This has been an extremely busy week for me. We just finished our second trimester and will give exams through next week. Luckily, the following week is spring break. My department is in the process of hiring and, because I am taking over next year as the head of the history department, I am much more involved in the process than in the past. I am learning quite a bit and even though I don’t consider myself to be the administrative type, I am very excited about taking on a leadership role and having the opportunity to set goals and work with a few new colleagues. One of things I’ve become very interested in over the past year is the application of social networking/media in the classroom and I hope to make it my top priority.
On top of all of this I took part in two Teaching American History workshops this past week. Last Friday I went down to South Boston to share my interest in the Civil War and memory and how I apply it in the classroom, and on Thursday I worked with a group of teachers in Virginia Beach on turning points in history. This is my first experience working with teachers and I don’t mind admitting that I was just a bit nervous. In the end, it was a learning experience and both sessions have given me quite a bit to think about in anticipation for future workshops. First, I need to be much more sensitive to the challenges that public school history teachers in various parts of the state are currently facing. It can be something as simple as remembering that my class size (avg. 14) doesn’t conform with most public school classrooms or remembering that some schools divide American history into two years and that a teacher who teaches the modern period may not be as familiar with early American history. Finally, I need to be much more responsive to the fact that these workshops bring together teachers from all levels. That said, the particular program that I am working with emphasizes critical historical thinking and advanced understanding of the subject. It is up to the teachers to think of ways to apply what they’ve learned to their classes. Still, I would do well to think about future presentations with these facts in mind.
In the end, both groups were very engaged and curious about the subject. They asked insightful questions, challenged one another, as well as their instructor. One particular moment from last Friday stands out for me. I was suggesting various ways of teaching the Lost Cause and so I decided to introduce them to the Dixie Outfitters website, which I used this past semester to highlight its continued influence. They thought the idea was pretty interesting and we had a wonderful discussion about the site’s commentary on the cause of the war as well as the content of the clothing they sell. One gentleman inquired about the racial/ethnic profile of my school. I knew exactly where he was going with the question and I felt just a little embarassed that I had not anticipated such a question. He mentioned that a number of his students buy clothing from this site and did I really expect him to raise this as an issue in class given his school’s racial profile. The teacher admitted that it would indeed be an interesting way to discuss the continued influence of the war in our culture, but that it would not come without some risk attached. Added up these little moments have given me a great deal to think about, which I hope to use to improve future presentations.
Overall, it was an incredibly rewarding experience to be able to work with enthusiastic and bright history teachers. I’ve said it before that we spend so much time exposing what is wrong with our public school system, including teachers gone bad, that we completely ignore those individuals who are in the trenches and doing amazing things with their students. The one depressing moment came last week in South Boston when I learned that a few of the participants had to leave early to attend meetings in their school districts about whether jobs would be cut for next year. We don’t live in a society that values its teachers. If we did a great deal would be different.
I have my concerns about Obama’s new budget, but I have no reservations whatsoever for strengthening our committment to public education. The teachers I worked with this past week deserve it and more.