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 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2020_Democratic_Party_presidential_debates#Qualification 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

source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_White_Fleet#Itinerary

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.

source: https://www.theodorerooseveltcenter.org/Learn-About-TR/TR-Encyclopedia/War-and-Military-Affairs/Great-White-Fleet.aspx

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.

source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barrel_of_oil_equivalent

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.

source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proven_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: http://www.drillingformulas.com/top-10-countries-with-largest-oil-reserves-2017/

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.

Source: https://medium.com/@buttigieg/a-letter-from-flyover-country-5d4e9c32d2ac

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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Reading books is good for you

The internet is an amazing resource. But if you do online research right, you should end up with some books on the topic you’re learning about. Yes, there’s a wealth of information online, and you can get lots of great information and even some keen analysis from online sources. But a typical book represents a year (or more) of work, and will deepen your learning about a topic that you get interested in. A book goes through multiple drafts and is worked on by editors. It’s usually a great resource. And thanks to libraries, books are free!

[for high school students reading this post, “books” are rectangular paper objects filled with words and pictures; they don’t even need batteries!]

Here’s an example of how online research led me to a book… well, actually, several books…

I was doing some research about the Iraq War, because as a high school US History teacher I’m going to be teaching about it this coming school year. I found a great NPR program from 2013 with a panel that included Ted Koppel, among others, talking about the 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. I’m going to have my students listen to the first 12 minutes of the program — it’s excellent.

That NPR piece led me to another program titled:

What Lessons Should Americans Draw From Iraq War?

Here’s the Ugly URL (there will be a link coming to explain what an “Ugly URL” means and why I want my students to cite sources the ugly way).


One of the callers to this NPR program did four tours of duty in Iraq. He described one of the speakers’ books, Fiasco, as “one of the best books” about the Iraq War.

Here’s the transcript from NPR:

I was [in Iraq] in ’05, ’06, ’07, ’08 with the 101st Airborne. I just want to briefly mention that Tom Ricks mentions us, our unit, at the end of his book “Fiasco,” and I want to thank him for doing a great service, for writing one of the best books about the war

I was impressed with what the speaker, Tom Ricks, had to say in the NPR segment (he was on the 10th anniversary program as well), and so I decided to check out his book.

I looked the book up on the Durham library’s website (that was easy!)


And I saw that two copies were available — one at the branch I usually visit. So I decided to visit the library. I went into the library armed with a simple book title and its call number:


And before I knew it, I had lots more context about the Iraq War that I can use with my students next year. Here’s one example — in teaching about the Iraq War that started in 2003, I tell my students they need to start with the Gulf War in 1990-91. I had been teaching that that war was a success — it met its objectives of driving Saddam out of Kuwait and the world community backed those efforts.

While that’s true, I now have more context and another take on that war — this is from pages 5 and 6 of the book Fisaco:


That’s a powerful sentence at the start of that last paragraph:

“Having incited a rebellion against Saddam Hussein, the U.S. government stood by while the rebels were slaughtered.” I will be sure to share these paragraphs with my students when we learn about the Iraq War in the 4th quarter of the year.

So that’s what book learning looks like. And there are more than 400 additional pages I can learn about the Iraq War from Thomas Ricks (here’s his bio from Wikipedia)

Thomas Edwin “Tom” Ricks (born September 25, 1955)[5] is an American journalist and author who specializes in the military and national security issues. He is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting as part of teams from the Wall Street Journal (2000) and Washington Post (2002). He has reported on military activities in Somalia, Haiti, Korea, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Kuwait, Turkey, Afghanistan, and Iraq. He currently writes a blog for Foreign Policy[6] and is a member of the Center for a New American Security,[7] a defense policy think tank.

Ricks lectures widely to the military and is a member of Harvard University‘s Senior Advisory Council on the Project on U.S. Civil-Military Relations.

But here’s the problem with me and libraries… I am the kind of person who loves learning, so while I was in the library, I looked around on the shelves…

And I came home with this selection of books:


Now before you think I’m crazy, let me explain my thinking:

The book about comic books looked interesting — and I’m guessing some of my students will be more graphically-minded. It would be good for me to understand comics better. The Monterrey Pop festival is something I learned about from some of my students last year, and I’d like to see some footage from that event in 1967. The CD was on display, so I picked it up.

The “Open Leadership” book — also on display in the “New Books” section — speaks to how I want to run my classes — giving students more autonomy about what topics we learn about and how we learn about history in general. Learning about best practices from the business world seems like a good idea.

“Trump’s War” is a book that I never would have picked up if it had not been not on display in the library. It’s written by Michael Savage, who I know as a conservative radio host. I just looked him up on Wikipedia:

Savage has summarized his political philosophy in three words: borders, language, and culture. Savage has characterized his views as conservative nationalism,[9] while critics have characterized them as “fostering extremism.”[10] He opposes illegal immigration to the United States, supports the English-only movement and argues that liberalism and progressivism are degrading American culture. Although his radio delivery is mainly characterized as politically themed, he also often covers topics such as medicine, nutrition, music, literature, history, theology, philosophy, sports, business, economics, and culture, and tells personal anecdotes.

