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People Need to Know

Confronting History in the Heartland

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Robert M. Lucas

People Need to Know follows a group of students as they study the defining event in their community’s history – a 1930 lynching that was captured in one of the century’s most iconic and disturbing photographs. With ambitions of contributing to public understanding, the students set out to create a collection of online resources about the lynching. As they encounter troubling information and consider how best to present it to others, the students come to better understand the complex ethical ramifications of historical work and to more fully appreciate why their learning matters. Through the stories of these students, their teacher, and an author re-immersed in the town of his own childhood, the book develops an approach to curriculum in which students create products of value beyond the school walls. In a time of educational standardization, when assignments and assessments often fail to deliberately engage the ethically charged and locally particular contexts of students’ lives, Robert M. Lucas proposes that we see learning in their creation and appreciation of public value. The book will be of particular interest for courses in curriculum studies and in history and social studies education.
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Chapter 1. “Life Is an Experiment”

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“LIFE IS AN EXPERIMENT”

Bill Munn moved to Marion in 1969 and was quickly confronted by the town’s troubled history. Cynthia Carr recounts the story in her book on the lynching and its repercussions: “As [Munn] began teaching seventh grade in North Marion, he asked his all-white class to tell him something about the town, and one student immediately announced: ‘We hung the niggers.’ Munn also recalled white people offering to show him the lynching picture, saying, ‘I’ve got it in the trunk of my car’” (2006, p. 377). These startling exchanges were not the point of origin for Munn’s social concern—his history of activism dates back much further—but they did mark his first encounter with the issues of local injustice that would preoccupy him for decades to come.

Certain dispositions toward teaching have been present in Munn’s work since the beginning, including an affinity for self-directed student projects and an experimental attitude toward his own teaching and learning. One afternoon in 2011, midway through our research project, I arrived for class, and Munn directed me to a favorite quotation written on the classroom whiteboard: “Life is an experiment”—Emerson, by way of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. As Munn commented, that one brief line explained much of his work on the CHP. His experiments, I discovered, have yielded sustained learning, allowing Munn to refine community-based class projects, build knowledge of local narratives ← 19 | 20 →in which his students might...

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