Category Archives: Teaching

My Classroom

Cimg0081_1I brought my digital camera to school on Friday for a field trip with my Civil War class to a Confederate cemetery over at the University of Virgina.  [A post on that trip will be forthcoming shortly.]  Here are a couple of pictures of my classroom which I thought I might share given the amount of time I spend here during the school year.  Cimg0080I’ve worked hard on my room over the past few years trying to create an environment that is both welcoming and pleasant to learn in.  My desks are arranged in such a way that allows each student to see everyone else and allows me to move easily from side to side.  It also works well for lecturing as well as directing a student-led discussion.  My room contains numerous book shelves.  Students are of course welcome to sign-out any title, but their presence is also intended to send a message about the importance of serious study and learning.  The projector which sits in the middle of the room is used on a daily basis.  I can connect my laptop and project any kind of image on the white board which is ideal as it allows the Cimg0082teacher or student to mark important objects or words on the board with an erasable marker.  I am notorious for taking famous images of people and coloring their faces with sharp eyebrows and other markings; you can do wonders with Ben Franklin’s face.  In the photo to the right you will notice a cabinet which contains 16 laptop computers.  They were ordered last year for my Civil War research seminar but are now being used in all my classes.  Finally, there is my office.  It is a spacious setting which allows for student meetings and more importantly provides a nice quiet space when I am not teaching.  As you can see I’ve got just a few Troiani prints hanging on the wall.   

 

Today

I treated today like any other school day.  Over the weekend I thought seriously about introducing a lesson on some aspect of 9-11.  I spent some time on the Internet looking for ideas and did come across an interesting site on public memory and memorials at Facing History.  Late Sunday I decided to stick to my original game plan and just continue with each class where we left off on Friday.  I was worried that focusing on the events of 9-11 would leave me emotionally drained, and I was not prepared to deal with that.  Whether or not this was a good reason I can’t help but feel just a little guilty that I lost an opportunity to do something interesting and meaningful.  I never thought I would use history to hide behind.

 

A Dangerous Textbook?

[Cross-Posted at Revise and Dissent]

Over the weekend I received an email from a concerned parent about the textbook that I am currently using in my AP course in American History.  As I mentioned before the textbook is Eric Foner’s Give Me Liberty!  The parent noted that Eric Foner has a reputation as a "neo-Marxist" and was worried that the textbook presented a radically biased interpretation.  Nowhere in the email did this person point out a specific shortcoming or bias.  In closing the parent expressed the hope that his child would be introduced to a range of interpretations and would not be penalized for adopting a view that challenged Foner. 

Let me start by saying that I have no problem with concerns of this type.  In fact, in my response I applauded this parent’s concern and interest in what his child is reading.  I wish more parents were this vigilant.  I indicated that my students will be reading a wide-range of both primary and secondary sources.  In the latter camp they read short articles by Howard Zinn, Paul Johnson, Gordon Wood, David Blight, Ed Ayers, and Alan Taylor, to name just a few.  I want my students to think for themselves and work on developing their own understanding of the American past to the best of their ability and based on everything they’ve read.  At their age they are in no position to dismiss out of hand any one view simply based on a political label.  We’ve seen very clearly the consequences of this on the evening news and on the various interview/entertainment shows on Fox and MSNBC. 

There are, however, a number of issues that are worth exploring in greater detail.  At this point I am going to simply raise the issues and come back later.  First, the degree to which history has become politicized over the past few years is troubling.  While Eric Foner’s politics and public statements clearly place him in the "liberal" camp I want my students to judge his interpretation on its own merits.  In other words, Foner’s interpretation should stand or fall based on his handling of the relevant evidence and in the context of competing interpretations.  My students should be able to separate out Foner’s politics from his scholarship if the issue is even raised.  Is this possible?  On the face of it there seems to be no reason that it is not.  That he is a liberal does not constitute a sufficient reason to dismiss him as a historian.  This is the fundamental mistake made by David Horowitz in his inclusion of Foner as one of the most dangerous professors on college campuses today.  Even if we assume that he is "dangerous" we have said nothing about any specific historical theory or interpretation.  Again, let the work speak for itself.  I pointed out in my response that Foner’s study of Reconstruction is considered by many to be the standard history of the subject; one would be hard pressed to conclude that his interpretation reflects a commitment to "radical" social or political views. I would not suggest for a minute that Foner should refrain from making certain statements, but he hopefully does or should understand the price he pays in the broader public discourse.

