Rewriting History, Repeating the Future

College Board Caves To Conservative Pressure, Changes AP U.S. History Curriculum

I woke up to this headline on a friend’s Facebook and shared the story right away. I knew my friends who are teachers and readers would want to see it, too. Another friend of mine commented with disbelief. “Is this satire?” she wrote, followed by a few WTFs. That’s a reasonable reaction to the discovery that the RNC and other influential conservative politicians have effectively replaced AP US History with the teaching of the theory of American exceptionalism. That statement may seem dramatic, but I don’t think it so when the same ideologies have led to this: “Texas also recently changed its state academic guidelines, which means its new textbooks won’t mention the Ku Klux Klan or Jim Crow laws.” When I first heard about that decision in Texas, I expressed my alarm, and many of my fellow New Yorkers just shook their heads in that “what are ya gonna do?” way. One quipped, “Well, I hear you don’t mess with Texas.” The general attitude was that this was crazy, but it was an isolated, small crazy. However, as ThinkProgress points out in this article, “Texas is a very influential textbook market, and publishers tend to look to Texas when deciding content for the textbooks they publish.” The impact of these decisions has a far wider reach than we like to acknowledge. These aren’t bizarre revisions to our nation’s past that affect remote communities. High schools across the country offer AP courses, and the presence of these classes is often seen as a marker for a school’s prestige and quality. In other words:

…stunting students with warped, sugar-coated notions of social and political history will only foster more divisiveness. Affluent, whiter schools tend to have a wider array of AP coursework than others. Indoctrinating these students with inaccurate portrayals of a historiographically flawless United States will cement an already extant unwillingness to understand or identify with groups that are still dealing with the reverberations of systemic disenfranchisement today. (Flanigan, “All the Ways the New AP US History Standards Gloss Over the Country’s Racist Past”)

When I wrote this post about my experiences with Facing History following the death of Michael Brown, I gave voice to a long-standing, ever-present tension within me about my responsibility and role as a teacher. Teaching history is not merely a job; it’s a responsibility. Even when that history is hard to look at, or unflattering, or painful, we are responsible for teaching it honestly to those who did not live it. We can’t be afraid to do that. Unfortunately, that seems to be exactly where these policies come from: fear.

I was talking to a friend recently about how differently the US teaches its history from Germany. Germany has some dark history, but everything I’ve read about it shows a consistent effort to confront that past with students so that things change. It’s looking fear in the face, turning on the lights and revealing the monster instead of running from it and letting it grow huge. Back in 1995, Alan Cowell, for the New York Times, wrote about a history class in Germany. Cowell observes: “They are taught that the Nazis came to power on the wings of economic collapse and humiliation at Germany’s defeat in the First World War. They are taught about Hitler’s race laws. They are taught that their forebears killed six million Jews. But they also learn that this was history, with a European and a German context, not personal guilt.” This approach to teaching history does not shame or harm students, but instead puts them in positions of power; in this setting, students can see that their choices matter, and that their perspective gives them an advantage over their forebears. History through this lens is authentic and vital, the key to changing the world and making a difference.

Critics of the changes to the AP US History curriculum guidelines do not seem to hold these values: empowering students, improving American society, truth. ThinkProgress reports: “Some of the main criticisms of the guidelines, conservatives voiced, were less emphasis on the founding fathers and more emphasis on slavery. The guidelines also included earlier American history that included violence against Native Americans and mentioned the growing influence of social conservatives.“ To protest the inclusion of these realities indicates a clear political agenda, and in disguising it as patriotism they pervert patriotism; they send the message that we can only be proud of our nation by hiding its true past and lying to our children.

