Standing Up For Teachers

Update: Chris Wehner has responded to my post in the comments section below. He takes issue with just about every point I made, but I stand by what I’ve written. What troubles me most about Wehner’s post is the claim that the work of Howard Zinn and the Social Justice movement somehow explains what is going on in Wisconsin. Wehner makes no attempt to address this claim with any substantive evidence. On the lighter side, many of you will be interested in his new Civil War blog.

I haven’t said anything about the ongoing teachers strike in Wisconsin, in large part, because I am not a member of a union and the reasons for the strike have little to do with the focus of this blog.  On the other hand, I make it a point to highlight the good work that my colleagues are doing in history classrooms across the country.  We have enough bad press out there.  It is with this in mind that I read Chris Wehner’s disgraceful editorial in which he summarily dismisses every last teacher taking part in this strike with one swift back of the hand.

Before proceeding let me state that I am not suggesting that one has to agree with the goals of the protest or even acknowledge the rights of labor and collective bargaining.  My guess is that if I knew everything going on behind the scenes there are aspects of the protest that I would disagree with as well.  All in all, this seems to be as much about politics as it does about managing a budget.  There is blame on both sides.

The new civility on display in Madison, Wisconsin has given me as a teacher pause. As a teacher I have to be held to the utmost level of integrity, do I not? I spend 8 hours a day with other people’s children; often more time than the parents do. I encourage students to work hard, be honest, and disciplined. As a history teacher I point to the nature of our democracy where majority rules, and that elections are to be taken serious as they indeed, as our esteemed President noted, “have consequences.” Yet in Wisconsin teachers have decided to use what is a teachable moment, and demonstrate that lying, banter, and at times, incivility should be used when one does not get what one wants…. You want to protest, do it after school or on the weekends. Want to organize peacefully, fine.

Apart from one quote Wehner makes absolutely no attempt to explain this rampant “lying” and “incivility” which supposedly characterizes the protesters.  On what grounds does Wehner condemn every single teacher who has picked up a sign or spent the evening in the capitol building?  He leaves absolutely no room for the possibility that many of these folks are honest and hardworking people, who are doing something that they truly believe is worth fighting for – for themselves and even for their schools and students.  Again, I am not suggesting that you must agree with their goals, but why must they all be condemned?  Even more outrageous is the suggestion that these teachers should conduct their protests after school hours and on weekends.  Is there anything in the history of labors’ struggle that would suggest that an after hours/weekend walkout ever worked?  What version of U.S. history is Wehner teaching?  Finally, since when did an election negate the right of citizens to engage in peaceful protest?  Isn’t this part of the “nature of democracy”?

According to Wehner, however, the real source of the trouble behind this protest is the boogeyman of social justice.

But none of this should be surprising when we look at how educators are taught today and how they are encouraged to be exemplars of Social Justice and to teach for Social Change.  Today’s teacher unions and educators in America, in public schools, are failing their students and for multiple reasons; some of which have nothing to do with the teachers. But some aspects of this failure have to do with bad teachers and ones that have agendas. Take the literature that is being promoted by the late Howard Zinn and other radicals. In some Universities and Colleges we are producing activists and not educators, and this explains what is happening in Wisconsin. Those who willing[ly] lied, took phony sick notes from unscrupulous doctors, and railed against the democratic system, are sending students the wrong message and setting the wrong example.

We’ve heard it all before from Wehner and others.  The late Howard Zinn and radicals in higher education are corrupting our young teachers and turning them into social radicals “and this explains what is happening in Wisconsin.”  This is as outrageous and irresponsible a claim that I can imagine in this context.  Once again, Wehner provides next to nothing to support his claim apart from one quote and references to emails that he has received from various organizations that are engaged in this enterprise.

Even if you believe that these teachers are “setting the wrong example” why do we have to bring in the issue of Social Justice?  Are we really to believe that the majority of k-12 teachers from every subject area are motivated by the Social Justice agenda?  Are we also to assume that the other civic employees, who have joined the teachers in Wisconsin and elsewhere are also driven by this as well.  Wehner turns individuals into robots without any thought on the matter.  He takes a reasonable disagreement over whether these people have the right to strike and be away from their classrooms and dismisses them without any serious attempt to understand their motivation.

It goes without saying that our education system has some serious problems, some of them are the result of the influence of unions and poor teaching.  However, for every bad apple in our school districts I can point to many more, who are honest, hard working, and struggling to help their students with very little financial support.  What ultimately troubles me about Wehner’s editorial, as well as other things he has written on his blog about the teaching profession, is that he seems to be completely unaware of this.  He would have us believe that teachers are engaged in a plot to turn our students into revolutionaries and overthrow everything that is sacred about America.  It’s as if teachers are to be feared.

I don’t know how anyone in this profession can operate with this mindset.

