Not everyone agrees with Michie, and textbook publishers are saddled with the task of appealing to a wide audience around the country. And yet, certainly today’s political, social, and economic climates will be written about in history books. The events of today have been compared to the tumult of 1968, a year frequently cited as one of the most dynamic in American history—that year, both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, riots burst out during the Chicago-hosted Democratic National Convention, and the Tet Offensive was launched in Vietnam.
In contextualizing the Black Lives Matter movement for students, however, the historian Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, the author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation and a professor at Princeton University, said these comparisons often strip current events of their unique nuances: “Because the 1960s were the last big period of protracted or prolonged struggle in the United States, there is a tendency to use that as the touchstone for every type of protest that breaks out,” Taylor said. “It's important to get the framing correct, because it's important to distinguish between different political situations and different historical periods."
The impulse to make these comparisons only increases the necessity for educators to have access to quality teaching materials. Still, a lack of updated physical textbooks may not be such a bad thing for students. Taylor said textbooks are often host to the biases of the people who write and approve them, and Martin said these resources are often, “silent about controversy ... Even though it’s the lifeblood of a democracy, and history and social studies is one of the ways that we learn how to manage and understand controversy and make our own decisions about what's best."
Martin said that a textbook provides just one perspective and should be “moved off its pedestal.” And physical copies of textbooks are far from the only way educators can weave current events into lesson plans. For teachers seeking to bring current-events lessons to the classroom, not only are there primary sources covering the Black Lives Matter movement readily available, but the inclusion of these documents also aligns closely with Common Core standards. Multiple textbook publishers declined to be interviewed for this story.
Carmen Fariña, the chancellor of New York City Schools, told my colleague in a conversation last summer that the aim of the Common Core “screams social studies.” She emphasized the need for students to have a constructive way to discuss current events in the classroom using primary sources. “No one reads a textbook as an adult,” Fariña said. “What do you read? You read the newspapers, you read magazines, and [social studies is] basically based on news.”
Jinnie Spiegler, the director of curriculum for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), has made lesson plans available on topics including the development of the Black Lives Matter movement, the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and the death of Freddie Gray. These materials go through a different vetting process than textbook chapters, and Spiegler said the ADL is a civil rights organization but does try to present multiple points of view. The plans rely on primary sources, and Spiegler said the ADL usually publishes the lesson plans within a few days of an event—a dramatically shorter timeline than that of publishing a new edition of a textbook.