Social  33
Inquiries Through a Historical Thinking Lens  34
Inquiries Through a Democratic Citizenship Lens  35
Inquiries Through a Justice Lens  35

4. Critical Multiculturalism   41
(with Taylor Collins, Framingham Public Schools)
Making the Curriculum Multicultural and Critical  43
Critical Multiculturalism in Action  50

5. Transformative Democratic Citizenship   56
Studying a Political, but Nonpartisan, History  59
Studying a Political History That is Democratic and Multicultural  62
Transformative Democratic Citizenship in Action  67

6. U.S. History at the High School Level: Ms. María Lopez   73
History for Justice in the U.S. History Classroom  74
Ms. María Lopez’s High School U.S. History Classroom  75

7. World History at the High School Level: Mr. Tom Kulig   90
(with Maria R. Sequenzia, Framingham Public Schools)
History for Justice in the World History Classroom  91
Mr. Tom Kulig’s High School World History Classroom  93

8. Ancient World History at the Middle Level: Ms. Joyce Smith   105
(with Neema Avashia, Boston Public Schools)
History for Justice in the Ancient History Classroom  107
Ms. Joyce Smith’s Middle School Ancient History Classroom  108

9. State and Local History at the Elementary Level: Mr. Frank Hashimoto   120
(with Jennifer R. Bryson, Boston University)
History for Justice in the State and Local History Classroom  122
Mr. Hashimoto’s Elementary School State and Local History Classroom  124

10. Overcoming Barriers   132
Overcoming the Barriers to History for Justice  133

Conclusion   140


“Martell and Stevens offer an original and compelling framework for teaching history for social justice in the United States. Drawing on theories and practices of social activism, the authors argue that a critical approach to history education informed by social activism can enable students to understand how past social movements have led to greater justice in the present, and how a critical activist orientation can empower students in the present to promote social justice today and in the future. By including multiple examples of history teachers in diverse settings and at different grade levels who have enacted activist-oriented approaches, the book is among the most important and relevant resources for teaching and learning history during politically contentious times.”
—Terrie Epstein, chair and professor of education, Hunter College, City University of New York

“In the wake of uprisings across the United States demanding racial justice, Teaching History for Justice is a timely contribution for social studies educators seeking to create classrooms focused on social change. Martell and Stevens not only make a compelling case for the need for justice in history education, but also provide educators with frameworks and pedagogical insights to cultivate students as activists. The approaches, strategies, and ideas found in this book give social studies educators a clear roadmap to leverage history education to create a more just and equitable future.”
—Alexander Cuenca, assistant professor, Indiana University


Friday, October 23, 2020

Humanities Classes Are Not a Substitute for Social Studies


Above: Students debate during an inquiry-based social studies class. 

A few weeks ago, a fellow Boston Public Schools parent wrote me worried that her child's middle school principal was replacing social studies with humanities. I replied: 


I am concerned about any school moving to a "humanities model" or any other combination of English language arts and social studies. This is usually only done at the middle school level (although here in Boston, we see it at the high school level, as well). It is part of a misguided "back to the basics" view of school, or a belief that students just need literacy development and social studies content is just the vehicle for teaching reading and writing-when in fact it has different disciplinary structures and thinking skills that are developed. I would, however, want to better know the administrator's intentions. It is one thing to have English teachers and history teachers coordinate their courses to provide a better humanities experience. That could actually be a great thing (when I was a classroom teacher, I worked with English teachers to do just that). However, what usually happens with these models is that it becomes one teacher trying to teach one of those two subjects with limited expertise (it is often an ELA teacher teaching social studies poorly). It can be a way for the principal to get rid of social studies positions or make room in students schedules for more literacy time. 


This is not a post against the idea of humanities courses. In theory, there is great value in courses that emphasize the interdisciplinary nature of school subjects, which are too often content silos. All schools should approach subject matter this way.

Rather, this post is an attempt to articulate how humanities courses have been co-opted by a group of educational leaders who overemphasize literacy as a discrete skill (and devoid of subject matter) and misunderstand the ways that literacy functions within the disciplines of history and the social sciences.

