Sunday, March 9, 2014

Teaching About Slavery

I’ve been trying to write a book about teaching and decided there wasn’t room for this chapter about slavery. Perhaps it will give other educators a worthwhile idea or two. I used to write my own materials, since textbooks tend to be so dull.

Excerpts follow:

Chapter Sixteen: Slavery: How Bad?

“…the absence of control. Here one lived knowing that at any time, anybody might do anything.”
Toni Morrison

...I began by creating two readings that looked the same and all examples came from the same sources. I simply divided them. Anything that made slavery sound good (or at least mild in nature) I put in one reading. Everything bad ended up in the other...

Each tale had the same title: HOW BAD WAS SLAVERY????? And the opening statement was the same:
The answer to the question, “How bad was slavery?” may surprise you. For now leave it at that. Remember that slavery began at Jamestown in 1619 and did not end till 1865. You should also know that in 1860 there were 4,000,000 slaves owned by 400,000 masters and mistresses.
The question, then, has a complex answer. The slave owners were ordinary people. So were the slaves.

After that the text was completely different and equally “true” or equally “untrue.” Or was truth complicated?

On one side I placed examples like these:
It may surprise you to know that not all owners were white. The Cherokee Indians practiced slavery. Marie Metoyer, a black woman, owned fifty-eight slaves. Cyprian Ricard, another free Negro, had ninety-one. Dilsey Pope owned her husband. After a terrible argument she sold him in anger. Later she cooled down and tried to buy him back.
His new owner refused.

I liked that one because I could imagine Dilsey pitching a fit, like any normal wife, and could imagine her regretting it.

The next section (about slave diet) ended with this:
…At Christmas one owner gave his slaves cheese, coffee and candy. The house servants of a Tuscaloosa, Alabama master gave a party for their friends at which cake and ice cream were served. Another slave reported that her owner gave her anything she asked for. Often she got up early, went “down in the kitchen and got my coffee and cream before the white folks got theirs.” “Yes,” she added, “my white folks was good to me.”

And then there was this:
Derry Coburn met Daniel Boone in the winter of 1800-01. For the rest of Dan’s life Coburn, a slave, was his “regular companion in the woods and probably his closest friend.” Once Boone got his hand mashed and stuck in a heavy trap and had to drag it back to camp. Coburn never thought about trying to escape. Instead, he removed the trap, bandaged his “master” up and went back to his cooking.

Another perfect setup was a quote by Solomon Northrup. Solomon was a free man living in Maryland until two con-artists promised a job with the circus, got him drunk, and carried him to Virginia where he was sold into servitude. (His story recently became the movie Twelve Years a Slave.) Even Northrup, however, had this to say about one master:
He described Miss Mary McCoy, owner of a hundred slaves, this way: “A lovely girl, some twenty years of age...she is beloved by all her slaves, and good reason indeed have they to be thankful that they have fallen into such gentle hands.”

She was “an angel of kindness.”

The pro-slavery reading ended with this:
Finally, we have the case of William Wells Brown. It is true—that he ran away from his owner. Then he was caught and thrown in jail. At the time he heard his master was ill.

You may wonder what slavery was like. But take note of what Brown had to say: “I prayed fervently [with intense feeling] for him.”

I assigned the “good” handout for homework and started class the following day by asking simply: “Were any of you surprised by what you read?” It soon turned out, that by writing carefully I had duped even the best students. (I taught seventh and eighth grades; I would hope older kids would not be so easilyt fooled.) And keep this in mind—there were good masters because there are good people in this world.[1]

“Who has something to say?” I wondered.

“I didn’t know there were black slave owners,” replied one of my students.

“One slave owner gave his slaves ice cream and cake,” offered another.

I took comments and added a few supportive ideas, stringing the fraud out as far as I could. Sometimes a student would object. “I read a book about slavery once, and it didn’t sound anything like this.”

“Was it a novel?” I asked. “You know, if you want to sell books, they have to be exciting. So it’s more interesting to have a daring escape than to write about shoeing horses or chopping cotton.”

Finally, when I felt I had played the string out as far as I could I asked someone to find the example of Solomon Northrup. What did he say about Miss Mary McCoy and what did it prove?”

I had a volunteer read the quote (mentioned above) then asked, “So what does this example prove?”

The student who had just read now agreed that slavery wasn’t as bad as she thought. One of the boys said there were a lot of good owners.

Read the paragraph again, I said. What does it really show?

Finally, someone would say: “Mr. Viall, it says they had reason to be thankful to have fallen into such gentle hands…Doesn’t that mean there were owners who were worse?”


I was surprised every year how few students saw through my subterfuge. Take the example of the owner who gave his slaves cake and ice cream. I waited in vain for someone to protest, “Mr. Viall, this was only one owner!”

I also liked to cite Jefferson Davis—who let slave set up courts, with slave judge and juries. Only once did he overturn a punishment—and that was to lower it. So who was in control, I asked every year? Again and again, students said—well—the slaves.

No, no.

“What word in the sentence shows Davis was in control?”

The answer dawned slowly. The key word, students would finally realize, was “let.” He let slaves have limited freedom.

Davis was still in charge.

At this point it was time to pass out the bad side of the story. I explained that everything in the first handout was true, as much as any limited view of reality is true. But was it the full story? If good people owned slaves, psychos did also. There were 400,000 slave owners. Some had to be evil.

