Teacher rises to the defense of history

Members of a  House-Senate conference committee on state spending met at the Capitol after school on Tuesday, which allowed a Minnesota history teacher to provide a lesson on why the Minnesota Historical Society shouldn’t be penalized for doing its job.

The Republican majority in the Minnesota Senate — with the help of a few DFLers — is trying to strip money from the Historical Society in retaliation for its decision to add a single word to a sign for the Fort Snelling Historical Site: Bdote, the Dakota name for the location.

Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, has objected that adding the word to a sign revises history. So she wants the budget for the Historical Society cut by $4 million a year.

That’s a mistake, history teacher Mark Westphal told the committee in his testimony, a copy of which he provided to me.

Madam Chair Kiffmeyer, Mr. Chair Nelson, and members of this Conference Committee:

My name is Mark J. Westpfahl and I’m a social studies teacher at Capitol Hill Gifted and Talented Magnet School in St. Paul. I am a four-time nominee for Minnesota Teacher of the year and two-time semifinalist. I currently serve on the Board of Directors for the Minnesota Council for the Social Studies and I am a former Board of Education Member in Inver Grove Heights.

I am here this evening to express concern for S.F. 2227 and the decrease of appropriations that may be levied against the Minnesota Historical Society, as stated in Section 23. Recent concerns have been expressed by members of this committee that “revisionist history” threatens to erase events that have happened at Fort Snelling or diminish their significance. As a historian and social studies teacher, I would argue just the opposite.

My students engage in historical inquiry and study events and issues significant to Minnesota history, beginning with the early indigenous people of the upper Mississippi River region to the present day. My students have combed the databases and collections of the Minnesota Historical Society to read newspapers and personal correspondences, analyze treaty language and documents that make up our states tremendous and often times complicated history. Charged with a difficult task, my students try to better understand historic events from multiple perspectives. We discuss and debate why there is often not a historical record, especially from groups or individuals who have been seen as marginalized.

If the legislature reduces the budget for the Minnesota Historical Society by the proposed 18%, we risk the ability to properly provide educational opportunities, not only for our students across our state, but also for the millions of Minnesotans who rely on this organization to record and share our stories.

Senator Newman recently stated, “I think it’s a rewriting of our history and I’m not in favor of it.” I want to remind him, and others, that Minnesota State Statute dictates that we review and modify our state curriculum standards every ten years in order to better reflect and our understanding of the content. The term “Bdote” and its use around Fort Snelling has been contentious. With that said, I wanted to share one of our state statutes regarding Minnesota Studies “Describe how land was used during different time periods in Minnesota history; explain how and why land use has changed over time.” (State Standard:

Because I do not know how many of you have been in a classroom recently, especially a social studies classroom, I wanted to share with you a quick glimpse of how my classroom is structured starting with the very first day of school.

I believe in teaching through the lens of multiple perspectives, rather than simply settle for the old adage that “history is written by victors.” I demonstrate the multiple-perspective approach to students on the first day of class, when they each write their own history of the same event.

I stand on a desk, poke the ceiling with a pencil, giggle, turn my arm, drop the pencil, jump off the desk, raise my hands in victory, and awkwardly shout “tada!” I ask students to spend five minutes writing what they saw. It’s amazing to see the varied interpretations. Some students describe the event in detail, down to what I am wearing; some argue about whether I was holding a pen or pencil; some leave out almost all detail.

Although each student saw the exact thing, their interpretation of the historic event differed. This exercise showcases my definition of history: An interpretation of events, objects, people, etc., told from a certain perspective, which shapes the way we view things.

I tell my students that if we want our perspectives to become part of history, we need to record them. “History” will not remember that I stood on my desk and poked the ceiling, unless we make record of that and preserve it for future generations.

If we save all of the students’ interpretations of that lesson in one location, the Minnesota Historical Society for example, future historians would more accurately understand what happened than if they just read one note that said “This morning Mr. Westpfahl stabbed the ceiling with a pencil.” When only one perspective is carried on to the future, most people may believe it accurately describes an event.

History is an interpretation of events, objects, people, etc., told from a certain perspective, which shapes the way we view things. How this committee, and the legislature acts, will be recorded and preserved throughout our state’s history. Reducing the budget of a fundamental institution dedicated to the preservation of our collective society, which has been around since Minnesota was a territory, will have a major impact on the conservation and interpretation of events.

Opportunities for our students, our neighbors and future residents of our state will be diminished if we are unwilling to acknowledge the complexities of our past and present.

I encourage you to reconsider the 18% decrease in funding for the Minnesota Historical Society as proposed in S.F. 2227 so they can continue their mission of “Using the Power of History to Transform Lives.”

Finally, I want to personally invite you to our #CHCougars classroom at Capitol Hill, located just 1.3 miles from this historic building to see first hand how history is presented. We may only have 23 days left of school, but I can assure you that I plan on using each and every one to help prepare our students to be active historians and future leaders.

Thank you for your willingness to allow me to testify today, and I welcome any questions you may have.

Westphal’s sixth-grade class is starting its unit on the process of the Minnesota Legislature, which includes role playing in a legislative session. Unlike the real Legislature, his students’ version won’t go to a special session.