If you are a teacher or student (or parent of a student) required to teach or take a humanities course, I offer three questions (with explanations at the end of this post) that you should be asking about the course:

1. Is my humanities course a substitute for social studies courses (i.e. history, civics/political science, geography, economics)?

2. Is my humanities course taught by someone without a background in both history and language arts (or is not co-taught by a social studies teacher with a colleague who has a background in teaching English or another subject in the humanities)?

3. Is my humanities course not taught in an interdisciplinary way, where we use different disciplinary lenses on the world (it is just an English course about history-related texts)?

What is Humanities and How Is STEM Involved?

First, we should start with the question: “What are the humanities?” The humanities, much like STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), is an overarching term to describe a group of related disciplines that can be taught in interdisciplinary ways. Humanities usually includes the study of literature, philosophy, world languages, history, law, politics, geography, economics, archaeology, anthropology, religion, art, and music.

For some time, our national (and perhaps global) educational conversation focused on the need for more STEM education. Rightfully, there was a concern about our teaching of math and science (and those subject areas have seen important instructional improvements over the past decade because of this increased attention). 

However, in this conversation, we have diminished the importance of learning the humanities (beyond literacy being a workforce skill). However, of the “big four” school subjects, social studies (i.e. history, civics, geography, economics) has clearly been the biggest victim of this shift (in fairness, art, music, world languages, and other humanities subjects have been wrongly marginalized for much longer-it explains why art educators pushed for their subject to be added to STEM in the form of STEAM; who could blame them? I'd make it STEAMSS, with social studies at the end, if I could). In fact, many people I speak with do not even list social studies as a main school subject anymore (they think of school as primarily reading, writing, math, and science). It is clear that the marginalization of social studies is a national trend, which is worse at the elementary and middle levels, as well as in urban schools (see here, here, and here).

Ancillary Literacy and Reducing Social Studies Positions

Part of this national decline in social studies is a push for humanities as a replacement for it in schools (especially for children at the elementary and middle levels, and in urban districts, with Boston and New York City being the largest examples; see here, here, and here). This push is not coming from social studies educators (see here), or even literacy specialists, but rather school and district leaders. They think it as a chance to maximize literacy instruction (this group often advocates for a "back to the basics" approach, where basic literacy and math drive everything). They think it is a way to increase test scores (especially in places where social studies is not tested, they can add additional literacy blocks or courses; and more about that later!). This know it is a way to reduce faculty, especially when budgets are tight (no need to hire social studies teachers, when you have English teachers covering it in humanities classes). 

Above: A mural at my daughters' elementary school in the Boston Public Schools, which describes what they learn there. Notice that "social studies" (and writing) is missing, while math, science, reading, art, and music are all included (since that mural was created, I have worked with the current principal to implement a new social studies curriculum-our work can change this trend!)

Yet, this push to maximize literacy instruction and increase test scores actually has negative impacts on literacy instruction and test scores (See this explanation from Nell Duke). It means students are not learning social studies well, which we know actually has a negative impact on their literacy (I suspect this is why few wealthy districts approach it this way; social studies usually exists in those places, separate from language arts). STEM education should be (but is rarely) an interdisciplinary use of those school subjects (should not be simply teaching science as ancillary math instruction). Similarly, humanities should be, but is rarely, an interdisciplinary subject (it is usually teaching social studies as ancillary literacy instruction; see here). And, in no school situation is reducing social studies faculty a smart idea (there are so many other ways to close budget gaps; or better, increase funding to urban schools).

White Supremacy?

Finally, one other point to consider is the history of humanities as a tool for White supremacy. I engaged in research for my new book with Kaylene Stevens, and uncovered that in the late 1800s there was an increased push for the teaching of humanities in school. However, this view of humanities was clearly rooted in a Western Civilizations view of the subject. In fact, Herbert Spencer, perhaps the founder of scientific racism, pushed for the teaching of humanities as a way to justify European superiority (by teaching the great works of White men). That view influenced the content of courses and textbooks from the elementary to the college levels. Then again, in the 1980s and 90s, in reaction to an increasing emphasis on multicultural education, conservative scholars again pushed for humanities courses from that same Western Civilization perspective (especially as a replacement for social studies, which they long thought was leftist and anti-patriotic; see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here; and a more recent example here). These courses became most popular in urban schools, where there were large concentrations of Black, Brown, Asian American, and immigrant students. It was part of a plan to assimilate students of color to White culture (a very similar purpose as Herbert Spencer had argued a century earlier). 

