Welcome to America: Embracing public history as public education
04 April 2016 – Donna Neary
My transition from public history to teaching was unplanned. After twenty-five years of working for local, state and federal governments, museums, non-profits, and as a consultant, I was unemployed, cut loose, and drifting out of sight of the public history mother ship. The funding for my state government position had been cut, and the real estate market was not favorable for consulting on tax credit applications or National Register of Historic Places nominations.
Although I’m still working on traditional public history projects during my evenings and weekends, my full-time gig now is as an English as Second Language (ESL) History teacher at Iroquois High School in Louisville, Kentucky. I work with students who are striving to graduate from high school and create solid futures for themselves, and their families. Most of my students are brand new to the United States. Some are enrolled in my class only days after arriving in this country; many are refugees from political oppression, and war-torn lands.
These students have multicultural sensibilities and are aware of the buttons to push or to avoid with classmates. Students translate for one another and show compassion and concern for others well beyond their years. These students are learning new social skills and they understand they must create relationships to get along in a new environment. My days are now filled with requests for assistance, and “Miss!” “Teacher!” and “Madame!” are shot rapid-fire through the classroom by students anxious to learn. Currently, students who speak 39 distinct languages populate the International Academy at the high school.
I am grateful to know these students and benefit beyond words by spending my days with smart, funny, and caring teenagers. And I have begun to regard teaching World History and Humanities to my students as a more direct form of public history, too.
My work in the classroom, like my work as a public historian, strives for social justice and equity for my students and sensitivity and transparency in the presentation of diverse cultural heritage. When I teach World History and Humanities to recent immigrants and refugees from around the world, my presentation forces me to examine society’s biases and to present lessons that are inclusive and balanced. For example, teaching imperialism to recently arrived students from the Belgian Congo or the Ivory Coast requires my lessons to give voice to the native populations affected, and to be clear about the motives of the conquerors –the industrial nations seeking new resources and new markets for goods.
Teaching my students about American culture and history constantly forces me to shift my thinking and presentations and to stay agile and responsive to what is happening in real-time in my classroom. For instance, during February we were learning about African American history. My students who have recently emigrated from the continent of Africa were confused by the term. During the lesson one student said, “I am not African American, I am not an American citizen, but I am black.” So that lesson was set aside and I taught about slavery and the brutal capture and transport of Africans to the Americas for labor. We discussed that those Africans are the ancestors of most people of color in the United States today. And students agreed on the term “Africans in America” to describe their own status.
Every new wave of refugees to our community brings questions. “Will we have enough desks and textbooks to serve these children?” we ponder. But we know that whether we are ready or not, they are coming. One of our cadre, a man who two decades earlier had immigrated to the US, said simply, “Let them come.”
We all smiled in recognition, knowing that they will come, and we will do our best to figure out the classroom logistics. And as I enter my classroom each morning, turn on the Smartboard, and change the date on our calendar, I smile again as I realize that I have not been set adrift. I choose to believe I am on a reconnaissance mission, seeking (and unexpectedly finding) new ways to bring public history, to the public.
~ Donna Neary is a teacher, a writer, and a public historian. A graduate of the Loyola University of Chicago Public History program, Neary was awarded a 2014 Artist Enrichment Grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women (KFW) to assist her with travel costs to research a manuscript detailing the life of Leah Smith Lightner, an agent of change in post-World War II Germany.