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In Texas: remembering the Alamo differently

By Kris AxtmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 13, 2002



HOUSTON

On one side of the white construction paper, Ann Blessinger has her students write "King of England," on the other, "colonists." The assignment: Describe how each side felt leading up the Revolutionary War.

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This is a lesson in perspective – it's easy to forget that there are two sides to every story, she explains to the 7th graders.

The kids begin: Sad faces appear next to the colonists after the Stamp Act; angry faces appear next to the king after the Boston Tea Party.

Perspective is not a new concept to historians. But in this state – where legendary outsized proportion and emotion dominate views of the past – this is a radical step.

The old way of teaching the Texas Revolution – the freedom-loving Americans against the tyrannical Mexicans, or good versus evil – is falling by the way as fast as the myths surrounding the Alamo.

With an increasingly Hispanic population, Texas school teachers are feeling pressure to bring more perspective to state history, which students must study in the 4th and 7th grade.

The battles that led to Texas' independence, for instance, are still hard for Mexico to swallow: They eventually meant the loss of half the country's land. And as the Hispanic population quickly becomes a majority in this state, teachers, historians, and museum directors are realizing that celebrating these accomplishments without regard to their southern neighbors isn't cutting it anymore.

"The standard line we used was that we won and they lost; and no one really questioned who 'we' was," says Angela Miller, manager for social studies curriculum with the Houston Independent School District and a history teacher of 20 years. "You can't do that anymore."

At Burbank Middle School in north Houston, Ms. Blessinger says, "We teach a lot of kids who have just come from Mexico and many who still have loyalties to Mexico. You do have to be very aware of who is in your room."

She says she's careful to stress the Mexican Army's point of view, and spends extra time on the important Mexican figures who fought alongside American settlers – a concept foreign to teachers just a few years ago.

"Students nowadays are more willing to challenge opinion expressed in the classroom," says Ms. Miller. "That means we need to prepare our teachers to respond to that challenge and not feel threatened by it."

This kind of sensitivity to past struggles is happening all over the country, says Adrian Anderson, a history professor at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas.

"We're seeing a kinder, more understanding treatment given to matters like Reconstruction, the Civil War, and the Texas Revolution," says Dr. Anderson, who helps revise Texas textbooks. "We are trying to present a more balanced view of who we are." He says it's commonly held in his discipline that every age rewrites history according to the values and concerns of the time. "In effect, that's what we're seeing here. Texas today is concerned with matters of race and ethnicity and gender."

Bigger-is-better sensibility

To understand why this is such a radical step in the teaching of Texas history, one must first understand just how important a role the past plays in the hearts of Texans today.

Unlike other states that commonly offer public school students a year or less of state history, Texas requires two – in the 4th and 7th grades.

The state is littered with monuments, museums, and historical markers of famous moments in Texas history. In typical Texan bigger-is-better attitude, these were built to overshadow all else. For instance, the 570-foot San Jacinto Monument – commemorating the battle that ended the Texas Revolution – is the tallest monument column in the world, higher than the Washington Monument.

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