I use Foner’s book because it presents a sophisticated narrative of American history from multiple perspectives.  It forces students to look beyond the narrow interpretation that was taught in grade school and in its place appreciate the often contradictory ways in which different groups defined freedom and their place within the citizenry. 

 

“No One Has Ever Said That Before”

So far I am really enjoying my Civil War class.  While this is only the fourth day of class we are now right in the middle of an interesting discussion about the causes of the war and secession.  We are working our way through James McPherson’s North and South Magazine article titled, "What Caused the Civil War" [Vol. 4, No. 1: pp. 12-22].  The students must write a 2-page thesis summary of the article.  After our next article by William Freehling each student will have to choose an article from a list and lead the class discussion on that particular day.  The idea is to create something close to a college seminar. 

The McPherson article is ideal as it is well written and the argument builds in a way that is easy to follow if read with a critical eye.  Anyway, today we were trying to explain the apparent shift in the content of the speeches of both Davis and Stephens in reference to the role of slavery as a cause of secession.  While Davis and Stephens elevate the role of slavery above all other conditions in their speeches in 1860-61 they retreat to the states’ rights position following the war.  Between McPherson’s argument which places slavery historically at the center of the antebellum political debates and by asking the students to think of why white Southerners like Davis and Stephens would have an interest in ignoring the issue, they were able to begin to see the broader problem of why Americans have chosen to ignore the importance of slavery. 

Towards the end of the class one of my new students pointed out that she had been taught U.S. and Virginia history at least four times in recent years.  I should note that this is a new student who transferred from a local public school this year to finish her senior year.  She is extremely bright and apparently had taken all of the AP course that were offered at her old school.  At no point was slavery raised as a salient factor in explaining secession and Civil War in those previous classes.  She said it with just a hint of confusion as if something important had been kept from her.  It was nice to see a student step back and consider the history of what she had been taught about a specific subject.  Hopefully this will translate into a healthy skepticism that will involve more questioning of the people who appear as authorities in the classroom — INCLUDING YOURS TRULY!

 

Great History Teachers

Every now and then it is necessary to honor those trailblazers who modeled for a mass audience what we as teachers do.  I can think of no better candidate than Mr. Hand who taught back in the mid-1980′s at Ridgemont High School in California.  Mr. Hand combined a passion for his subject with a sincere interest in the welfare of his students.  Of course I am talking about the classic teen movie Fast Times At Ridgemont High, which is etched in the memories of anyone who came of age in the early 1980′s.  The movie featured the late Ray Walston who played Mr. Hand and his star student Jeff Spicoli played by Sean Penn – along with a host of other up-and-coming talents. 

Who can forget the scene in Mr. Hand’s class where he introduces his subject as well as the ground rules.  This is also his first encounter with Jeff Spicoli:

SCENE 1

INT. U.S. HISTORY CLASS – DAY

Stacy barely slips in the door before the final
attendance bell sounds. She finds a seat just as
the teacher’s cubicle door opens at the back of the
classroom. A tall figure comes barreling down the
aisle. He is Mr. Hand. The man makes a double-speed
step to the door at the front of the class, kicks
the door shut and locks it. The windows rattle in
their frames. Stacy watches, wide-eyed, at her
first high school class.

MR. HAND
Aloha. My name is Mr. Hand.

Mr. Hand writes his name on the green chalkboard
before hisFt
class. Every letter is a small explosion
of chalk.

MR. HAND (CONT’D)
(almost sweetly)
I have but one question for you on
our first morning ‘together.’
(pause)
Can you attend my class? Pakalo?…
Understand?… History has proven
us one basic fact. Man does not do
anything that is not for his own
good. It is for your own good that
you attend my class. And if you
can’t make it… I can make you.

An impatient knock begins at the front door of the
classroom
.

MR. HAND (CONT’D)
We have a twenty-question quiz
every Friday. It will cover all the
material we’ve dealt with during
the week. There will be no make-up
exams. It’s important that you all
have your Land of Truth and Liberty
textbooks by Wednesday. At the
latest.

The knock continues.

MR. HAND (CONT’D)
Your grade is the average of all
your quizzes, plus the midterm and
final, which counts for one-third.
Got it?

The mystery knocker tries a lazy calypso beat on
the front door. No one in Mr. Hand’s U.S. History
class dares mention it, much less answer it.

Stacy grips her desk with the tension of her first
day
.

