I Hated Social Studies in School, So I Dedicated My Life to Fixing It

I Hated Social Studies in School, So I Dedicated My Life to Fixing It

Why you should care

Because textbooks are leaving out important pieces of U.S. history.

Noreen Rodriguez, an assistant instructor at the University of Texas at Austin, was nominated for the OZY Educator Award by Mazher Ali, who wrote: “Noreen isn’t just a great teacher, she’s an archetype for who the modern, culturally curious and emotionally intelligent teacher should be.”

Noreen Rodriguez, Texas

I hated social studies as a kid, so it’s ironic that’s the subject I now teach. Why? Because my 10th-grade teacher at my high school in San Antonio, Texas, singled me out during a lesson about immigration. “Noreen, where are your people from?” I remember thinking: How does she not know? Am I a mystery? As someone who is part Pakistani and part Filipino, is there something odd about me? She didn’t ask anyone else in the class that question, and from that point on, I grew acutely aware that the story of “my people” was completely left out of the U.S. history books.

That experience made me feel pretty isolated, even though I grew up in a fairly diverse city. I remember feeling excited when bits of my history would align with American culture. Asian musical collaborations like Eddie Vedder and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on the 1996 Dead Man Walking soundtrack really spoke to my teenage soul because they were popular and mainstream. Nusrat was a world-renowned Pakistani singer of Qawwali music, which my dad always loved.

The biggest problem with elementary social studies? The textbooks are completely whitewashed.

I studied linguistics, Spanish and bilingual education at the University of Texas at Austin, and can remember being blown away by some of my courses. I was able to take courses on Mughal India and the history of India up to partition. My father was born in New Delhi just before the country was partitioned. He left everything behind and moved to Pakistan, so in college I was learning stories that directly related to my father’s experience. But they were stories I had never heard before. I also soaked up South Asian literature like The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy and The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri to break out of the exclusively white canon that I had been exposed to in high school.

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Source Marissa JB Photography in Austin, TX

After receiving my Bachelor of Science, I later earned my master’s in curriculum and instruction and completed my Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction, specializing in social studies education, all at the University of Texas at Austin. But it wasn’t until I began my doctorate program that I truly learned about Asian-American history for the first time. One of the most fascinating tidbits was that the first Filipinos landed in Morro Bay, California, in 1587 — before the Pilgrims and the birth of our country. Why hadn’t I learned this in high school? I was appalled by how much I didn’t know, and this flipped a switch inside me, making me realize we need more diverse history lessons taught in American schools. My people had been here for more than 100 years, but they were never mentioned in school textbooks.

For nine years, I worked as a bilingual teacher at Dawson Elementary School and then Brentwood Elementary School in Austin, Texas. I loved working with English-language learners but eventually decided I’d make a greater impact as a teacher educator. So I made the difficult decision to leave the classroom and return to graduate school. Since 2014, I’ve been working as an assistant instructor of elementary social studies methods at the University of Texas. Basically, I teach future elementary teachers how to teach social studies, and I’m working really hard to ensure they do so in a culturally diverse and inclusive way. I work with historians and archivists at local history centers and libraries to come up with really rich, authentic and accurate information for teachers to learn how to teach. Children’s literature is also a really fantastic tool for creating a more diverse curriculum.

The biggest problem with elementary social studies? The textbooks are completely whitewashed. The students will learn about Davy Crockett, who lived in Texas for only three months before he died, and won’t hear a word about Tejanos, those Mexicans who also fought for Texan independence. When the English settlers arrive, Texas history began — at least the way it is currently taught — with its Mexican roots nearly erased.

As a teacher, I try to really get to know each of my students. I’ll ask what languages they speak at home, whether they immigrated as children, what they do for fun and what they love and hate about school. I need to know what my students feel confident about — and what they feel shaky about — to help shape them into the best possible teachers.

At the end of this summer, I’ll begin teaching elementary social studies methods courses at Iowa State University as an assistant professor. I’m really excited because Iowa is 92 percent white but relies heavily on Mexican migrant labor. I could be the only Pakipina teacher these students will have in their lifetime.

And I’m looking forward to seeing how I can make a positive impact on how they see the world.

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