Classroom teachers use a variety of methods to incorporate multicultural perspectives into the curriculum. Perhaps most commonly used is the contributions approach through which students learn about the achievements of members of various minority and ethnic groups.1 For example, students might engage in a unit of study related to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.s, role in the Civil Rights movement; or, during a study of plant life, students might learn about the botanical accomplishments of George Washington Carver. Typically, these units of study are related to specific individuals and/or discrete events and viewed as additions to, rather than as integrated components of, the standard curriculum. In this sense, although these studies may contribute to multicultural awareness, they may also leave the impression that ethnic issues and events are merely appendages to the nations development.
A more inclusive avenue for instilling multicultural perspectives in the curriculum is through the transformation approach. This method is fundamentally different from the contributions approach in that it changes the basic assumptions of the curriculum and enables students to view concepts, themes, and problems from a variety of perspectives.2 For example, students might consider the Westward Movement of the nineteenth century from the vantage point of the Native Americans whose ancestral homelands were usurped by the advancing hordes of settlers. This perspective puts an entirely different slant on many historical events of the period and helps students more fully understand the context of these events.
The project described in this article illustrates how the transformation approach may be used to enhance the social studies curriculum. The project serves as a hands-on vehicle for helping elementary students understand the role that cultural perspective plays in the recording of history. The activity also introduces students to the concept of primary and secondary source documents, gives practice with interviewing techniques, and provides opportunities for the students to become actively involved in the history-writing process.
Different Perspectives on the Alamo
The focus of the project may be related to any historical event. The siege of the Alamo by Mexican forces under the leadership of Santa Anna serves as the focal point in this example. The teacher initiates the project by introducing students to some primary source documents, in this case the following:
These primary source documents provide varying perspectives, including apparent inconsistencies, in describing the historical event under consideration. The following are some relevant excerpts from the primary source documents that should be read verbatim to students.
Traviss Letter from the Alamo Two Weeks Before the Siege3
On February 23, Colonel William Travis dispatched a note to Andrew Ponton, Mayor of Gonzales, saying: The enemy in large force is in sight. We want men and provisions. Send them to us. We have 150 men and are determined to defend the Alamo to the last. Give us assistance. The next day he wrote the letter that has been called the most heroic document in United States history.
Commandancy of the Alamo
Bejar, Feby 24th, 1836
To the people of Texas and all Americans in the world.
Fellow Citizens and Compatriots: I am besieged, by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna. I have sustained a continual bombardment and cannonade for 24 hours and have not lost a man. The enemy has demanded a surrender at discretion, otherwise, the garrison are to be put to the sword, if the fort is taken. I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, and our flag still waves proudly from the walls. I shall never surrender or retreat. Then, I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism and everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid with all dispatch. The enemy is receiving reinforcements daily and will no doubt increase to three or four thousand in four or five days. If this call is neglected I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible and die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor and that of his country. VICTORY OR DEATH.
William Barrett Travis, Lt. Col. Comdt.
Santa Annas Letter to the Mexican Secretary of War After the Fall of the Alamo4
Most Excellent Sir: Victory belongs to the army, which, at this very moment, 8 oclock a. m., achieved a complete and glorious triumph which will render its memory imperishable.
The fortress is now in our power, with its artillery, stores, etc. More than 600 corpses of foreigners were buried in the ditches and entrenchments, and a great many, who had escaped the bayonet of the infantry, fell in the vicinity under the sabers of the cavalry. . . . Among the corpses were those of Bowie and Travis, who styled themselves Colonels, and also that of Crockett, and several other leading men, who had entered the fortress with dispatches from their Convention. We lost about 70 men killed and 300 wounded, among whom 25 are officers. The cause for which they died renders their loss less painful as it is the duty of the Mexican soldier to die for the defense of the rights of the nation. . . .
God and Liberty!
Antonio Lopez De Santa Anna, Headquarters, Bexar, March 6, 1836
Ruizs Report on the Fall of the Alamo5
Francisco Ruiz, the Mayor of San Antonio, provided the following account of the battle:
On the 6th March (1836) at 3 a. m., General Santa Anna at the head of 4000 men advanced against the Alamo. . . . The Mexican army charged and were twice repulsed by the deadly fire of Traviss artillery which resembled a constant thunder. At the third charge the Toluca battalion commenced to scale the walls and suffered severely. Out of 830 men only 130 were left alive . . .
After studying the source materials, students are asked to enumerate and give possible explanations for the inconsistencies in the three accounts. Figure 1 summarizes some of the discrepancies found among the various reports.
Possible suggestions for explaining the inconsistencies might include the hypothesis that whoever wrote the reports had particular motives for what he included in it. Other explanations might involve the time of the report, and the varying locations of observers before or during the battle. Any feasible explanations should be accepted as possible causes for the discrepancies.
Differing Accounts of a Class Experience
After discussing the source documents, students are asked to write independent firsthand accounts of a common experience they have shared, for example, what transpired during recess on a particular day. After hearing all the accounts, the class uses them to make a graph illustrating the frequency with which various events are mentioned in the separate accounts.
Finally, students discuss what may be the reasons for the varying perspectives they hold of the same event.
When I carried out this project with a group of twenty fifth-graders, each member of the class mentioned a dodge ball game that most of them had participated in during recess. All but two class members mentioned an ensuing argument that had taken place related to cheating during the game. However, there were several contradictory accounts of exactly what had taken place to precipitate the argument, and who had been guilty of cheating. These discrepancies provided grist for the mill in subsequent discussions and activities.
At such a point in the project, students might be given the opportunity to obtain additional accounts of the recess experience from differing viewpoints. Some possibilities might include conducting interviews with and/or soliciting written reports from the recess duty teachers, students from other classes, or anyone else who happened to be on the playground at the time. The information obtained from these individuals is then incorporated into the body of raw data related to the recess experience.
The culminating activity involves dividing the class into small groups and charging each group with using all of the available source materials to write its own historical account of what took place during recess. Each group is responsible for determining which events to include in its history and how much emphasis to place on each event. Each group is also charged with the responsibility of attempting to resolve any discrepancies among the various accounts.
These reports provide the necessary groundwork for a class discussion of the idea that records of historical events are influenced, and often biased, by the backgrounds and perceptual frameworks of both those who observe them (primary sources) and those who later try to interpret the events. By providing practical, hands-on experiences in some of the vital processes of historiography, this project serves as an exciting vehicle to help elementary students become critical connoisseurs of written history.
1. James A. Banks, Approaches to Multicultural Curriculum Reform, Social Studies Texan 5, no. 3 (1990): 43-45.
3. James L. Haley, Texas: An Album of History (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1985).
4. Ibid, 56.
5. James Day, ed., Texas Almanac, 1853-1857 (Waco: Texan Press, 1967).
About the Author
Frank Miller is associate professor of elementary and early childhood education at Pittsburg State University, Kansas. Prior to this, he taught elementary school at the second and fourth grade levels for thirteen years in Lewisville, Texas.