Let me start with Thursday night. Just before 9 PM our phones exploded with a tornado warning, so we had to grab the 3 cats and our computers and head to the basement. As it turns out, we were lss than a mile from where an EF1 tornado began in Arlington VA. It was neither that large nor did it stay on the ground all that long. There is near us a fair amount of tree damage, and one person was briefly trapped in their house by a downed tree on a section of our street just about 1 mile away from us, and then had to be transported to the hospital. I can remember a few years ago being in the school where I then taught when the tornado touched down at U of Maryland College Park about 4 miles from where I was then. This was not an event we had expected, and it did cause a lot of stress, especially for the felines, who are not usually allowed in the basement. All — the two of us and the 4 pawed family members — have since recovered.
Many household issues are difficult to address during a normal school year, and with restrictions from the pandemic even more so over the past 15+ months. Thus we finally are getting around to addressing deferred maintenance issues. Our roof is now about 25 years old and we had to make a decision to simply patch some problem areas or replace it. The house is more than 80 years old, and in all likelihood would probably only be sold as a tear-down (the land on which is sits is worth far more than the house itself and with the new Amazon HQ2 coming to Arlington there is currently a great deal of demand for housing). I expect to teach where I currently am for 2 more years, at l3ast until wife is eligible for Social Security, and we are 2 blocks from the hospital center where she gets treated for her blood cancer. But beyond that we do not know. Thus an investment of thousands of dollars in a new roof may seem excessive but after exploring the options that is the route we have chosen. But that work has to be done before I go back to school in late August.
We are having issues with both our television service and with our internet, which are provided by different companies. After wrestling with both, the latter critical because my wife will continue to work from home part-time for the foreseeable future, I have been exploring upgrading both and combining them into a package. For me this became more critical because of interruptions on the cable service while I have been trying to watch the UEFA Euro 2020 soccer matches (I am more than a bit of a soccer nut, having played, coached, and refereed the sport over a period of time going back to 1963 and finally ending after the fall of 2019).
During the summer is when I attempt to catch up on reading and thinking. Yes, I know I have not been posting here except infrequently but that has been because I was not sure what I had to add to this community. That may be changing as I read and reflect, and I combine that with thinking about how I will address both government and history in light of recent events. To that end, I have already committed to attending NN21 in DC, although I will commute from my home. I will not, however, propose a panel, in part because I no longer teach in a public school setting.
As to the reading — I am reading around 200pp or more per day. That means roughly speaking one book every other day. In the past week I have read Maddow’s Blowout, Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill, James Stewart’s Deep State: Trump, the FBI, and the Rule of Law, and two shorter works, Timothy Snyder;s On Tyranny, Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, and Richard J, Bernstein’s Why Read Hannah Arendt Now. I should note that Snyder refers to Arendt, and that I knew Bernstein when he taught at Haverford College, although I never took any classes with him, in part because having the same last name we occasionally got mail intended for the other. Today I finished Free Radical which is about Ernest Chambers, who was for years the only Black member of the Unicameral Nebraska legislature and was a significant figure in the politics of race including at a national level.
This brings me to the thinking about my teaching. I teach at a Catholic High School in Maryland, and will be returning for my 3rd year. It is about 4-5 miles from the public high school where I spent 13 years., and there are a fair number of connections between the two schools (several faculty member at my current school attended the public school and a number of faculty at the public school and one principal started at the Catholic school). Maryland, despite a Republican governor, is a heavily Democratic state and thus is not as roiled by the issues around the 1619 Project or about Critical Race Theory. But as a Catholic school the families of some of our students are more conservative than the vast majority of the families I taught in the public high school. The administration where I am is committed to issues of racial justice and school is majority minority in the student body. I have far more flexibility in my classroom to teach as I think relevant than I ever had in any public school or charter or independent school, whether in Maryland, DC, or Virginia (I have taught in all 3, in a total of 10 schools across the three).
