Friday, February 20, 2015

Isn't history meant to be a lightning rod?

What is history?  Is it right or wrong?  Is it black or white?  Is it good or bad?  Or is it a lightning rod for us to understand how our world became the way it is and how we understand it?

The other day I saw that Oklahoma "banned" AP US History?!?  What?  How can a class be banned?    Well, I took my training as an historian and looked into the matter.  I read the bill and from my understanding it seems that it's just a bill that was approved by a committee that would withhold state funding for AP US History or state bonuses from schools that don't follow a list of historical documents.  As many of us know, bills are at least a few steps away from becoming law and most bills never become law.  You can see my favorite version of the federal process here:

Most of the documents in the bill are covered in my class at least tangentially every year and many of those not directly covered in APUSH are directly covered in my AP Government class.
However, what's more worrisome is that there is a movement that seeks to ironically impose a nationally approved understanding of US history when that is what many of those opposing the AP US History standards and Common Core are fighting to avoid.
Isn't just the debate over history the important part?  Isn't this what history is?  We're seeking to understand how we've become who we are and we're arguing over it.  History is a lightning rod.
Many believe we need to make sure that we know our history before we can argue over what it is.  Should we all be able to prove what we know?  Should we be able to pass this test?  What do those tests prove?  They prove that we know something about US history, but could we have asked different or more questions?  Of course!  Isn't the fact that we can have this argument what America's all about?  However, does any single person or state or legislative body have a monopoly on what is US history?  The answer, obviously, is no!
So where does that leave us?  I believe that the questions need to be something different.  As my friend Homer Simpson always asks from a poster in my classroom:

As a US history teacher, I leave it to my students.  I tell them that I'm not worried about agreeing with them, but understanding them.  I also tell them that I'm not going to teach them WHAT to believe, but HOW to understand and explain what they believe.  This is where my friend Homer Simpson comes in.  If they can tell me how they know what they know, then I'm much more likely to understand what they are saying and more importantly, they will be able to understand and explain to themselves what they know and believe.  This is what they can take out of my class beyond the themes and ideas inherent in US history.  They can make arguments about any subject.  They can get a job and qualify for a loan if they can answer this question for themselves.  They have gained power from my US history class.
With that in mind, how do the legislators in Oklahoma who are creating these bills know what they know?  Did they learn it in their high school history classes?  Or, as I hope, did it start in school and then continue out into the real world where history lives everywhere around them?  Isn't this the bigger question that the electorate in every state needs to ask their legislators?  How do you know what you know?
This brings us back to our original question.  Isn't history meant to be a lightning rod?  And shouldn't that bring us back to the more fundamental question of how we know what we know and how we understand and explain what we know?
What do you think?  Learning is my business!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Songs in My Head--Punk Rock and My Teaching--Control, How, Why, and Choice

I spend the vast majority of every day with some song or tune running through my head.  It can greatly shape or describe my mood and overall attitude toward the world at that moment.  These songs are always affecting my teaching.  So to start this series, I lead off with Black Flag's "I've Heard it Before"

I've heard it before
Don't want to hear it again
I've heard it before
Just want to shut you up

F*** all you people can't see my side
Got my own strategies for my life
I've seen the emptiness in your ways
Don't tell me how to make my way

I'll never forget the first time I heard this song!  It was 1982 or 1983.  I was in my friend's bedroom with a few other guys after school and my friend was playing this lousy cassette tape as loud as his tape player would go.
My jaw dropped!  I couldn't believe what I was hearing!  I laughed my head off.  I jumped up off the bed and started jumping around the room and yelling.  I was so happy. "Yeah!  This is great!"
These lyrics had followed a full on intro rant against authority and authority figures over a wailing, discordant guitar, which included my favorite line:
"Don't want your bogus attitudes, I've got enough of my own!"
Wow!  This song was KILLER!  I made a copy of the cassette and played it over and over and over again!  Dude, this is me!  I loved it.
I knew the words and sang them all the time.  I felt them to the core of my being!
"I've Heard it Before" changed how I looked at the world.  My friends and I weren't the only people to think these things!
My teachers or coaches or bosses would go off and tell me to do something without explaining why I should do it or how it mattered and lo and behold Dez Cadena's grinding voice would jump into my mind and I would nod at the authority figure, gnash my teeth and try to figure out if I could NOT DO what they wanted me to do, simply because they were telling me to do something.  Didn't I have a say in this?  Couldn't I decide what was right for me to do?
In another extension of this attitude, my brother and I would act like jerks to my mom.  She'd ask us to do something like take out the trash and we'd invoke the "10 minute rule" which meant we'd do it --in 10 minutes!  It would usually get done, but not until we'd spent 10 minutes doing something OTHER than what she wanted us to do.  That must have aggravated her to no end!
Wow, what a jerk!  Yeah, you're right.  When I was in high school I could be a real jerk and I didn't know why and it's amazing how often I'll see kids now doing the same "stupid" things and I'll just laugh and think back to my lame high school days.  But I was feeling what these songs were talking about and I just didn't realize that I was searching for some kind of control.  Acting like a jerk to my mom and trying to figure out whether or not I really NEEDED to do what my boss told me were ways of trying to make sense of my life and all the forces that were influencing me.
Another great song along these lines is "Institutionalized" by Suicidal Tendencies.  My favorite lines from this song are:

