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Thompson: My Contribution to Oklahoma Edu-Bloggers' Discussion of Teaching Content

The Tulsa blogger, Blue Cereal, challenged Oklahoma edu-bloggers to describe, in 1200 words or less, our personal beliefs regarding the teaching of content. Here's my contribution: 

Akili (as I will call him) borrowed every issue of my New York Review of Books.  One evening we were shocked to learn that it was past 6:00 and we had been talking for hours.  He had wanted to discuss Herbert Gutman's theory about the black family.  Akili said, "You are the coolest white man I've known.  Here we are having an intellectual discussion.  You respect my brain."

Such experiences taught me that poor students of color respond with pride and with excellence when challenged to meet high and authentic standards.

My approach was consistent with Martin Haberman's critique of The Pedagogy of Poverty. Haberman argued that good teaching for poor children was a "process of drawing out" the power inside students rather than "stuffing in" knowledge. I also saw learning stimulated by "divergent questioning strategies" and culminating in reflective conversations to help students “see major concepts, big ideas, and general principles and ... not [being] merely engaged in the pursuit of isolated facts."

Even in the 1990s, it would have been hard to teach effectively had I not experimented under the cover of "Orientation" during the first weeks of the school year. Administrators wouldn’t demand that teachers immediately rush into teaching the tested subject matter.  They understood the importance of laying a foundation for a successful class.  Teachers were encouraged to heed the wisdom of progressive scholars like Haberman and use the first week of school to get to know their students as individuals.

At the beginning of the year, we could move outside the prescribed curriculum to promote motivation and teamwork. Teachers were told to take two or three days to lay out rules, procedures, and expectations.  We could "break it down" for children, establish relationships, and steer them for success by teaching them to be students. The expectation was that this would be over and done with after a week. I preferred to stretch opportunities for dynamic classroom instruction far past the date when the administration expected us to focus on the curriculum pacing guide.

My first lesson each year initially surprised students who had heard the laughter coming out of my classroom the years before.

With a straight face, I had them take notes on the key lessons they needed to remember from U.S. History.  I drew a stairway on the board with a stick figure climbing the steps to true democracy. According to my spiel, these were the steps that America took as it became the greatest nation in history.  I pretended to believe that George Washington was the "Father of our Country" ("he was busy") and that Thomas Jefferson made everyone equal ("he didn't free his children by a black slave, but ...").  I lectured that Andrew Jackson “invented” democracy and Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves ("the Union Army might have helped but ...").

Most students took out a pen or pencil and copied the notes. But every year, someone would challenge me. I responded authoritatively and decisively, firmly putting the student in check and establishing that I was in charge. 

Keeping a straight face for as long as possible I’d say, "write this down.  The name for that view is 'history from the top down.' This is what I learned in school and what I will teach you is ....” I would pause there for a little dramatic effect. “This is the craziest bunch of lies I ever heard." 

“History from the top down,” I told them, is based on the idea that rich white men supposedly “made” America. But there’s another story. A truer story.  I then described "history from the bottom up," the idea that everyone in our society made our history, and then I described multiculturalism, which is what I believe. “So, we will study history from a multicultural perspective,” I would say, and, "since I would never lie to you, you're cool with that. Right?"

Many students agreed, but others would challenge me saying that I had just lied to them….

I also began the year by warning my predominately black classes that they were required to become Bruce Springsteen fans.  If they couldn’t accept that rule, the alternative was listening to me sing “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road.” After their hooting died down, we used Springsteen to illustrate issues that we would study in Government and engage in "horizontal alignment" by helping English teachers to teach repetition, point of view, and metaphor.

A close textual analysis of Springsteen’s "American Skin" was guaranteed to win the students over. The song was often called "41 Shots" because of the chorus, but the true title foreshadowed a deeper meaning.  In the first verse, Springsteen wrote from the perspective of the white New York City cops who shot a Nigerian immigrant, Amadou Diallo, 41 times thinking he had a gun, even though it was his wallet. "Forty-one shots, and we'll take this ride, cross the bloody river, to the other side." The second verse was from the perspective of a black mother warning her son in case he was racially profiled, "If you are stopped tonight, always be polite, Never ever run away, and promise your momma, Keep your hands in plain sight." 

The third verse was from a universal perspective as we are "baptized in each others' blood," and a crucial change is made in the chorus, "Is it a gun?  Is it a knife?  Is it in your heart?  Is it in your sight?"

Asked the source of Springsteen's image of "the river," a freshman named Kesha replied, "Langston Hughes!"

"Great," I answered, throwing a copy of Hughes' poems to her, "Support your answer."

Kesha read, "I've known rivers: Ancient, dusky rivers. My soul has grown deep like the rivers ...." Then she added the commentary, "My sister, Lakisha, said you were cool."

Back then, educators innovated in ways that would be forbidden in the post-NCLB era.  The curriculum department often encouraged social studies teachers to organize their classes thematically, or to deviate from the old-fashioned chronological presentation of history. This freed our World History classes to start with the twentieth century.  We began with the Standard covering the change from colonialism to nationalism. This permitted a “guest teaching appearance” by Denzel Washington. Regardless of when the curriculum pacing guide said we should be studying the anti-apartheid movement, it was just good marketing to schedule my lessons so that early in the year I could use Washington, playing the role of Stephen Biko, the founder of the Black Consciousness movement, to co-teach colonialism, thus insuring a lesson that the entire class would love.

We then built success upon success, using Cry Freedom to stimulate the motivation for mastering the dramatic themes of the modern era.  Around Thanksgiving, we looped back to the ancient civilizations. In the spring, students had a second chance to study the 20th century for mastery, which meant that new transfers were not disadvantaged.

After NCLB, if a principal questioned the violation of the district's "vertical alignment" of curriculum, I defended it as "horizontal alignment," helping U.S. History teachers by concentrating on the concepts that next year’s juniors would need to pass graduation examinations. Nowadays, I doubt my views on content would be allowed in many urban schools.-JT(@drjohnthompson)


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