Reflected in America’s Story

Who tells the history preserved in textbooks — and whose voices are missing?

To get her eighth graders to care about that question, Greendale Middle School social studies teacher Erin McCarthy ’11 writes a textbook chapter about her class. Only all the key figures and photos focus on girls, with the exception of a single boy. When the boys question that editorial decision, she responds, “There’s one boy. Assume he represents you.”

It’s a pivotal moment as students then consider: whose faces and voices are missing from their actual history textbooks? Later, students write a chapter that they think is missing, weaving in the perspectives of African Americans, Asian Americans, women, LGBTQ folks, and others.

It’s just one way McCarthy pursues her mission “to ensure that every child sees themselves reflected in America’s story.” As the 2020 Wisconsin Middle School Teacher of the Year, she hopes to inspire fellow educators “to be vulnerable and curious enough to make each classroom an equitable space where students are inspired to overcome obstacles and find opportunity by seeing their voice as part of the past, present and future.”

McCarthy, who earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history, began her career as a museum educator in Chicago. After her family moved to Wisconsin, she decided to bring her love of history directly into the classroom. Alverno’s teacher licensure program put her on the fast track, and then a student teaching job at Greendale Middle School turned into a full-time position.

“An important part of the teacher I am today is because of Alverno. The College’s approach was different from any other kind of education I had ever experienced,” McCarthy notes. “Alverno’s approach looks at you as a whole person. As a teacher of middle school kids, I’m always pushing myself to see the whole child. They are trying to figure out who they are, and my experience gives me a unique ability to help them see something in themselves that they didn’t see before.”

Alverno taught her how to adapt to her students’ needs — a skill more important than ever when schools shifted to virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. One of McCarthy’s first assignments was to have students create a propaganda poster to convince people to stay home during the Safer at Home order.

“My curriculum looks different every year, and it’s really guided by the questions students have and what’s happening in the world,” McCarthy explains. “For me, it’s about getting them to wonder beyond the classroom walls, and realize that I’m not the only audience for their ideas. I tell them: Your social media presence reaches beyond just your friends, and what are you going to do with that in the future?”

Most recently, students’ questions have been about the historic moment they’re living through. “They had a lot of questions about what was going on with the economy and the toilet paper shortage, and I thought, ‘How am I going to teach them about this without freaking them out?’” she says. Her solution was to highlight businesses’ innovative responses and have students develop a product or service that people need right now and then create a mock Yelp page to promote it.

She hopes students find inspiration in history, too. “Right now we’re talking about the Great Depression and how did people overcome something so hard and so challenging. Because we did, and what can we learn from that?” she says. To bring the topic to life, she created a “Choose your own adventure”-style Depression simulation to share information while keeping students engaged during a live Zoom session.

“My favorite part about being a teacher is: I really feel I’m making a difference,” she says. “In this current political environment and in this pandemic, people often feel powerless. We put things out on social media or talk in our echo chamber and it’s like we’re shouting into the void. But my students really feel like they can make a difference. I don’t know how they’re going to change the world, but I’m hoping that the tools I’m giving them can help them in whatever they go on to do.”

This article appears in the spring/summer 2020 issue of Alverno Magazine.

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