Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Hail, and Farewell

    When you start teaching, it’s difficult to understand how much difference certain students will make in your life. They go out of their way to brighten your day. They share their lives with you. They make you laugh. They offer to help clean the board, wash your desks, put up new bulletin boards—and they never ask anything in return.

   As the years go by, they come back for a quick hug, a bright smile and let you know how their lives are growing and moving. They change, grow up and dream of their future and I cannot help but wonder why they seem to love me enough to want to include me in their triumphs. It’s quite humbling.

   It’s an honor to share these moments. I struggle to put into words how delightful it is to have these tremendous young people come back and check in with me. To think that years later the time they spent in my classroom when they were 13 means enough to them that they want to see me and want to let me know how well they are doing.

   Whenever they appear, my heart swells just a bit more. It’s an unexpected payoff from all the hours thinking and planning, worrying and correcting papers.

   Nothing however, prepares you for the loss of your first student. Cancer stole the life of one of my first group of students this week. My first year after school, she would regularly chat with me while I was changing my shoes to go outside for “loading.” Or while I waded through massive piles of papers. I think the words I heard the most from her were: “do you need any help?” And I know I have yet to see any student who had a bigger smile and as easy a giggle.

   This young lady took her killer in stride. She was happy and positive through chemo and through what must have been a tremendous amount of pain. She worked, went to school, dreamed and planned of her future. She had an understanding of life and its eternal perspective.

   And now, my heart hurts for her wonderful friends and her supportive, loving family. And though, I won’t get to see that broad, glowing smile again in this life, or hear that infectious giggle—sweetie—I won’t forget you. Thank you for loving me through that first year, I did not understand then what an important role your kind cheerfulness played in my life. Like every other person whose life you touched—thank you. I’ll miss you.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Lincoln - a Film, a Man, a Message

History teachers have an incredible challenge: to take people and facts and events that deservedly have become legend, bigger than life, and to present them in such a way that they are not worshipping at the throne of memory. Washington, Jefferson, Madison…

The conundrum is how to teach to the greatness without falling into the trap of forgetting the man. The warts, the strengths, the pain, the triumph, the courage, the grit and often the sheer cussedness not to give up which eventually puts these men (and women) onto a path–the historical stage–which will shoot them into the historical heaven of memory.

Over the weekend, I watched the movie Lincoln. Was it great because Daniel Day Lewis—one of the most precise actors of our day—moved with such exactness and accuracy? His eyes wide in honest consideration, his hands touching each person Lincoln met with gentle sincerity, his feet dropping in the awkward lanky gait. Was it the writing? Each carefully chosen story Lincoln told—all without a doubt historically accurate. Or the surprising insight into Civil War Washington politics? Was it the relationship between Lincoln and his Cabinet, Lincoln and Tad, Lincoln and Molly (who knew Mary was called that?), Lincoln and Grant, Lincoln and Robby? Was it the costumes, the sets, the music?

No, what made it great was the film’s distinct focus.

The real main character.

Somehow, however, I think a movie called: “The 13th Amendment” wouldn’t have done very well.
For those uninformed, or unfamiliar with such “inconsequentialities” of our history—the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States—once and for all time.

And though I sat in a theater filled with history teachers (and their loved ones who most likely appreciated history—why else would they have come early on a Saturday morning to a VERY long movie), I felt sorry for them all because they had not been on a year and a half journey which took me to that moment.

A year and a half ago, I stood in the temporary Gilder Lehrman archives studying a document, trying to decipher the lacey lettering on a broad page. The first thing I recognized was a signature at the bottom. A. Lincoln. small lincoln

The second thing I recognized was the word “slavery.”

What was this? I was asked.

Wanting to be brilliant, my heart beat a little harder. My palms sweated. My mind buzzed. I couldn’t think. Was I actually staring inches from the great man’s signature?

Is this the Emancipation Proclamation? I asked. (Foolishly.)

Look again, I was told.