“Finally, what happens when words are taken out of context?” I asked. “What did William Wells Brown say when he found out his owner was sick?” Not everyone was willing to take time to look for the quote. I added, “I’ll give you half my Twix bar if you find the answer first.” (I often ate candy during class and skipped lunch to help students later. And I knew almost all middle school students would perform for food—and kept a ready stash of candy bars in a bottom desk drawer.) Wendy raised her hand and claimed the treasure.

She read: “I prayed fervently [with intense feeling] for him.”

“All I did was saw the quotation in half. That is what he said, but not all of it. Wendy, you get the whole candy bar if you can guess the rest.”

“He prayed for him…to die?” she ventured.

“Correct! You are the Candy Bar Queen!”

I turned the kids lose and let them read on their own the remainder of the period. Now they heard Theophilus Conneau, captain of a slave ship, admit:
…Most vessels carried tools to pry slave’s mouths open if they refused to eat. There were nets to keep individuals from jumping overboard, a common form of suicide. On one voyage Conneau set sail with a “cargo of 108 boys and girls. The oldest was not 15 years of age.” Another time he packed his slaves between decks only 22 inches high.
If different owners shipped slaves on the same vessel it was necessary to brand their “property” to keep them from getting mixed up. An adult was marked on the upper arm. A child was branded on the buttocks. Conneau admitted this was a “disgusting duty.” Still, the idea of branding human beings seemed not to bother him that much. “This ... [is] done as lightly as possible,” he claimed, “and just enough for the mark to remain only six months.”

Or they read this—from American Slavery As It Is, an abolitionist account drawn from southern sources and published in 1837:
Under a system where one person might own another anything was possible. In 1834 Madame LaLurie of New Orleans was found to have kept seven slaves chained in her attic. Newspaper accounts indicate one boy was imprisoned five months. Fed only a handful of corn meal each day, he was subjected to “the most cruel treatment” every morning. According to witnesses an older black man had been beaten till his head was broken:
The worms were actually to be seen making a feast of his brain! Another woman had her back literally cooked (if the expression can be used) with the lash [whip]. The very bones might be seen projecting through the skin.

When an owner was “creative” punishment could take many forms. House servants could be demoted and sent to the fields. Saturday night dances could be canceled. Slaves might be required to work on Sunday—normally a day of rest. If a maid showed an attitude she might be denied a pass to visit her husband on another plantation. One owner made slave men dress in ladies’ clothes and do “women’s work.”
Another used a pair of scissors to punish a disobedient female slave. She had, said one witness, “real long hair and they cut one side of her hair off and left the other side long.”

Linda Brent was witness to similar abuse when a cook fed her master’s dog too much cornmeal mush. The dog vomited in its bowl and died shortly after. This brought the owner storming into the kitchen. “He said the mush had not been well cooked, and that was the reason the animal would not eat it. He sent for the cook,” Brent remembered sadly, “and compelled [forced] her to eat it.”

Later we also read the story of Frederick Douglass in his own words. One evocative detail, I thought: Frederick’s mother lived on a different plantation and visited him when she could, when her owner allowed. One day she brought him a sweet cake shaped like a heart, a detail I thought perfectly captured the humanity of all those millions of unfortunate human chattels. 

We heard from Booker T. Washington, in the same way, who described his boyhood as a slave up until the age of nine.

In days to follow I asked students to write a 500-word essay about “their” lives as slaves. Then we did a skit (in the form of a panel discussion, involving five masters and slaves), meant to last a full period. My students were great in these kinds of skits, what were essentially set up to be like “plays without dialogue.”

These are ideas I brought to class—not standardized knowledge—and the great work my students did in those skits, and on that story—none of that was standardized either.

Reading done by one run-of-the-mill history teacher in order to put together his own unit on slavery:

American Slavery As It Is by Theodore Weld (published in 1837); yep, I actually read that.

Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell; the book is written beautifully but filled with subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle racism—as when Mitchell talks about what a good master Scarlett’s father was. (He only whipped one slave, for not taking care of his race horse!)

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe; there are some great scenes, including one where an overseer causes a fainting slave in the cotton fields to revive by sinking a pin into her thigh. 

A Slaver’s Log Book by Theophilus Conneau; the captain’s ability to make excuses for almost any action, including many that would have to be classified as horrible crimes, is quite amazing. 

Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington (1901); Washington has some great comments about the import of education for the freed slaves later.

The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass (three versions)

Puttin’ On Ole Master, which included the story of Solomon Northrup, which became the Academy Award winning Best Picture, 12 Years a Slave.

Great Slave Narratives, also including stories by former slaves.

WPA interviews with old slaves, conducted in the 1930s; on file at the Public Library of Hamilton County.

And, of course, numerous other sources…

I used to tell students the history of slavery was written on this man's back.

[1] I know some might disagree with that kind of statement. I’ll add this example, if it might help. Suppose you are convicted of a murder you did not commit and sentenced to life in prison. Your jailor turns out to be a good person and treats you with human decency. That doesn’t make the fact you’re innocent and serving out a life sentence palatable.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Site index


When I started blogging in the spring of 2011, I promised to speak up for good teachers but not to defend bad ones. I began by trying to debunk the myth that something was wrong with America’s teachers as a group.

See:  Numbers Don’t Lie: Our Teachers (And Doctors) Are Failing. (More recently, I addressed this topic again. PISA Wars.)

I mock the idea that U. S. teachers are terrible: America’s Teachers! We’re Dumb! And We Suck!


When I retired in 2008 I felt lucky. I loved life in the classroom, loved working with teens, and taught for decades. Today, I’m worried about younger teachers. When I look at current education reforms it appears to me that so-called experts are pushing disastrous policies. That should not be a surprise. Most of these experts never taught.