You Interpret

[Hat-Tip to Vicki Betts]

Vicki was kind enough to send along these two brief newspaper notices.  I’ve seen plenty of these references in the course of my research – just about every one is from early on in the war.  Here is your chance to be a historian.  What do you make of these brief references to the black community and their willingness to serve the Confederate cause?  What questions do we need to answer about these specific sources and what are the possible interpretations that can be introduced?

MEMPHIS DAILY APPEAL [MEMPHIS, TN], August 18, 1861, p. 2, c. 2
The Fort Smith Times of the 10th, states that two companies of southern blackmen have been formed in the neighborhood.  They are thorough southern men, not armed but are drilling to take the field, and say that they are determined to fight for their masters and their homes.

[LITTLE ROCK] ARKANSAS TRUE DEMOCRAT, September 19, 1861, p. 1, c. 7
Darkies Shooting Abolitionists.—The war has dispelled one delusion of the abolitionists.  The negroes regard them as enemies instead of friends.  No insurrection has occurred in the South—no important stampede of slaves has evinced their desire for freedom.  On the contrary, they have jeered at and insulted our troops, have readily enlisted in the rebel army, and on Sunday, at Manassas, shot down our men with as much alacrity as if abolition had never existed.  These are creatures for whose sake Lovejoy, Chandler and Pomeroy are agitating the nation, and to whom they would unconstitutionally extend the privilege of freemen and equality.—Northern Exchange.

MEMPHIS DAILY APPEAL [ATLANTA, GA], December 11, 1863, p. 1, c. 8
Old Dick.–We learn, from the Danville Appeal, that the old negro man Dick Slate, well known as the drummer of the 18th Virginia regiment, was sold on last Friday for $750.  He was purchased by the corporation of Danville.  Dick entered the army at the beginning of the war, and served about two years, in which time he gained considerably notoriety, both as a drummer and a fighter.  He was favorably mentioned by Russell, the correspondent of the London Times, for his fighting qualities.

My Final Civil War Class

Leading my Civil War Memory Class in a Discussion at the Lee Monument in Richmond

Today I am teaching my final class on the American Civil War at the St. Anne’s – Belfield School.  It’s not going to be a memorable class by any stretch of the imagination; we’ve been looking at film for much of the trimester and today we need to wrap up the last scene of Shirley Temple’s “The Littlest Rebel.”  That said, I am feeling a little sad and just a bit sentimental.  I count myself as one of the lucky ones in that for the past 7 years I’ve been able to offer a high school level course on a subject that I spend so much time with outside of class.  No, it doesn’t really seem like a job at all.  I have had some wonderful students over the past few years and a couple of them even went on to study Civil War history in college.  Let’s face it, if you can’t excite high school students with the Civil War you really have no business being in a classroom.

More importantly, my personal interest in the subject allowed me to get to know my students that much better.  And in the end that’s what it is all about.  As important as the content is in its own right, what we are doing as teachers is reaching out and making connections with our students.  The subject is the backdrop on which we work.  At the same time and to a great extent over the past ten years I’ve measured my personal growth based on the quality of my teaching and the connections that it has allowed me to make.  I am surely going to need that again at some point.

Thanks to all my students, who have helped me to better understand THE most important event in American history.

How ’bout them apples, Boston!

Black Confederates In a 7th Grade Classroom (After-Action Report)

A few days ago I mentioned that I was in contact with a 7th grade history teacher in Boston, who wanted to introduce the subject of black Confederates as part of a unit on the Civil War.  Well, today the instructor reported back with a detailed overview of the lesson.  I think it’s a wonderful example of how this subject, along with the related issue of media literacy, can be introduced at the middle school level.  A number of school districts in Virginia have had difficulty addressing the recent scandal involving the 4th grade history textbook that included false claims about the service of slaves in the Confederate army. This need not be the case.  In fact, it’s a golden opportunity to address some of the fundamental misconceptions of the war as well as the veracity of the sources of these claims.  Here is an example of a teacher making a difference.

Again, Kevin, I owe you tremendous thanks for your guidance on this topic; your suggestion to follow the UVA lead on “Retouching History” along with your own coverage of the websites purporting to educate the online community about Black Confederates were invaluable. Here’s a detailed overview of what we’ve been up to:

1) For homework last Thursday, I asked kids to conduct some research into the topic of Blacks fighting for the Confederacy. In case you want to see how I framed the question, here’s the text of the email I sent them:

During the flag project, Heather sent a representative of the Sons of Confederate Veterans an email asking for his perspective on the Confederate flag. In Mr. Barrow’s response, he mentioned that one way to show that the flag is not necessarily a symbol of slavery is to consider that Blacks actually fought for the Confederacy; if this was the case, he reasoned, how could the cause of the South been to preserve slavery?

This presents an interesting opportunity. Let’s figure out if he is correct in his statement that large numbers of Blacks fought for (not against) the South.  Your homework, then, is to conduct about a half an hour of research into the topic of Blacks fighting for the South.

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