Despite this, I have seen humanities done right. However, it has always included an ethnic studies lens and de-centered Whiteness and Eurocentracism. A few years ago, I had the pleasure of observing Ling-Se Chesnakas at Boston's Urban Science Academy (the school was sadly closed by the Boston Public Schools and she is now a teacher at Boston Arts Academy). Her class had all the qualities of a good humanities course (to be honest, it is one of the few that I have ever experienced). She taught the course balancing literacy skill development and literary analysis with historical thinking. It truly felt like I was in an English and history course simultaneously. The students had just finished reading a chapter from The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, but were now engaging in a primary source analysis related to Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo. She had a background in both English and history (while having never earned a degree in history, she continuously enrolled herself in social studies-oriented professional development). She organized her units around the chronology of history (covering a broad scope), while also featuring literature prominently. She moved back and forth from having students construct historical arguments and historical interpretations like a historian, and then used what I would consider to be "English time" to have students engage in creative writing about their own personal experiences (I have experienced other humanities teachers in Boston teach this same unit, and frankly they were simply an ELA unit based on some history content).

What Can Be Done?

Let's return to those initial questions about humanities courses. If we are to have humanities courses, how should they be taught?

1. Is my humanities course a substitute for social studies courses (i.e. history, civics/political science, geography, economics)?

Make sure that all students receive social studies every year. If your school combines ELA with history or the social sciences, it is a sign they likely do not care much about students receiving social studies. Humanities should be in addition to social studies, or be separate ELA and social studies courses combined into two blocks that allow for teacher collaboration. When I was a teacher at Boston College High School years ago, my English teacher colleague Alison Piazza (now Alison MacDonald) and I created a two-block course called American studies, where we coordinated the curriculum, so students would be using their ELA time to leverage social studies content and we would draw connections between American literature and the inquiries that we were doing in U.S. history (we could also have coordinated themes of social justice across both courses). That is how you teach humanities.

2. Is my humanities course taught by someone without a background in both history and language arts (or is not co-taught by a social studies teacher with a colleague who has a background in teaching English or another subject in the humanities)?

If the answer is yes, see above about your school not caring about social studies. Also, see above about how it can be done right.

3. Is my humanities course not taught in an interdisciplinary way, where we use different disciplinary lenses on the world (it is just an English course about history-related texts)?

If the answer is yes, see above about your school not caring about social studies. Also, see above about how it can be done right.

To conclude, I would like to suggest an alternative to replacing social studies courses. I argue that we should instead add ethnic studies courses and approach social studies using ethnic studies lenses (think about teaching a U.S. history course through different ethnic groups' experiences; you could cycle through the course chronologically several times through the Indigenous, Black, Latinx, Asian American, and immigrant experiences). There is strong evidence that ethnic studies have positive impacts on students' social and academic outcomes, including increases in their literacy skills and social studies knowledge (see here). Ethnic studies, like humanities, is an interdisciplinary subject. Good ethnic studies courses involve all of the same qualities of good humanities courses (especially when included in addition to traditional social studies courses, co-taught by teachers with history/social science and English backgrounds, and using of different disciplinary lenses simultaneously; ethnic studies should also not simply be a literature class that reads multicultural texts). However, there is one key difference. Ethnic studies has a far greater focus on social justice and equity than humanities (minus all the White supremacy).

This is an opportune moment for us to not only increase social studies for students in urban elementary and middle schools (and some high schools). It is also a time to use that content to help students make the world more just.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

"All Boston Public Schools Exist to Serve All Boston Students": Why I Support Dropping the Test at BLS, BLA, and the O'Bryant


Above: Boston Latin School, commonly referred to as BLS, which is considered by some the "top school" in Boston is also one of the Whitest schools in Boston. Below: The Kenny School in Dorchester (where my kids attend). It is home to the city's only elementary school marching band and is one of its most racially diverse schools.