See, for example:  Do Recent School Reforms Help or Hinder Real Learning

Also: R.I.P. No Child Left Behind. Hard to believe that since this blockbuster law was implemented, SAT, ACT and PISA scores have all declined. Even NAEP scores are flat. (If you’re a real teacher you start to wonder: Do these experts have a clue?)

Arne Duncan Discovers the Obvious.


I try to write in defense of the true purpose of education. I believe there are a thousand ways to maximize learning for all kinds of students. 

I also know good teaching is hard—how even the best teachers face victory and defeat in the classroom, oftentimes during the same day. I am currently working on a book titled Two Legs Suffice:  Lessons Learned by Teaching.

The title relates, in part, to two bicycle trips I took across America, one at age 58, the second four years later.

If you’re interested in reading about my first ride across the United States go to viall4diabetes. My youngest daughter is a type one diabetic and I pedaled to raise money for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation. Students helped me raise more than $13,500. 

Double click on any pictures and they fill your screen.

My second ride—including my arrest (temporarily) as a bank robbery suspect—is documented at viallfordiabetes2011. Again, I raised money for JDRF and rode 4,615 miles.

Starting point for second ride:  Cadillac Mountain in Maine.


Several of my most popular posts are listed in the sidebar to this blog (at the right). Almost 19,000 educators have read the humorous post about the N.F.L. adopting a “Common Core Playbook.”

My personal favorite is probably: How Many Reformers Does it Really Take to Fix a School? I believe every good teacher knows how many reformers we really need—and how rarely those reformers actually step into a classroom, pitch in and help.


Sometimes I indulge my interest in history. Social studies teachers might be able to use:  Who Were Those People Who Died on 9/11?


This category keeps growing as incidents of school violence pile up. Recently, I had to add a tribute to Colleen Ritzer, the Massachusetts high school teacher stabbed to death by one of her own students.

Another Teacher Killed in Danvers, Massachusetts highlights Ritzer’s tragic fate, as well as the death of Michael Landsberry, a teacher gunned down on a middle school playground. The case of the unrepentant killer of classmates at Chardon High School is also noted.

My most recent post on the topic expresses anger in regard to the failure of our so-called leaders. Their blindness is often breath-taking:  Does Arne Duncan Realize that Teachers and Students Are Dying?

In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre I shared a few thoughts on Arming Teachers:  A Stupid Idea. One of my students brought a gun to class in 1985, intending to shoot me and at least one classmate. So I have a particular interest in the topic.

The shooting at Chardon High (February 2012) tells us much about the problems teachers and students face in the real world:  Shooting at Chardon High.


Allison Wyatt, 6, killed at Sandy Hook Elementary.


In the summer of 2012 Johns Hopkins University released a study on student absenteeism: Stop Blaming Teachers and Start Blaming Pediatricians? Every teacher in the country could have predicted the results of this study.

Rock, Voucher, Scissors:  Saving Carl Won’t Be Easy:  A friend teaches in a poor district. What might she have done to save Carl if the young man lived with a mother whose mind was addled by drugs? Carl’s father was long gone from the picture.

Some kids are homeless. Some live with crazy parents. See:  Home School for Homeless Kids. Which school reform (standardized testing, vouchers, charter schools) addresses the needs of these most needy children?


Consider the Ten Myths about U. S. Public Schools. These myths have shaped the thinking of the general public, which now believes our entire public school system is in crisis. One of the ten myths is that we who teach are morons.

How many times have we heard America’s schools are not preparing kids to succeed in a competitive global economy? That’s a second myth:  Are Poor Public Schools Killing the U. S. economy?

Maybe the society that surrounds us has crippling issues:  U. S. Education by the Numbers.

Michelle Rhee, a leading education reformer, promised to use a broom and sweep out all the bad teachers in Washington, D. C. She failed to say what she would do about the students carrying knives. See:  Michelle Rhee:  Reformer with a Broom.

Did you realize that failing schools are undermining national security? Read: I Blame Teachers for Everything.

Thanks to Fox News a video of a student ranting against his teacher went viral (What One Student Rant by Jeff Bliss Doesn’t Tell Us). Based on ninety seconds of tape people weighed in on what they felt was wrong with all teachers.


In my class I had some success in reducing bullying. I share a few of my ideas in the post: Bullies in Middle School and Junior High. My time in the Marine Corps helped me address the matter once I became a teacher.


Can you get rich in education? You can if you start your own charter school and pay yourself $9.5 million for one year:  You Can Become a Millionaire.

How are charter schools doing? Based on current evidence here in Ohio, they’re not doing that well. Ohio Charter Schools Suck: GOP Lawmakers Still Love Them.

We know what happens when business interests run for-profit colleges. Crooks abound! It’s hard to see how they’ll do better when it comes to for-profit charter schools: The Business Model in Education: Really! It’s Going to be Great!

Actually, we already know what happens when shysters run charter schools. As a bonus, you have a science curriculum that teaches kids the Loch Ness monster is a dinosaur. Link: Privatizing Public Schools and the Loch Ness Monster Bonus.

Also: (Governor Kasich Puts the Bible (and Koran) Back in Ohio Schools.)

How does a for-profit charter school make money and get rid of kids with serious discipline issues all in one simple move? Why not charge $140 for discipline packets when kids get in trouble, like Noble Schools in Chicago? (See: “School Crisis?” Maybe It’s an “Office Tower Crisis?”)

Big Money in College Sports Means Bad News for Student Athletes.

See: Vouchers, Charter Schools and Terrible Parents.


