How to “do” history — interviews and active research

I’ve told my students that the word “history” comes from the Greek “historia,” which means “to learn by asking questions.”

For my US History students, they are exploring the question of what happened on 9/11. We looked at materials in class (including video from MSNBC’s live coverage on 9/11 in 2001) and talked about some of what happened. And now I’ve asked students to interview someone who lived through 9/11.

The purpose of this assignment is threefold:

  1. to learn more about 9/11 from someone they know
  2. to practice taking an oral history — later in the course, students will conduct many oral interviews as part of a “family history project” (FHP)
  3. to create a historical artifact — they will record the time and place where they conducted this interview, and when they write it down, it will be a record.

To prepare for their interview, I had them interview me in class. I was living in Washington, DC, when 9/11 happened. I also knew two people who died on that day — Andrew Curry Green (the husband of a former teaching colleague) was on Flight 11, and Stuart Meltzer (a friend from elementary and middle school) worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, and was at work above the 100th floor of the North Tower when Flight 11 hit.

My students knew of some quality transcription apps that will serve them well when they do the FHP in second trimester. And in class on Tuesday and Wednesday, they will conduct a Zoom interview with a friend of mine who lived through 9/11 here in the Triangle; she experienced prejudice because she is Muslim.

So that’s one way to “do” history — through oral history. We will have to get more creative when we go back five or six hundred years (or more) and look at events from roughly 1450 to 1750 in our first proper unit of “US History” — we had been in an introductory unit.

We will start that unit by a visit from UNC students who are also indigenous peoples, and who can give us their perspective on US History. Then we will look at Europeans and Africans and how people from those three continents interacted on the land known today as the “United States.”

In my “Holocaust and Other Genocides” seminar, we are learning the basics of the Holocaust by examining a few people’s stories and by looking at chronologies and maps.

Three of my students had an opportunity to interview Shelly Weiner, an 85-year old Holocaust survivor who lives in Greensboro, NC. They talked with Ms. Weiner via Zoom for nearly an hour, and they are working on a profile of her that will be published in the NC Holocaust Council’s “Back to School” newsletter in a few weeks.

In the process of writing that profile, a question came up — Shelly is from a town called Rivne in Ukraine, and Shelly reported that 17,500 Jews in Rivne were murdered in three days in November of 1941.

That’s a mind-boggling number to think about.

There are just 1,440 minutes in a day, so that means there are just over 4000 minutes in three days. That means more than four Jews were murdered per minute for three days. That’s one murder every 15 seconds.

When I saw that number — 17,500 Jews — I wondered what percent of the Jews in Rivne that represented. I imagined it was a good number, but I wasn’t sure if there were closer to 20,000 or 30,000 Jews before that awful massacre.

In the process of exploring that question, I came across a powerful source — a 100+ page book titled Holocaust in Rovno: The Massacre at Sosenki Forest, November 1941.

This is an interesting case of how Wikipedia can lead you to remarkably good resources. The Wikipedia page about the Rovno Ghetto is short and contains a bit of information. It says that:

On 6 November 1941, about 21,000 Jews were massacred by Einsatzgruppe C and their Ukrainian collaborators. The remaining Jews were imprisoned in the ghetto. In July 1942, all remaining 5,000 Jews were trucked to a stone quarry near Kostopol and murdered there.[1][3]

Now that’s not terribly helpful. It also says 21,000 Jews were massacred, which is different from the 17,500 I’ve seen in other sources. And it also makes it sound like all the killing was done on one day — November 6, 1941. Don’t rely exclusively on Wikipedia. But do USE Wikipedia…

Because its list of sources can be excellent — and source #1 from this particular Wiki article led me to the remarkably powerful book about Rivne, written by a professor at Northeastern University in Boston, Jeffrey Burds.

What some students might not know is that in Wikipedia, if you hover over a source number (in this case, source #1), it pulls up the reference.

So I went to the full list of sources at the end of the Wikipedia article…

And as my red circles indicate, at least three were solid sources.

So I spent about three hours this morning “doing history” — learning more about Rivne than I ever had before. I mainly read pages and pages from Professor Burds’ book — and I’ll paste a particularly powerful segment from his book at the end of this post.

** Note — I emailed Professor Burds this morning (Sunday, Sept 11) to say how much I got out of his book and to wonder if he might be able to answer questions with my students. I did not plan to write about this because I figured he’s busy and he might not get back to me for a few days, if at all. In fact, he got back to me 11 minutes after I emailed him — here’s what he said:

As students dig into more extensive projects later in the course, I will strongly encourage them to do their homework and then reach out to professional historians to help them learn more. It should not be “can you do my assignment for me?” but “I read your article and saw a video of you talking about your book, and here are three questions I have for you…”

I look forward to having Professor Burds speak with my students in the near future!

I learned far more information about Rivne this morning than will fit into a profile of Shelly Weiner. But that one question — what percent of Rivne’s Jewish population did those 17,500 people represent — led to some real historical research.

And, because I met Shelly at her home in Greensboro this summer, and talked to her daughter on the phone, I have a personal connection to Rivne. And now Rivne will join Sighet (Elie Wiesel’s home town in Transylvania/Romania) and Bialobrzegi (Abe Piasek’s home town in Poland) as touchstones for me — and for my students — as we learn about the Holocaust.

Below is a chart from professor Burds’ book that blew me away. I’d heard of Babi Yar, a well-known massacre of more than 30,000 Jews near Kiev, Ukraine, in September of 1941 — some people consider that the start of the Holocaust. I’d also heard of the Odessa Massacre, another horrific massacre in October of 1941.

But I’d never considered that those massacres were far from isolated events. Professor Burds provides chilling context — there were 64 mass killings in Ukraine the four months of September, October, November and December of 1941, representing more than 440,000 murders.

(the chart goes on for three pages… here are the listings for Babi Yar, Odessa, and Rivne)

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Abe’s “adopted son” Len

In one of the interviews I did with Abe in the summer of 2019, I learned about his friend Len, who lived next door to him in California for the 16 years when Abe and Shirley lived in California (1976-1992). Abe jokingly said “we adopted him” and I was confused because at the time, Abe was about 46 years old and Len was about 30. I was not able to follow up with Abe about Len before Abe fell.

I listened again to that interview with Abe about his “adopted son,” Len, and I asked Abe’s daughter, Pam about Len. Pam said she had just spoken to Len recently, and she offered to call him and put us in touch. A few days later, on Dec 30, I had a lovely conversation with Len that lasted nearly an hour.

You kind of have to see Len for this conversation to make sense. I actually had never seen Len before we spoke, though I knew he was quite tall. I got this picture from Pam after I spoke with Len.

Len is very tall — perhaps 6’8″ — he’s on the left. Len’s wife, Norma, is on the left. Abe is in the middle.

Apparently, Abe and Shirley moved in next to Len, and they had wanted to meet Len for some time. So a few months into 1976 (Abe and Shirley moved in early in 1976), Len came back from a bike ride and Abe and Shirley were blocking the way to his driveway.

As Len tells the story, Abe had baked goods he wanted to give to Len. “He handed me a bag of giant chocolate chip cookies — think frisbee,” Len told me.

That’s how they became friends. They would often go out to dinner together — Len was single at the time, so it was the three of them — Abe, Shirley and Len.

A few months into their friendship, they showed up at a restaurant and according to Len, the host was “looking at Abe at 5’6” and me at 6’8” — and he says to Abe, ‘what is this guy to you?’ “

Abe had a fun sense of humor, so he said to the host, “This is our son.” The host looked at Shirley to see if this was for real, and she nodded, going along with Abe’s riff.