This insistence on fragility and the demands that history be blurred and revised to protect the feelings of students is both misguided and deeply harmful. It’s pervasive, though, and effective, because it feeds directly into the culture of fear. “In September of last year, Ben Carson, a pediatric neurosurgeon who is now running for president, said ‘most people’ who take the course would be ‘ready to sign up for ISIS.’” Confronting our past and giving voice to those whose stories have historically been silenced is not about finger-wagging, shaming, or demanding apology. It’s about examining how and why genocide, slavery, and institutionalized racism happened in our country, because only doing this will empower young people to make choices that break the persistent patterns surrounding them. It’s about making sure we understand that what we have to be ashamed of is that 40,000 people think that their discomfort gives them the right to erase history, rather than a reason to write a better future.

About a year ago, a Reddit user asked German-educated members of the online community to share what it was like to learn about World War Two in their country. The anecdotes shared are interesting and inspiring, but I was particularly struck by one user’s takeaway.

It’s not the past that should define us, but how we deal with it. Most countries brush their past aside. Deny their mistakes. Their crimes. They ignore it. Place blame on the others. Refuse to learn from it. Germans don’t do that. And that should make us proud. Patriotism should always have its limits. You can be a patriot without denying your [country’s] past and its crimes.

I can’t say it better than that.

My People: Sustaining a Teaching Life by Staying Connected With My Tribe

With a nudge from Donna JT Smith, I’m jumping back into Two Writing Teachers’ Slice-of-Life Challenge!


We’re in the last week of the NYC Writing Project Invitational Summer Institute. I can’t believe we’ve gotten here so quickly.

This is my 6th year involved with the NYCWP & my 2nd year co-facilitating the ISI. Every summer is a gift. Every summer I say, “This is the best group we’ve had!” I can’t help it; every summer, it’s the truth.

These past few weeks, many of our Fellows have thanked me, for workshops, for the opportunity to be here, for my contributions to potlucks. One of our participants got me right in the feels when he thanked me for helping him connect with other teachers like him, his people.

I’ve been turning that over in my head since then, because this past school year was one of those years. I came to the end so ragged & drained that even the thought of the magical, restorative, wondrous ISI seemed daunting. But after a few hours with this summer’s amazing group of teachers, I realized that I’d forgotten one of the most important things I’ve learned about teaching when times get tough: I need my people.

When that Fellow thanked me for helping him find his people, I told him that we can get through a lot by knowing there are people like us, with us, along the way. That was a reminder for myself, a truth I need to carry with me & hold dear as I ride waves of school reform that threatens my students, as I clench my jaw through meetings with close-minded colleagues. You have people, I can remind myself. They’ve got your back.

Every summer with the NYCWP ISI is a gift. This summer has reminded me of my people, & reconnected me with who they are.

My people believe in stories, their power, the privilege of hearing & sharing them, their wisdom, their pricelessness.

My people know they are never done, and they remind me of the joy in that never. My people know that never comes with always, & never done means always learning, always open to the wonders ahead.

My people hold their brilliance in their hands, ready to share & exchange & collect.

My people heal with humor & open ears, with emphatic nods & exuberant faces. My people know that listening is active & their whole bodies attune.

My people are teachers & writers & readers, storytellers & sharers. They are thought-provokers, who challenge assumptions not to antagonize but to agitate the mind, because an active mind is a mind ready to learn. They are welcoming & warm & full of wonder. They know when to advise & when to just let the tension hang in the air while they hmmm. They know it’s not about having al the answers, but asking all the questions. They delve into the mess & honor its value. They treasure, they collect, they celebrate. These are my people, & just knowing that they are out there keeps me going.


Free-writing with students terrifies me. 

 Every time! I always think at some point the fear of the first free-write will subside, and instead of inwardly panicking while my students gape at me in horror – You’re asking us to write? By ourselves? Are you crazy? – I’ll remember that I’ve done this before and no one died. But no, I can’t convince myself of that on Day One; even as I reassure my students that they can do this, my inner freakout perfectly mirrors their outer. What am I going to write about?! they cry, and I smile serenely while a voice in my head shrieks WHAT ARE THEY GOING TO WRITE ABOUT?! 

 There’s a lot to be said for faith. Often, I forge ahead with what I know will benefit my students even when the risk of failure threatens, and I’m only able to do so because I’ve done it before. It’s a small comfort, but it’s real and when I clutch it in my nervous hand, I find I have enough in me to keep smiling, encouraging, nudging. 