Since 2009, Savage has been barred from entering the United Kingdom, for “seeking to provoke others to serious criminal acts and fostering hatred.”[14]

[source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Savage]


I want my students to consider multiple view points, and as I seek to understand the people who voted for Donald Trump, I think it would be good for me to read a book that explains what kind of “war” Trump supporters see him fighting.

Fiasco is the book I came for.

The North Korea book was on display above it, and my son had been asking questions about life in North Korea recently. I skimmed the book and it  looked interesting — and I don’t know much about North Korea. Learning about it from one of the women who escaped from the country seems like a good idea.

Finally, the “For Love of Country” book was not on display — but it was located on the shelf near the Fiasco book I came for (I love open shelves in libraries). This book explores a topic I’ve been interested in for some time — ever since we got rid of the draft at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 there has been a huge gulf between the military (1%) and the civilian population (the other 99%). What can we learn from the military?

Because it’s summer and I don’t have to teach, I’ll actually get to read these books (maybe not all of them — but certainly big parts of them) over the next few weeks. And I’ll follow up on my blog about the most interesting parts of each book.

Indeed, a key skill I want my students to learn this year is how to curate information (that verb will be described in more detail in another blog post), so it makes sense for me to do the same for them with my summer reading/learning.

Update: I just came across Bill Gates’ summer reading list. He curates his list, explaining why each book made the list.

While I was writing about my learning experience at the library, it occurred to me that I want my students to emulate my behavior pattern of visiting the library on a regular basis. In fact, at some point this year — ideally before December — I want each of my students to identify a book that is relevant to his/her final project (I’ll explain the final project in another blog post and link to it here), and I want the students read the book by the end of January.

It’s actually better for me if they read their books at different times, because that will mean that I won’t have to read all of their summaries of their books at the same time. But if I know high school juniors, most of the books will get read at the last minute…

But at least they’ll get read — and reading books is good for you.

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What happens when a speaker cancels?

Or: “Why it’s a good idea to keep track of current events that connect to your history class.”

It’s 8:40 a.m. Class starts at 9. I just learned that the speaker I’d set up for my two morning classes can’t make it. I have nothing else planned.

This really happened to me this morning. And it actually worked out extremely well.

If you’ve ever taught (and if you’re reading this blog, you probably have — or still do — that’s my audience), you can relate to all the work that goes into setting up a speaker. Call — propose a date; work with the speaker’s schedule… I took class time to have my students prepare quality questions a few days ago. I even got bottled water for my speaker and tidied the front of the room.

This is a speaker who actually had already visited our class earlier in the year, so I knew he would be good. In fact, when he visited our class back in September, he was superb. My students and I were excited to dive deeper into some of the Civil Rights stories he told us about earlier in the year.

Our speaker grew up in Durham, NC (where I teach), and went to Brevard College. While there, he had a fight with — and then befriended — a white student named Billy. Billy’s father was active in the KKK. Despite that, our speaker and Billy became such good friends that our speaker was best man at Billy’s wedding. That meant, though, that Billy’s father chose not to attend his own son’s wedding.

When our speaker told us this story (and several others about picking tobacco in the late 60s and early 70s), we hadn’t yet studied the Civil Rights Movement (CRM).

And he was still compelling. During the course of this school year, we have often referred to our speaker’s stories. It’s like he’s an honorary part of our class. The class, for context, is a US History survey from 1877 to today.

Now, it’s February, and we’ve been studying the CRM for nearly two months. We have quite a bit more context, and we are ready to ask all sorts of excellent questions… but it’s hard to ask questions of someone who’s not there.

It wasn’t my speaker’s fault. He had a work-related crisis that caused him to cancel at the last minute… He diligently emailed me at 7:40 a.m., soon after he learned of his crisis… but I was busy tidying my classroom and getting bottled water… so I did not see his email until 8:40, when I finally checked my phone. I was standing at the entrance to our school, wondering where my speaker might be…

So what should I do?

I had nothing prepared. Zero. Zilch. I’d even left the quizzes my students took the previous day (and that I’d already graded) on my kitchen table at home. I mean why would I need those? We would be engaging with a superb speaker all class long, right?

As it turned out, I had just come across two great resources that I wanted to share with my students — though I wasn’t sure when we’d have time for them. I’d stored those resources in the shared notes for our class under “items we might get to later.”

In the minutes before class started, I decided that “later” would be “today” 🙂

One resource was a broadcast I heard just two days ago — it was an interview with the Dean of NCCU’s law school, Phyliss Craig-Taylor on NPR’s “The State of Things.”

Dean Craig-Taylor was, to quote NPR, “part of the first wave of black students to integrate public schools in Alabama. She started attending an integrated school in third grade, and it was a challenging and formative experience. White children taunted her and threw projectiles at her, and she collected each item in a cigar box. These objects later served as evidence in a lawsuit to push for stronger integration of public schools.”

She grew up as the youngest of 12 students, and her mother signed up to have Phyliss integrate their local school as a 3rd grader (along with her brother, a fifth grader, and her older sister, who was in high school).