Like a distant scene coming into focus, my 19th century mind, unraveled the words and I realized I was reading the simple, clear 13th Amendment.

But how?

It seems that whenever an amendment is passed, a set of souvenir copies are made. These are set out on the desks in Congress and everyone who voted for the amendment signs them and then the copies are given out as a remembrance. And I was looking at one of those actual, signed, official, souvenirs copies. Utterly illegal but real.

Why illegal?

Our government has a magnificent concept which keeps each branch from getting too much power—checks and balances. Each has its own job, its own responsibilities. And it is not the job of the Executive to approve or disapprove amendments to the Constitution.

Remember, the first thing I recognized was A. Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln understood that the passage of the 13th Amendment was so significant, so life and country altering that he went to the House and put his hand to that paper. Placed his name on it for all history to see. Wrongly. Illegally. And appropriately.

Last summer I sat in the very room where the Emancipation Proclamation was written. I stood on the porch and imagined the Lincoln’s lawn covered with military tents. I drove along the very drive where Lincoln made the daily journey from his summer house to the White House that bitter summer when his Molly stricken with grief could not face Washington and the vipers.

I believe my eyes were the only ones in that theater to have seen that incredible, historic, illegal document. I know my ears were the only ones to have heard the Gilder Lehrman archivist teach the story. And while I wasn’t the only one to have felt the power at the Summer Cottage, I was the only one who had also stood last spring in the Gettysburg Cemetery and spoke to strangers about the importance of Lincoln’s message—because those words have been burned into my soul through teaching about them.

Bits of this and pieces of that all wove together allowing that extraordinary film to bring me unexpected knowledge. I saw the anger, heard the desperation and felt what was sacrificed by men like Lincoln, his Cabinet and abolitionists like Thaddeus Stevens to bring about the successful passing of this amendment.

And it’s the bits of this and pieces of that which will make a difference to my students. Not dates, not names, not places but choices and actions, grieving and courage. Not the legends but the people living their lives, doing the right thing at the right time for the right reason.

To borrow from the writers of that film when the Speaker of the House chose to cast a vote supporting the amendment and was told that his action was not usual, he replied: This is not usual—this is history.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Teaching as a Lifelong Learner

One of the biggest compliments a student can give a teacher is to come back years later and still ask questions because something inside them believes that you know everything about your subject.
And parents who see you years later and say, “Your name came up again at dinner.” (I always apologize for that one.)

I love it when students ask me things I don’t know. It gives me a chance to share with them the wonder of learning, of discovery. I am not afraid to stop a lesson so  right at that moment we can go figure out the answer to the best question I’ve heard in a long time. And then, as we pick back up our lesson, I keep referring back to our newly discovered bit of information—validating not only the questioner, but the fact that we get to keep learning.

So the next time a student/or former student asks you something like: “when is the Battle of Red Cliffs” and your brain frantically starts sifting through wars trying to get some sort of reference point and all you can think of is Red River in the American Civil War or Red Mountain which might have something to do with a video game like Skyrim or Elder Scrolls…just smile and offer to Google it for them. Your willingness to help answer that Fruit Ninja question will keep you as a valued source of information in their lives.

And just so you know? 208. It marked the end of the Han Dynasty.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

(Veteran's Day) Wondering if as a Teacher it Makes a Difference

Not many young people know about WWI. To them, it’s simply the war that came before the cool” war—WWII.

My history curriculum doesn’t reach to WWI but I feel that the War to End All Wars—which in the US we remember (or not) with Veteran’s Day is too important not to talk about.

Many years ago, I lived in Canada and in England during November (obviously different Novembers). I was utterly impressed with the way the citizens of these nations each came together during Remembrance Day in solemn, respect. In Canada everyone wore a red poppy on their chest.

Why a poppy? Because the fields in Flanders (Belgium today) were so poisoned by cordite (used in barrage shells) that nothing would grow there, except for wild red poppies. Also, as the war dragged on for those embittered, devastating years, in the battlefields and no man’s land—the place between the lines where the un-rescued wounded would die and those unreached bodies rotted—the poppies rose as silent sentinels.

