Last weekend, The New York Times published a comparison of several different high school history textbooks from California and Texas. In a series of side-by-side images, the article shows differing approaches to the history of LGBTQ, Black and Indigenous Americans, and to topics ranging from immigration to gun control to income inequality. Discussing the article with students can open a conversation about the relationships among power, politics and education; build students’ critical reading skills; and show students how those skills transfer into their everyday lives as learners.
Here’s how you might start:
1. Check Students’ Previous Knowledge
Ask if students know how their textbooks are written and selected. If you have time, you might have them google one or more of the authors of your class’s textbook. You can also have them preview the article “Two States. Eight Textbooks. Two American Stories.” to review the graphic “How Textbooks Are Produced.”
How Textbooks are Produced
- Authors, often academics, write a national version of each text.
- Publishers customize the books for states and large districts to meet local standards, often without input from the original authors.
- State or district textbook reviewers go over each book and ask publishers for further changes.
- Publishers revise their books and sell them to districts and schools.
You can check the Association of American Publishers’ Current Textbook Adoption Schedule to see whether your class texts are adopted by local or state reviewers. You might also ask students, “Why do state reviewers have more power to influence textbooks (for their own state and nationwide) than local reviewers?”
2. Read Together
Have students read “Two States. Eight Textbooks. Two American Stories.” If time is limited, students can review examples at the beginning and start with the sentence, “Here is how the politics of American History play out in California and Texas textbooks, on subjects like race, immigration, gender, sexuality and the economy.”
3. Clarify Student Understanding
Ask students to work individually, in pairs or as a group to answer a few text-dependent questions. For example:
- What are two examples of the ways racial history, particularly African American history, is represented differently in Texas and California?
- What are two examples of LGBTQ history included in California textbooks but not in Texas textbooks?
- What reason does the article give for California textbooks including more LGBTQ history?
- What text do students in California read to discuss immigration? What is this text about? Who is the author?
- What texts do students in Texas read to discuss immigration? Who are the authors?
- The article quotes a Texas law about what students should learn in economics class. What does it say?
- The article quotes the California 2016 social studies framework regarding what students should learn about income inequality. What does it say?
4. Talk Together
Facilitate a discussion with students about the article. You might begin with the following questions:
- What does this article tell us about textbooks in general and how they are written?
- Did you find anything in this article surprising? Frustrating? What? Why?
- Do you think there might be benefits to focusing on different aspects of American history in different parts of the country? Should the history or population demographics of a region affect the way students learn American history there? Why or why not?
- What trends do you notice in the ways that African American and/or LGBTQ history is taught in Texas and in California?
- How would you compare your own learning about African American and/or LGBTQ history to that of students in Texas and in California?
- If you could, what would you change about the way you learn these histories? Why?
- Consider the different ways that textbooks from Texas and California address immigration. Who is given space to “speak” in each text? Who do you think is most often heard in public debates on immigration? Who do you think we should listen to (in public debates and in our classrooms)? Why?
- Have you ever found a political slant in the way you’ve been taught an important topic? How did you identify it? Do you think the textbooks you’re using now are “political”? Why?
- What do you think is the responsibility of textbook writers and reviewers when it comes to politics and course content? What do you think is your teachers’ responsibility? What do you think is your responsibility as a critical reader?