Category Archives: history

Members Only

In my study hall, I have a second teacher in there with me. Recently, she had a conversation with a student who was learning about the early foundation of the KKK in history class. She shared with him that she had gone to high school with the son of a then-leader of one KKK chapter. A girl on the other side of the room overheard and yelled, “Your husband is in the KKK?!?” so we all laughed and talked about how that’s how rumors get started.

Today, she was talking about something with another boy that another girl on the other side of the room misunderstood and asked about. Then, things got out of control quickly.

Me: Remember: That’s how rumors get started.
Girl: Oh yeah, we talked about that before. Because isn’t it, like, your ex-husband who like started the KKK or something?
Other teacher: No! I graduated with a kid whose father was in the KKK.
Boy: I think it would be cool to be in the KKK.
Other teacher: What?!?
Boy: Yeah, you get those free clothes.
Girl 2: You mean the white robes they wear?
Boy: Yeah, I could like wear it for Halloween and it would be all authentic.
Me: Or, as a suggestion, you could shop Sears’ clearance for white sheets and avoid the hassle of actually having to join a hate group.
Boy: But Sears sheets aren’t authentic.
Girl 2: It seems like a lot to go through just for some sheets and a Halloween costume.
Me: Plus, no offense, but I don’t think the KKK would take you. They have standards for membership.
Girl 2: Yeah, white standards.
Boy: Wait, how do you know that they wouldn’t want me?
Me: OK, I’m not a paying member of the KKK, but they have historically been pretty up front with their membership requirements. They’re pretty uninterested in people who aren’t white. But you’re not the only one; the KKK wouldn’t take half the people in this school.
Girl [who had been on her phone most of the time]: Wait, you’re in the KKK???
Me: No! For crying out loud! People! Rumors get started when we don’t listen to all the facts!
Girl: Whew! I didn’t think it made sense for you to be in the KKK. I mean, it’s OK to do what you want and I don’t judge and all that, but Ms. H, you’d make a real shitty KKK member.
Me: Thanks. I think that’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.


Revisionist History

I had students do a mini research project on race in America today…and it brought me to this conversation with a student.

Me: What was the most interesting article you read?
Boy 1: Um…Well, this one was about these statues…
Me: Oh good! That’s a great topic for our discussion tomorrow. What did you think about it?
Boy 1: Well, I don’t really get it.
Me: Which part didn’t you get?
Boy 1: I don’t know what this means. [points to the paper]
Me: Confederate?
Boy 1: Yeah. I don’t know what that is.
Me: When we talk about the Confederacy, we’re talking about a historic region of the United States.
Boy 1: OK…
Me: Do you have any idea what region that would be?
Boy 1: Pittsburgh?
Boy 2: Naw dog! Baltimore! [in his semi-defense, we read an article about Baltimore last week]
Me: Nooooo…The Confederacy came about during a major military conflict…
Boy 1: The Great Depression?
Me: No. A major military conflict.
Boy 1: Like a war?
Me: Yes. What was the name of that war?
[Boy 1’s eyes grow wide; he sits with his mouth open.]
[Girl leans over and whispers Civil War.]
Boy 1: Oh, yeah, the Civil War.
Me: Yes, ohmygosh, the Civil War. And the Confederacy was one half of that conflict. Do you remember what two sides fought in the Civil War?
Boy 1: [hesitantly] Yeeeesss…
Me: So which side was the Confederacy? Remember, you’ve already suggested a couple of northern cities and I said no.
Boy 1: The…North…?
Me: No!
Boy 1: So….the…South…?
Me: Yes! The Civil War was fought between the northern states, the Union, and the southern states, or the Confederacy. And what were they fighting about?
Boy 1: Ssssssss….
Me: Yes! Say that word!
Boy 1: Slavery?
Me: Yes! The Civil War was fought over the issue of slavery. The northern states wanted to end it, but the southern states didn’t. Bonus question: Who was president during the Civil War?
Boy 2: [quickly and proud of himself] George Washington!
Boy 1: [immediately after, snapping his fingers] JFK!
Me: Oh! My! God! I’m going to have a seizure over here!
Boy 2: Hey, these are hard questions! How are we supposed to know this? Man, this is English class, not history!
Me: These aren’t “history” questions! These are common knowledge questions! You guys! Who was president during the Civil War?
Boy 2: [overhears another boy say the answer, but clearly only hears part of it] Abraham! It was Abraham! Abraham was president during the Civil War!
Me: That’s only his first name. What was Abraham’s last name? [the boys blink at me] You guys! Come on!
Boy 3: Abraham Lincoln.
Boys 1 & 2: Yeah! Abraham Lincoln! I’ve heard of him!
Me: [putting my head down on the desk] I’m dying inside. You know that, right? [looking at them again] Do you both have Ms. W for history right now? [they nod] I’m totally going to tell her about this.
Boy 1: Yeah, that’s probably a good idea. She should have a warning so she doesn’t die a little too.

