So much of what we do in fifth grade at UT Elementary is surrounding the idea of dominant and counter narratives. Students are constantly identifying dominant narratives, poking holes in those stories, and looking elsewhere to uncover counter narratives that might have something different to say. But before we can get to this place, we have to first define what a dominant narrative is. So this year, we started out with a new activity which I called our “Famous American Heroes” project.
First I told students about this idea of a dominant narrative. A dominant narrative is the story of US history that you can find in most textbooks and in most classrooms. We defined it as “the story that’s in charge.” Counter narratives, on the other hand, are the stories that “fight back.” These stories are not often found in textbooks, and if they are, they’re definitely not at the center of the story. After discussing these ideas, I sent my students on a quest to uncover what these dominant narratives really are. What is the story that’s in charge of US history? Who is at the center of that story?
I compiled a lit of all of the people included in the fifth grade US history standards (it’s a lot of people!), and each student spent a couple of days researching one person from that list. After completing their research, students created a poster (I very strongly encouraged students to make sure the skin color marker/crayon/colored pencil they were using was as accurate as possible), and we hung all of these posters up outside of the classroom. Students then participated in a gallery walk of all of the posters, collecting data on what these people had in common.
We looked specifically at race, gender, age, accomplishments, and sexual orientation (students looked to see if a historical figure was married, and whether they were married to a man or woman).
At the end of our data collection, we found out of a list of a total 30 people that we researched, 27 were men, 26 were white, and all were straight and gender binary. In the words of one of our students, “somebody’s gotta change that.”
From here, we were able to conclude that the dominant narrative centers the people who have, and who have historically held, the most power: straight, white men. Anyone who doesn’t fit that category is pushed to the outside of the story.
After uncovering dominant narratives, students were pumped up and ready to spend the rest of the year uncovering counter narratives (which we can do, because we just covered all of our history TEKS in two days 🤣). What are these counter narratives all about, these stories that are so dangerous they can’t be heard? Who are these trouble makers whose voices people in power have tried to silence? We can’t wait to find out!
Teachers, would you like to do a similar project in your classroom? I’m happy to share my resources with you! You can download the project packet here, and you can download the data collection sheets and interactive notebook pages here. If you have any questions, please let me know and I’ll be happy to help!
Love, Learning, & Li’l Longhorns,
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