In Canada the sale of these poppies helped wounded veteran programs. I still have mine original poppy.

I was thrilled when I learned that our own Veteran’s of Foreign Wars (the VFW) also have a similar program. It’s called the Buddy Poppy program. People donate money and receive a poppy in return.

Well, at least in my state, it’s not very wide spread.

As a teacher, I wanted to give my students something they could have, touch, wear, that would connect them to the sacrifices made not only in WWI but throughout our history. Something that would make them think.

I decided on the Buddy Poppies. But being a teacher, who puts a great deal of personal income into making my classes better, I didn’t have extra money to donate to this worthy cause. However, I asked our local post if they would donate those poppies to my students.

Each year they have.

This year, challenged by other circumstances—worthy programs my school is having us participate in, but time stealing nonetheless—I had to look at my curriculum and decide where I might trim things in order to fit all the required information in.

My unhappy answer? Our discussion on Veteran’s Day.

Teachers ask themselves if they make a difference. Does what they do matter? Are all the hours, all the thought, all the effort worth it?

Last week, I had my answer.

A student I had a couple of years ago, stopped by. “Mrs. Olds,” he said, “this last summer, I went to France and I thought of you.” He put out his hand and opened it. Inside, lay a small, delicate pin. A poppy. “I know how much those poppies mean to you and when I saw this, I knew I just had to bring it to you.”

I nearly teared up right then surrounded by the chaos of hundreds of Junior High students rushing home.

Thank goodness my local VFW post came through at the last minute for me. Whatever else happens, our discussion on Veteran’s Day is just too important.

So, thank you. Thank you all you men and women. Thank you for leaving your homes, your friends, your families. Thank you for believing that this country and that freedom are too important to walk away and to let someone else worry about it. And rest, those who did not make it home. Rest and know, that we have not forgotten. And as long as it is my watch, I will teach my students to remember.

In Flanders Fields by John McCrae, May 1915

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Thoughts on a Core -- a Common Core

I’ve been asked to give a workshop on using Primary Source Documents at the UCSS (Utah Conference for the Social Studies) Fall Conference in October.

I went home, looked at my husband and said…”Doesn’t everybody already DO that?”

I suppose not. How sad for their students.                                                   

There’s a massive kuff-fuffle about this use of the Core Curriculum. Things like:

If we use it, we’re giving up local control of our schools.

It’s copyrighted. We can’t change it.

It’s a plot by several corporations to get a monopoly on using their textbooks etc.

It’s going to tell us day by day what we have to teach.


Expecting that by the 8th grade students will be able to form sentences. Use correct grammar. Do basic research and understand the concept of plagiarism. Read instructions and the text of ANY book on their grade level. Fulfill assignments by thinking through and answering questions which aren’t simply scanning through the chapter and finding them at the back of the book. Have the electronic and presentation skills to make things like ppts while supporting their arguments logically. Anywhere in the country….

This is a bad thing?

I spent a couple of weeks in the summer with teachers from “struggling” schools. They struggle not because the teachers are bad, but because they have students who come from foreign speaking homes, transient homes, hungry homes, under employed homes.

A common core—a common expectation—a common purpose—a common standard across the country for these students when they move from school to school or state to state is a good thing.
I’m not saying that my history class has to be on the same page as Mr. So-and-so from North Carolina. I’m saying that we should have the same writing, thinking and reading standards. All the programs in this silly education world are not going prepare our students to become our future leaders, home, nation and international, if they cannot THINK! Cannot WRITE!  Cannot

As for me and my class? We will continue striving to improve. To expand our horizons. To deepen our understanding. And how will we do it?

Through the reading/interpreting and studying of primary source documents and by writing our little fingers to the bone.

Thank you—and now I shall get off my soapbox. (And for all those who have NO idea what I’m talking about when I say soapbox—go talk to your history teacher. I’m sure there’s a primary source document they could find for you to explain it.)