This was May of 1976. As Len told me, “From that point forward, I’m their other son.”

One year Len did a lot of traveling for his job at IBM and he got a round trip for two to Paris on TWA.

“I wasn’t going to use the tickets, so I said to Shirl, ‘do you guys want to go?’ She said ‘What are you talking about?’ ” 

Len explained.

Shirley said, “are you serious?” and Len said “Yeah, they’re yours if you want em… so they went.”

Abe worked as a baker, and he would often leave for work at 6 p.m. and come home around 3 or 4 in the morning. Sometimes, Len would be awake and see Abe drive up, and they two of them would sit and eat some delicious bread Abe had made — sometimes they’d put butter on it — sometimes, they’d put cheddar cheese on it.

They didn’t always have those conversations — sometimes Abe was just exhausted from working and wanted to go to sleep — but on many an evening, Abe and Len — the unlikeliest of friends — would hang out into the wee hours of the morning.

Even after Abe and Shirley retired and moved to Florida in 1992, Len remained close — like an adopted son.

When Len got married, he called Abe to be his best man. He and Shirley came and Abe was Len’s best man. (I really want to see that picture!)

When Abe had been in the US for 60 years, in 2007, he was still living in FL. Pam put together a celebration honoring Abe. As Len recalls, “Nobody told him, but Norma [Len’s wife] and I were invited and we came. We got to Abe’s house while he was out shopping, and he walked in and almost dropped the bags of food.”

The next day, Len was invited up to the bima where Abe was honored by a prayer from his rabbi. “Abe sent us a copy of the prayer that was done in his honor as well as a picture he’d taken from the boat when he came to the US.”

The picture was actually taken by someone else on the ship (Abe did not have a camera), but this is what the picture looks like (I got this copy from Abe’s son, Joe):

Len made that picture into a memorial — and he had the picture framed together with other items from Abe and it hangs in Len’s house in Las Vegas today.

When Len sends me a picture of what he did with that picture at his house in Las Vegas, I’ll include it, but this post gives you the flavor of Len’s relationship with Abe and Shirley.

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A lost set of DVDs

Abe’s daughter, Pam, and her husband, Aaron, cleaned out Abe’s house in Raleigh after Abe’s funeral on January 19. They had help from Abe’s son, Joe, and his wife, Jane, who drove down from upstate New York. Abe had boxes and boxes of things. When Abe and Shirley moved to North Carolina in 2009, they brought all of their things from Boca Raton, Florida, where they’d retired in 1991. So it was a lifetime of memories.

Shirley passed away in 2012, and Abe collected boxes of letters and notes and even a few posters from students, thanking him for speaking at their schools.

Many items were thrown out, but the remaining boxes — perhaps 20 — all went back to Pam’s house. As Pam sorted through those boxes over the next few months, she put three boxes to the side for me — these were the “Steve boxes”.

They contained some documents. For instance, this is a 1947 record that Abe got a smallpox vaccination in Bremen, Germany, a few days before he boarded a ship called the Marine Flasher to come to the US.

If I had not done prior research, the date would not have meant that much to me, but I know well that Abe left Germany in July 1947 and arrived in the US on August 3, 1947, a date he came to celebrate later in his life.

This document from Ellis Island names the ship in the upper left corner — MARINE FLASHER. Abe’s name is #12 on the ship manifest and is highlighted.
This is a zoomed-in image of the same minafiest, showing when the ship brought Abe from Bremen to New York — he arrived on August 3, 1947.

When I met Abe, he had a picture hanging in the hallway outside his bedroom — he would see it every morning when he woke up and every night before he went to sleep.

Here’s what it looked like (a bit blurry because this is a still from a video)

The main image is a picture someone on the Marine Flasher took of the Statue of Liberty in the early morning of August 3 as the ship came into New York Harbor. Abe also placed a picture of himself from 1946 in the lower left corner of the picture (in 1946, Abe was living in a displaced persons camp near Munich, Germany). And he had a picture of himself with some bananas he grew while he was living in Florida. I’m not sure about the significance (if any) of the bananas.

But let me get to the DVDs, which was supposed to be the main point of this blog post 🙂

So in the boxes with immunization records from 1947 (which I’m guessing Abe had to get before he could board the ship) and the thank you letters and the newspaper clippsings Abe had saved were some DVDs made of various talks Abe gave over the past decade or so.

A few days ago, I came across a small envelope, and when I opened it, it contained eight DVDs.

I started watching, and they are from a talk Abe gave at a library in Granville County. Each DVD is about 17 minutes long, so he spoke for more than two hours (thus far, I’ve only watched the first DVD and the last two).

Listening to Abe speak is kind of like finding basement tapes of your favorite recording artist — you know the main songs they are going to sing, but they tell some cool stories or sing the songs in new ways.

For instance, in listening to these DVDs I learned for the first time that Abe’s father, a carpenter, helped build the bridge that went over the river in the north of Bialobrzegi. He also identified that where he went to pick mushrooms (I’ll eventually link to the mushroom story) was in a field on the other side of the lake (DVD #1, 12:30 mark).

So it’s interesting to have a sort of time capsule of a visit Abe made to a library on the evening of Purim (Abe explains that’s why his girlfriend was not at the event — she was at her synagoge).

The woman who introduced Abe at the library had heard Abe speak once before, so this was her second time hearing him (he was back by popular demand; the woman apologized that the fire marshall would not allow more people into the room). She actually picked Abe up at his house and brought him back home after each of the talks — a half-hour drive each way.

I managed to get in touch with the woman who introduced Abe and she had this to say:

It would be an absolute honor to share my memories of Abe.  He was truly a bright, burning star that will always be with us … I often think of Abe and his impact on the world.  I am so thankful that you are continuing his legacy.

And I am thankful that I got to know Abe before he passed away.

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The importance of place: where is Radom, Poland?

My friend Abe Piasek, of blessed memory, was taken from his home at the age of 13 — he never saw his parents or his younger sister again. Abe was forced to work as a slave laborer for two years in Radom, Poland (1942-44). In Radom, Abe lived in a barracks and had to walk every morning to a factory where he was forced to make pistols for the German war effort. When he made a mistake, he was whipped. He lived on meagre rations of “food” — the paltry rations were not fit for humans because the Nazis did not consider Jews to be human.

When the Russians moved close to Radom in 1944, Abe and the other slave laborers who were able to march were marched 55 miles to a train station — those who could not keep up were shot and killed. There, they were packed onto a cattle care and taken to Auschwitz. At Auschwitz, the women, children, and any men deemed unable to do work were killed. Abe survived that selection (I will write more about that selection in another blog post) and was taken to two other slave labor camps in Germany before he was liberated in April of 1945.

Abe was born in 1928 and lived as a child in Bialobrzegi, a town south of Warsaw and north of Radom. Before World War II, Abe had never been outside of Bailobrzegi.

For context, here’s a map of Poland:

Using Google Earth to zoom in, we can see that Radom (yellow pushpin) is about 20 miles south of Bialobrzegi (blue pushpin). And Bialobrzegi is about 40 miles south of Warsaw, the capital of Poland).

There’s much more to Abe’s story than just Radom, but this blog post will focus on Radom, where Abe experienced most of his time as a Holocaust survivor.

