Photo by bdinphoenix on Flickr.

As a teacher at Washington Latin Public Charter School, one of my greatest challenges is motivating and inspiring the young minds that enter my classroom each day. However, I’ve found a remedy in DC History, a class that engage students about the cultural, social, and political history of their city while preparing them to one day lead it.

When the semester starts, students are largely ignorant of basic facts about DC. I give a short, ungraded pre-test with 15 questions, such as:

  • “Who is the current mayor of Washington?”
  • “How many rivers are there in DC?”
  • “True or false: DC has a congressional voting representative.”

Of the 2 classes I taught this year, my students scored a combined 61% average, which would be an “F” if it were graded. Some have scored as low as 27%. Adults in America have trouble answering basic US history questions, as seen in Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking” bits. It’s no wonder that young adults struggle with even more idiosyncratic knowledge.

I don’t give this test because I want to prove my students’ ignorance. I want to know what they know, which informs what I should teach and how I should teach it. Besides, students should know the facts of their city’s past because it forms a foundation for an understanding of this city’s present.

Knowing that there are two rivers in this city, for example, is a prerequisite for knowing that the Potomac River once cut through the heart of Washington, and was never intended to be the border between DC and Virginia. Part of the reason why the Federal District retroceded land they took from Virginia in 1846 was to protect the slaveholding interest in Alexandria.

If you don’t know about the history of slavery in Washington, you probably don’t understand the city’s racial past. And if you don’t understand the city’s racial past, well then what do you really know about the “Chocolate City,” whose latest mayoral election in large part broke down along racial lines?

Students grapple with life in the “federal district”

It’s especially exciting to engage students about DC’s unconventional relationship with the federal government and what it means to their lives and their identity.

The US Constitution describes the Founding Fathers’ intent to place Washington City under the supervision and “exclusive” legislative rights of Congress. After all, it was mostly filled with government officials. But it’s unclear what they envisioned for an additional 600,000 people, a body of Americans still without Congressional voting representation.

Philosophically, the Founders had a deep mistrust of centralized power, and this was embodied in Article 1, Section 8, which says that Congress shall have power to “exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District…as may…become the Seat of the Government of the United States.”

Regardless of what Madison and the like intended, students in my class are hopelessly biased against Congressional oversight of Washington, DC. While fully aware of the idea behind limiting the power of the government, they recognize the implications of this decision in their own lives after a close look at what Congressional representation could offer.

“As a non-voting teen, the effect of the lack of home rule was almost imperceptible on myself to be honest,” one student wrote. “Although the real life impact of what we learned didn’t really seem to affect me individually while I learned it, it became quite obvious that every issue surrounding our lack of home rule would prove to be vitally important to our ability to take responsibility for ourselves and city as citizens of the capital of the free world and these United States.”

Other students felt helpless upon learning about their status as DC residents. “It was extremely upsetting to think about the lack of ability that I as a citizen possess when it comes to trying to make a change in my city,” another student wrote. “I was also confused. I don’t understand why such a statute hasn’t been lifted or abandoned seeing as this is no longer a city of government officials and workers.”

Of course, being so close to the federal government has its perks. I often tell my students that if they learn nothing else, they should know and understand that every time the nation experiences a war or recession, DC grows in population and economically, as it has for centuries.

Consider the Civil War, for example. Before it began, there were calls to move the national capital to a city more fitting, one that could demonstrate America’s burgeoning industrial might. Once the war was over, Washington’s population had doubled, the first Washington DC streetcar company was incorporated, the city’s hospitals had grown and modernized, and a new desegregated school, Howard University, was under construction.

Similarly, the Great Depression brought another surge in growth. While the rest of the country languished in unemployment, the effects of government spending under the New Deal triggered growth in the DC area. The same can be said for the recent economic recession, one during which Washington saw one of the nation’s most stable housing markets, and lowest unemployment rates.

“Our responsibility to make the change”

By the end of the semester, my students know the facts about the history of DC. My most recent class this spring scored an average of 83% on a test that asked questions both similar to and more difficult than the ones mentioned on the pre-test above. But they also have a deeper understanding of the more complex issues surrounding its past and present.

Local history is a boon to student motivation because it informs what we know about our past, and therefore ourselves: we are complicated, divided, and unique. Moreover, students also learn about a place that they will one day take charge of.

“Learning about home rule is so important as a young DC resident, because soon enough we will be the new leaders in DC,” one student wrote in a reflection on the course. “It will be our responsibility to make the change.”

Peter teaches US History, DC History and Media & Citizenship in DC.  He is a die-hard Nationals and Redskins fan, and spends his free time with wife Carolyn and daughter Grace.  He also takes pictures of dogs and posts them here.