On Strike at Yale

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When I was a grad student at Northwestern University, I made about $23,000 per year. Some additional pay went to university-provided health insurance, and my tuition was covered by a grad student scholarship, but my take-home was $23,000 before taxes. When I completed coursework and was working as a Teaching Assistant, I was scoring papers, leading discussion sections, and calculating grades for the same $23,000/year rate. After I left Northwestern, some members of my cohort supported the establishment of a Graduate Students’ Union. As I understand it (I hope one of my classmates will correct me in the comments if I’m getting this wrong), part of the impetus for that was that the University raised rates on the health insurance it provided, but didn’t raise grad student stipends accordingly.

That is not very much money, but the actual amount was never what bothered me (well, sometimes it did bother me, but I was pretty used to living on not very much money). The striking part was that my classmates and I were living on about half of what undergraduate tuition cost at the time. Meaning, the undergrads in our classes were paying more than $40,000 per year to be taught by graduate students who were being paid $23,000 per year by the same university. Furthermore, we as graduate students had little-to-no teacher training—the training we did receive was homegrown, meaning it was supported and developed by grad students who received no extra remuneration for doing so.

Anyone working as a PhD student knows this story. And so do the graduate students at Yale University, currently on hunger strike, demanding that the University recognize their efforts to unionize. As the New York Times reports, Yale has not responded by supporting its grad students, who teach the undergrads that currently pay $47,900 to attend the prestigious institution. Instead, it’s hired a massive corporate law firm to bully the resource-poor grad students into submission.

This closing line from the Times article struck me:

The university is nothing if not a place that should foster critical inquiry and civic engagement. That so many schools have mimicked corporate America in preferring greater profits to fair wages for their employees — quashing democratic participation in university decisions — says a lot about the role the university now plays in society.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but a very clear way to read this is: a large, well-endowed, corporate institution is not only quashing democratic participation, but it is also profiting off of the labor of unrepresented and financially strapped laborers. Yale’s endowment exceeds $25 billion. Can it not afford to practice a bit of what universities are supposed to preach?

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Protest and Social Movements

This winter, the Director of my school’s community engagement center floated the idea of designing and teaching a course together. The course would be rooted in Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, whose thesis is that traditional education models treat the student an empty vessel into which teachers pour knowledge. The course would try to undo that process and instead focus on empowering students as agents of social change. The student would be at the helm of designing rubrics, grading scales, and engaging with texts about and historical case studies of grassroots social movements. My already overactive mental wheels started turning and we put in a proposal. Two weeks ago we received approval to offer the course next fall, and this summer we’ll be designing the curriculum. I am so excited. The title of the course is: Protest and Social Movements: Theory, History, and Contemporary Challenges, and here’s the description.

Why do social movements happen? What starts them, fuels them, and determines whether they succeed or fail? How does power operate in societies, and how have the relatively powerless sought access to political, social, and economic power? How can students thoughtfully, and with a sensitivity to history and their immediate context, promote social change? This course will examine the history and theory of social movements by positioning the student as primary change agent. As an exercise in personal and group agency, the course grading rubric will be cooperatively designed by the teacher and students at the beginning of the semester. Course material (readings, videos, and podcasts) will include anthropological, sociological, and historical studies of protest and social movements, in addition to current news and commentary. In-class work will include extensive discussion, viewing and analysis of recent news clips, and collaborative work. Graded work will consist of short response papers, class discussion, and a final analytical project on a topic and in a style of the student’s choosing. While this is a stand-alone course, it is hoped that students might use the knowledge gained to engage in community-based fieldwork in the second semester. 

And here’s the students’ summer reading:

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So since the course is yet-to-be-planned, if you were taking this class, which social movement would you want to study? What questions do you have about social movement and engagement in general? Are there things about which you’re curious or confused or enraged or excited about the way people interact with power?

