A Teachable Moment

I am not a fan of Chris Matthews, but last night’s interview with radio talk show host Kevin James on Bush’s use of the Neville Chamberlain/appeasement analogy in a speech in Israel is perfect for the classroom.  As I’ve said on numerous occasions I fervently believe that knowledge of the past can inform our understanding of the world around us.  It’s what drives me in the classroom.  Unfortunately, there are too many people out there who rely on their personalities and hyperbole as a substitute for sound analysis.  Chris gave this clown every opportunity to explain the concept of appeasement, but rather than admit his ignorance James kept digging himself into a deeper hole.  Sometimes yelling and screaming at the top of your lungs is not sufficient.  Show this to your classes and ask your students to think about what type of advocate they hope to be.


Thanks for the Check Mr. President

Dear Mr. President,

Well, another year of teaching is quickly coming to a close and the wife and I are in the middle of planning our summer vacation.  I know how important education is to you and I always keep your words in mind whenever I am feeling overwhelmed or tired: “Rarely is the question asked, is our children learning?”   The wife and I wanted to thank you for sending along our much awaited Economic Stimulus check for $1,200 which we plan to apply to our vacation expenses.  At first we hoped to travel to northern Europe including Amsterdam, Stockholm, Oslo and Bremen, but because of high gas prices and the weak dollar we had to scrap our plans.  I guess we all have to make sacrifices during these difficult times.  I recently heard on the news that after you ordered the invasion of Iraq you decided to give up golf as a gesture to the brave men and women who were fighting and dying overseas.  That must have been extremely difficult for you but I am sure that our military appreciates the gesture.

Instead we are planning another trip to Montreal for the Montreal Jazz Festival which begins in late June. We had a wonderful time in the city last summer.  Just in case you didn’t know Montreal is in Canada which is our neighbor to the north.  If you were to get into your truck and drive north for about 10 hours you can’t miss it.  Anyway, our hotel is booked in the old town section of the city and we were able to purchase some excellent concert tickets.  On Friday night we are going to see  the Saxophone Summit with Dave Liebman, Joe Lavano, and Ravi Coltrane followed by Brad Mehldau solo.  On Saturday we will see Brad Mehldau again, but this time with his trio and the Gonzalo Rubalcaba Quintet.  Finally, on Sunday we will see Hank Jones and Charlie Haden. This doesn’t include all of the free concerts that run on at least five different stages throughout the afternoon hours.

From Montreal we will drive to New York City for four days where we plan on checking out a bunch of museums and even an opera.  Back in 2001 you climbed up on some rubble in the downtown area and if memory serves me it was the last time that the country was rallied around you.  Those were good days Mr. President.  Don’t worry, in a few months you can get back to your golf game and pretend that the last eight years never happened.  Thanks again for the check and we will be sure to send you and Laura a postcard.


“Who Needs the Nutmeg Now, Brother?”: History as a Safety Zone

It’s always difficult to teach the first two weeks in May with so many AP exams taking place.  On most days I may have half of my class present, which makes it very difficult to organize and execute lesson plans.  Over the past few years I’ve shown a movie that fits into the topic under discussion; this usually involves something within the area of the Civil Rights Movement.  This year I decided to show Spike Lee’s Malcolm X.  In addition, we analyzed some of his speeches and read a short article comparing Malcolm and King by Clayborne Carson.  We compare all three sources since the movie does play loosely with Malcolm’s life and especially with the Nation of Islam.  The students find the movie to be very interesting and a number of them have already decided to include the Autobiography of Malcolm X as part of their summer reading lists.  I’ve read the book three times and believe it to be one of the great American stories.

This year I noticed something very interesting.  When the whole Reverend Wright controversy surfaced I had a great deal of difficulty getting my students to think beyond the short clips that were running endlessly on the news.  They seemed unwilling to engage in serious thought and rarely moved beyond their gut responses which revealed a great deal of frustration, misunderstanding, and fear.  They seemed to interpret my prodding of them to think more seriously as an attempt at forcing them to agree with the words spoken.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  My job is not to force my students to believe anything, but to learn how to think for themselves.  At times I probed by asking questions to flesh out their views, but for most part it was to no avail.  With that in mind I looked forward to seeing how my students would respond to Spike Lee’s movie.  Interestingly, they were much more open to empathizing with Malcolm given the attention paid to his early childhood.  The movie, along with our other sources, provided a much richer perspective on why Malcolm advocated Black Nationalism and a policy calling for the separation of the races.  His more “controversial” claims didn’t seem to bother my students – at least they didn’t voice it during the movie; in fact, many of them grew in their respect for the way Malcolm dealt with various challenges in his life.  A few of my students who were familiar with references of “White Devils” or “By Any Means Necessary” seemed pleasantly surprised by the larger picture that came into clearer view as the movie and our discussions progressed.  The key to unraveling preconceptions and fostering empathy (not necessarily agreement) was that the movie and other sources revealed a complex life that went through dramatic change. Students appreciated and worked to better understand how and why Malcolm responded to new experiences such as his conversion to Islam in prison and work with the Nation of Islam and later following his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964.

I haven’t touched the Jeremiah Wright controversy since we started the movie, but I probably should.  It would be interesting to know whether they are more open to exploring Wright’s more controversial claims within a more mature and inclusive context.  Perhaps Malcolm himself can provide that window.  It seems to me that the way in which the media approached Malcolm with their overly simplistic questions and need to sell a story is not much different from what happened with Wright.  Perhaps this helps us get at the old saw that the teaching of history helps to shape more informed citizens.  One of my fundamental goals as a history instructor is to teach my students how to better understand others without asking them to necessarily agree or disagree.  Out job is to impress upon our students the importance of gathering information from a wide variety of sources which allows for a more informed rather than emotionally driven judgment. What was driven home for me this past week is that the study of history can provide a safety zone in which to practice these other-regarding skills.  The events are easier to consider because they are in the past and therefore rendered remote or safe to approach.  We do our students a disservice, however, if we fail to give them the opportunity to apply these skills to the present as a way to better understand the shifting world of politics and current events.

The recent events surrounding Jeremiah Wright and the way in which it continues to be covered along with our study of Malcolm X serves to remind me of just how important this responsibility is.




The 2008 AP United States History Exam

My students are relieved that the AP exam is over and overall are confident that they did extremely well.  While I am not a fan of the AP curriculum I do respect my students’ commitment to doing well on the test.  They work very hard throughout the year and if this is one way they can bring closure to the year than so be it.  Luckily for this particular class I nailed the Document-Based Question (DBQ), which was on the Vietnam War.  I was fairly confident that the question would be pulled from the 20th century given the last few exams.  We spent quite a bit of time on the Vietnam War and the period between 1960 and 1980 so I know there was a sigh of relief when they flipped that page in their test packet.  You will notice a heavy emphasis on social/cultural history which I have no problem with.  The questions cover a broad range of topics and provide a number of analytical entry points for students to work with.  While some people complain about my choice of a textbook there is no better source with which to prepare students given the content of the essay questions.  More importantly, it’s a damn good read.  Here are the questions beginning with the DBQ:

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