Samuel Heider, another survivor, was born in a farming village four miles north east of Bialobrzegi called Biejkow (pictured below on the map). Heider and his family owned their land, which was unusual for Jews in Poland — most Jews had to work on others’ land. In 1941, their land was seized by the Germans and the Heider family was brought to the ghetto that had been set up in Bialobrzegi. As you can see on the map below, there was a lot of farm land around Bialobrzegi, which was the only “town” in the area.

Samuel was 17 at the time, and he seems to remember a few more details about coming to Radom than Abe. This is a two and a half minute clip of Samuel describing the day in August of 1942 when he was rounded up from the ghetto of Bialobrzegi and taken to Radom. His brother saw Samuel in the back of a truck, and he ran to his mother to tell her what was about to happen to Samuel — he was about to be sent to a concentration camp in Radom.

Abe was similarly taken to Radom in August of 1942, though he never talked about the hanging incident that made such an impression on Samuel.

At the 2 minute mark of the clip you just listened to, Samuel talks about Abe Flekier, a distant relative who came running up to him at Radom and informed Samuel that he would never see his family again — his family back in Bialobrzegi had been taken to the death camp at Treblinka, where they were killed.

Let’s ask some questions about Treblinka:

When did Treblinka open? Where is it located?

Here’s a map — Treblinka is a bit more than 50 miles away from Warsaw.

And here are some basic details about Treblinka —

Treblinka (pronounced [trɛˈblʲinka]) was an extermination camp, built and operated by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland during World War II.[2] It was in a forest north-east of Warsaw, 4 kilometres (2.5 mi) south of the village of Treblinka in what is now the Masovian Voivodeship. The camp operated between 23 July 1942 and 19 October 1943 as part of Operation Reinhard, the deadliest phase of the Final Solution.[6] During this time, it is estimated that between 700,000 and 900,000 Jews were killed in its gas chambers,[7][8] along with 2,000 Romani people.[9] More Jews were killed at Treblinka than at any other Nazi extermination camp apart from Auschwitz-Birkenau.[10]

Abe does not know for sure, but he recorded at Yad Vashem that his parents, Joseph and Feiga, and his sister, Chaja, were killed at Treblinka.

When I heard Samuel’s testimony, I got chills. Both because of the hanging story, which I’d not heard before but which fits with what I know of the terror tactics used in Nazi camps, and because my friend Abe Piasek also knew Abe Flekier — Abe Flekier’s older brother, Maier, helped save Abe Piasek’s life at Auschwitz (again, I’ll explain that story in another blog post). Abe Flekier was also a friend of Abe Piasek’s — they went to Poland together with their wives in 1996.

(notes for Steve for the follow-up blog post)

Abe Piasek was just 13 or 14 years old when he was at Radom, and Abe was short — the Flekier brothers lifted Abe by the armpits during selections to make him appear taller, so he would not be thought unfit for labor and killed.

Abe was just 13 or 14 years old when he was at Radom, and Abe was short — the Flekier brothers lifted Abe by the armpits during selections to make him appear taller, so he would not be thought unfit for labor and killed.

Abe told this story often — set up Lejeune telling of the story.

Then get to his description from Shoah Foundation, which is so powerful.

Then show the animation

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Who is Sylvia Mendez?

Do you know?

As a US History teacher, I should have known Sylvia Mendez, but until today, I didn’t. One of the things I love about teaching is that I often learn things from my students on a regular basis.

Today, one of my students asked me if I’d be interviewed for a video he’s making for his English class. He’s tasked with making a memorial to a famous American, and he and his partner chose Sylvia Mendez.

Before I could say anything to help them with their video, I had to look up some information Sylvia Mendez. I learned that she is a Civil Rights activist — and I also learned that her life provides oodles of connections to material we have studied and that we will study soon, so now I’m going to teach my students a bit about her.

After doing a quick video search (make sure you do a video search as part of the research for your final project), I found a superb 9-minute video that honors Sylvia Mendez for winning the National Hispanic Hero Award in 2018.

Here’s a link to the video — it’s worth watching.

If you read her entry on Wikipedia, you’ll find out she was born in the US in 1936 to parents from Mexico (her father) and Puerto Rico (her mother).

According to Wikipedia, “The family had just moved from Santa Ana to Westminster (California) to tend a farm that they were renting from a Japanese-American family that had been sent to an internment camp during World War II. This took place during a period in history when racial discrimination against Hispanics, and minorities in general, was widespread throughout the United States.”

[This is a coincidence, because NPR did a nice piece yesterday about how California is right now in the process of passing a law to apologize for its treatment of Japanese Americans during WWII. Yesterday, Feb 19, marked 78 years since FDR signed Executive Order #9066, which infamously set up the camps where Japanese citizens were forced to relocate during World War II (that order was issued in 1942; the US entered WWII the day after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941).]

Sylvia Mendez was not allowed to attend the school she wanted to attend, because she was not “white.” Here are a few details from the Wikipedia article about Mendez:

Sylvia and her two brothers, Gonzalo Jr. and Jerome Mendez, attended Hoover Elementary, a two-room wooden shack in the middle of the city’s Mexican neighborhood, along with the other Hispanics. 17th Street Elementary, which was a “Whites-only” segregated school, was located about a mile away. Unlike Hoover, the 17th Street Elementary school was amongst a row of palm and pine trees and had a lawn lining the school’s brick and concrete facade.

I’m about to teach my students an extended unit about the Civil Rights Movement, and it’s good to consider that it was not just a black-and-white issue. Indeed, the case that Sylvia Mendez was part of, Mendez v. Westminster, provided reasoning that was later applied to the whole country in Brown v. Board of Education, a case that was brought by Linda Brown’s family in 1951 (and which was famously decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954).

The case with Sylvia Mendez is a fascinating one, and it’s worth noting that Thurgood Marshall filed an amicus brief in the 9th Circuit appeal of her case (I’ll explain more about the case in class — it’s a good review of how the Supreme Court works), and the governor of California in 1947 was Earl Warren, who would later be appointed Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in time to lead the court to a unanimous 9-0 decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

Sylvia Mendez was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2011. That link should start at the 32 minute and 55 second mark of a 40 minute video where President Obama gives out several medals — the ceremony with Mendez lasts for a little more than a minute, and she tears up with emotion during the ceremony, which I think is touching to see:

mendez medal

Also, according to Wikipedia, “On April 14, 2007, the U.S. Postal Service unveiled a stamp commemorating the Mendez v. Westminster case.[13][14] The unveiling took take place during an event at Chapman University School of Education, Orange County, California commemorating the 60th anniversary of the landmark case.”

I looked up the coverage of that case in the New York Times, and while it was not on the front page, it was in the paper the next day, on April 15, 1947:

mexican schools NYT

As a final coincidence, when I looked up the coverage of the Ninth Circuit’s decision, I noticed that the front page of the NY Times that day had an article about how the 1947 baseball season was about to start.

As baseball fans will likely know, the next day, April 15, 1947, was the day Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier for professional baseball in the modern era. Today, every team celebrates that day by having all of its players wear #42 in honor of Jackie Robinson.

Jackie Day

That’s a whole other story, but there was a lot going on in terms of the Civil Rights Movement in 1947. The movement by no means started in 1954, despite what Wikipedia says… it was far more complicated than that.


P.S. The part about Executive Order #9066 reminds me of a powerful piece that George Takei wrote in the Washington Post cautioning the US not to do to Muslim Americans what was done to Japanese Americans. Here’s the last paragraph of his piece:

The Constitution and the government exist in large measure to protect against the excesses of democracies. This is particularly salient when, in an atmosphere of fear or mistrust, one group is singled out and vilified, as Japanese Americans were during World War II and as Muslim Americans are today. How terrible it is to contemplate, once again, that the government itself might once more be the very instrument of terror and division. That cannot happen again. We cannot allow it.