Cultivating Skepticism: Teaching Students to Distinguish Evidence from Argument

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Handing out a reading assignment to my students can be a risky business. As I am the figure of authority in the room (well, maybe I flatter myself), they often take the truth of what I say for granted. This is even more so the case when I hand them an article or document written by some professor or other. But as I’ve written about before, I really don’t want my students to be under the impression that what I say is gospel. I’m instead interested in cultivating doubt, and in teaching them to read critically. (This is one of the reasons I try not to say too much in class. It seems like whenever I open my mouth, student conversation stops, their attention focuses on me, and they start taking notes. They are well-behaved, but compliant doesn’t necessarily equal engaged.)

We’re nearing the end here in AP US History. The exam is in the first week of May, and I only have five classroom hours left with my students before our mandatory review period. Meaning, we’re already at the Reagan Revolution (and we started in the 1500s!). As I was preparing a lecture on the rise of the Conservative movement in the 1970s and 1980s, it occurred to me that my students might need to be reminded of the same source analysis skills we worked on on the very first day of class. Here’s why: when I was drafting notes for said lecture, I didn’t have the class textbook with me, so I used this online textbook for reference. The textbook’s chapter on “The Triumph of the Right” addresses the role of George Wallace and the segregationists in the South in the “conservative ascendance” of the 70s and 80s. One aspect of the Conservative movement (and this squared with what I learned in grad school) was a backlash against Brown v. Board’s forced integration of schools.

Interestingly, when I got back to school and reviewed the class textbook (Alan Brinkley’s American History: A Survey), there was no mention of segregation in the chapter dealing with the “New American Right.” Curious.

So instead of delivering a lecture, which I am loath to do anyway, I decided to do a source analysis exercise. I started by asking my students to do a warm up by listing the factors and groups that led to the coalescence of the post-war Conservative movement. Since they’d all read the Brinkley chapter, none of them mentioned opposition to school integration. What did they make, then, I asked of this writer, who asserted that segregation was in fact the motivating factor?

I was genuinely interested in what my students thought of the guy’s argument—he’s a professor at Dartmouth with a PhD from Princeton, but he’s also writing on Politico, which I seem to have the impression of as being, well, rather political. After brainstorming definitions of “evidence” and “analysis/argument,” I asked my students to first identify the author’s thesis, and and then ferret out where he used evidence in support of that thesis, and where he was analyzing his evidence or providing a subjective interpretation. What were some flags that could indicate to the reader that the author was subjectively interpreting rather than stating objective fact? In pairs, students highlighted evidence in one color and analysis in another. Did the author seem to have enough evidence to support his claims?

Students have a pretty difficult time distinguishing evidence from analysis in History class. They tend to think of material presented in History as generally objective. Material that appears in English class, by contrast, falls under the category of subjective. All History is fact while all English is interpretation (a devastating falsehood!). To help disabuse students of this notion, we brainstormed “flags” that might alert the reader to an author’s interpretive voice coming through in an historical text. Sometimes, adverbs and adjectives can signal that the author is interpreting evidence. We focused in on the author’s use of the word “overwhelmingly,” for example. What does “overwhelming” mean? What percentage would constitute an “overwhelming” number? Is this something about which reasonable minds can disagree? And what does that mean for the claim the author is making? Should we trust it automatically, or insist on further proof? We also talked about how the selection of evidence itself can be a matter of interpretation. Historians pick and choose what evidence to include: we hope that professional historians are as ethical as possible and offer their readers evidence that is representative of a larger whole, rather than misrepresenting their sources. But while we hope that, we cannot assume it, and we ought to be skeptical of just about everything we read. (And we ought to look at the author’s credentials, and the credentials of the site on which the article is published.)

Students seemed to find that the most frustrating part of doing this exercise was that it suggested that they can’t trust anything that they read, and that everything is a matter of interpretation. Annoying though that may be, I think it’s more honest than the alternative: that their textbook/teacher always tells the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

National Board: Almost There!