 “Miss, I don’t know where to start,” G. said on Day One. The class around us was completely ignoring the independent volume I’d requested (aka shhhh) as they traded topics across tables. 

 “Me either. Actually, that’s how I started,” I replied, tapping my pen against my mostly blank page. 

 G. narrowed his eyes a little, which is sort of his pre-smile, and jutted his chin at my notebook. “You’re writing, too?” Suspicious, slightly smirking. 

 I nodded and glanced down as I read him my first line, “‘I don’t know where to start.’ Yep.” 

 “Let me see.” G. wasn’t even trying to hide his doubt this time.

I could’t help smiling as I folded the notebook over and flipped it around, pointing at the scant 3 lines of writing. 

“I’m a little stuck, but I got some words on the page.” 

 G. raised his eyebrows and nodded, stoic teenage boy for, “Ok, cool.” His pen touched down and I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding. Words on the page.

That’s what I’d told them: Just get some words on the page. You can do it.

Most of them didn’t believe me. I could tell by looking. 

And by them telling me, “I don’t believe you.” 

 Some didn’t get a word on the page. “It happens,” I told them. “Sometimes, the words aren’t ready to come out of our brains yet. It’s ok.” And then I repeated that to myself all day.  It’s ok, it’s ok. Reminding myself that this practice is important, vital, in developing writing voice, that this is how we become independent and thoughtful writers – we write.

This constant justification is a big part of my teaching life now. Where I used to feel confident in my choices because I had seen their effects, I feel uncertain even in the most tried and true routines, under the ever-more looming shadow of evaluation. Frankly, I feel like a marked woman; my days in this job feel numbered as I approach the inevitable Ineffective. But even though I’ve made up my mind to teach the best I can for as long as I can, I’m not immune to a freak out here and there.

But one of the greatest things about this job is that, while I’m often playing the long game and not seeing the results of some moves for years to come, there’s some amount of instant gratification. It comes in the form of students who press their notebooks into my hands at the end of class and say, “Please read.” And students who say across the table to the classmate with the blank page before them, “I’m writing about this, you should try it. Don’t worry. You can do it.” And looking around the classroom to see almost every pen moving, and students thanking me for giving them this space and time, and just one of my most troubled and disruptive students telling me that writing really helps, and he feels ready now. And when I ask, ready for what, he tells me, ready to learn. And when I say, I think you’re learning right now, he laughs and says I’m right.

One of my colleagues, before he retired after 35 years in NYC public schools, once told me that teaching was never easy, but recognizing good teaching was very easy.  He said good teachers figure out what their students need, and they figure out how to help them get it. And that’s the best answer to the why, to the what if, to the should we. They need this, and my job is to help them get it. 

Beyond the T-Chart


“I’m going to give you a little dude,” I announced, holding up a handful of paper rectangles. On each is the empty outline of a cartoonish body.

“Now, be kind to this little dude. Don’t draw on his face, or crumple him up, or poke him with your pencil.” In every class, this gets a chuckle.

“This little dude is Junior. He’s going to live in your notebook.”

Handing out everyone’s little dudes there were a few jokes – fake rips, little dude fights between tablemates – but all of my students were taking care of their outlines. They placed them in the center of their notebook pages, quickly taking the two pieces of tape I tore off before moving on to the next student. Some students adjusted the orientation a few times, looking for the best spot before committing to the tape.

“Does everyone’s Junior have a home?” I asked. Most of each class chorused, “Yes,” with some notebooks flipped to show me their secured little dudes. Some students were still labeling him; “Junior,” they wrote, then waited, not drawing on his face.

“What are we focusing on today? Remind me?”

“Internalexternalconflict!” someone called out, every class.

