Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Gordon Gartrelle Reflects on the History Fair

I recently served as a judged for the History Fair city finals. The experience was both rewarding and depressing. Here are a few observations and reflections about the experience:

1.) I was disappointed that very few black kids made it the finals, but was happy that the handful of black kids who did make it had the most family members and supporters in attendance.

2.) Had my office not come to represent, there wouldn’t have been any black judges.

Why don’t/can’t more black kids and adults participate in this enriching experience?

3.) It was great to see young people so passionate about history that they would spend months researching their topics.

4.) A surprising number of the entries offered little to no evidence and contained claims that were flat out wrong. Not just wrong in a “they’ll learn a more complicated version when they get to college” way, but inexcusably wrong.

How in the hell did these projects make it to the finals?

What kind of teachers would allow their students to submit these claims?

5.) One of the entries was so raggedy, I was embarrassed for the students. In addition to the history being wildly inaccurate and there being unacceptable typos, the project presented the life and death of an iconic black figure with Tiger Beat style lettering and designs (it wouldn’t have been out of place for the “i”s to be dotted with hearts). I had hoped that the students who made it were not black, but part of me just knew that they were. I was wrong. They were white girls—negrophiles, but white girls nonetheless.

What does it say about my perception of the state of black urban education that I assumed these students were black?

6.) 80% of the entries I judged were about black historical figures, but none of these entries were created by black students. Several of the entries made problematic assumptions about black people. When the students turned out to be white, these assumptions became even more pernicious in my eyes.

Was I wrong for judging these white kids’ assumptions about black people more harshly than I would had these kids been black?


Paul said...

Your fourth observation is a bit dismaying. I would think one point of having a history fair is to inspire kids to work to a higher standard. Obviously, that won't be accomplished by allowing very poor work into the finals.

Zora said...

Dear Gordon,

This makes obvious that you are working in the wrong field. Give up your high-paying, power job and begin working as a history teacher. The need is clearly there.


(P.S. SallieMae will forgive a portion of your loans if you do public service.)

Morgan said...


I'm a white woman who writes and researches about race...and this means I have a responsibility to be very careful with what I say and what kinds of representations I make. When I talk about poor white people in my city I'm much less careful.