I’m on Spring Break right now, which means that I’m alternately digging holes in a garden, watching TV, and working on my National Board portfolio (I know how to live!). As I’ve gotten into the weeds with this thing I have a few observations:

First, the portfolio itself is a total bear. I thought I had really done the bulk of the work because I’d taught the lessons and gathered the evidence I’d use to submit and write about. And for two out of the three Components I’m submitting, I’d already written the 12-13 page commentaries. But what I had not accounted for are the FORMS. There are about seven thousand forms to be formatted, cross-referenced, properly labelled, and converted to PDFs before they get uploaded into an e-portfolio system. And before I even approach that stage in the process, I have to pull screenshots of Google Drive files, convert them to .jpeg’s, import them into Google Docs, download those to PDFs, compile them all into single files, etc., etc., etc….and never mind that the instructions and naming conventions for this stuff appear differently in three different places on the National Board website. All of this has led me to the conclusion that: one must be a good teacher, yes, to apply and receive National Board Certification. But more than that, one must have an inhuman level of patience and attention to detail (oh! also good teacher qualities!) (oh! and extra points for you if your computer dates to the good-old-mid-Obama-administration days of 2011! Try updating Preview on that antique system, whydoncha!).

Second, administrative headaches aside, this process is totally invaluable in terms of professional development. When I first started teaching I had a Master’s in my subject area and next to no classroom experience. My first Principal vehemently asserted that one could not just step into teaching, and that teaching in fact was something that one had to learn and practice. I did not really understand how true that was. I knew about History; clearly, I could teach it! False. Teaching is more craft than anything else, as it forces the teacher to imagine, execute, reevaluate, redesign, and iterate. Teaching is not really something one can learn how to do in the abstract, rather, one has to try things out, fail repeatedly, learn from failure, and try again. It simply takes time to get any good at. The National Board process asks the teacher to provide evidence that she actively engages in this iterative process. The requirements are not that the teacher succeed in delivering a perfect lesson every day, but rather that she take seriously the requirements of careful trial, error/success, and reflection. Because the portfolio is evidence-based, one can’t rely on content knowledge or a fancy degree or number of years in the classroom or any other proxy for “good teaching.” Instead, the teacher has to show documentation of her actual teaching practice.

Third, collecting all of this evidence has taught me a few things about what it means to teach. First, looking closely at student work is the maybe only way to figure out whether or not I’m effective in the classroom. Otherwise, I might be able to tell if they’re paying attention while I’m talking, or whether they laugh at my jokes (they’d better), but I can’t really tell if they’ve grown with regards to a certain goal or objective. Second, and related, teaching is about relationship-building above all. In order for my students and colleagues to feel comfortable with my evaluation of student work, they need to trust that I am capable and professional, and also that I’m interested in the success of the students above all. Third, “differentiation” is just good teaching, but it takes some doing in order to figure out what it actually means in practice (because it’s not necessarily designing 25 different lessons, one for each kid in the class). Differentiation means making curriculum accessible for a variety of learners, and allowing those learners to demonstrate their understanding in a variety of ways. When I first started teaching I was so nervous and stressed out that I tended to see my students as just a mass of people whose mission in life was to challenge my ability to get through a school day (seriously—ask any first-year teacher and they’ll likely say the same thing). Now that I’m a more comfortable with the job, it’s so obvious that each one of those kids is such a unique little snowflake (sincerely!) that of course they’re not going to all be able to read a giant textbook chapter at the same rate, and that even if they do, they might not really understand it. And if they do understand it, they might not all demonstrate that understanding in the form of a five-paragraph essay, just like I’d be total crap at demonstrating my understanding in the form of a pop ballad. What I mean is, my students are individuals, and I ought to treat them as such in the classroom.

I have to recommend this process to any teacher who has entered her third year of teaching and is therefore eligible. I also have to recommend the Stanford support group, as I don’t know how I would have made it through all the byzantine requirements of the National Board without that resource.

Well, anyway. I’ve been away from this blog for a long time—it’s been a hectic semester. I moved to San Francisco, I started commuting, I started teaching a new class, blah blah blah. But I will write soon about how our Truth and Reconciliation Series has gone, and about an exciting new venture re: planning radical (in the sense of being far-out and hip) history curriculum! Happy spring to everyone!