Junior’s internal conflicts – his personal struggles, the problems he carries around inside him throughout this novel – we wrote inside of the outline. External conflicts we arranged around him, drawing arrows that press into him from all sides. Students offered conflicts and suggested where they belong, then defended their positions. There were great (multi-lingual) arguments happening, more like negotiations:

“Poverty is internal because it makes him feel so bad about himself.”

“But I think it’s external, because he was born into this poor family and this culture, so it comes from outside of him.”

“Yeah, so his low self-esteem is internal, but poverty is external.”

“Can we put them next to each other?”

In most classes, I did little more than write. I placed my “marker” on the SmartBoard and said, “Ok, here? What am I writing here? Do we all agree? Where else could it go?” My most energetic class had me dragging chunks of text around the figure on the board, pulling out his insides and swapping them around until we created a Junior they could recognize.

I had them 2nd period, usually their most zombie-like time slot, and their raised hands punched the air with enthusiasm that made me nervous for possible concussions.

My coworker’s son is in 3rd grade. He just made a mobile for his book report. My coworker smiled when he recounted his son’s excitement over making the mobile. Just a coat-hanger, some paper, some string and tape, he told me. So much better than a book report.

What we really had to do on Little Dude Day was review. For a lot of reasons, we didn’t end where I had hoped we would before the winter break, and we were coming back in the beginning of the middle of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Before we jumped back in, we needed to recap. I’ve been trying to decompartmentalize literary elements with my students, who come to me with the idea that plot goes here and characterization here and never the twain shall meet. I want to help them see the connectedness of all those pieces, the overlap and interdependence.

They showed me some beginning understanding of that as we wrote in and around our Juniors – “This conflict is why he is like the way he is,” one student said, after the poverty and low self-esteem connection was established.

“Tell me more about that,” I responded, because it is my mission to make everyone roll his or her eyes at me.

Eye-roll, sigh. “He draws the cartoons and says really crazy stuff because he’s not really happy, right?” I will spare you my torturous replies, though this student was not so lucky.

My number one advice for teaching high school English has become, “Be corny.” Sometimes, I say I don’t know what it is about corny, but I do know; corny is fun. So much of high school is not fun, increasingly so these days. I have seen many teachers do a similar lesson on internal and external conflict, using a T-chart. T-charts are the wrong kind of corny. It should go without saying that fun is effective, even in small doses. It is more memorable, more meaningful. And it is easy. It added about 6 minutes to my prep to print out enough little dudes for my four classes. (I had a student cut the pages in half. In my more efficient classes, they managed the tape without me.) The room was alive, as tired as we all felt coming off a week-plus vacation. Their noise was productive and sparkling, their silences thoughtful.

In one class, a student said the bullying Junior faces (external, they decided) makes him feel very lonely.
“Is lonely a conflict for him? Where should it go?”

They paused, some waiting, some thinking. One of my students was looking down at her little Junior, frowning. She mouthed, “Lonely,” and put her hand over her chest before looking up to tell me, “Internal. Inside.”

“Yeah, inside,” said the student next to her, touching her own sternum. “Right there.”

Just Keep Swimming

I’m having one of those years.

I haven’t slept through the night for months, and the same anxiety that’s jolting me out of my sleep each night is wreaking havoc on my appetite. The combination of skipped meals and exhaustion has me eating junk food almost exclusively; last weekend, I cooked for myself for the first time in far too long and just that simple act of self-care had me welling up.

Sometimes, I sit down and make lists of things I need to do for myself: cook, work out, go to bed by ___. The listing itself overwhelms me and I panic (there isn’t any time!) before turning the page in my notebook, before making a new list of all the work I need to get done.

I won’t vent here, because I have outlets for that very necessary stress relief already. But one thing I will do is remind myself that I get to write. Even during one of these years, when there is nowhere near enough time and anxiety is ever at my heels, I get to write.