...We decided?
My best interest?
How do you know what my best interest is?
How can you say what my best interest is?
What are you trying to say, I'm crazy?
When I went to your schools?
I went to your churches?
I went to your institutional learning facilities
So how can you say I'm crazy?

I loved that here was great, loud music asking all sorts of questions that I had always wondered about in a very confrontational way.  It was liberating and enlivening at the same time.  It was a breath of fresh air refreshing my juvenile soul.  Whew!
Great, yeah 30 years ago, I was like that, but OK, so how does this affect my teaching?
Whenever, I hear myself telling my students or my players to do something, I make sure I tell them why I want them to do it or how it can help them or their classmates or teammates.  I want them to know WHY I want them to do it and I can explain it to them.  I want to them to know HOW it helps them or their classmates or teammates and I can explain it to them.  I want them to know that I'm asking them to do something that will help them or someone else and they're not doing it just because I said so.
I'll never forget my math class my junior year in high school.  The teacher was really nice and he was very smart, but I just could not understand what he was talking about.  I'd always liked math and I'd always been good at it.  I liked doing it, but this trigonometry stuff was different.  It was the class after lunch and I'd come in after having eaten and I'd try to follow along and I'd get lost and I'd realize that I was tired and I'd put my head down and I'd go to sleep and I flailed my way through that class and learned enough to get a C.  It was the last math class I ever took.  It was a drag.

What a waste of time.  I felt bad about it, but I felt REALLY bad the next year when I took physics and trigonometry BECAME USEFUL!  I couldn't believe it!  Here was the stuff that I'd hated the year before all of the sudden coming to life and making sense.  Wow!  Why didn't you tell me this last year?!?  I didn't know how it was useful or why I was learning it.  If we'd had a class that combined trig and physics, it would have made so much more sense.  Whenever I'm working with a class, I try my best to make sure that everybody can answer why we're doing what we're doing and how it can help them or someone else.  Otherwise why am I teaching them what I'm teaching them?
A great example of how to handle this happened to me once upon a time when I was a young football coach working with a really successful master, George White of Galileo High School in San Francisco and the Hamburg Blue Devils in Germany, he told his son and me never to ask him during a game why he wanted us to do what he was asking us to do.  There was no time during the game to discuss why's and how's, but that he'd be glad to explain to us whatever we wanted to know after the game.  He was true to his word as we peppered him with the why's and how's and he patiently and happily answered them all.  He was a great coach for that and many more reasons.
Punk Rock Football Coach???

Both of these songs also bring up choice, which is another aspect of teaching I deal with all the time.  The voices in both songs are wailing for the lack of control and I believe choice is the key.  In "I've Heard it Before," the voice is railing against authority and saying that authority leaves no choice and just tells us what to do, but not why.  The authority figures keep saying the same things to us but not why they want us to do them or how what we're doing is good for us or anybody else.   Just do what I say.  No why's or how's or a choice at all.  That better not happen in my classroom.
If you want to hear the song, it's linked below, but beware there are

"Institutionalized" argues that we're just creations of our upbringing and those authority figures are blaming us when they should be blaming themselves for what they and their institutions have created.
Now the tables are turned and I'm the authority figure, the one telling them what to do and I need to let them know that everybody ALWAYS has a choice.  I need to ALWAYS explain why I'm asking them to do what they're doing and I need to ALWAYS explain how what they'll be doing is good for them or someone else and that they can choose in there.
If you want to hear the song, it's linked below, but beware there is