 

Truth and Reconciliation Speaker Series

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A while back my APUSH class was studying the Dawes Act. The Dawes Act is maybe best known for establishing the system of Native American reservations we have today. But it also  instituted a system of boarding schools whose purpose was to forcibly assimilate the Native American population of the west. The residential schools founded after the Dawes Act perpetrated every kind of abuse on their students, and many of my students were shocked not only to learn that they’d existed, but also to realize they’d never heard anything about them before.

As I was Googling around that night on the subject, I learned that Canada had dealt with a parallel aspect of its own past just two years ago. In 2015, the Canadian government held a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate its 19th-century residential schools, to apologize formally to the survivors of those schools, and to make recommendations for helping to undo the cultural decimation that resulted from the residential school system.

This got me thinking that it might be interesting to do a series on truth and reconciliation commissions, or more broadly, what we can do when we encounter history that is, simply, atrocious. How do we as nations and communities deal with things like slavery, massacres, forced sterilization, disappearances, etc.? How do we look the ugliness in our past square in the face, deal with it, and move forward? What do we do with that knowledge? What moral obligations does knowing confer? This seemed to me a natural extension of learning about history, and so the Truth and Reconciliation Speaker Series was born!

Throughout the spring semester, students will participate in conversations with people who are either experts on or who have been directly involved with truth commissions and/or the process of transitional justice. I’m completely delighted that the response to this series has been so enthusiastic, and I think we have some really interesting and compelling people lined up. Here’s the tentative schedule:

January 20: Beth Healey of Northwestern University will join us via Skype. I knew Beth in graduate school, and she works on Nazi Germany and the legal process by which the world dealt with the warcrimes perpetrated during the Second World War. Beth will also introduce students to the concept of transitional justice.

February 3: Ron Slye, of Seattle University School of Law, will join via Skype to talk about the post-Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Professor Slye was an international law consultant to the South African Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission, and in 2009 he was chosen by Kofi Annan to work as one of three commissioners on the Kenyan Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission.

February 17: This date isn’t confirmed, but Tricia Logan of the Canadian National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, who worked with the commission in 2015, will join us via Skype as well. Ms. Logan is also  the Curator of Indigenous Content at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights.

(Date TBD): Mrs. Joyce Johnson, of the Beloved Community Center in Greensboro, North Carolina, will join us, once again via Skype. Mrs. Johnson was closely involved with the only Truth and Reconciliation that has to date occurred in the United States, in response to the 1979 Greensboro Massacre.

March 17: Diana Esther Guzmán Rodríguez of Stanford University will join us in person, to discuss The National Committee of Reparation and Reconciliation, which exists to investigate internal armed conflict in Columbia.

I’m hoping to get a few more folks in to talk about the possibilities for such a commission in the United States, but this is the line-up so far! I’ve been really excited to share this announcement, and I hope it gets my students (and coworkers) thinking about how much history exists just below the surface of our everyday lives. I’ll be reporting back after each session, so stay tuned!

 

 

First Semester Review

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Being a new teacher at a new school isn’t that much different from being a new teacher, period. New students, new systems, new culture, new schedule…new…everything. This newness has been especially, well, new, because the new job also came with a new part of the country (I moved from northern Arizona to northern California in June). Since the point of this blog was, initially, to reflect on my teaching practice in preparation for National Board, I thought I’d write down some of the highlights/what I’ve learned in my first semester in my new position.

1. Lasting change happens slowly. At my last school, we were small and change could happen on a whim. Want to change your curriculum? Consider it done. Cancel that course, and swap it out for something different? No problem. Change the schedule to account for half the student body catching the flu? Sounds like a good idea. But because those changes were so specific to the people implementing them, they didn’t always stick. The personality of the school changed with the people working there. I think there are definite benefits to this kind of institutional flexibility, and it made for a more dynamic and responsive work environment. But more lasting change—especially at a larger institution—happens over time and requires system-wide buy-in. Top-down change is less-effective than grassroots change, and enduring change comes from deliberation and consensus.