Submit: 3 Reasons Why Teachers Should Form Writing Groups

I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved with the NYCWP Invitational Summer Institute for the past five years, and exceptionally lucky in taking on the role of co-facilitator this past July. Without fail, as out wonderful month of writing, reflecting, and pot-lucking draws to a close, several participants ask me how they can maintain some of that summer magic once back in the real world of teaching and grading, with no time to devote to writing and sharing. A few years ago, I had heard from a handful of summer participants who had continued to meet as a writing group, and while I thought this was an adorable and brilliant idea, which I recommended to participants from then on, I never pursued a writing group of my own. Until this year. For the past few months, I have been participating in a cozy writing group with two other Writing Project alum, and though it is consistently challenging, it is also one of the best things I have done for myself as a writer and as a teacher. The reasons are innumerable, so here I’ll focus on just three.

1. Deadlines are the best/worst.
Unless you have gone back to graduate school since becoming a teacher (or finishing your master’s during your first two years, holla fellows!), most of your deadlines have been self-imposed for awhile now. I say “most” because there are curriculum maps and evaluation reflections and other administrator- or district-mandated deadlines, but in terms of writing, non-students generally only need answer to themselves. Writing group reintroduced writing deadlines, which come with this familiar soreness that I really did not miss but I know is good for me.
Worst first: deadlines are miserable. When we agree to them, they always feel manageable. A week, sometimes two, is plenty of time. Sometimes I tell myself I’ll put in a bit of time each day to rough out a draft or polish the corners of a revision; sometimes, I plan to set aside an evening at a coffee shop (/my living room with a mason jar of wine). More often than not, the plan falls apart. Either the time I think I have gets redistributed to cover other responsibilities, or I glower at blank pages or solid walls of first drafts and make zero progress. Occasionally, I am too exhausted to do more than feebly push open my laptop and stare at my email before falling asleep on the keyboard. Stress, doubt, cursing the clock, procrastination – all the major food groups of my productivity in college come back to me now.
Best next: I forgot all of this. I forgot the way it feels to have someone expecting a piece of writing by a certain date, regardless of my other obligations or distractions. I forgot the paralysis a deadline brings to my writing process. When my students are assigned writing, either in our class or another, I’m more equipped to support them. I understand that deadlines should be close enough to feel urgent but far enough away to allow for time management. I build in checkpoints and conferences that make space for all that freaking out that I know they’re doing.
Bonus perk: I think I’m getting better! Our most recent submission date does not evidence this, but in general, I’ve found it easier to work with our deadlines. A little bit. Sometimes. Progress?

2. Meaningful feedback must be meaningful to the writer.
Providing feedback for writers is hard, because there are so many different kinds of feedback you can offer. Most of the ELA teachers I know have gone through similar, repetitive cycles around feedback: we begin by crossing out and circling and making notes in the margins around every error, then we try to work a little smarter and focus only on a few types of errors. We make checklists, incorporate peer editing, some of us stop writing on the student work all together and use sticky notes instead. We try retelling, asking questions only, referring students back to class readings with our fingers crossed. Few teachers I know settle on one method, and I think the biggest challenge around providing feedback is that different writers want different feedback. Some writers want a draft dripping in red (or whatever color your chosen grading ink), while others respond best to retelling and questioning. Participating in a writing group is helping me realize the importance of thinking about the kind of feedback I need. Submitting a piece with the hopes that I’ll get ideas on building up tension or expanding a character, but receiving only feedback on the word choice, is beyond discouraging. It’s distracting and frustrating, and leaves me less likely to look at that piece again. But the regular process of engaging in a group has encouraged me to think about and articulate the kind of feedback I need, and to think about how I can help students have more voice in the responses I give.