I am a white man of Jewish heritage who grew up in a upper middle class family. I attended very good public schools in a somewhat liberal community, and received my college education primarily at Haverford, a quite liberal institution of Quaker heritage. My personal history is somewhat more diverse. I first became interested in Civil Rights issues in 1956 when in December my family took a winter break in Miami Beach and when we got off the plane in Florida I first encountered segregated public facilities. My elementary school had no blacks, but when I skipped into 7th grade in October 1957 I was in school with African Americans who came from the two (of four) elementary schools that had African Americans, although there were very few in my academic classes. Yes, the captain of my Cross Country team was Black, and there a couple of Black kids in the orchestra, but most of my contacts were like me White and at least Middle Class.Similarly, when I started Haverford of the 130 in the original class of 1967 there was only 1 African American. There were many of us, including myself, who had at least participated in some elements of the Civil Rights movement, but that is not the same as the kinds of close proximity I later experienced,
My background got broadened when I took a leave of absence from college and enlisted in the Marines. For the first time in my life I was in regular contact with people very different than me. Of the 75 others in my boot camp platoon there were about 15 Blacks and an almost equal number of Latinos, including a pair of brothers from Guatemala. There were also afair numberrof working and lower middle class Whites,often from places like Parma, Ohio. Of equal importance was that I was one of less than 10 with any post-secondary education. I was starting to be able to experience the world through the eyes and lives of those very different than me.
Later, when living in Brooklyn (Park Slope) in a mixed neighborhood between stints in college (I took ten years to get through), we had a softball league with four teams in our very mixed neighborhood (in which the real estate values had not yet exploded). One was Italian-Americans, one was Irish-Americans, one was Latino, and one was Black, although each had a few people of different ethnicity. I was the lead-off batter and one of two whites on the Black team. Most of my teammates were working class. I got to see the world through very different eyes.
And don’t worry, I am not about to recount my entire life. I am just providing what I think is some relevant background.
As a teacher, I have to think long and hard about how to connect by students with the subjects I teach. That requires me to get to know them. Some of my students have had very prominent parents. Many over the years have come from backgrounds very different than my own. Some have perspectives that when shared with their classmates are being more expanding of how their classmates think than anything I can do on my own, which is why I try very hard to get to know my students as quickly as I can (something very hard to do this past school year when were completely virtual at the start of the year and where I was not personally in my classroom until after Easter).
Over the years I have taught students born in at least 40 different countries. One was the son of a national leader who was killed, and was being raised by his older sister (I recognized the name and did some research, and quietly informed the school administration because there was some real security issues). I have taught students living on their own before they were 18 (emancipated minor), others living in households with and being raised by two adults who were same sex couples, still others being raised by siblings or grandparents or aunts and uncles. I have had female students who were mothers. I have taught students who were blind or were deaf and communicated by sign language. I have had students who began the school year with very little English, and others who already spoke 6 or more languages. I have taught many gay and bi- students, although I am not aware of any who were at the time identifying as transgender. As to religious and racial diversity, it is as broad a spectrum as you can imagine. Political diversity has been just as broad.
So now I come to what I have to do each summer. I do not just open up a textbook and read. I have to think about the limitations of what textbooks I have, what other materials I need to use, how I want students to approach topics. How can I get them out of their comfort zones and get them to think both more broadly and more deeply? With what questions and challenges should I present them?
In teaching Government I have to have my students understand how things work and why, and what kinds of roles they can play, what the impact of government is /can be on their lives. That of course involves politics as well. But is also involves history. And it is inevitable that history involves interpretation, starting with what material is included in what you study.
I used to do an exercise some 15-25 years ago. I would ask students who was the greatest basketball player ever. Many would say Michael Jordan (now perhaps they might say Lebron). I would ask why. They would recite his championships scoring titles, and MVPs. I would then tell him about Bill Russell, who won 11 championships in 13 years including while serving as head coach. I would use this to illustrate that history is not merely a recitation of accurate facts, but includes context and judgment/interpretation as to what it means.