What happens if I bring in fourteen combat veterans to speak to 700 students at my school? It’s not standardized education and the experiences these veterans share can’t be “measured” on any standardized test.

See also: Sham Standards: Governor Kasich and the Standardized Testing Fetish (Part Two).

What did it really mean when the worst stutterer I ever had in class spoke in front of his peers for an entire period and won a standing ovation? This was the kind of learning experience that matters. Yellow Brick Road to Nowhere: Teachers and the Tea Party Movement.

We’ve farted around with standardized tests for two decades. So: Should I focus on Shay’s Rebellion, as the State of Ohio now insists, or will my students be more likely to hear about “The American Dream” in years to come? And, if you like standardized tests, what do you about Songhai trade? See: Where in the World is Ohio? The Curse of Standardized Tests.

A Perfect Mesh of Common Core and New Technology offers a glimpse of a Brave New World in which education and testing are controlled by testing and software companies.

Rock, Paper, Common Core Curriculum: What’s the Real Key?

My greatest fear in the push for “standards” imposed from above is not what we have to cover. It comes down to what we may be forced to leave out. See: The Emperor of A, B, C and D. An auxiliary post provides even more examples.

In my class students were required to read a number of books for outside reading as part of their grade. I wanted to engage as many kids in reading as possible; so I gave them hundreds of books to choose from. Is that standardized teaching? Comments by former students help provide an answer: Why Teaching Matters—Part Four (Books).

Why Teaching Matters: Part Three.

Why Teaching Matters: Part One.

Why I Loved (Non-Standardized Teaching): Stephanie’s Astute Observation.

George Stranahan (who taught for half-a-century) addresses a number of critical issues in his book, A Predicament of Innocents. He shares my disdain for standardized testing.

If the tragedy of 9/11 happened today could I cover it the story in my history class in any detail? Nothing about current events can end up on a standardized test at the end of the year—and that means testing is crazy.

Standardized Testing: Confessions of a Terrible Teacher.


If you bring business efficiency to public schools you’ll be introducing business morality too. What happens if businesses run for-profit charter schools the way pharmaceutical companies market harmful drugs for children? (Let Big Business save Our Schools and Our Children.)

Big Bucks in Tater Tots: When Public Schools Run with Business Efficiency.

Try: Donald Trump: Next U. S. Secretary of Education?

See also: If Only Goldman Sachs Ran the Public Schools! Related posts include: June 30, 2011November 4, 2011June 8, 2012.

ExxonMobil Announces Commitment to Fixing U. S. Education touches on the same subject.

Pigs in the River: How Rupert Murdoch Got His Foot in the Schoolhouse Door.

Unionized Public Sector Workers and Free Market Enterprise.


In this satiric post we send education experts to the doctor to get advice from car mechanics and plumbers. I mean, it could work. An Education Expert Goes to the Doctor.

Making fun of education experts is too easy. Shakespeare explains what school reformers miss. Forsooth: Shakespeare Doth Explain School Reform.

Do bureaucrats in Washington, D. C. help or hinder real teachers and real students? See: Rick Perry Was…Um… Uh…Right: Get Rid of the U. S. Department of Education.



I thought the key to my success in the classroom and the key to students’ success was obvious: The Key to Better Education: It’s Not Just Teachers.


Critics forget that there are hundreds of thousands of good teachers at work every day in this country. I asked former students to talk about educators who made a difference: Why Teaching Matters: What’s the Square Root of Inspiration? They fill a series of posts with heartfelt comment.


If you’re a public school teacher and not yet familiar with this program you might want to pay attention. The Teach for America approach has its virtues but too many of the people who run it and support it are puffed up with arrogance. (Ergo or Lego: Why I Hate Teach for America.)

I have an even better idea. I say we let all the experts actually teach: Experts for America: Like Teach for America, Only Better!


When do we give up on the idea that grading schools will solve our biggest problems? Try this: Grading Schools, Grading Society?


Is it a good public policy to tie teacher pay to test scores? We consider the speech therapist who reaches an autistic child and finally helps her communicate. (Say “Wabbit:” The Inherent Limits of Merit Pay and Standardized Testing.)

How do you “measure” what it means when a teacher convinces a seventh grader he has the talent to go to college some day? Joey provides an answer in a letter he writes to his old history teacher. (Making a Difference in Untestable Ways.)


We’re now spending billions of dollars annually on all kinds of school reforms. So far, SAT scores have decline every year since No Child Left Behind was enacted. Scores reached record lows in 2012: Education Experts Baffled: SAT Scores Decline Again!

Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Performance have also flat-lined in recent years. Leading reformers are puzzled.


My conservative friends don’t like these posts. Far-Right Conservatives Invent New Language was “liked” more than 100,000 times when posted repeatedly on AddictingInfo

Conservatives forget there was a time when even inter-racial marriage was banned in America. Read: Who Knew? Rupert Murdoch is a Flaming Liberal.

A number of posts in August, September and October 2012 might also be of interest to those who like to argue liberal vs. conservatism, and everything on the fringes and in between.


Freedom of religion is fine. Using tax dollars to support schools that debunk modern science might not be wise. 

See: Christian School Lays Smack Down on Science.

Putting Prayer Back in School: Better Keep the Lid on Pandora’s Box.


No school reformer has done more to damage the image of public school teachers in recent years than Ms. Rhee. (Even Oprah fell for Rhee’s self-serving line of baloney.) Rhee’s claim to fame rests on raising test scores in miraculous fashion. Unfortunately, ugly facts soon undercut her claims: Michelle Rhee’s Perfect Ponzi Scheme.