2. Collaborating takes patience, prioritization, and vision. My teaching style differs from the that of my department. This has posed a problem at points during the semester, because I co-teach both of my courses, and the school culture is such that courses are uniform, and don’t differ according to the teacher. So, my curriculum and lesson planning must match the other teacher teaching the course. I believe in the merits of my own approach, but I also see the strengths inherent in the teaching styles of the more veteran teachers with whom I work. So, I have had to consider which battles are worth fighting: which curriculum can I let go? Which do I fight for? Where do I compromise, and how can I be useful? It’s become clear to me over the last few months that keeping an end goal in mind, and recognizing the stuff that’s essential versus the stuff that’s mostly about my own ego, are essential to making collaboration work.

3. There are no emergencies in education. My mom, who is an interventions teacher in Utah, had a boss who told her this. We are not doing life-saving surgery, or pulling people out of burning buildings, and education is about winning wars, not battles. Education is a long-term process, and it’s unlikely that any given lesson or test score will determine anyone’s future. In education, things happen over time, and though we as teachers feel like everything’s an emergency, in reality, nothing really is. This has been especially hard, and important, to keep in mind, in my current school environment, where expectations are high and anxiety runs higher. Just because a student believes her test score is an emergency does not mean that it is, and part of my job is to help her to understand that.

4. September is fun, October is the worst, and November is a beautiful thing. In September we are fresh from summer vacation, armed with new school supplies and new lesson plans, and once again convinced of our ability to save the world. In October, we are faced with midterms, tired kids, and weeks on end with no relent. And November brings Thanksgiving and the promise of Winter Break. Next time around I need to remember that October is not forever and just when you think you WILL QUIT TEACHING AND NEVER RETURN, November will be here to save your life!

4. Not working is important. Probably the thing that made the most difference in my professional life this semester has been focusing on enjoying myself outside of work, instead of letting work bleed into my non-working hours (how is it that I had an easier time with work/life balance when I worked in a boarding school??). In the depths of October I made a resolution to work when I was at work, and otherwise, to not work. I decided to only wake up extra-early if I had papers to grade, to finish my work at work, and then only start back in on prepping for the week on Sunday afternoon. I’ve shut it off on weekday evenings, and Friday night and Saturday are off-limits.

On that note, I wanted to introduce an Instagram account I started. It’s called teacherweekend, and I started it because I realized that this blog was keeping me accountable with regards to thinking carefully about teaching, but nothing was keeping me accountable with regards to, like, enjoying myself. I think teachers, especially, have a hard time turning work off, and so I’m posting photos in an effort to remind myself (and other budding teachers out there—I’m looking at you, Nancy) that not working is as important as working. Your work will be better work if you do it when you’re rested and happy. As of now I’ve not been great about posting to the account, but my New Years’ resolution is to do a fun thing every weekend and take a picture.

So on THAT note, happy holiday season to everyone, and happy winter break to my teacher friends!

Using Student Work to Measure Teacher Effectiveness

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Teacher effectiveness, in my experience, is typically measured in a few ways: classroom observations, student test scores, and student surveys. Except when conducted in the most nuanced and careful way, I don’t think these data points elicit a great understanding of how effective a given teacher is. Why don’t we evaluate student work samples as indicators of how well a given teacher is teaching?

Right now I’m in the process of completing one of the four components of National Board Certification, which involves sending in samples of student work across time. I’m supposed to send in three samples of student writing from three different points in the year, and then explain how my instructional practices helped the student to achieve the writing-related goal I set out for them. Essentially, what the judges are looking for is that something that’s happening in my classroom is resulting in actual, demonstrated student growth.

One of my administrators came in to observe one of my classes this past week. I appreciated how she circulated throughout the room, asked students what they were working on, and seemed genuinely interested in what was happening in the class. But whatever the result of the observation, what she doesn’t have is evidence of where the students were before they started the unit or lesson, and where they’ll be after they complete it. She doesn’t have the necessary data to tell whether or not my teaching is actually doing what I want it to.