MR. HAND (CONT’D)
Also. There will be no eating in
this class. You get used to doing
your own business on your own time.
That’s one demand I make. I don’t
like staying after class with you
on detention. That’s my time. I
don’t like wasting it. Just like
you wouldn’t want me to come to
your house some evening and discuss
U.S. History on your time. Pakalo?

Hand finally turns, as if he has just noticed the
sound at the door and opens the door an inch.
Jeffrey Spicoli stands in the doorway, red eyes
glistening. His long, blond hair is still wet and
streaming down the back of his white peasant shirt.
He grins, oblivious to such trivial matters as
attendance bells. A Student sitting near Stacy
turns to his friends
.

STUDENT
That guy has been stoned since the
third grade.

MR. HAND
Yes?

SPICOLI
Yeah. I’m registered for this
class.

MR. HAND
What class?

SPICOLI
This is U.S. History, right? I saw
the globe in the window.

MR. HAND
(appears enthralled)
Really?

Spicoli holds his red ad card up to the crack in
the door
.

SPICOLI
Can I come in?

MR. HAND
(swinging door open)
Oh, please. I get so lonely when
that third attendance bell rings
and I don’t see all my kids here.

Spicoli laughs. He is the only one.

SPICOLI
Sorry I’m late. This new schedule
is totally confusing.

Mr. Hand takes the red ad Ft1card and reads from it
with utter fascination
.

MR. HAND
Mr. Spicoli?  SPICOLI That’s the name they gave me.

Mr. Hand slowly tears the card into little pieces
and sprinkles the pieces over his wastebasket.
Spicoli watches in disbelief. His hands are frozen
in the process of removing his backpack
.

SPICOLI (CONT’D)
You just ripped my card in two!  MR. HAND
Yes.  SPICOLI
Hey, bud. What’s your problem?

Mr. Hand moves to within inches of Spicoli’s face.  MR. HAND
No problemFt2 at all. I think you know
where the front office is.

It takes a moment for the words to work their way
out of Jeff Spicoli’s mouth
.  SPICOLI
You… dick.

In the tense moment that follows, no one in the
class is sure what might happen.

Mr. Hand simply turns away from Jeff Spicoli as if
he ceased to exist and coolly continues his
lecture
.

SCENE 2

Here is another scene where Mr. Hand expresses regret over his student’s poor performance on a recent test and goes the extra mile to see that all of his students attend his class.  He also provides us with the moral consequences of ignoring truancy.

INT. U.S. HISTORY CLASS – MORNING

We are now several weeks into the school year. Mr.
Hand is dropping test papers on desks like they are
pieces of manure
.

MR. HAND
C… D… F… F… F… three
weeks we’ve been talking about the
Platt Amendment. What are you
people? On dope? A piece of
legislation was introduced into
Congress by Senator John Platt. It
was passed in 1906. This amendment
to our Constitution has a profound
impact upon all of our daily
liv….

Mr. Hand stops on a dime. He is like a champion
hunting dog that has just picked up the scent. He
scans the room
.

MR. HAND (CONT’D)
Where is Jeff Spicoli?

There is silence in the U.S. history classroom.

MR. HAND (CONT’D)
I saw him earlier today near the
200 Building bathrooms. Is he still
on campus?

Silence.

MR. HAND (CONT’D)
Anyone?

One student sitting next to Stacy raises his hand.

MR. HAND (CONT’D)
Yes, Desmond?

DESMOND
I saw him by the food machines.

MR. HAND
How long ago?

DESMOND
Just before class, sir…

Mr. Hand snaps his fingers, Hawaii Five-O style.

MR. HAND
Okay. Bring him in.

Desmond hustles out the door.

MR. HAND (CONT’D)
What is this fascination with
truancy? What is it that gets
inside your heads?

Mr. Hand begins to pace the aisles as he speaks.
Occasionally, for emphasis, he bends down to
lecture directly into the students’ faces
.

MR. HAND (CONT’D)
There are other teachers in this
school who look the other way at
truants.
(points to attendance clip
on the doorway)
It’s a little game that you both
play. They pretend they don’t see
you, you pretend you don’t ditch.
Who pays the price later? You.

Desmond returns to the room with a red-eyed Jeff
Spicoli
.

SPICOLI
Hey! Wait a minute! There’s no
birthday party for me here!

MR. HAND
Thank you, Desmond.
(to Spicoli)
What’s the reason for your truancy?

SPICOLI
I couldn’t make it in time.

MR. HAND
(in top form)
You mean, you couldn’t? Or you
wouldn’t?

SPICOLI
I don’t know, mon. The food lines
took forever.