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Why New Hampshire? Why Iowa? What’s “Super Tuesday”??? Putting the 2020 election process in context.

Who will run against Donald Trump in the November 2020 election?

Back in 2016, President Obama could not run for a third term (the Constitution was amended after FDR to limit presidents to two terms), and so there was a fierce battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders (and others) to see who would win the Democratic Nomination. Clinton won that battle, which meant she ran against Donald Trump, who won against a crowded field of 17 Republicans. And as you know, Trump won the 2016 election (we will explore the Electoral College in another blog post). Here’s a great 5-minute SNL skit that shows what it was like to watch election night in 2016.

A few months ago, there were more than a dozen people who wanted to run for President as a Democrat. How does the Democratic Party decide who its candidate will be?

On the debate stage in Ohio back in October, there were a record-setting 12 candidates on the stage at the same time. When the debates started in June 2019, there were actually 20 candidates split over two nights.
dem debate

The image above is the search result I got for “12 Democrats on a stage” — as you can see, the field has been narrowed from 12 Democrats in October to the seven Democrats pictured in the middle image above.

The most recent debate (the eighth debate, if you’re keeping track of all of the Democratic debates) took place on Friday, Feb 7, from 8-10:30 p.m. in New Hampshire.

Why New Hampshire? (hey, that’s the title of this blog post!) Well, New Hampshire is set to hold the first-in-the nation primary election Tuesday night. I’m writing this blog post for students who are interested in following the process of choosing someone to run against President Trump, but who might not have been paying attention until now.

So who are the seven candidates left? (there are actually at least eight candidates, if you add Billionaire and former mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg — we’ll get to him later).

Please take a moment to look up each of these seven people, listed in order by first name:

Amy Klobuchar, Andrew Yang, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and Tom Steyer.

No really — stop reading, open a Google Doc, and take some notes about each of those seven people, because one of them will likely run against Donald Trump on Tuesday, November 3, 2020.

How did we get from the initial field of more than 20 candidates to just these seven?

This is a Google Image Search for “Democratic Candidates” — there were a lot of them:

dem candidates

The way the Democratic Party runs the “debates” (and I’ll explain why that word is in quotes in a moment) is to set requirements that candidates have to meet in order to get on the stage. For instance, to qualify for the first debate, candidates needed at least 1% in three approved polls and at least 65,000 individual donors. The idea is to make the candidates show a broad base of support so some random person who wants to get on the debate stage can’t just do that.

The requirements for the most recent debate in New Hampshire were more than 5% in at least four polls and “225,000 unique donors, with at least 1,000 unique donors per state in at least 20 states and/or territories” (it’s a bit more complicated than what I just wrote — if you want the nitty-gritty details, see and scroll down to the eighth debate).

A criticism of the Democratic Party is that all of the remaining candidates are white, with the exception of Andrew Yang. Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker were in the race earlier, but both of them dropped out — click on their names to learn why each dropped out.

And now you can see one of the big problems — most Americans, in my humble opinion, are too busy to take the time to follow all of these candidates. I mean, did you really look up the seven candidates I mentioned earlier?

They are: Amy Klobuchar, Andrew Yang, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and Tom Steyer. Can you picture each of them? Where is Amy Klobuchar from? See? There’s a lot to keep track of. And most Americans are not dialed in to the process yet.

The reason I put “debates” in quotes five paragraphs ago is that a debate has two (or maybe three) people thoughtfully exploring each other’s ideas and discussing aspects of each others’ policies and political records. What we have seen lately are sound bites on a stage as people try to create “gotcha” moments. I was greatly disappointed by the Republican “debates” in 2016 that allowed Donald Trump to win the nomination. NPR had an analysis of How the Media Failed in Covering Donald Trump back in May of 2016, when it became clear he would win the Republican nomination. But I digress — let’s get back to 2020.

The Iowa Caucuses on Feb 3 were supposed to be the first place where Americans who are paying some attention to the candidates actually make choices about who to support — but as you likely heard last week (even if you were not really paying attention, you probably heard some thing about Iowa), there were problems tallying the votes in Iowa, and we’re still not entirely sure who “won”.

Because Iowa has such an involved process, only about 16% of Iowa voters participate, which has led to criticism of the process the Democrats use to choose their candidate. And because of the reporting mix-ups in 2020, it may be that Iowa will lose its status as first-in-the-nation for the 2024 campaign. That’s up to the Democratic party leadership.

To put this whole process in perspective (which is really the point of this post), each state has a certain number of delegates that it will send to the Democratic National Convention, which this year is being held in July in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. To win the Democratic nomination, a candidate needs 1,990 votes. Iowa has a population of just over 3,000,000 people (for comparison, NC has more than 10,000,000 people — we’ll get to state populations at the end of this post) and so Iowa has 41 delegates that it will send to Milwaukee.

The “winners” of Iowa (so far) are Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders. They each won about 26 percent of the vote, and they each get a few more than 10 delegates:


But 12 or even 13 delegates is not that big of a deal when your goal is 1,990 (“why 1,990,” you ask? Good question! That’s because there are 3,979 delegates total, and a majority is 1,990 — well, that’s not including something called super delegates — again, this process is quite complicated, so if you want more details, click the link).

This NPR page has a nice list of how many delegates each candidate has, as well as how many delegates there are per state. North Carolina has 110 and California has 415, which makes sense because NC’s population is about 10 million and CA’s population is about 40 million. Interestingly, the NPR site says a candidate needs 1,991 delegates to win, rather than 1,990.

So let’s get back to Iowa, which has a weird process (look up “Iowa Caucuses” if you want more details). The big story was that the Iowa Caucuses were held on Monday, Feb 3, and no official results were announced for a few days, so Iowa didn’t really do its job of narrowing the field and determining which candidates are in the lead. As a result, Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders, who ran neck-and-neck at the front of the pack, didn’t get as big of a boost as they had hoped.

Now the candidates are in New Hampshire (NH) — what’s at stake in NH? New Hampshire has just over 1.3 million people, so there are even fewer delegates at stake than Iowa’s 41 delegates — NH has 24 delegates. A candidate who wins NH might get as few as 9 or 10 delegates.

But because it’s early in the process, and candidates want to build momentum, nearly all of the candidates are flocking to New Hampshire to try to win. In the most recent polls, Sanders is leading with about 25%, but Buttigieg is right behind him with 20%+ in most polls. If Warren or Klobuchar or Biden do extremely well in New Hampshire, that will give a boost to their campaign as we move towards Super Tuesday.

What, you ask, is Super Tuesday? Well, this year, it’s March 3, and it’s a date when more than a dozen states (including NC) hold their primary elections. On Super Tuesday, more than 30% of the 3,979 Democratic delegates will be determined.

Here are a few paragraphs from a New York Times article:

March 3 — Super Tuesday — is the monster date on the primary calendar with 34% of pledged delegates at stake in 14 states, American Samoa and a group of expats called Democrats Abroad. Nearly half of Super Tuesday delegates come from south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Michael Bloomberg is skipping the February contests, spending big and jumping right to Super Tuesday’s delegate bonanza. Rudy Giuliani tried a similar tactic, with less money, in the 2008 Republican primary. He failed, as have others.