The “student work” (scare quotes intentional) that usually gets used for teaching evaluation tends to take the form of fill-in-the-bubble standardized tests. For public school teachers more so than for me, these tests are the bane of teachers’ collective existence. They are often asinine, they are too-frequent, and they hover like ugly, dark clouds over our curriculum and classrooms. Open-ended, authentic assessments (often in the form of writing and higher-order activities) that actually ask students to think are more demonstrative of true learning. So why not measure students’ progress according to goals we want them to reach? And why not measure teacher effectiveness in terms of how well they help students to reach those worthwhile goals?

What might this look like? Well, the initial conversation between the teacher and administrator might involve the question, “What do you want students to learn by the end of this unit or period of time?” The teacher might then be observed once or twice, and then be asked to submit random student writing samples. A follow-up conversation could involve the teacher and administrator sitting down to cooperatively analyze student growth as demonstrated in those samples. What’s going well? What could be improved upon? This would be a much more intensive process than administering tests or conducting surveys, but that’s the work to be done, isn’t it?

Until embarking on the National Board journey I’ll admit that I’d never undertaken this exercise on my own. Though as a teacher I have a sort of intuitive sense of how a student is progressing over the course of a year—it’s very hard to get an objective measure of how a student is doing in their ability to assess historical causation, for example—I hadn’t really looked at my students’ writing over time, and asked whether or not what I was doing in the classroom was really helping them to get better at thinking. I think administrators and school districts ought to be asking that question, rather than relying mostly on teacher-centered observations of our supposedly student-centered classrooms

The Fate of Democracy!

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Half of my students think that democracy has some serious problems. That’s the conclusion I drew after grading 32 essays in response to the question, “Is democracy the best form of government?” About half of the essays answered, in one way or another, no.

That result seems to be in line with Harvard lecturer Yascha Mounk’s conclusions, which were recently reviewed in an article in The New York Times. After reading that article, I was particularly struck by the following paragraph:

“Drawing on data from the European and World Values Surveys, the researchers found that the share of Americans who say that army rule would be a ‘good’ or ‘very good’ thing had risen to 1 in 6 in 2014, compared with 1 in 16 in 1995.

That trend is particularly strong among young people. For instance, in a previously published paper, the researchers calculated that 43 percent of older Americans believed it was illegitimate for the military to take over if the government were incompetent or failing to do its job, but only 19 percent of millennials agreed. The same generational divide showed up in Europe, where 53 percent of older people thought a military takeover would be illegitimate, while only 36 percent of millennials agreed.”

Young people are more likely than old people to find fault with democracy, and more likely, too, to give military takeover a pass. After making the young people in my class read the article, we focused on the paragraph quoted above, and asked ourselves the following question:

How can historical context explain this phenomenon?

I wrote about our own generational historical context earlier: some of this may come simply from the disillusionment that I think is prevalent among people in my age range.

But my students came to the conclusion that there’s a point to be made about inexperience, too: our parents and grandparents are more likely to have encountered totalitarian, authoritarian, or autocratic rule at some point in their lives, and they have seen (either firsthand or on the network TV channels that everyone watched way back when) the horrifying results that those regimes can bring about. My 93-year-old neighbor fought in the Battle of the Bulge. My parents and their friends lived through the Cold War. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Mussolini, etc. rose and fell during the mid-20th century, well before my memory begins. American-born millenials have not in general lived through the immediate horror of dictatorship and rule by a single-party state (many of our counterparts abroad have not been so fortunate). For us, learning history (or paying attention to the news, which you should pay for by the way!) is the only tool we have to understand how fortunate we are, in the grand scheme of things, to live under a democratic system—flawed though our current version may be. I would also argue that this is an obvious reason we should be welcoming refugee populations to the United States: wouldn’t one’s exposure to their alternatives make one more likely to defend the institutions of democratic government?

I was very proud of my students for recognizing that the young people surveyed were able to declare their dissatisfaction precisely because they live in a liberal democracy. Were the military rule they see as, at least, “not-illegitimate,” to come to pass, they might not be so lucky. The system ought to be improved from within—let’s not let the proverbial baby get thrown out with the bathwater.