MR. HAND
Food will be eaten on your time!
(pause)
Why are you continuously late for
this class, Mr. Spicoli? Why do you
shamelessly waste my time like
this?

SPICOLI
I don’t know.

Mr. Hand appears mesmerized. He then turns and
heads for the board. He writes in long, large
letters as he slams the chalk into the green board.
He writes: "I DON’T KNOW"
.

MR. HAND
I like that.

He stands back and admires it. He turns randomly to
Stacy
.

MR. HAND (CONT’D)
Don’t you like that, Miss Hamilton?

STACY
Yes, sir.

MR. HAND
I really like that too. ‘I don’t
know’… that’s nice. ‘Mr. Hand,
will I pass this class?’ ‘Gee, Mr.
Spicoli, I don’t know’. I like
that.
I think I’m going to leave your
words on this board for all my
classes to enjoy. Giving you full
credit, of course, Mr. Spicoli.

We hear the blare of the dismissal bell. Stacy and
the other students get up to leave. Spicoli stays
in place. He has just figured out a truly bitchin’
comeback… and his mouth is forming the first
word, when Mr. Hand cuts him off
.

MR. HAND (CONT’D)
You can go now.

Hand turns back to his desk. The rest of the
students have already left. Spicoli’s audience is
gone. He shrugs and lopes out the door
.

SCENE 3

Who can forget the scene where Mr. Hand is attempting to explain the background of the Spanish-American War only to be interrupted by a pizza delivery for Spicoli.  This may be one of the great classroom scenes of all time.

INT. U.S. HISTORY CLASS – DAY

The third attendance bell rings, and Mr. Hand
strides to the front of the class. He locks the
door. Then he takes the front of the class and
notices something very different.

ANGLE ON JEFF SPICOLI

bright and clear-eyed, sitting in the front row.
His hands are clasped in front of him on the desk.
His textbook is open to the proper page.

Mr. Hand is suspicious, but continues with class.

MR. HAND
Now in 1898, Spain owned Cuba.
Outright. Think about it. Cuba,
owned by a disorganized parliament
4,000 miles away. Cubans were in a
constant state of revolt.

Mr. Hand begins pacing the aisles as he talks.

MR. HAND (CONT’D)
In 1904, the United States decided
to throw a little weight around,
and…

There is a brief, sharp knock at the door. Mr. Hand
whips his head around, like McGarrett. He
approaches the door like a cat
.

MR. HAND (CONT’D)
(sweet voice)
Who is it?

VOICE
Mr. Pizza.

MR. HAND
Again?

VOICE
Mr. Pizza, sir!

Hand swings the door open, out of curiosity. In
walks a young Man in a Mr. Pizza delivery shirt
.

PIZZA MAN
Okay, who had the double cheese
sausage and bologna?

Jeff Spicoli speaks up.

SPICOLI
That’s me.

The Delivery Man takes the pizza, sets it on the
desk, as Spicoli whips out some crumpled dollars.
Then he produces yet another crumpled dollar, and
presses it into the Delivery Man’s hand
.

SPICOLI (CONT’D)
For you, my man.

The Delivery Man Ft4thanks him warmly, just as Mr.
Hand rages into the picture
.

MR. HAND
Am I hallucinating here? Just what
in the hell do you think you’re
doing?

SPICOLI
Learning about Cuba. Having some
food.

MR. HAND
Mr. Spicoli, you’re on dangerous
ground here. You’re causing a major
disturbance in my class and on my
time.

SPICOLI
(cool and urbane)
I’ve been thinking about this, Mr.
Hand. If I’m here… and you’re
here… doesn’t that make it our
time?

Mr. Hand is so furious he’s almost shaking.

SPICOLI (CONT’D)
So I thought I’d order us a pizza.
Just leave me a lot of bologna…

Mr. Hand snatches up the pizza, and starts to throw
it in the wastebasket. Then he thinks better, and
heads for the door. He opens it just as a gang of
young Stoners walk past
.

STONER #1
There’s the pizza.

STONER #2
Totally!

Mr. Hand pushes the pizza into their hands and
slams the door
.

SPICOLI
You better save some for me, you
swine!

MR. HAND
And you, my friend. I’ll see you
for a two-hour detention every
afternoon this week.

Spicoli eases back in his chair, shrugs. It was a
good idea at the time
.

SCENE 4

In this final scene Spicoli is preparing for the prom or as he puts it the last major "fiesta" of the school year when he hears a knock on his bedroom door.  In walks Mr. Hand to make-up all of the time Spicoli wasted in his class, and more importantly to make sure that he has understood the content of the course.  Now that’s a dedicated teacher.  Haven’t we all imagined something along these lines?