Ever since that trip to Miami in 1956 I have understood that many folks lack an understanding of much of what makes up our culture, our polity, our government, our society. In some cases it is because they simply don’t know. In other cases it may be because learning/understanding can make them very uncomfortable. Yes, it is true, in some cases people may know and understand and reject because of prejudice or privilege.
As a teacher I have long been aware that we do NOT have agreement on the purpose of education, particularly of public education paid for by tax dollars supplied in part by those who do not otherwise participate in public education. Yes, there are some who do not even believe in public education, There are those who view it as means of shaping attitudes and behavior towards particular goals You could consider this as approaching brainwashing if you disagree with with those goals, attitudes, behaviors. The idea of teaching “patriotism” is a very ancient idea indeed. We may want to inculcate a love of country, but is that love inclusive or exclusive? Are we advocating a national superiority that is as dangerous as the ideas of superiority of race, of religion, of gender, of wealth, etc.? Are we willing to HONESTLY examine our own country/history/religion etc. so that we are able to make it better Iwhich does NOT mean necessarily making it more dominant or powerful or exclusive)?
Is the fact that I am a highly educated American heterosexual White male of comfortable economic circumstances make me superior as a human being to someone who lacks any or all of those characteristics?
Perhaps one question with which we should challenge all of our students is whom they admire and why, with the second part of that being key. From that we can transition to helping them understand that they can admire someone for one aspect of their lives while still being able to be critical of others. Thus I can respect Liz Chaney for wanting to hold Trump accountable for violating his oath of office and the Constitution while criticizing her on many of her political judgments. I can admire Richard Wagner or Johannes Brahms as composers while being able to criticize the former for his anti-Semitism and the latter for his irascibility (even as I admit my own irascibility).
In 1 Thessalonians 5:21 we read (KJV): “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” As a teacher I want my students able to affirm what they see as good in others even if they disagree on most other things. As a teacher I want my students to be willing to go below the surface. I realize that all of us have to take the word of others on many things — we cannot prove ALL things, but we should not be reluctant to at least question received wisdom. After all, if we cannot ask why or why not, how do we ever increase in real knowledge or understanding? Are we willing to admit mistakes, our own or those of folks we admire? Our Founders recognized that they did not know everything, which is why we have Article V of the Constitution, which allows amendments. The amendment process can go wrong, which is why the 21st Amendment revokes the 18th. Perhaps there are things in our shared history that can help us go forward, recognizing where as a society we have been wrong and being willing to try to fix things, but we cannot do that if we act from fear, if we surrender our abilities to think and to question and to challenge. We should NOT surrender our will to the dictates of others, be they speaking/acting from positions of “authority” of religion, of politics, of academia; but we also should recognize that we live in a common society where we will not be able to act as if we ourselves or those we select are all powerful: the world is not kind to those who act with solipsistic individualism.
So I return to my content as a teacher, American government and American history. That brings me to a more basic question — what do we mean by American, who and what is included historically, who and what is now, who and what should be, and why? For me at least I prefer to think broadly. That means that I acknowledge that not all have been or are now included. As one of Jewish background who lost relatives from Bialystok during the Shoah and whose politics are very liberal and who has members of our extended families who are Latino and Black and Gay, I am painfully aware that there are those who do not see us as folks who should be included. Perhaps part of my task is to ensure my students understand how they and/or those they know would be excluded (or worse) by some, how their own words/actions/silence/inaction can harm and exclude others, and then to challenge them to think further.
If come the fall I am asked how I spent my summer, I could describe this process of reflection in detail.
It might be easier to simply say I thought long and hard how to be a better teacher, and long and hard how to be a better human being.
In my case, I have just been redundant, because even outside the classroom what I do and say — and what I fail to do and say — is its own form of teaching.
So how are you spending your summer?