This guest blog is part of a series, “A Network of Innovation: Ideas, Questions, and Wisdom from our LA Partner Schools.” Much like his Valor Academy colleague Ben Katcher, who published a prior post on teaching The Nanjing Atrocities, first-year history teacher Elijah Falk has developed a powerful unit that challenges students to make contemporary connections to historical injustices and grapple with the ways in which pivotal events in history have been distorted. His unit on The Reconstruction Era exemplifies how accurate portrayals of and deep engagement with history can illuminate the importance of choices students make in their everyday lives.
I don’t remember learning much about Reconstruction in school. I wasn’t explicitly taught untruths, but I certainly did not have an appreciation for how significant the era is to our history. I do not remember studying Black lawmakers in the South or their creation of public education systems. I do not remember exploring the coordinated, and extraordinarily violent ways Black achievement and power was disrupted, and I definitely do not remember learning about the deliberate misinformation campaigns that rewrote this history for generations to come.
I was fortunate to attend a few professional development seminars during my graduate program that were instrumental in gaining an appreciation for the true story of Reconstruction. I was exposed to testimonies from Black Americans like Henry Adams, who demonstrated immense courage in the face of overwhelming violence and opposition. I was able to deepen that understanding through Facing History’s Reconstruction Unit plan and materials. Leveraging this knowledge and Facing History’s vast resources to construct a dynamic and accessible unit, however, proved challenging. I met with Arisela Hernandez, a program associate in the Los Angeles office, to talk through the process. With her support and mentorship, I was able to develop clear objectives and enduring understandings. Her expertise in both the content and unit planning helped me to scale the unit down a few weeks without compromising those essential goals.
One of the most rewarding aspects of teaching a unit on the Reconstruction Era was the opportunity it provided for me to make contemporary connections. I often tell students that history is deeply tied to the present and has shaped the world we live in, but this unit enabled me to show them as well. Students didn’t have to take my word for it; they could track the legacy of Reconstruction through the Jim Crow era all the way up through the Black Lives Matter movement. They could relate to the content personally and recognize the importance of this history more deeply. This was especially apparent when we discussed the 13th Amendment and mass incarceration. They were able to see why the abolition of slavery did not eliminate racial inequality, due in part to the fact that slavery was not quite abolished in the first place. They saw how the mechanisms of oppression evolved from enslavement to criminalization, discrimination, and disenfranchisement to preserve white supremacy. I found that students had an acute awareness of the disproportionate rates of incarceration among Black and Brown folks, and were interested in exploring its origin. When we discussed the sharecropping system and generational wealth, students expressed desires to own their own homes or buy homes for family members, and showed a critical consciousness of contemporary wealth disparities in the US. This also helped them to gain an appreciation for the long-lasting effects of historical developments and processes like Reconstruction.
I also saw students grapple with the severity and scale of terrorism that Black Americans lived through during Reconstruction. They recognized the violent means by which white Southerners regained and maintained power in the South. This was most profound when we examined testimonies from survivors of white supremacist attacks like Abram Colby, or depictions of harrowing events like the Colfax Massacre. These stories provided names, faces, and places with which students could empathize.
The most daunting challenge this unit presented was developing the frame through which we examined the Reconstruction era. I wanted to highlight and center the incredible accomplishments of African Americans during the era without understating the horrific violence and terrorism that followed. I wanted students to understand that the successful efforts of white supremacists set in motion a vicious cycle of oppression that can help explain the persistence of racial injustice today, without minimizing the valiant resistance of Black Americans. This challenge speaks to the complexity and nuance of the Reconstruction era, something that I also view as a strength of the historical period as a whole.
To me, living in the legacy of Reconstruction’s failures means that we are still contending with the unresolved issues of that time. I am hesitant to categorize Reconstruction as a failure outright, but its shortcomings have absolutely left their mark. There are plenty of specific examples to choose from: Black voter suppression and disproportionate representation in government, gaps in generational wealth, mass incarceration, and the policing of Black bodies can all be traced back to Reconstruction. Even the ideological division in our country has roots in this era. The deceitful efforts of organizations like The United Daughters of the Confederacy effectively indoctrinated generations of Americans, whose version of US history is ever-present today in debates over Confederate monuments and Critical Race Theory. Our inability, as a country, to truly reckon with this chapter in our history is a testament to those failures.
This Reconstruction era unit is an excellent example of how history curricula can be leveraged in order to foster change. For me, examining the choices of the past and their legacies is the centerpiece of this unit. Placing an emphasis on the options and actions of those who lived through Reconstruction shows students that we, too, live in a time where all of us have important decisions to make. Focusing on the legacies and consequences of those decisions shows students that our actions also have the potential to shift the course of history. This, I hope, instills a sense of agency in young people to play a role in shaping a more just and equitable future.
Elijah Falk is a World History and US History teacher at Valor Academy High School. This is his first year teaching full time. He is passionate about fostering critical consciousness among students and empowering them to navigate the world with agency and compassion.