Complaints from the Peanut Gallery

My students have been complaining. Shocker, I know. Today is the eighth day of school this year and, according to students, this hasn’t been much of an “English classroom” yet. It’s been more of a history classroom. So now about half of my students are wishing for Ms. F, the teacher down the hall, who isn’t even teaching eleventh grade this year but who the students are all telling me they’re going to talk to their counselors about to get their schedules changed. I told them to go ahead.

It’s funny to me, that my students, so many of whom say that they hate school and that what I have to teach them isn’t valuable to their lives, suddenly have these uber-political ideas about what an English classroom is “supposed” to be like. So then I find myself justifying what we’re doing – which, by the way, is all frontloading for A Raisin in the Sun, which we’ll start reading next week. When I teach this text, I use the essential question “What connections exist between the past and the present?” So I start by looking at the Civil Rights Movement and then we look at racial tension today. Throughout the text, we bounce between the 1950s and today, examining the roots of discrimination as well as the modern development of said discrimination.

My students so far have activated prior knowledge about the CRM quickly and without lecture or notes, they have analyzed primary texts, they have read a poem and written a literary analysis of said poem, they have moved through the peer revision and self-revision stages of the writing process, they have conducted a short research project and today they are preparing for a large group discussion that leans toward a Socratic seminar. In short: they have done a LOT and all of it is supported by ELA standards.

But yesterday I actually had a girl ask me, “So, is this, like, all we’ll be doing this quarter? I mean, we already talked about race in school a few years ago.”

Yes, honey, we will be having this conversation all quarter. Because one conversation about race a few years ago doesn’t make you enlightened and beyond all stereotypes and racist comments.

Ugh. I’m not getting bogged down by their complaining – not really – because I know that they’re teenagers and they complain and the teenagers who have the life circumstances that the teenagers at my school have probably complain a lot more than other people, so it’s not personal. I will keep doing what I’m doing because I know it’s good and right and, like I said, supported by the standards.

But it would be nice if they stopped.

Bleeding vs Blackface

I had students writing out a quick list of all the things they know about racial tension in America in the mid-1900s. You know, the Civil Rights Era. They worked in small groups on posters that we then hung up for discussion.

I’m walking around, doing the good teacher thing, checking on groups and whatnot. I go over to one group, read some of the stuff on their poster, then point to something they wrote about three from the bottom. “Menstrual shows?” I ask.

“Yeah,” this boy responds. “They were really popular for a long time. It was where white people painted their faces black and put on these plays where they made fun of Black people and stuff. They really just helped make a bunch of Black stereotypes.”

“Oh! Minstrel shows!” I said.

“Yeah, menstrual shows,” he replied.

I just left it.

And you know what? That poster’s been hanging in my room now for two days. No one. Has said. A thing.