Also: Grading School Reformers: Michelle Rhee and the Miracle of Rising Test Scores. This post includes much the same language as used in the post above but goes into greater detail.

Michelle Rhee Calls for Teachers with Telepathic Powers.


The whole concept that the nation’s public schools are failing (compared to schools in Finland and Japan) is wrong. So what if American students rank 25th in math!!!! What if the same kind of lists prove that America ranks 24th in life expectancy? Are hospitals in America failing?

American Teachers Stink Up the Place Again (but our nation’s judges are doing great).

See: A Fairy Tale Called “Waiting for Superman, Part Two.”

A Tea Partier’s Guide to American Education.

Finland! Finland, Finland, Finland! All the education experts seem to believe we should copy the model of Finland. Finland Has Smarter Teachers

If a former student (Eric Armstrong, left) asks you to a Reds game you should go.


I’m Facebook friends with hundreds of former students. They keep me posted (Loveland Students: Part Three) on what they’re doing and remind me why I liked teaching so much.

(This series will soon be continued.)


New technology opens up new possibilities in any classroom. The fight to fire students with a desire for learning remains unchanged: Old Tools, New Tools, The Battle is Unchanged.


Fox News hates teachers’ unions. Suddenly, Fox News loves poor down-trodden members of teachers’ unions! Fox News Goes All Warm and Fuzzy for Teachers.

Frank Bruni, writing in the New York Times, laid blame for the failure of school reform on recalcitrant teachers and their unions. Mr. Bruni is full of goose stuffing: The Big Evil in U. S. Education: Teachers’ Unions.


We need some school reformer or education expert to explain how vouchers help if a child’s problems are severe and begin and end at home. (If Only Vouchers Worked like Magic Cloaks.)


Want to know why this movie was stupid? Consider what director Davis Guggenheim and critics who loved it missed: A Fairy Tale Called “Waiting for Superman.”

For my response to the question posed above go to: The Witch-Burning Mentality and Miramonte Elementary School.


History teachers and those who believe women can take care of themselves might like: Women of the American Revolution. I used this reading with my own classes.

Tioga Pass in California; right above my handlebars there's a white speck on the road
(line at center). That's a big RV camper.
Raising money for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Wisdom on the Walls

I remember attending an in-service day and listening to a gentleman say that we should do more to decorate the walls of our classrooms.

He suggested that we hang up family pictures and diplomas and I could see his point immediately. I have always enjoyed a good quote and started printing them out on little posters and sticking them up all around.

My favorite, and the touchstone of my entire history class was this:

Some quotes I included for the humor—since humor never hurts when dealing with teens. One came from Shakespeare: “You are not worth the dust the rude wind blows in your face.” I liked the comedy of the insult and added it to my collection. One day, I was walking through the lunch room when Josh Parton, one of my funniest students, called out from the distance:

“Mr. Viall! You are not worth the dust the rude wind blows in your face.” We both had a good laugh and I was glad a little of the Bard’s wisdom resonated with at least one student.

Here are a sampling, a few of my favorite quotes out of several hundred, turned into posters for a history classroom:


A reminder for teachers and students:

Character Education:

Understanding others:

Understanding ourselves:

A plug for reading:

We all understand this:

The Tao of Forest Gump:

Something for everyone to remember when arguing:

Attitudes are a key to success in any endeavor:

Positve reinforcement is probably overused:

How teen peer groups form:  

Useful when discussing any war:

This one is for teachers:

Why do we study history?

The people in the past are like us.

I used to be a lazy student myself:

Never trust anyone who wants to make you hate:

Not that students will ever lie to get out of trouble!

The saddest question:

Lincoln explains his philosphy in a few words:

Truman explains his philosophy in even fewer:

A classic political put-down:

For World History, a warning about tyranny:

We did a great deal of writing in my class. I tried to impress this idea on students:

Not bad advice for living:

Send me an email if you are interested in seeing more of these. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Class of 2000

As many of my friends (and my long-suffering wife) realize, I’ve been working a long time on a book about teaching. If I had earned even minimum wage for all the hours spent tapping at the keyboard I’d already have $25,000 in my pocket.

I tell my wife that when they make my story into a movie, Brad Pitt will surely be tapped to play me. She simply scoffs.

I’m a decent writer, I tell myself. (And let me assure my former students, who will remember my writing rule: that the words “things” and “stuff” will NOT appear in my book.)

I loved teaching and working with kids. I wish I could explain to readers what those kids were like, by the hundreds, by the thousands.

I felt lucky. I felt like I was part of a noble profession.

Still, no one should ever imagine the job is easy. Teachers face all kinds of problems and deal with serious issues every day. At the middle school level I saw kids wasted by drugs, kids who were bullied, kids who never fit in, teen girls who turned up pregnant, and one poor girl who, it turned out later, was being sexually abused by her father. One year I had a young man in my sixth bell history class who had the longest juvenile criminal record of anyone in Hamilton County.

In other words, some kids were hard to teach or reach.

In one early version of my book I tried to pick one class, the kids I had during the 1999-2000 school year, and use them to explain what it was like to be an educator. I wanted to see if I could say something positive about every kid I had that year. As I suspected, it was, with perhaps one exception. In the end, I decided the section didn’t quite work; but here’s what I wrote about a fairly typical group of middle school students in Loveland, Ohio:

Class of 2000

If I had known someday I would try to write a book I would have kept better notes. Today I recall the hard times in a classroom like a combat soldier recalls traumatic events. The good moments, the good days, and good students number in the thousands but don’t always stand out to the same stark degree.