“After Super Tuesday, the only thing that matters is delegates,” said Josh Darr, a Louisiana State University political scientist.

Then the votes come in a big crunch. Voters award an additional 1,100 delegates on March 10 and March 17. By the end of St. Patrick’s Day, more than 61% of the delegates will have been won.

By that time, a clear front-runner will have probably emerged, and it will be difficult for anyone else to catch up.

And now, as promised, we can talk about Michael Bloomberg. He got into the race for the Democratic nomination late, and so he decided to skip Iowa (smart man) and New Hampshire, and he’s just focusing his efforts on the Super Tuesday states.

We’ll see what happens in New Hampshire — but the real action will begin as candidates gear up for Super Tuesday… and that means that if you live in one of the states that is holding a primary election on Tuesday, March 3, you will be bombarded with candidates and advertisements for the next three weeks. There are also contests in Nevada (Feb 22) and South Carolina (Feb 29), but the big prizes are the big states on Super Tuesday:

Here are the “Super Tuesday” states shown in blue:


The “40” in California and the “29” in Texas and the “10” in NC represent how many million people live in the three biggest states that are holding primaries on Super Tuesday.

Just for perspective, can you name the 10 U.S. states with the biggest populations? Try to name them, and then look up the answer to see how you do. (Hint: California and Texas are #1 and #2, and NC is #9).

So look up the leading candidates, and we’ll talk after the results are in from the New Hampshire Primary.

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My student showed me I made a mistake… and that’s a good thing

Today, one of my students did some research in class and showed that I’d made a mistake. This was fantastic, because it drives home a few different ideas:

1) it’s okay to make mistakes as long as you learn from them;
2) it’s bad to rely on one source, even if it’s a fancy animated source;
3) when you corroborate your sources, you often learn neat new information.

I was teaching about Teddy Roosevelt, and I showed students this 90-second video that shows how the Great White Fleet (a fleet of 16 new battleships painted white) traveled all around the world from 1907-1909 to showcase U.S. military power.

At the 1:08 mark of the video, the video draws a helpful line that traces the path the ships took on their voyage:

108 great white

According to the animation, the Great White Fleet crossed the Atlantic and went through the Straits of Gibraltar (between Spain and Africa), then passed through the Suez Canal, and then headed over to India and then over to Japan and then on to Australia…


The people who made the video did such a nice animation… I can really picture how the 16 ships stopped at ports along the way to refuel and get more supplies.

There’s just one problem — the ships went the other way!!!

What I love is that one of my students pointed this out by doing research in class (we’re a 1:1 school, so all students have laptops). He was adding images to his notes (as I encourage students to do to reinforce their learning) and my student came across several maps that showed the ships going the other way.

Here’s one example he sent me:

As you can see, there are numbers and dates that show when the fleet hit each port on its itinerary. But surely the people who made the animation checked first before they invested all the time in making the animation…

Actually, no — the animation is wrong and this map that my student found is correct. How do I know? I checked a third source (and then a fourth before I decided to blog about this — how embarrassing would it be to get this wrong?).

Here’s a source from Wikipedia that corroborates the map my student found:

wiki corroboration


And here’s another source from the Theodore Roosevelt Center (which really ought to know what it’s talking about):

Called the Great White Fleet because the ships were painted white instead of modern gray, the fleet covered 43,000 miles and made twenty port calls on six different continents. The fleet first deployed from Hampton Roads, Virginia, and sailed to Trinidad, British West Indies, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Mexico, and made port back in the United States at San Francisco. The fleet’s journey stopped briefly when they made port call at San Francisco on May 6, 1908, because some ships left the fleet for other duties while others joined the fleet for the next leg of its journey. The command also changed from Rear Admiral Robley D. Evans to Rear Admiral Charles S. Sperry.

The Great White Fleet sailed again on July 7, 1908, and traveled to Hawaii, New Zealand, three ports in Australia, the Philippines, Japan, Ceylon, and Egypt. They stopped in Egypt on January 3, 1909. Learning that an earthquake had struck Sicily, the Great White Fleet sailed to help with the wreckage and recovery work. After their assistance, they traveled on to Naples, Italy, and from there to Gibraltar and on to Hampton Roads, Virginia, where the fleet’s journey concluded.


I found it particularly interesting that “The fleet’s journey stopped briefly when they made port call at San Francisco on May 6, 1908, because some ships left the fleet for other duties while others joined the fleet for the next leg of its journey.” That reinforces the idea that these are real battleships that have real duties, so there had to be a substitution. I wonder how much food they had on the ship from port to port, and I wonder if they ever picked up local cuisines.

The video I showed to my students was one of the first ones that came up when I looked for videos of the Great White Fleet. It’s a good video in many respects, but it gets the direction of the route backwards.

I’ve told my students that this video reinforces why they need to turn in an early draft of their final research project — the past is complicated, and we need time to think things through… or at least make sure we’re at least going in the right direction.

The best thing about making a mistake (and taking the time to correct it) is that you’re more likely to remember the topic. If the video I found had gone in the right direction to start with, my student would not have had an “aha” moment, and it would not have been as interesting. This blog post would not have resulted and my students’ brains would have spent less time thinking about the Great White Fleet. So yay for mistakes!


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Slow down — think; ask questions; learn

I was listening to NPR this morning, and I heard this great piece about gas shortages in Venezuela. The opening line says “Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world — almost 300 billion barrels of oil lie beneath its territory” — but that Venezuela is running out of gasoline and there are ridiculously long lines to get gas. The reporter for the story interviewed a dairy farmer in a place that sounded like “Via del Rosario” who has been in line for gas for five days. It’s worth listening to the story (it runs just under 4 minutes).

Okay, here’s a question I always like to ask when I’m learning about the world: where is this story taking place? The report said it’s near the Colombian border, but I honestly can’t picture Venezuela’s border with Colombia — let’s get a map.

Before you look at my map, slow down and try to find it yourself… It took me at least 10 minutes to find it — see what you can do before you read more of this blog.

I’ll give you some blank space… don’t cheat 🙂








My problem was that I had the name wrong — it’s not “Via del Rosario” — that doesn’t exist in Venezuela. The name of the town is “La Villa de Rosario”

What threw me initially is that there is a “Via de Rosario,” but it’s in Colombia, near the Venezuelan border.

via not villa

It’s not a problem to make a mistake (as long as you figure out you’re wrong and you fix it). My mistake actually made me slow down and think more about life in Colombia — I wonder what gas prices are like in Colombia, and whether people cross the border into Venezuela to get cheaper gas the same way people who live in NC near the Virginia border cross into Virginia to avoid the higher state tax on gas in NC.

If you listen to the NPR piece (which you really should — here’s the link again — slow down and take four minutes — this blog post will still be here) it said that you can fill up a tank of gas in Venezuela for a penny — or at least you could before the current crisis…

Okay — so where the heck did this story take place?

Here’s what I think is the correct location — “La Villa de Rosario” in Venezuela
(thanks, Google Maps!)

venez map

Okay, now I know where I am. If we zoom in, we can figure out how the reporter got there…

La Villa

I’m guessing the reporter probably flew into Maracaibo and drove over on highway 6.

So Venezuela has 300 billion barrels of oil underneath it — how big is a barrel of oil?

That was easy — thanks, Wikipedia:

The barrel of oil equivalent (BOE) is a unit of energy based on the approximate energy released by burning one barrel (42 U.S. gallons or 158.9873 litres) of crude oil.


So what is a “proven reserve”?