I used to teach in continuation schools.  These were the schools for the BAD kids.  These were mostly boys who had gotten in trouble and were on their last educational legs.  If anybody had a choice, THEY had a choice.  For the most part, they had chosen to be there.  Somewhere else they had chosen not to do their school work and now they were with me.
We started with a choice.  I would talk to all of them one on one and explain that they could choose to be there or not and that they could choose to do the work or not.  At first, they'd all explain that they HAD to go to school or many of them would go to jail of get in some other kind of trouble and that they had NO CHOICE.  I'd quickly explain that they DID have a choice of whether or not to go to jail or get in trouble.  If they came to school and did their work they wouldn't get in trouble at school.  It got to the point where I'd tell them that nobody had dragged them by the scruff of the neck to school and that they'd gotten out of bed and out of the house and come to school by their own choosing.  No one had made them come to school.  From their they could choose why and how they did their work, not because I or anybody else made them.  They could choose to do all the work really well and get an A or they could get through with C's or they could choose to do something else and get an F.  For any of those scenarios to happen they had to make choices.  Sooner or later most of them decided to take control and go where they wanted to go.  Some decided to go back to jail and some decided to get a diploma.  Either way, they made a choice.
Black Flag and Suicidal Tendencies helped me learn early on that I needed to know why I was doing what I was doing and how it was going to help me or somebody else.  I also needed to know that I was choosing to do it.  I also learned that many of my students feel the same way and the more I can let them know why and how and help them understand that they have a choice in the matter.  When I think of "I've Heard it Before" and "Institutionalized" when I'm in school this is what I think.
What do you think?  Let me know.
Learning is my business!

Punk Rock Classroom--Learning the Code

Once upon a time I was part of the entertainment.  From the first note of the show, I was in the pit and stayed in and around it and maybe took a break as I worked my way to the front and then leaned on the fence or the stage and watched the real entertainment, the band.  Once I'd caught my breath or the band had cranked up a song that needed my involvement, I headed back into the pit.
Wow, what an exhilarating experience.  Pure energy, super noise, release.  It was so different from my day to day experience.  I could scream myself voiceless, become drenched in sweat, smash into total strangers, and get knocked to the ground all while listening to my favorite bands play my favorite songs.  Was there anything better?
It was sublime, we were violently peaceful, but how?  We knew that we were in this together.  We were a community and we learned the code.  My friend David Theriault turned me on to this video that captures this spirit very well, "Another State of Mind..."

At first glance, the pit is crazy.  People are flailing their elbows and knees, kicking and thrashing.  How is that fun?  How does it work?  How do you know?  What if I fall down?  What about stage dives?  Lots of questions...
On my way to my first show, I was nervous.  I loved the bands and the music, but I didn't know what to do with the show.  Should I slam dance?  Should I go to the stage?  What if I fall down?  What about stage dives?  What if I get in a fight?  How do you know?
We'd had plenty of experience in garages.  My friends were in bands and we'd slammed each other around and it was fun.  But going to a concert with strangers in the big city was different.
OK, the show started and the pit got spinning and I stood on the edge and watched the other kids and did what they did.  When someone came toward me, I pushed them and sometimes they pushed me back.  That was easy enough and it was fun.  As I got more comfortable, I got more aggressive and got more pushy, but then somebody fell down...
Boom! He got picked right up and was pushed forward with the others.  The next thing I knew a friend of mine grabbed me by the front of my shirt and threw me into the pit.  Sink or swim, here we go!  At first I just ran around and bumped into people and then I remembered the music and I started to move to the beat and I got my elbows and knees going and I was slamming with the big kids!
Whew!  What a rush!  Somebody fell done, I picked him up and pushed him forward.  I got knocked down and somebody picked me up.  I just kept moving to the music.  It was great.  By the end of the show, I was completely drained, totally drenched with sweat, and I was overcome with a feeling of total peacefulness and community.  I floated out the door and out into the real world.  There were no hard feelings, plenty of bumps and bruises but no big injuries.  There was a whole different way of doing things, expressing myself and there were lots of other people from all over who were doing it too!
I had learned and I was a different person for the experience.
From then on, I always found my way into the pit as I had learned how to slam and I had learned the code.
How had I learned?  First off, I was with my friends.  They were as inexperienced as I was and they were willing to take the leap.  Second, there was the music that we knew and loved.  At the very least, I would be able to see and listen to my favorite bands.  Finally, I learned by getting in the pit and making my way and I became part of the code.  I was learning as I moved forward and the whole thing became part of me as I became part of it.
What's the takeaway here?  My students enter my classroom with some of these types of questions and reservations and I want them to know that I know this and that the code of the pit is part of the classroom that I strive for.  Sometimes we get it and sometimes we don't.  But in the end, I want my students to know that I will help them get in the pit and their friends and I are all in together.  I want them to know that we'll help them if they fall.  And, finally, when it's working right, they'll pick up their friends and me up when we fall down too.  If we do this right, we'll create a community.
When we leave my class, I want them to realize that there's another way of doing this.  I want them to float off to the next class.  We can create a community if we create and learn and live by a code.
The Punk Rock Classroom, what do you think?  Learning is My Business...