Last night, around 1:40 am and after about 6 hours of public comment, the Boston School Committee voted 7-0 to support a one-year change to the admissions process at Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the John D. O'Bryant School of Mathematics and Science (commonly referred to as the "exam schools"), which include suspending the entrance exam. 

Many Boston Public Schools students, parents (including myself), teachers, and community members (including Ibram X. Kendi, the Boston Branch of the NAACP, and the Boston Coalition for Education Equity) spoke out in support of the changes and encouraged the School Committee to make them permanent.

My testimony is below.


Hello. My name is Chris Martell. I am a BPS parent with two daughters at the Kenny School in Dorchester, a BPS Citywide Parent Council rep., a former classroom teacher and current education professor at UMass Boston, and someone who deeply believes in racial justice. I ask that you support the Working Group’s recommendations related to exam school admission.

My daughters attend what may be the most racially balanced elementary school in the city. It represents the diversity of Dorchester almost perfectly. It even has its own marching band. It’s a special place. Yet, every year students leave the Kenny and end up at very different BPS middle and high schools. I can only imagine how confused Kenny students must be when they enter the doors of BLS. They must wonder, am I still in Boston? They interact with far fewer of their Dorchester neighbors, or peers from Mattapan or Roxbury. There are noticeably far fewer Black and Brown classmates. I wish BLS was more like the Kenny. I wish its student population was a better representation of this city’s neighborhoods. I wish all Boston students had equitable opportunity.

The racial imbalance is not surprising knowing our city’s past. However, the current admission process heavily based on standardized test scores exacerbates our city’s structural racism. Before the McLaughlin case, while not perfect, the diversity of the exam schools more closely resembled our city. After the McLaughlin case, instead of creating an equitable system that adhered to the court ruling, that School Committee took a pass. I ask that this School Committee do the right thing today. Especially in light of this pandemic, which has only widened racial and economic gaps. You have a chance to experiment with a new fairer system.

Finally, while the Working Group focused on this year, I strongly encourage this committee to eliminate an exam as an admission criteria beyond that. Our exam schools were not always exam schools. We do not need an exam to confirm their prestige. All Boston public schools exist to serve all Boston students. Let’s create a new process that centers on racial justice. Let’s make our school system a national beacon for equity. Let’s do what’s right. Thank you. 


Above and Middle: Racial demographics for the Boston Public Schools and Boston Latin School (from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education). Below: A map showing the projected shift of the new admissions criteria system. Students from Dorchester, East Boston, Roxbury, and Mattapan (neighborhoods with the largest Black and Latinx populations) would see increases, and students from West Roxbury and Roslindale (predominately White neighborhoods) would see decreases (from the Boston School Committee Working Group).

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Teaching Impeachment

UPDATE: For the first time in U.S. history, on January 13, 2021, the House of Representatives impeached a U.S. president for the second time of his term. This is in response to the presidents' involvement in the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, where supporters attacked the joint session to count Electoral College results, and his attempts to tamper with election results in Georgia. This will also be the first impeachment trial to occur after a president leaves office. Here is more information on the impeachment and a live stream for the House impeachment hearing from NPR.

On December 18, 2019, for only the third time in history, the House of Representatives impeached a U.S. president, when they charged Donald Trump with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The basic events outlined in the impeachment inquiry of the Trump-Ukraine scandal (which began with a complaint filed to the House and Senate by an unknown government employee whistle-blower) included Trump's conversation with the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy suggesting that an investigation of a political rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden (who was on the board of the Ukrainian company Burisma) would yield a White House meeting, as well as discussions of a discredited theory that Ukraine was responsible for pro-Hillary Clinton interference during the 2016 Presidential Election (rather than Russian interference that favored Trump-which was a major finding of the Muller Report). Ultimately, Trump ordered the withholding/delaying of military aid to Ukraine (which was not released until after news of the Whistle-blower's complaint broke-and which the Government Accountability Office reported violated the law). During the impeachment inquiry, additional information was revealed about a targeted campaign by White House officials and the president's lawyer Rudy Guiliani to ouster of Marie Yovanovitch, who was the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine.

Above: The Senate Trials of Andrew Johnson in 1868 (top), Bill Clinton in 1999 (middle), and Donald Trump in 2020 (below).