Had I kept more detailed notes I could fill volumes with stories about wonderful kids: but in some ways they blended together, like a series of beautiful spring days, one indistinguishable from the next. I can mention stars in the class of 2000, however, because I took notes that year. I started to, anyway, ran out of time halfway through the alphabet, and gave up. As a teacher, I never did discover a way to get ahead and stay ahead of my work.


I wish I could say more about all these young people—about all the kids I had other years, too—but this will have to suffice for a sampling. Chris had failed the seventh grade the year before and got off to a poor start in my class. I finally convinced him to stop making excuses and start working. And once I discovered that he had a good sense of humor we hit it off fine. I found with Chris (and many others who had failed over the years) that he had a little extra maturity in how he thought. So I encouraged him to speak up in class and he turned out to be a leader in discussion. I loved his effort in his second time around in seventh grade. As the year progressed, he kept getting better and better. He was still a “C” student but his progress and attitude were excellent.

Robert (pseudonym’s used where examples might embarrass) was an interesting young man, filled with good ideas and a desire to please. Unfortunately, he had a knack for going too far when he spoke his mind and often antagonized peers. He would stick it to them, verbally, and they would stick it to him back, and I would have to cut off the insults as quickly as I could. Often it was Robert against the world. So I spent time trying to convince him to ease off and did what I could to protect him from attack if he forgot. I liked Robert and hated to see him get bullied. 

He knew that and responded well.

I can’t highlight every student I had that year; but I can give you a quick idea of how much potential there was in this group. The Class of 2000 included Michelle, who spoke up for justice in every discussion we ever had. There was James, who worked hard like his father, who had been seated in one of my chairs a generation earlier. James could do a perfect imitation of a cricket, something none of his teachers had ever heard before and I suspect have never heard since. Ellie had the same smile her mother brought to my history class two decades before. When I met her mom at Open House she was—of course—smiling as she always had before.

Most of these kids made my life easy. There was Laura, a favorite of the boys, talented, positive and mature. One evening I attended a school musical and had trouble imagining a better voice coming from a young lady her age. (And let me note:  that Loveland had an excellent choir and drama teacher at the time, Mr. Shawn Miller, and a band instructor, Mr. Bruce Maegly, without peer.) Mitual and Zac are forever paired in my mind. Top students, they worked together on a history project and built a Nazi death camp to exact scale. (Zac is now an architect.) Joe had grades that were…um...somewhat lower. Still, he was one of the funniest kids I ever taught. He reminded me of me at the same age. I told him so and think he took it as a compliment.

In one year I had Becky, a brilliant young lady, and Greg, who excelled at skits. Becky went on to Ohio State and Greg called years later to thank me for all I had done. (I meant to call him back but erased his message by mistake.) Elizabeth looked like the studious young woman she was and had the ability to go on to be a college professor if that was what she desired. Kelly was talented and vivacious. My wife and I used her to babysit our two youngest daughters. In my notes, I said Kelly was “argumentative;” but by that I meant she was always ready in class to express opinions and knew how to think. Kristina, a sweet young lady, wanted to be an actress. Kelly #2 was an avid reader. Kelly #3 was one of my absolute favorites. I described Lindsay as “my HARDEST worker.”

That’s the highest possible praise.

Then my notes fizzled out. I probably got busy on one of a thousand tasks that every teacher must juggle. I did jot down a few words about every member of the class, though. Jessica was tall and a dependable hard worker. Brad did wonderful projects, combining historical themes and modern tunes, including Brittney Spears songs. Lura was smarter than me and if I remember rightly she was the one who did an art project, a series of water colors on the Holocaust. One showed a hand clawing out from under a pile of dirt, as a stream of blood ran to the corner of the picture.

One year of teaching—and so much potential. There was Neilo, enthusiastic and brimming with ideas. Her parents fled from Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, I believe, and came here to make a better life. Neilo lit up a room with her enthusiasm. Jillian was daughter of one of our high school teachers, a basketball star, and rock solid in her efforts. Brad #2 was from a Mormon family, with the good values we tended to see in almost every Mormon kid.

Allan (pseudonym) had glasses and often wore a sad look. He told me he was getting bullied. So, I talked to him about how to avoid getting picked on by peers. He had a tendency to fly off the handle when teased, even in cases where others meant no harm. Other times he blew up and cried when jerks targeted him in the hall or cafeteria. 

I taught him the virtues of the “poker face,” how to ignore barbs, which took away the jerks’ fun. I was proud of how he responded and never once found him to be anything but a kind-hearted young man. I would have been happy to have an entire class filled with kids just like him.

I can offer only a taste of what this banquet was like. You probably have to be a teacher to fully appreciate Patrick—not to mention his love for Duke basketball and all things Duke. I think he probably owned Duke underwear, too. Patrick never made it to his dream college on a basketball scholarship but did go on to play soccer and basketball at the Division III level. Tom was another star and eventually enlisted in the Marines. And there was Katie, who convinced me to allow seven students to take part in the same skit about women in the 1800’s. (Skits in my class were designed to last the entire period if students were doing them right.) I told her that with seven, someone was almost sure to be squeezed out and not get enough chance to talk. Katie had a plan—and it worked just as she promised it would. I remember the girls sat around, as if at a sewing circle, but I’m sorry to say I don’t recall who the other six were. I do know that within minutes I was sure all seven were going to earn A’s. They held the stage for the entire class and they did. 
Although Kimball came to Loveland in the middle of the year, I somehow managed to take notes on what he did. His handwriting was “almost impossible to decipher” and he had lived in California before coming to Ohio. That spring, Becky (already mentioned), came to me with a fantastic idea: Why not do a skit on the three branches of government? I told her I could have scratched my head a thousand years and not come up with that idea, but I could see the possibilities a soon as she broached the subject. The next day we put her idea out for every class to consider.

