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On the History I Teach

I am a politically weird creature. Politics are kind of determined by demographics, and my demographics are weird, which means that no one can ever predict what my politics are going to be on any issue. I find this amusing, and I use it in class. I am social justice minded, but I think that means something a little different to me than it does for other people. When I first got to STEP, some people thought I was brainwashing children. Being unaware of the political associations with terminology (so yet another place I had to learn to code-switch from my language into another one), I had apparently used the wrong word to describe my beliefs.

I don’t teach because I have a special love for history. I love history. I love doing research and learning history, and pulling out my historical knowledge at parties, and generally torturing everyone with my need to know everything. I also think that history is empowering. That is sort of my point: I didn’t study history because it was uniquely intellectually interesting to me – in the right environment I would have fallen in love with physics, astronomy, English, or sociology. I liked that history gave me a way to understand and organize my experience in the world. I also had an unusually good mentor. I studied history because I think context matters. In fact, that is one of the catchphrases in my classroom: context matters.

Seriously: context matters. This is why when people ask me anything about my classroom management or pedagogy, my first response is: “tell me who the kids are.” I teach in a way that is responsive to my students. I try to teach everything, but if there is a special issue that they care about, I go out of my way to include it. I research local history and apply it to national historical trends. I learn about the cultural backgrounds of my students. I learn about who they are as people and I treat them as individuals. I am a big believer in individuals within a collective community. We should find a way to make sure that every child has a way to contribute; we shouldn’t be asking children to conform themselves to institutions. The institutions should be there to serve people, and for people to benefit from them. People should not have to serve the institution. If the institution is not serving people, then that is a problem with the institution, and not the people it is supposed to serve. Being a teacher means being a key part of one of the cornerstones of our institutions in society. In classroom management, students may be in “my house” (as in, would you use that language in your mama’s house? No, then, why are you disrespecting my house?) and therefore need to be respectful, but this is their education. I am not in teaching because I like to hear myself speak – getting a PhD would have been a much easier way for me to accomplish that goal. I am in teaching because I think that kids deserve great teachers. I want to do what I can to provide that for them.

My mother would have been the ultimate science nerd, and probably a doctor if things had gone differently. She called me from work when I was 16 to tell me about the research she had discovered that explained the movement of AIDS in the United States. My mother never went to college. When I was little, she would ask me what I wanted for Christmas: it was always science stuff and books. My mother also spent a lot of time talking to me about history. In fact, I am just now realizing that my mother gave me an entire curriculum on American and European history. I learned about civil and worker’s rights, race, class, gender, immigration, and power from my mother’s explanations on those topics. I asked a lot of questions when I was a kid and my mom was basically the only authority figure I trusted. When I asked her thing like: “mommy why are we bombing poor people” she thought it was precocious and cute and she had an answer. When I did that in class my teachers usually acted like I was intentionally being a jerk and didn’t have an answer or response. Sometimes they kicked me out of class or yelled at me, or made my mom come home from work to tell her that I was being difficult only for my mom to tell them that it was their problem if they couldn’t answer the questions. The education in history she gave me saved me, because it prevented me from thinking about my poverty as a decontextualized product of my worth. I teach the history that I know. I teach the history that I have the evidence to teach. I have a solid research background, and a very scientific mind, and I hate authority. It would be very difficult for me to teach in the way that people think history teachers teach when they say ‘social justice,’ which usually involves a straw man where we are brainwashing the children into loving Marx or some nonsense. I have seen teachers with strong personalities who like to talk about what they think and don’t want dissention. Some of them are good at it, and also charismatic and their kids like them. I am not that teacher.
I grew up in the Central Valley. I have two siblings in the military. My mom raised me to think of the Black Panthers as cultural heroes. I have no innate trust of authority and I don’t expect my students to, either. I know I have to earn their trust, especially because the kids I teach are kids whose interactions with authorities have been so damaging to them. I stopped listening to my history teachers when they didn’t answer my questions about oppression, or said something I considered racist (and I think we’ve seen where my bar is for that), when they were classist or when their narrative challenged what I was reading at home and they couldn’t supply the evidence to back it up. As a rule, if I felt that way, then there was probably a kid or two in that classroom who also felt that way.

We studied the Black Panthers in my class, but I didn’t lecture on them. They were given documents, a historical question, and wrote an essay. When we talked about school integration, they worked in groups with documents that reflected a wide-swath of views and historical time periods. Kids are so smart because they understand what is oppressive, fair and immoral. When they see the evidence, they usually get to the same place I got to without me telling them what to think. I have tremendous faith in kids.

I don’t teach simply because I love my subject. I don’t teach because I especially like the skills I get to use while teaching. I love the subject and I like using my skills as a teacher, but those are not what get me up in the morning. What gets me up are the kids. I love the kids. I fall in love with every one of them. However, that does not get me up in the morning on the worst days. What gets me up then is the knowledge that there were other people that got up for me when I was a student. What gets me up is the fact that with the right historical knowledge, my mother’s subversive teachings, the right books – none of which were assigned to me in school – and with the enough motivation from adults, usually in ways not required by their job, I am now able to torture the people who have built an unjust system. What gets me up is giving a kid enough knowledge that they understand that they have rights, that they know how to advocate for them, and that they know that oppression is not their fault. I have seen what they can do with that information, and it is awesome, in the truest sense of the word.

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