Back in October, I had the privilege of being interviewed by Education Week, where I said, "School is where students are first learning how to do the work of citizenship. If a teacher doesn’t make their classroom a place to unpack, and ask, and answer critical questions about it, then we’re doing a disservice." I had also said, "Many of the social studies teachers I work with, whether they are preservice or inservice, are struggling with Trump in general, and how to maintain a level of fairness, and how to moderate classroom discussion that can get quite emotional, because he is a polarizing figure, and your politics tend to frame how you view him."

The antidote to a polarized and overly-simplified classroom debate over the impeachment trial is to have students root their investigations in the evidence, asking them to make their own interpretations (which presumably will be framed by their political beliefs and values, but also challenging them to consider how their beliefs and values frame their understandings; this is an important activity for students in perspective-taking, where they should be asked to consider how different people may view these events differently).

Today (January 23, 2020), I asked the history teachers whom I follow on Twitter to tell me how they are teaching impeachment, and here is what they are saying (I encourage you to follow their responses-and partake in the discussion):

It is clear that many teachers are asking students to place the Impeachment of Donald Trump within a historical context and take their own stances on the issues in the present. These are great examples of social studies teachers educating their students fro democratic citizenship.

Above: A graphic representation of the impeachment process. (Posted by Larry Ferlazzo, who has an excellent post on teaching the impeachment with additional resources)

Tips for Teaching the Impeachment of Donald Trump

To help teachers to guide students in examining these important current events (and soon-to-be historical events), I also have a few recommendations:

First, it would be helpful to start by teaching the overall impeachment process (see above graphic or this brief Ted video), as students (and citizens) often have a misconception that impeachment means removal from office. Help students see that while a majority of the House is needed to impeach, a very high threshold of 2/3rds majority is required to remove a president (something that has not happened in the past and with the Republicans currently having a 53-47 majority, maybe unlikely in this instance).

Next, I would suggest contextualizing the current impeachment trial, by comparing the issues, charges, and processes of the two prior presidential impeachment trials (and if those impeachments were justified).

Here are some good resources on impeachments in U.S. history:

And, the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson in 1868:

And, the Impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998-1999:

Then, once students have a better understanding of the gravity of a presidential impeachment, they are more prepared to start examining this particular impeachment.

Resources for Teaching the Impeachment of Donald Trump

I suggest using the following inquiry questions with students:  

Was the House justified in their impeachment of the president? Should the Senate remove Donald Trump from the presidency?

To help answer this question, students might use the below sources in conjunction with sources that they find on their own (depending on the students level, this sources should be adapted for their reading levels; I recommend including 100 word excerpts for intermediate elementary, 200 word excerpts for middle school, and 300 word excerpts for high school).


Capitol Insurgency Incitement Timeline

A timeline of Donald Trump's words and actions related to the Capitol insurgency. 

Capitol Insurgency Timeline in Photos 

A timeline in photos of the events surrounding the Capitol insurgency.

Trump's Phone Call to Georgia Secretary State

The transcript of Donald Trump's phone call to the Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger related to the changing the outcome of his state's presidential election.

Fact Checking Trump's Phone Call to Georgia Secretary State

Fact checking Donald Trump's phone call to the Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger related to the changing the outcome of his state's presidential election. 

Legal Case for Impeachment

The legal arguments for a second impeachment of Donald Trump.

Donald Trump's Comments on Impeachment

Donald Trump's comments about his potential second impeachment. 

2021 Impeachment Timeline

An article describing the process for the second impeachment. 

Trump-Ukraine Scandal Timeline:

A timeline of the Trump-Ukraine scandal from Just Security at the Reiss Center on Law and Security at New York University School of Law, which provides a strong overview of the events (it is also routinely updated).

The Whistle-Blower's Complaint:

The text of the unknown federal government whistle-blower's complaint to the related committees in the U.S. House and Senate.

Transcript of Telephone Conversation Between Trump and Zelenskyy

The White House released transcript of the telephone conversation between Trump and Zelenskyy, which Trump's actions are in question. 

Articles of Impeachment from the House of Representatives

The articles of impeachment issued by the U.S. House in December 2019.

Donald Trump's Letter to the House of Representatives After Impeachment

The presidents response letter to the U.S. house after being impeached.