Rejecting the Mythical Master Narrative with Nate Ridgeway

Monday, June 7, 2021

We all have them–those topics that are our favorite to teach, or the ones that you feel are simply more important than other things you discuss in your content–admit it. For me, there’s something about the industrialization of the United States and the rise of the reform movements that really excites me. It’s evident, that for Nate Ridgeway one of those topics is the Civil Rights movement in the United States.

From the moment I reached out to Nate and contacted him about coming onto the My Best Lesson: Social Studies podcast, his excitement, energy and passion for this unit was evident. The time and effort that went into this unit is astounding and you can clearly see it in the materials Nate shared (links below). I really think you’ll enjoy this episode as Nate and I discuss rejecting the mythical master narrative of Civil Rights in America.

Some of Nate’s “Big Ideas”
  • Myth-busting is Key: Throughout our discussion you can hear Nate talk about various ways he likes to deconstruct commonly accepted errors in history. Whether is deconstructing the myths of the civil rights movement or trying to educate politicians on actual history, Nate is dedicated to helping to build a broader base of historical knowledge in his students and his community.
  • Interactive & Accessible: Especially since our world has changed with COVID, Nate is dedicated to the notion that everything he creates should be accessible from home and interactive. Nate uses PearDeck to help him with this goal in this particular unit.
The Master Narrative

Some of you might a unfamiliar with this concept, so I wanted to be sure to start with a brief explanation before we dive into the units. In any course of study, the “master narrative” refers to the commonly-accepted story of history, usually written by the dominant group or society (kind of like the old adage that history is written by the winners). As Nate describes, the master narrative of the Civil Rights Movement in America centers around the actions of Martin Luther King Junior, non-violence and problems in the southern portion of the United States. While these things are certainly part of the story, says Nate, they are not the entire story and we owe it to ourselves and our society to dive deeper into the course of the Civil Rights Movement in America.

Part One: Chronology, SNCC, & Civil Rights
Click on the Image to See Nate’s Google Slides presentation for this lesson

Nate begins his dive into the Civil Rights Movement by getting his students to start thinking about the struggle for civil rights throughout American history. In this lesson, Nate has his students think about their own ideas of the Civil Rights Movement (most of which closely mirror the Master Narrative) and then create a timeline of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. As his students are working on their timelines, Nate helps by providing probing questions and gets his students to understand that the movement was really a 400 year struggle that was not linear and was more than just what happened in the middle of the 20th century.

Part Two: Location & Focus
Click on the Image to See Nate’s Google Slides presentation for this lesson

While part one focused on the chronology, part two is all about location, people and place. In this lesson Nate takes on the notion that the southern states were the ONLY states really encountering demonstrations and rallies for Civil Rights during the Civil Rights-Era. Additionally, Nate helps his students work through a role play, developed by Adam Sanchez, that gets his students to think about the role of SNCC and white Americans in the Civil Rights Movement. I especially liked this part because it’s a point where his students can really see themselves in history as many of the members of SNCC were not that much older than the students Nate teaches.

Part Three: Complicating King & Nuances to Non-Violence
Click on the Image to See Nate’s Google Slides presentation for this lesson

While all of these lessons are great, this one might be my favorite. Nate and his students tackle the widely accepted and often unquestioned story of King and his role in the Civil Rights movement. I love the essential question here–“What are the consequences and costs of mythologizing historical figures?” Through some incredibly engaging activities, including a “who said it?” style quiz that I bombed, Nate is able to help his students discover the truer and more nuanced story of Martin Luther King Jr, his goals and his impacts on the movement. However, the lesson doesn’t stop with King the man, it also asks the students to investigate the role of non-violence and armed self-defense.

Part Four: Meditating on Malcolm X and Black Power
Click on the Image to See Nate’s Google Slides presentation for this lesson

Full of thought-provoking information, enlightening videos clips & engaging activities, the fourth and final lesson is certain to get your students (and possibly you) thinking of Malcolm X in a different light. With this lesson, Nate works to give his students a deeper understanding of the goals of Malcolm X and provides them with the opportunity to work collaboratively to develop their own 10-point plan for Generation Z.

Closing Thoughts by Nate
  • Start With Your Kids: Let the kids drive where you go and focus your energies. It’s clear that Nate makes all of his decisions with his students in mind and he tries his best to make everyone feel involved in his class at all times.
  • Do You: These lessons are great–but they might not be a perfect fit for you. As Nate says, don’t be afraid to remix, deconstruct & customize these (or any) lessons to fit your needs.
  • Break Stuff: For me, this is my biggest takeaway–the whole idea of myth busting and deconstructing incomplete stories is a phenomenal framework for lesson design.
Where to Find Nate:

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