A reserve is considered a proven reserve if it is probable that 90% or more of the resource is recoverable while being economically profitable. These terms relate to common fossil fuel reserves such as oil reservesnatural gas reserves, or coal reserves.


Okay, so where is Venezuela’s oil located? Is some of it off shore?

Here’s a great map I just found:

venez oil

It actually lists the oil reserves of the Top 10 countries — check it out:

How did I find that? What elaborate search did I run?

oil search

The tricky part is slowing down to think — once you come up with questions, it’s pretty easy to find information. The trick is then to do something with the information.

After I listened to that NPR piece, I had lots of questions:

Who are Venezuela’s allies? Why doesn’t someone invade Venezuela to take its oil? Is Venezuela’s government stable? (I know it’s not — but what are the details of the instability?) What is it like to live in Venezuela? The NPR piece said, at the 3-minute mark, that black marketeers are charging $5 to fill up a tank with gas. It also said that $5 represents a month’s salary! Woah — what is inflation like in Venezuela?

This is how learning works — you get some basic information and then you slow down and you ask lots of questions — then you do some research and write down what you learned (like I’m doing in this blog). Then you think — and you ask more questions and conduct more research.

When I teach in the fall, I will ask my students to learn about U.S. History this way — I will have them keep track of their learning in their notes (maybe some of them will be inspired to blog?)

Your notes should have images. We learned about this story in Venezuela from a 4-minute NPR radio report, but if we wanted a picture or two of the gas lines in Venezuela, could we find them? I mean, if people are standing in line for five days at a time, I’m guessing that’s being covered by the media…

Yep — an image search for “gas lines Venezuela” on June 19, 2019, yielded this result:

gas lines venez

And that’s what learning looks like.

Take some time to slow down — think; ask questions; conduct research; learn; think more; ask more questions; conduct more research; learn more (rinse and repeat).

P.S. — I also heard a piece on the BBC this morning saying that South Korea is providing 50,000 tons of rice to help North Korea because North Korea’s rice crop was bad this year and people are starving. I wonder what 50,000 tons of rice looks like…

I can’t find a link to the BBC story, but there are lots of news agencies covering this story — here’s one from the Japan Times:

I wonder what relations are like between North and South Korea… I wonder, I wonder, I wonder…

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MLK or Malcolm X — whose views would you follow?

I just taught Letter from Birmingham Jail to my students over the past week, and I’m feeling good — it’s one of my favorite things to teach and my students did a great job following along, even though it’s the end of the school year.

We’re a laptop school, but those can be distracting, so I printed the whole thing out and we read through it on paper.

It’s a difficult text to get through, but we read it slowly (and actually watched a lot of it being performed by this fantastic reading of the letter done by a group of civic leaders and educators in Ohio). We took our time and we unpacked each of the first 24 paragraphs.

To put the letter in context, we actually started by reading the advertisement that King is responding to — written by a group of Birmingham’s clergymen (four bishops, three reverends, and a rabbi)

These are the points they make in their advertisement:

  • We can solve this problem ourselves — don’t break the law — do what the judge says
  • We don’t need outsiders coming in to Birmingham
  • Outsiders are inciting violence with their “peaceful” protests
  • We don’t need extreme measures
  • The police are doing a great job at keeping order

My students can now (I hope) both explain who Dr. King is addressing his letter to, and explain how Dr. King’s Letter refutes each point made by that advertisement. They can also articulate the four steps in a non-violent direct action campaign —

  • collect evidence to make sure there is injustice before you act
  • negotiate to solve the problem
  • self-purification
  • direct action

[And they get to hear my favorite sentence in the English language — where Dr. King strings together a series of images using semicolons to paint a picture of the injustice faced by blacks in the U.S. in 1963 — I’m pasting it at the end of this blog post because it’s so good and if you have not read it before you really should read it]

To further prepare for this unit, we started by watching one of the most powerful examples of “direct action” in practice from 1935 in India — it’s the four-minute scene from the 1982 movie Gandhi, where Gandhi has been arrested the night before by British forces, but his followers march one after the other into beatings from British forces protecting the salt works. Gandhi’s people are non-violently breaking the law that the British have a monopoly on salt production — they are trying to take the salt that they claim is theirs by right. They accept the beatings to call the world’s attention to the injustice of continued British occupation of India.

We also talked about how this kind of direct action only works if there’s freedom of the press and an opponent who is moral. It would not work against Hitler’s Nazis, for example.

It was a pretty cool week of learning.

At the end of the section of King’s Letter that we read, there’s a part where King draws a dichotomy between his position and that of the black Muslims and Malcolm X. King writes that his path of non-violent direct action is a middle path between doing nothing and advocating violence. Here’s how he characterizes the position of black Muslims:

The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro’s frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible “devil.”

I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist.

But why let Dr. King be the one who gets to depict black Muslims? Is there a way to bring to life the other side’s views? After all, King’s letter is from April of 1963; four months later, in August of 1963, King helped lead the March on Washington (where he delivered his now-famous “I Have a Dream” speech).

But that march was an event that Malcolm X derided as the Farce on Washington, because the white man controlled every aspect of the event. In Malcolm X’s words: “The marchers had been instructed to bring no signs–signs were provided. They had been told to sing one song: ‘We Shall Overcome.’ They had been told how to arrive, whenwhere to arrive, where to assemble, when to start marching, the route to march. First aid stations were strategically located–even where to faint!”

But it’s the end of the school year and students can only get so much from reading Malcolm X’s words — is there a way to capture Malcolm X’s argument more forcefully?

Well, as providence would have it, my good friend Rey Smith, a retired teacher from Washington DC, just posted this 12-minute video on Facebook — it’s of Malcolm X giving a speech at Oxford University in 1964. He’s so articulate, and so much of what he says is still relevant to today’s world (#BlackLivesMatter).

If you want to read along (as my students will do in class on Monday), the text for Malcolm X’s speech is available here.

So rather than just leave things with “So you now understand Dr. King’s position — let’s move on” we can now have a spirited debate about who my students would follow if they were teenagers in 1964 — would they join the forces of MLK and non-violent direct action or would they join the forces of Malcolm X, which will use whatever force is necessary? Or would they be bystanders? It’s not so simple. History, as we’ve been saying all year, is complicated.

I’ll follow up in this blog with highlights from our debate, which we’ll have in class in the next few days, after my students read this blog post and watch Malcolm X’s speech.

And now, as promised, here’s that loooong and powerful sentence from MLK’s Letter from Birmingham Jail —

Here’s the line just before the long sentence for context:

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.”

And here’s the sentence:

But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.


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Wait, what? A 37-year-old is running for President?

I am writing this blog entry for my students to show them how much you can learn in a concentrated 40-minute period of time. While I’m hoping most of them will get my Wait, what? reference in the first question of the title of this blog post, I’m betting most of them have not heard of this person who I just learned about, and who’s running for President in 2020:

Pete Buttigieg

Well, he’s quite a compelling figure. Here’s what Wikipedia says (as we’ve noted, Wikipedia is a fine starting place to learn about a topic):

wiki pete

We will talk about Pete Buttigieg (and about the rest of this blog post) when I get back from Washington, DC.

But first — how do you even say his name?

As with the woman from Nigeria who gave the compelling TED Talk The Danger of a Single Story, I think it’s important to pronounce people’s names correctly. So to review, she’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Chee – ma – mahn – dah;  N – go – zee;  Ah – dee – chay) — and here’s a 25-second video of how to pronounce her name.