In seventh bell, Kimball immediately volunteered. When I called him back to my desk to discuss the idea he asked if he and three friends could be involved. My first question was how he intended to use four people in a skit about three branches. He explained: he would be Executive Man, Evan would be Legislative Man, and a third friend would be Judicial Man. The fourth would be People Man, representative of the citizens of this great land.

I could see how his plan would work and gave approval with a laugh. What I could not predict was the brilliant fashion in which the group put the skit together. The day they were set to perform they wore capes and t-shirts with appropriate letters, a huge P for People Man, an E for Executive Man, and so forth. I remember one of the boys had on gym shorts over a pair of red tights. Evan played Legislative Man as a schizophrenic. If he answered for the Senate he turned one way, and turned back to speak for the House, alternately arguing or explaining ways the two houses worked (or didn’t work) together to pass bills into laws.

I’m sorry I don’t remember who the other two in the skit were. All I can say is that we were working from a list of 150 questions which would be on the next unit test. And not one of the four young men messed up a single fact during their performance. 

It bothered me that I could not recall who the other two boys were. So I pulled out an old class roster and tried to figure it out. I think Jason (who went on to play baseball at Michigan) was one. Or it might have been any of these gentlemen: Dave, Charlie, Charles or Dmitry. All had talents of one kind or another and all were fun to have in class.

I scanned the roster for seventh bell and noticed Mandy’s name. She was a star, like her brother Matt two years before. I see in my grade book that she had a 93 on the first test of the year, a 90 on the second test (her friend Sarah, another star, scored even higher) and a 96 on the Samuel Sewall story.

Seventh bell—one class—one year. You had Kelsey, a bubbling fountain of enthusiasm. You had Jessica, who never missed an assignment and Amanda, who never ceased smiling. Chris #2 was brilliant as a Pilgrim “granny” in one skit. Stephanie scored a 60 on one test, retook it (because, as my students well remember, I always made those who failed retake tests), and raised her score to 100. I thought the second grade was in keeping with her true potential.

Finally, you had Karlie (pseudonym). Karlie was a solid writer and excellent in skits. Still, her grades were poor and she had already failed once. One day, I took her and three classmates out in the hall and read them the Riot Act. I warned that they might not graduate if they didn’t turn it around in school. I’m afraid I made her mad when I said that. Regardless, she proved me wrong. Or, perhaps she proved me right. One way or the other she got herself going in the right direction. Five years later she stopped by room to hand me an invitation to her high school graduation.

I told her I would be happy to attend.


That’s what I wrote a year ago; and by chance, I was working on this post yesterday when I received a Facebook “friend request” from Matt, a member of this very group. He mentioned my writing rule about “things” and “stuff” and seemed to hint that he tried to follow it. So I checked a database I keep to remind me about who all my former students were and what they were like in class.

According to what I had recorded Matt was “very bright” and “I liked him.” Not a bad way to start. I decided to check out every other member of this group and here’s what I said about other students, all in one year:

Matt #2 had a fine attitude and was a wizard with computers.
Sara was “a hard worker” in my class and when the stock market took a dive she told me her mother, a broker, suggested I buy P & G stock. (I should have listened!)
Sara #2:  “very funny; big smile and always helpful.”
Sarah (already mentioned above):  “first class worker; great in skits; could act.”
Danielle had a “dry wit” and was “talented” without doubt. Daniela was from England and I describe her as “a fine kid to have” in class.
Mike was always funny and did some great work when prepared. Brad #3 was a nice young man—and I think liked basketball.

Geoff was always pleasant and polite in my class—sort of what you expected from all members of his family.
Molly was very smart and did great work in skits. Theresa was a great worker and a favorite student of mine.
Jessica #2 was “highly creative” and wrote some fine poetry for a history project.
Jessica #3 followed her own drummer—never easy for a teenager to do.
Dan was witty and for a project “interviewed” famous Americans in heaven.
Adam had a great Southern accent and was very serious about his religion. I’m not religious myself but I respected his viewpoint.
Zac (girl version) was sweet and smart, too.
Misty was a fine student and I use the word “perky” to describe her in my database. (I’m sure my former students will remember how perky I was, too! Ha, ha. No.)

Brendan was a big kid with curly hair and learned how to handle teasing from his peers. You could see him mature. I liked seeing that.
Justin:  “very nice; quiet but good worker.”
Stefanie could be extremely funny; when we were talking about a Native American culture that flattened babies’ heads for beauty she said, well that wasn’t any dumber than women in our culture who pay for “fake boobs.” That comment made her class erupt in laughter and I did too.
Jeremy was “a good artist.”
Christina:  “artistic and nice.” Laura #2:  “smart” and “nice.” Tony had red hair and I found him to be a good thinker.
Alex:  I’m going to say he reminded me of myself in seventh grade and I liked him a lot.
Alex #2: “talented.”
Alex (the female version) was very creative and I think liked my class. (Hard to believe but not everyone did. Ha, ha, former students, my great jokes are as funny as ever.)