A Letter to my Fellow Millenials

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Dear people my age,

I was born in 1986. The Soviet Union still existed, but the Berlin Wall came down when I was three and I was none the wiser. My third grade teacher at one point tried to explain why the U.S.S.R. as depicted on our classroom world map wasn’t relevant anymore. I didn’t get it. When I was 14, George Bush beat out Al Gore in the race for the presidency, despite losing the popular vote and despite the fact that Al Gore kept talking to my parents about saving the planet on behalf of my friends and me. That year I learned that you can win, and still lose.

All through grade school, middle school, high school, and college, my parents assured me that if I worked hard and pursued my passions and tried to help other people, I could be whatever I wanted to be. I studied history, and architecture, and political science, and French. I studied abroad in Paris during the second Bush term, and watched as my French host mother mocked the Muslim prayers happening inside the train station on the north side of the city. I will say that as in third grade, I still didn’t really get it.

In 2008 I graduated with a Bachelor’s in History. A college degree, I had been assured, was the ticket I needed to a job that would land me safely in the career of my choosing. As nearly all parents do, my parents hoped that their children would be better off than they were. My parents, who are the most intelligent and persevering people I have ever met, did not have college degrees (though my mother has since earned one and my father’s is in process—go mom and dad!), and had faith, as I did and do, in higher education. So I got a scholarship and I also took out some loans and my family made it work.

Of course, it was 2008. So like clockwork, and pretty much as soon as I tossed that weird hat up in the air, the market crashed, and all the jobs were gone, and it turned out that following your passion got you a degree in history or architecture or French or political science, and not much in the way of marketable skills. So I, like my friends, went back to grad school, or struggled for a long time, or went into debt, or just tried to figure it out. A lot of my friends have finally gotten on their feet, but many have not, and some are teetering on their tiptoes hoping they don’t fall over. Many of us are struggling with crippling debt loads, living with our parents, putting off marriage and children, and all the while being told that we are lazy and entitled diletantes. Well, we are not. We were idealists who have watched politicians make decisions that didn’t pan out for us; we have been unemployed for a long time; we have been indebted for college degrees that haven’t paid economic dividends; and we have been told since we were 14 that you could win, and still lose.

So, I don’t blame you, fellow millenials, for not voting. (Well, I do, actually, but I also, sadly, get it.) We have been in an extended period of adolescence. We have read a bunch of books but we can’t get mortgages, and our futures are looking bleaker right now than they were two weeks ago.

But the historian in me realized something this past week. I am thirty. Thirty is an age that my fourteen-year-old self literally could not even imagine being, and it is certainly what I would consider the threshold for adulthood. Our parents, by the time they were thirty, had not only had kids and bought houses, they had also dodged drafts or they hadn’t, and they had fought in foreign wars; they had protested legal segregation; they had marched for equal pay and demonstrated in the streets. They were hippies at Woodstock and they were the kids getting shot at Kent State. And they were also just normal kids who grew up to be lawyers and doctors and politicians and plumbers and contractors and teachers. (I’d also note that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence at the ripe old age of 33.)

We are grownups now. And we outnumber our parents. And we are watching as people of our parents’ generation talk about dismantling the architecture of American democracy. They limit access of the press to our government; they talk about banning religions and ethnicities from our soil; they talk about grabbing us forcibly and against our will; they talk about how the climate change that we know to be real and that will surely affect us more than them is a hoax. We, millenials, didn’t ask for that. It has happened because we have been asleep at the wheel, or because we never even got in the drivers’ seat.

So when you are finished protesting, will you please put on your big kid pants and for the love of all that is good, step up to the plate? Will you engage in civic life? Will you do more than buying a Bernie Sanders button? Will you campaign and canvas and run for office? We outnumber our parents, and this is our American republic, for good and bad, better and worse. (You can try to move to Australia or Italy but based on my experience in Paris ca. 2006, they’ll have a few choice words for you once you get there.) We are grownups now, and we need to start acting like it.