Four years ago, I played the presidential inauguration on the screen in my classroom all day on mute. When the actual swearing in happened, we paused our work and paid attention, but for the most part, it was just on in the background for students to watch. I told them, “I don’t care about your political leaning or your parents’ politics. We, as a nation, are inaugurating a new president today and that is a historic event. It’s something we’ve only done a handful of times in our nation’s history and with only 44 people total. This is a big deal and you should at least be aware of it and what it looks like, even if we’re not devoting all of our attention to it.”

M had asked me if I would do the same thing if “the other guy” had won. I said absolutely. I wasn’t showing my classes the inauguration because I liked the outcome of the election; it was because they should be informed citizens, aware of our political process and what goes on in our nation’s capital.

Today is again inauguration day.

And I will again be playing the inauguration on my screen on silent while students work on essays.

Because this is a historic day and I believe that young people need to know what happens on major political occasions like this.

I don’t like it and I find our soon-to-be-president to be a moral degenerate, but I can’t say that if I allow myself to be a hypocrite on the issue. Coming to this decision has not been easy for me.

So it goes.

A Dream Deferred

I gave my students a writing prompt the other day that, let’s be honest, I was really proud of. It pulled together two great days of learning with a poem and asked for analysis and synthesis of information. Plus, I’ve been working with them all quarter on how to properly respond to literature. Now, this writing prompt could easily have been an essay prompt, but I only gave them about fifteen minutes to write in class. I wanted them to be thorough, but I didn’t need them going crazy with seven pages and footnotes and proper headers and all that. As if. Three minutes later, every single student had turned in their response. Baffled, I cautioned them, “You guys, you still have eleven minutes until the bell rings! Are you sure you wrote everything you needed to write about the poem?” I even went to individual students. “You already turned your paper in? Did you give me an A+ response?” I went so far as to tell them, “If you didn’t directly quote the poem, at least one source from yesterday and one source from today, don’t bother turning in your paper. You are NOT DONE.” No one retrieved their papers from the basket. No one.

Well, I read their responses today. First, though, the prompt:

What dream is Langston Hughes talking about in his poem “Harlem”? Was he right about the outcome of the dream? Use evidence from class – both yesterday and today – to support your answer.

Here are some of the responses that kids told me to my face they were sure were good and would receive an A+:

  • He’s dreaming about being equal and free. Yes he was cause it eventually happened cause MLK and Lil Rock 9.
  • I think he is talking about the end of segregation and the hatred between races. He was wrong about what would happen, the dream came true and all races were able to integrate and have the chance for a better tomorrow, that they will get along and not complain. Sources of thought: Real reasons the US became less racist toward Asian Americans [that’s an actual title of an article we read the day before]
  • His dream is to have racism come to end. He’s asking if this sore topic, that americans refused to talk about and resolve, will ever be rendered
  • A dream that’s deferred doesn’t go away, it just waits until the right time. Like Abolishing slavery and all racist laws, if you’re patient it’ll come true. but you still have to fight for what’s right, and it certainly wont easy.
  • the MLK Jr. Dream and if it will ever happen.

Obviously, this is an assignment I’m going to have to revisit on Monday.


I give up.

I put effort into my planning. I pride myself on being intentional. I care about the material and about the learners I share the material with. I make every day a little bit different – new types of assignments, new types of questioning, new types of assessments. I create reasons for students to get up in the middle of class, to talk to partners or small groups. I ask questions with the expectation that they will create dialogue, dissent. I show up with my game face on every single class period, ready to engage and be engaged.

“This is dumb.”

I’ve tried a contemporary context for learning. I’ve tried a historical context. I’ve given them feminist lenses, existentialist lenses, critical lenses, and reader-response lenses.

“This is dumb.”

“What the fuck do we have to do this for?”

I present articles, sermons, notes, poems, songs, paintings, novels, novel excerpts, editorials, videos, cartoons, comics, nursery rhymes, short stories, vlogs, blogs, and advertisements.