Sean:  “wry sense of humor; a lot of fun to have in class.”
Michelle #2 was quiet and shy but a very strong worker in my class. I’m willing to bet she went on to college.
Christy was “good for me.” Crystal was excellent in skits. Roger was a young man I liked.
Amy:  “always nice, did a good job for me; big smile.”
Angie “worked well for me.”
Amanda #2 was “quiet and nice.”
Amanda #3 had a “sweet personality” and was always “a good worker.”
Brian:  “great humor and creativity.”
Drew:  “very bright; creative thinker; wry humor.” 
Neil was never serious in class but I “liked him” and couldn’t entirely blame him if he spent time flirting with the ladies.
Eric was “bright” and from what I could tell several girls thought he was handsome. Eric #2 is listed as “a good worker” in class. You can never have enough of those.

Jake was funny—as so many kids are—and also a “star worker.”
Ashley was sometimes hard to motivate but clearly had “college potential.” She was nice, too.
Chris #3 had also failed the year before; but in my class he had a good attitude and I remember he torched the other side in a debate we held on some topic. He kept puncturing their arguments with funny comebacks and they never knew what hit them.
Chris #4: “always polite and pleasant.” He was quiet in class. 
Chris #5 did “great drawings” in history.
Chris #6:  was funny, quietly good in his work and fun to have in class.
Randall was very quiet but a “good worker.” A nice young lady at all times.
Dillon:  “great in participation; always fine attitude.”
Jenny liked to talk and my notes say she was “a good kid.”
Caroline did a Pilgrim skit and even faked an English accent to make it more fun.
Taylor, I noted, was “a great kid; very funny” in class. Bessie was just plain “bright.” Heather “did her best.” I was always happy to see that.

Joel:  “creative thinker; loved his attitude.” I said almost exactly the same about Andrew, but added “star student.”
Lauren was nice like every member of her family that came through my classroom door; she often scored A’s on assignments and tests if I made her do them over. 
Shannon: “always liked her; great effort.” Great effort was the real mark of a great student.
Melissa was “sweet” and a “hard worker.” I think she was serious about being a Girl Scout. (She probably sold me cookies since I’m kind of a pig.)
Buchi came to Loveland from Nigeria. I thought all year she kept improving in her work; that was always a pleasure to see.
Brian had a good attitude and I liked him a lot. Chelsea was a good athlete, smart, quiet and I liked her a lot, too. Kayla was fun to have in class and a good student, one who loved to talk. Ann was “super dependable” and a “nice girl at all times.”
Ashlie was a quiet young lady but a good student.
Mike had failed the year before but did a phenomenal turnaround—so much so that we moved him up to be with his regular grade at midyear.

Devon wore glasses and did a “great job for me.” Evan #2:  I have him listed as a “super student” and also a “good basketball player.”
Maranda was present in our school only briefly that year. Jeremy was also present for only a part of the year.
John was a nice kid with a funny streak, too. Raymond was funny and creative and in my notes I say he was a “piano star.” (I must have seen him play with the school band.)
Gerri:  I thought she was wonderful to have in class; she was always lively and worked hard.
Melissa #2 was “a great kid” in my class. I remember when we read a packet about the Holocaust it made her cry.
Jessie was “a favorite” of mine, a personable young lady and a strong student.
Jessie #2 was a “nice writer” and I “liked her a lot.”
Jessie #3 was “a good B student” and a good soccer player, too.
Jessie #4: “Sweet and dependable; very lively.”
Jessie #5:  Okay, we had a lot of “Jessie’s” that year; this one was a good kid and liked to share ideas in discussion.

Kristin was another soccer player, a young lady with a sweet disposition, and a hard worker.
Jon was a “super talent, a creative writer, and a good athlete.”
Jon #2 was another funny kid and I liked having him in class.
Reid was “the funniest kid of the year.” Steve is also called “funny” in my notes; and I remember he liked to answer questions in class.
Kyle is described as “a good guy” in my brief notes. You can never have too many students like that.
Kyle #2 is described as “bright” and an “excellent student.” You can never have too many students like that, either.
Aaron: also described as “very funny; a favorite of mine.”
Erin was “sweet” and  “smart” and another favorite.
Josh was funny in class and very creative at all times.
Josh #2 sounds almost the same:  “about as funny as you can get; fine in skits.”
Josh #3 had some brains and started the year well; let’s just say he got in a bit of trouble later.
Tyler was a kid I liked. I tried to help him learn how to get along with peers.
Margaret was “absolutely wonderful, creative,” a thinker in my class and a star in school drama (and naturally in any skits).
Tim:  “funny” and “talented.”
Tim #2: did “great art projects; fine attitude.” All his siblings worked hard in my class over the years.
Graham:  “good worker; creative projects.”

Brent moved away early in the year. I didn’t get much chance to form an opinion. Kevin was “funny” but also moved away midyear.
Lindsay #2:  “diligent and dependable.” Loved having her in class.
Lindsay #3 I remember as “a great kid all around.”
Eric:  “a fine worker.” You have to be a teacher to realize what high praise that is.
Amy was “a good worker” just like her sister two years before.

Katelyn was another good student who moved to Ohio from Colorado midyear. A very polite young lady, as I recall.
Samantha was talkative and artistic and fun to tease in class. Samantha #2 was also fun to have and I could tell she was bright and had great potential. Samantha #3 had reddish hair. She was funny and a good student, both.
Andrea was very artistic and a very fine student.
Bryan had, I thought, more ability than he realized. I hope he’s doing well.
Elizabeth #2:  “great effort; cool to have” in class.
Carrie:  “fine artist, nice young lady.”
Katie was shy at first in class but a good worker. My notes indicate that a young man in her class (who shall not be named) was “in love with her.”

We did have one young lady expelled that year. So, I guess I’ll pass over her name.

And that, in an educational nutshell is what teaching is like. I made it a point to try to like every kid; and with rare exceptions during my career did.