Pete Buttigieg wrote this in December 2016 about how to pronounce his name:

Most people have trouble pronouncing my name, so they just call me “Mayor Pete.” My surname, Buttigieg (Boot-edge-edge), is very common in my father’s country of origin, the tiny island of Malta, and nowhere else. Dad came to America in the 1970s and became a citizen; he married my mother, an Army brat and umpteenth-generation Hoosier, and the two of them settled in South Bend, Indiana, shortly before I was born thirty-five years ago.


How did I learn about him? Well, my friend James Kessler just posted on Facebook, and I decided to watch — here’s James’ post:


For my students’ benefit, a “Hoosier” is someone from Indiana, and my friend James is from Indiana (though he now teaches internationally — he’s now at a school in Beirut, Lebanon). James and I both taught with my other friend, Ken Okoth, who’s from Kenya and now represents Kibera in Kenya’s parliament (you can Google Ken on your own).

Anyway, I was intrigued, and I like Colbert, so I watched Pete Buttigieg’s 7-minute appearance on the Late Show with Steven Colbert. Please click the link below and watch – be sure to take notes as you watch. Buttigieg has some interesting responses when Colbert asks him about what constitutes a “national emergency.”

After watching that video, I got curious about the timing of Mayor Pete’s coming out announcement. At the five minute mark of the Colbert appearance, Buttigieg said that he wanted to come out, but that “inconveniently, I was in the middle of a re-election campaign.”

I found this two minute video from June of 2015 where he came out as mayor of South Bend, Indiana (please watch it and take notes):

And then I found the 800-word essay Mayor Pete wrote to announce that he is gay (please click the link below and read and take notes on his essay)

For context, I wondered who else is running for president so far, and I found this interactive listing of Presidential candidates from the New York Times:

What I found interesting was that Mayor Pete’s brief write-up did not mention that he’s gay — and that makes sense, because why should that matter?

In the “making connections” department, I found it interesting that he made his “coming out” announcement just before the Supreme Court’s ruling in the 2015 Obergefell case, which, in the words of Wikipedia, “ruled that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples by both the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

A further connection I know of, from reading Michelle Obama’s recent book, is that the same day that the Obergefell case was decided, President Obama was in Charleston, SC, to deliver the eulogy for Clementa Pinckney. Michelle Obama writes about how she and her daughter wanted to get outside the White House for a moment so they could see it lit up in rainbow colors to celebrate the decision:

White House Rainbow

I did a bit more research about Pete Buttigieg, and I found this compelling column by Frank Bruni in the New York Times in 2016. Bruni said that Mayor Pete is someone to keep your eyes on (looks like Bruni was right — since Buttigieg is running for President)

Click the picture below to read the article. This is an optional article — my students don’t have to read the whole thing… but you should read a little of it.

Bruni is a master of writing using hyperlinks, and that’s a skill I want my students to develop. I followed several of the hyperlinks in his column. Please read his column and follow a few hyper-links — record which one(s) you follow in your notes.

I read around a bit more, and that led me to Mayor Pete’s website, where there’s an initial 2-minute video he made announcing his candidacy for president. In this video (please watch it) he makes the case for looking forward rather than looking back:

So in about 40 minutes of concentrated learning on Saturday morning, I got to know a great deal about Pete Buttigieg; I also got a better sense of other candidates running for President (there’s another 37-year-old running — she’s from Hawaii); and I got to model the sort of learning I want to see my students doing on a regular basis.

And that’s why my blog is called “What I Learned Today” 🙂

See y’all when I get back from Washington, DC, where I plan to be blogging about our special Supreme Court meeting with Brett Kavanaugh (I suspect there will be a few blog posts — both about how we prepared for that meeting and about the meeting itself).

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#EduCon learning mode

I have not physically left Durham, NC, yet — my flight leaves later today — but mentally, I’m already in full-on EduCon learning mode. I’m looking over the #EduCon Tweets and getting excited. I especially like a phrase I just saw on Twitter — it talked about a “pre #EduCon Thursday”


I teach high school students in Durham, NC, about U.S. History — but I am also a voracious learner. As a learner, I am SO excited to attend EduCon — a phenomenal conference hosted annually by Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia on the weekend before the Super Bowl.

On Thursday (yesterday), I finally had a chance during a study hall to look over the EduCon program, and my learning got kick-started. And while I’m not leading a conversation this year, I signed up to deliver a “lightning talk” (20 slides in 5 minutes) at lunch on Saturday, and the preparation for that talk is forcing me to refine my thinking as only looming deadlines can do 🙂

EduCon invigorates me during the winter. It’s a crazy-cool collection of amazing learners from all over the country and all over the world who come together during a cold three-day weekend to learn from one another. At EduCon, the learning is not limited to the conference sessions — a lot of the best learning happens in impromptu conversations in person and on Twitter. And almost all of the sessions are video recorded and archived, so if I hear that I “missed” a great session, I can watch it later.

The sort of deep “I want to learn more” learning that happens at EduCon is the sort of learning I model for my students. Not all of them are following my lead, but it’s only January — I’ll keep trying.

It just occurred to me that when a 90-year old Holocaust survivor named Abe Piasek came to speak at my school in November, I got into a sort of pre #EduCon Thursday mentality. Once I learned his name and a few details about him, I decided to learn like I was at EduCon…

I watched hours of YouTube video of Abe’s talks about his experience in the Holocaust. I also researched him online and found a great 88-page PDF document about the Holocaust (Abe’s story starts on page 52). I shared what I learned with my school community, and then my principal asked me if I wanted to introduce Abe when he spoke, seeing as I’d done all that work to prepare.

After he spoke, Abe said I could call him to follow up with more questions. That led to my visiting Abe at his house in Raleigh where we talked for nearly two hours. I’m actually meeting Abe again at his house next weekend (after EduCon), and some of my students and I are hoping to take him to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC (he’s never been).

I’m delivering a 5-minute “lightning talk” over lunch on Saturday at EduCon, and I’m actually hoping to use that as a way to crowd-source questions I should ask Abe when I see him next weekend in early February. Here’s the 5-page summary I sent out to my school community to prepare for Abe’s visit. I modified it for EduCon…

So let the learning begin. Bring on #EduCon 2019!

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“Show yourself as a learner to your students”

[updated Sept 2, 2018]

“Show yourself as a learner to your students” is sound advice from Milton Chen, one of the panelists from the opening “creativity” panel discussion at EduCon, a phenomenal conference I attended in Philadelphia the weekend before the Super Bowl in 2018. Here’s a link to the video of Friday night’s panel discussion, which was phenomenal. It’s seriously worth an hour and a half (or at least 45 minutes — you can watch at double-speed).

Here’s the moment when Milton Chen (far right) said that teachers need to “show yourself as a learner to your students” — it’s at the 1:53:10 mark of the video (the video looks like it’s 2 hours long, but the program starts 27 minutes into the video, when a student welcomes the audience).

show self as learner

Given that the name of my blog is “What I Learned Today,” I could not agree more. The opening panel resonated with me and inspired me to blog about my teaching and how I try to both show myself as a learner to my students and give my students agency in what they learn about in my high school US History class.

Every day to prepare for my U.S. history class, I do work in a Google Document that typically has 5-6 pages of notes for each day we meet (sometimes more — I like learning). Those are my shared notes for the class. In class, we don’t get through all of the pages of my notes — the conversation often goes other places — but the notes are there so that students see me modeling the sort of inquiry I want to see from them. My notes are a record of the learning I do every day to prepare for class (and in class — I often add to my notes as we go, based on questions students ask). A bonus of this approach is that if a student misses class for any reason, they don’t have to ask “what did we do in class?” because it’s all in the shared Google Doc.