Curtis slams the door and leaves. A moment later
there is a knock
.

SPICOLI (CONT’D)
That’s better. Come in.

The door swings open and Jeff Spicoli sits in
stoned shock at the sight before him. There,
standing in the doorway of his room is Mr. Hand
.

SPICOLI (CONT’D)
Mr… Mr. Hand.

MR. HAND
That’s right, Jeff. Mind if I come
in?

Spicoli can only nod.

MR. HAND (CONT’D)
(calling downstairs)
Thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Spicoli.

Hand walks into Spicoli’s room, takes off his suit
jacket and lays it on the chair back. He stops a
moment and catches the stare of Miss January
Penthouse on the wall, then turns to Spicoli
.

MR. HAND (CONT’D)
Were you going somewhere tonight,
Jeff?

SPICOLI
Yeah. The Graduation Dance Mr.
Hand. It’s the last school event of
the year.

MR. HAND
I’m afraid we’ve got some things to
discuss here, Jeff.

SPICOLI
Did I do something wrong, Mr. Hand?

Hand removes several copies of Oui Magazine from
another chair and sits down. He sets his briefcase
on Spicoli’s dresser, next to a bag of pot, and
opens it up for easy access
.

MR. HAND
Do you want to sit there, Jeff?

SPICOLI
I don’t know. I guess so.

MR. HAND
Fine. You sit right here on your
bed. I’ll use the chair here.
(pause)
As I explained to your parents just
a moment ago, and to you many times
since the very beginning of the
school year — I don’t like to
spend my time waiting for late
students, or detention cases. I’d
rather be preparing the lesson.

Mr. Hand takes a sheet from his briefcase and looks
at it
.

MR. HAND (CONT’D)
According to my calculations, Mr.
Spicoli, you wasted a total of
eight hours of my time this year.
And rest assured that is a kind
estimate.

He returns the sheet to his case and looks into
Spicoli’s weed-ravaged eyes
.

MR. HAND (CONT’D)
Now, Mr. Spicoli, comes a rare
moment for me. Now I have the
unique pleasure of squaring our
account. Tonight, you and I are
going to talk in great detail about
the Davis Agreement, all the
associated treaties, and the
American Revolution in particular.
Now if you can just turn to Chapter
47 of Lord of Truth And Liberty.

SPICOLI
Hey, it’s in my locker, Mr. Hand.

MR. HAND
Well, then, I’m glad I remembered
to bring an extra copy just for
you.

Hand reaches in his case and produces the book. He
hands it to Spicoli
.

  DISSOLVE
  TO:

INT. SPICOLI’S ROOM – HOURS LATER

Wearily, Spicoli is trying to grasp the material.

SPICOLI
… so, like, when Jefferson went
before the people what he was
saying was ‘Hey, we left this place
in England because it was bogus,
and if we don’t come up with some
cool rules ourself, we’ll be bogus,
too!’ Right?

ANGLE ON MR. HAND

who nods his head.

MR. HAND
Very close, Jeff.

Hand reaches over and gets his case.

MR. HAND (CONT’D)
I think I’ve made my point with you
tonight.

SPICOLI
Hey, Mr. Hand, can I ask you a
question?

MR. HAND
What’s that?

SPICOLI
Do you have a guy like me every
year? A guy to… I don’t know,
make a show of. Teach other kids
lessons and stuff?

MR. HAND
Well, you’ll find out next year.

SPICOLI
(smiling)
No way, mon. When I graduate U.S.
history I ain’t even coming over to
your side of the building.

MR. HAND
If you graduate.

SPICOLI
(panicked)
You’re gonna flunk me?!

Mr. Hand pauses a moment, then breaks into the
nearest approximation of a grin we have seen all
year. It isn’t much, but it’s noticeable. His lips
crinkle at the ends
.

MR. HAND
Don’t worry, Spicoli. You’ll
probably squeak by.

SPICOLI
All right! Oh, yeah!

Mr. Hand has now gathered all his material, and he
stands to approach Spicoli’s door. Jeff jumps up,
extends his hand
.

SPICOLI (CONT’D)
Aloha, Mr. Hand!

MR. HAND
Aloha, Spicoli.

Mr. Hand exits the room, and descends the staircase
of the Spicoli household. Spicoli kicks the door
shut, grins, and continues struggling with his tie
.

Who are your favorite teachers from the big screen?