3. “Finished” is a relative term.
Sometimes, I’m just done. I’ve taken a piece as far as I can possibly take it, changed perspectives, rerouted the opening scene twice, polished every line, vetted every word. Sometimes, I’ve done half that, but all the same, it’s enough. I can’t bear to look at that piece ever again, regardless of the thoughtful feedback and encouraging words I’ve received. As a writer, I now have choices: I can force myself to slog through a revision, or I can put the piece to rest and move on to something else. And as a writer, having those choices keeps me writing. If I decide not to push a revision, I open myself to more writing opportunities, and I often find myself returning to that exhausted piece after a break, a fresh take having come to me in its absence. As a student, I rarely had these choices. Doneness was decided by my teachers, for the most part, and it was based on their needs – the grades needed to be in, or they needed me to demonstrate mastery of the unit skills. As a teacher, I want these choices to be clear and accessible to my students. Penny Kittle writes beautifully on the challenges and importance of creating space for student choice in the vital Write Beside Them, and participating in a writing group has only clarified the need for my students to have more control over their writing process in the classroom. Like me, they need the freedom and the language to say, “I’m done with this for now,” if I have any hopes of them building an authentic writing life.

I know you don’t have time. I know you have nothing to write about. I know there are deadlines and meetings and grading, and that you have a family, and that you are tired. But giving yourself time to write, just a few minutes each day, is infinitely rewarding. You’ll do some of your best learning through writing. I believe this. I see it in my students, in the NYCWP summer participants, in myself. Combining that with a writing group, and giving myself accountability and structure and a community of support, is informing my teaching in hands-on, real ways. And if nothing else, it’s a great excuse for some monthly me-time!

Have you tried participating in a writing group? What challenges have you faced, or do you foresee? What have been the payouts? Share in the comments!

On Violence

I was running errands after work today, nodding off as I stood in line. At the register, the cashier slid my receipt across the counter to be signed. Smoothly, I scribbled my signature in a blank space in the middle of the receipt, probably six inches above the clearly labeled “SIGN HERE” dotted line. We both laughed.
“It’s been a long day,” I sighed.
“Girl, mine’s not even half-started. I’m here until 10!”
And I let her win, because there are things I just can’t say, horrors that become the realities of the job. You don’t get to say, Well, I did see a kid get stabbed today, so I’m pretty beat.

Sometimes, I think there might be something in the air in October. It’s a morbid thought, but most of my Octobers as a teacher have brought moments of disturbing violence. Last year was the worst, the one that keeps me up odd nights and catches me tearing up during The Mindy Project. But, no, not the worst, because I don’t know that I can scale any of it. They are all the worst; they all haunt me.

The noise on the street this afternoon, it was the sound that crowds of kids make in movies when the main character gets to sing onstage with her pop star heroes and everyone loves her. Like that, but all wrong. The screaming and surging, laughter like breaking glass – Fight! Fight! Oh, shit – he’s bleeding! We came out of the building into an afternoon that felt like summer, blotting out the early morning’s bite of winter. I was standing in a square of sunlight, smiling as I chatted with a colleague, and the sidewalk exploded.

After security directed me away from the crowds, I sat on the train feeling hollow and let the urge to detach -check Facebook, double-tap things on Instagram, reread Harry Potter on Kindle – wash over me. Every time it faded, the memory of the boy’s shoulder, smeared in thick, bright red, came back sharply. And I just got so tired.

I’ve never wanted to teach somewhere else. I don’t think longingly of the suburban schools I attended; I don’t want to experience the education systems in other countries. Since I started teaching in the Bronx, it has been the Bronx. But every now and then, I wonder what it would be like to teach far away from this kind of violence. Thinking of my own high school experience, the violence was different – quiet and familial, behind closed doors. There is an impulse to push these current events into the silence, old habits and such.

Teaching about violence when incidences of violence in the community are immediate and real, is hard. And scary, and daunting. Everything is too big and too close. It is the difference between dangerous things happening somewhere, and dangerous things happening in front of you, to people you know, to you. There is a healing that comes with the planning, reading, writing, and sharing, but it’s that resetting-the-bone kind of healing. Only slower. And harder, and scarier. I want to be brave. I want to help my students interrogate the world they live in, help them process tragedies instead of brushing them off or accepting them as the way of things.

But if I’m honest, despite everything I want to be, I am. I am tired, my limbs are leaden; just keeping my head up is the greatest effort. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about today, and if I hadn’t survived this many Octobers so far, I would wonder how I will have the strength.