I am, ever faithfully, yours, &c.,

Lillian

 

Teaching this Election to Girls

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I taught four classes of girls yesterday. Many of them were crying. We talked about immigrants, religious liberty and choice, poverty, and being a woman. I tried to put the electoral college’s outcome in historical perspective, but found myself at a loss beyond that. It seems that I as a teacher have competing priorities right now, and I don’t know which one should take precedence. On the one hand, I want my students as young women to scream at the top of their lungs that violence, hatred, and in this case specifically misogyny, are categorically unacceptable. On the other hand, I want to drive home that this election has revealed a deeply divided American public, which is a problem, and I know that my job as a teacher is to encourage civil discourse. All I’ve done so far is to encourage them to be kind and open-minded, and to remember that their bodies are their own, and then I’ve just gone on with the curriculum. But how do you reconcile being furious with trying to promote civility? I don’t know the answer to that.

Westward Expansion, Civil War, and Race

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I taught a lesson this morning about how the United States’ conquest of the west had implications for the expansion (or not) of slavery. As part of that discussion, we wrestled with the fact that the U.S.’s acquisition of territory from Mexico meant that suddenly people who identified as white Americans had to reconcile the citizenship of a lot of people who didn’t quite look or act like them. By taking the land that would become California, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and Nevada, the United States also got all of the people who lived there: American Indians, Mexicans, Spanish colonials, etc. All the while, white Americans were fighting over the inclusion of black Americans within the American body politic. Racial categories and westward expansion were tightly wound together.

I wanted to share this video, which never fails to totally confuse my students, but also never fails to start a really interesting conversation about race and whether or not it really exists.

On the topic of race, inclusion, and sectionalism, happy end-of-the-2016-election-season to us all!

Close Reading: Footnote Edition!

In a recent lesson my librarian friend, Tasha, and I taught, we focused on asking students to examine footnotes in order to see how historians use sources to build arguments. How could two historians come to two different understandings of what slavery was all about? The answer is that they use different source material for different purposes, and that perspective can determine a lot.

After the students had read an article by Drew Gilpin Faust, and another by Eugene Genovese, we talked about how history is created through a series of conversations among historians over what the historical record means and how it all hangs together. In order to illustrate how this happens (and how to write citations in Chicago format) Tasha brought two citation examples up on the screen:

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In the first, Faust is leaving a paper trail for other historians to follow. She’s examining documents from the Hammond Plantation of South Carolina, and she’s explaining that to her readers. In the second, she’s having a conversation with Genovese, and with other historians who’ve read him (the second and third sentences do this job). She’s participating in a conversation about the historical record. And then she suggests: if you’re interested in this, you might check out these other books. We also hoped to point the students to the fact that the titles she cites are from the ’70s, that Faust’s article is from the ’80s, and as with medicine and physics, our understanding of history has evolved since then (we followed up with more recent explorations of slavery, worry not).

Now I realize that this may seem sort of geeky and feels like minutia. But! What we hoped students would realize when they performed this kind of close reading was that history is constructed. We also pointed out that when they conduct seminars around their own interpretations of primary source material, they too construct history—they create their own interpretations of the same record with which historians grapple. Furthermore, we emphasized having this skill will save them hours of headache when it comes to turning in their first college term paper. (Thanks to Professor Jim Merrell for the memories of walking across the quad with a term paper in hand, only to realize that a semicolon was out of place and I needed to march back to the library to redo my footnotes at the midnight hour.)

I will concede that when we delivered this lesson, it was a lot for students to take in. They hadn’t really examined scholarly sources as their own unique beasts, and it was clear that we need to do more scaffolding in the future. It got me thinking, though, about how a high school history class might be built around understanding types of sources rather than sets of facts, with the goal of helping students to see how history gets built over time.

Lastly, some excellent quotes from our seminar discussion to send off the weekend:

“God, I sound like Andrew Jackson.”

“Resistance happened in everyday ways.”

“I know we want to say that slavery is over, but slavery is not really over.”

It’s very gratifying to hear students drawing conclusions and reflecting on their thinking like this, all on their very own.