“This is dumb.”

“What the fuck do we have to do this for?”

“I’m never going to need to know this.”

I stand at the door and greet them every day. I ask them about their weekends, their families, their jobs, their new hair cuts. I crack jokes in class. I draw on the board, then make fun of my clearly amazing art skills (which resemble kindergarten-style drawings). I ask them for recommendations on books, music, apps, movies, and TV shows.

“This is dumb.”

“What the fuck do we have to do this for?”

“I’m never going to need to know this.”

“This is fucking boring.”

You know what? You get out of it what you put in to it. Does it suck? Yeah, I bet it does. I bet it sucks an awful lot to get up every day and come here where you basically allow yourself to be babysat by college-trained professionals – experts in our fields – while you spend the whole day sifting through playlists for the right song for six hours a day. I think it would be really, really difficult to spend the entire day trying with every cell in my body to ignore the world around me and refuse to make connections between Life and History and Art. It probably is fucking boring scrolling through the same bullshit feed all day long, through the sewage posted by your contemporaries – other people who are likewise wasting their days refusing to try. You’re right. It’s shitty, but you’re right.

And you know what? Not only does it make my job harder, but it makes it harder to want to do my job. If what I present is going to be “dumb” and “boring” anyway, why should I try to make it anything else? I give up. Silent reading and worksheets for everybody.

Down With Haters

My students did a close reading of the Declaration of Independence. Then I had them write their own declaration, declaring independence from whatever they wanted independence from, as long as it used logic (in the style of Thomas Jefferson) and followed the same basic outline of content organization (again, in the style of Thomas Jefferson). As you can well imagine, most of my letters were of the “Dear Mom and Dad” variety. A couple of kids broke up with someone and a few quit their jobs, but by and large, the majority of kids wrote letters explaining why they needed to move out.

Except one girl. She wrote her letter declaring her independence from the haters.

This girl is sweet and quiet and mild mannered. She’s an introvert and, while I have gotten the feeling that there’s way more going on under the surface than she’ll let on, she doesn’t show it. Or, rather, didn’t until writing this. Here’s just her list of grievances:

I want this separation specifically for these five reasons; for one I would like to focus on my schoolwork not try to please people who are not fine with the way some individuals carry positive vibes,second I am tired of having to beat around the bush. These days you can say “hi” and it will offend someone.third this society is becoming to self absorbed it’s all about who owns expensive things and eyebrows now. Fourthly I am sick of people going around disrespecting others for no reason like “shut the hell up” if you don’t got anything nice to say then shut it and move on. Lastly I would love it if certain people would stop sticking their noses in places it does not belong.

I can’t say that I completely understand what she means about everything being about eyebrows now, but that’s OK. In general, I can rally behind her cry. Be gone with you, haters. We’ve got better things to do.

America, the home of the Holocaust.

I asked students – eleventh graders – to make a list of the biggest, most impactful historical American events, people, or places. I’m expecting the Civil War, the Revolutionary War, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Rosa Parks, MLK Jr., Jackie Robinson, Elvis Presley, Henry Ford and the advent of assembly lines, Detroit, Motown, westward expansion, fast food industry, Brown vs. Board, Roe v. Wade, Loving vs. Virginia, Christopher Columbus, slavery, feminism, Ms. magazine, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the Chrysler building, the Sears tower, Mt. Rushmore, Mt. Saint Helens, the Grand Canyon, Theodore Roosevelt creating the National Parks system, the New Deal, NASA and the first man to walk on the moon, the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Special Olympics, Barack Obama becoming the first Black president…


One kid said “feminism stuff.” One kid mentioned Rosa Parks.

The rest of them? Literally the rest of them said either WWII or, more specifically, the Holocaust.

The only people listed (with the exception of the aforementioned Rosa Parks) – I shit you not – were Anne Frank, Albert Einstein, and Adolf Hitler. All of them German.

I leave you with this final thought: ??????????