Students come into class, open my notes, open their notes, and copy relevant sections of my notes into their notes. As class goes on, they add to their notes to show what they’re learning in class.

[Note: I teach at a 1:1 school, with a policy of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) — and a few students have computers that load slowly — the computers literally take 5-6 minutes to load. This makes it harder for them to experience the class in the way that I intend.]

In a recent class, we learned about James Meredith, because MLK mentions James Meredith in his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail:

I wish you had commended the Negro sit-inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer.

In class, I asked my students if they knew who James Meredith was — most did not. But the modus operandi in my class is: “if you don’t know, look it up.”

So here’s what Wikipedia says:

James Howard Meredith (born June 25, 1933) is a Civil Rights Movement figure, writer, political adviser and Air Force veteran. In 1962, he became the first African-American student admitted to the segregated University of Mississippi,[1] after the intervention of the federal government, an event that was a flashpoint in the Civil Rights Movement. Inspired by President John F. Kennedy‘s inaugural address, Meredith decided to exercise his constitutional rights and apply to the University of Mississippi.

I mentioned that JFK’s inaugural address must have been a good one if it in fact inspired James Meredith to decide to apply to the University of Mississippi in the early 1960s — we will listen to that inaugural address in a few weeks (it’s just 15 minutes long — you can find it easily on YouTube).


I scrolled down the Wikipedia article to show my students this picture (see right) of federal troops making sure James Meredith could attend classes:

Then something very cool happened — one of my students observed that “it must have been really hard for him to be the only black student at the University of Mississippi — I wonder how the other students treated him.” And that phenomenal question led us to look further into the Wikipedia article, where we learned these telling details:


Many students harassed Meredith during his two semesters on campus,[19] but others accepted him. According to first-person accounts, students living in Meredith’s dorm bounced basketballs on the floor just above his room through all hours of the night. Other students ostracized him: when Meredith walked into the cafeteria for meals, the students eating would turn their backs. If Meredith sat at a table with other students, all of whom were white, the students would immediately get up and go to another table.[20]

Those are powerful images — bouncing basketballs above a dorm room at 2 a.m. and people standing up and making James Meredith eat alone in the cafeteria. Students who are paying attention in class will not forget those images. And that deeper learning happened thanks to taking a student question seriously. I’ve updated my notes to show — wait for it — what I learned today (see? that’s the title of my blog) — and students in my other classes can theoretically learn from the student who made that observation about James Meredith.

I also don’t give tests (this should probably be a separate blog entry, but I’m going to write a bunch now and refine later). At my school, we use a learning management system called the PLP, which is part of the Summit Schools learning platform. Students take short multiple choice tests on their own at their own pace to make sure they know the basic information. That counts as 30 percent of their grade. The other 70 percent of the grade comes from projects where students show what cognitive skills they have learned.

The main project in my class is the Big Final Project (abbreviated as BFP). To prepare for that final project, students complete a few short research projects called an MIT — it stands for “Most Interesting Thing.” Students are supposed to think about the time period we’re learning about and choose one person or event to dive in deep and learn about. When I wrote this blog post, my students were studying the time period from 1945-1975, with a focus on the Civil Rights Movement. I let my students choose topics that will help them better understand that time period and make connections. They propose a few possible topics, and I approve one. Then they conduct their own research (I help if they need help) and write a short paper that talks not just about what they learned, but what they still want to learn.

It’s always seemed odd to me that we ask students to write a conclusion at the end of a paper when they have only studied a topic for a few weeks. How can you have a conclusion when you’re just scratching the surface? Instead, I ask each student to end the MIT with five further questions that show the student understands and appreciates how complex the topic is — all of history (indeed all of life) is wonderfully complex and interesting, if you ask the right questions.

I recently asked my students to write three sentences about their topic and list their top three questions that they hope to answer by doing research. They should actually come up with 10 questions in their notes — but they were supposed to share their top three questions with me. That paring down from 10 to three requires my students to exercise some judgment by curating the questions. Here’s what a few students are writing about. These are juniors in high school:

My topic for MIT #3 is the Loving vs. Virginia case that went to the Supreme Court in 1967. This case was about an interracial couple who were denied the right to get married to one another, because at the time, people of different races were prohibited from getting married to one another. This case was a very important milestone in achieving equality and fundamental rights. Also, I want to learn more about this case because it had a big impact on the relationships between citizens of different races and it was a step into eliminating segregation.

Top three questions:
1. Did this case overturn any previous ruling or case?
2. What were the consequences for marrying people of a different race, when it was prohibited?
3. Back then (in the late 1960s), did the majority of whites agree with the law to prohibit marriage of different races, or was the majority against it?

I am currently planning to do MIT #3 on the 22nd Amendment, which prohibits one person from being elected president for more than two terms. The reason for this is that I have, in recent years, developed a personal interest in term limits for public officials, which arose as I learned of the extraordinarily long amounts of time for which some Senators and Congressmen had held their seats. While the amendment does not affect Congress, and, as I understand it, was more a direct reaction to Franklin Roosevelt being elected four times in a row, it is one of the few official legal measures (that I know of, at least) which have ever been taken in the United States to limit an individual’s time in government (I remember being rather surprised when I first learned that Supreme Court justices could serve for the remainder of their lives if they wished), so I became curious as to the details of its passing.

1.) While Congress was in the process of drafting the amendment, was there any discussion of extending the same or a similar rule to other government officials? Was there any public demand for this?
2.) Was this the only example of term limit laws in the US? Is it still? Are there any individual states/cities that place limits on how many years and/or terms an individual can hold public office?
3.) Was there any opposition to the amendment? What was their argument? What was the final vote in Congress to pass it? How many states ratified it?

The topic I choose was NATO, from when it was first created (1949), to the end of our time period. I wanted to do this topic because of the fact that I’ve heard about it a lot, but I still don’t quite know what it is, or what it does specifically. I also think it would be interesting to know why it was created. THREE QUESTIONS: What was the original purpose of NATO, and did the purpose change? What were people’s response to NATO’s creation? How was it created, was it just made by political leaders of the countries, or by some other means?
In 1965 MLK led a group of protesters on a March in Selma to fight for voting rights. If African Americans were trying to vote they would be attacked by the KKK so it was a major fear to see black people have any type of power to try to take the “White mans” perspective of a good country. With all the hate MLK wanted to use peaceful protest and he was very inspired by the works of Mahatma Gandhi. Even with his house bombed he told people not to take arms.
1. How much money was MLK making yearly to provide for his family?
2. If King was such a problem how was he able to get out of jail time and time again?
3.Where there good African American lawyers available to help people who got arrested?

And that’s how an MIT in my class works — at least the start of one…

My students this year will be writing one or two MITs, just to get down the idea of writing a coherent paragraph that starts with a topic sentence and that integrates information from multiple sources (and cites information properly).

I want them to focus more of their energy on the BFP. The idea behind all of these projects is that I let students pick their own topic that they find interesting. This emphasizes the importance of student choice in learning, which was one of the major themes of EduCon in 2018.

By modeling for students how I learn, I hope to encourage them to do some learning of their own. I’m going to be out of school for the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, and I’m going to ask students to read my blog post about Booker Spicely, which I think does a good job of what this post purports to be about — showing yourself as a learner to your students.

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