This was perfect timing, because my students had just seen video footage of the Little Rock Nine (the first nine blacks to attend Little Rock High School in September of 1957) from the “Eyes on the Prize” video series. We could compare the struggles in 1957 Arkansas with the struggles in 1964 Alabama.

I was worried my students would need visuals, but they did a great job listening to the first 11 minutes of the NPR broadcast. They asked excellent questions and empathized with Dean Craig-Taylor.

After that, we watched the first 7 minutes of a book talk by Tim Tyson. Tim had spoken at the Regulator Bookshop back on February 1, 2017 (if you click the link, which I highly recommend, Tim starts talking at the 4:30 mark).

Tim’s talk was remarkable — I was there at the time. But I was sitting way in the back (or rather, standing — it was standing room only — I’ve never seen the Regulator Bookshop so packed), and I could not record much of the audio with my cell phone. Thankfully, CSPAN recorded the event, and that recording finally came online about a week ago. So we watched. And Tim Tyson is one heck of a compelling speaker.


In fact, after class, I found myself compelled to watched more of Tim’s talk.

My students don’t know this yet, but what we’re going to do tomorrow is watch the next 15-20 minutes of Tim’s talk, which makes salient connections between the topic of his book — The Blood of Emmett Till — and politics today. It also makes a good case for why it’s important to study history.

My students and I left off at the 11:00 mark of the video, when Tim says “I’m 57 years old — I didn’t expect to be fighting for Brown v. Board of Education and the damn Voting Rights Act [applause]. I had another thing or two in mind.”

That’s a compelling place to pick up tomorrow.

I suppose that the lesson here, if there is one, is that it pays to follow current events and keep track of your resources.

It’s also probably not a bad idea to have a back-up plan just in case a speaker cancels unexpectedly.

And a final bit of good news is that our speaker is coming next week. When he arrives, we will be even more ready to engage with him.


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Teaching about Donald Trump

I try to make my classes relevant. Donald Trump is helping me do that this year big time.

Today we made an unusual connection to President Trump’s now famous (infamous?) executive order about immigration. The one that’s all over world news? Yeah that one. We connected that executive order to the Dred Scott decision from 1857.

Yes, really — read on 🙂

Today in class we watched the video of the hearing conducted last Friday by a Federal Judge in Washington. This is a relevant hearing to watch because this is the judge who granted the Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) against President Trump’s immigration ban. This the TRO that President Trump says is endangering national security (but many experts say the opposite — that the travel ban itself is endangering national security) (welcome to 2017).

In the video clip, the judge in Washington asked the parties about something called “standing.”

I asked my students to write down the word “standing” in their learning journals, and I told them that  “standing” in a legal sense basically means the right to sue because you have been harmed.

The state of WA was not directly harmed by this travel ban, so the Trump administration claims that WA lacks standing.

There’s a doctrine called “parens patriae” that says WA can take care of its citizens and sue on their behalf, thus giving the state standing to sue.

The state of WA also argued that its state universities are being harmed because they are losing tuition money because students from the seven countries mentioned in the travel ban now can’t come to the US to study. 

So now my students know about “standing,” which is kind of an abstract concept — but I’m glad they have heard of it.

But then it occurred to me during my second period class that we actually HAVE learned about standing before. And this is what makes studying history cool. It helps you make connections and better understand your world.

In fact, we learned about standing last year, when we talked about the Dred Scott case.

Cliff’s Notes version of the case:

Dred Scott said “I should be free because my master took me to free territory and I lived there for a while.”

The Supreme Court said “not only are you not free, but you can’t even bring a lawsuit. You have no standing because you are not a citizen. And you can’t be a citizen because you are black.”

Check Wikipedia if you don’t believe me:

Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857), also known simply as the Dred Scott case, was a landmark decision by the United States Supreme Court on US labor law and constitutional law. It held that “a negro, whose ancestors were imported into [the U.S.], and sold as slaves”,[2][3] whether enslaved or free, could not be an American citizen and therefore had no standing to sue in federal court…
   source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dred_Scott_v._Sandford

That’s specifically why the 14th Amendment was ratified — to overturn Dred Scott and make it clear that anyone born in the US (or later naturalized) is a citizen.

So here’s another interesting part — and this is a question the judge asked during the hearing and that I asked my students to write down — Do refugees or visa holders that have never physically entered the country have equal protection rights under the Constitution?”

This is a big deal question.

Let’s do a close textual analysis of the 14th Amendment (which seems pretty relevant these days):

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

So if I am a refugee, am I “within the jurisdiction” of the US? If I have secured a visa to come to the US, or have at least started the vetting process, does that make me “within the jurisdiction” of the US?

If not, then I can’t make an equal protection claim.

By contrast, the “due process” part applies to any person — it does not say “within its jurisdiction” — so would that cover refugees?

This is an interesting question. Many of my students followed this discussion especially closely because this is a real-life issue that is changing the lives of refugees and people coming to the US from the seven previously banned countries.

And we will see soon (likely later today or tomorrow) what the Ninth Circuit says about these questions — or at least, as a preliminary matter, whether the travel ban can come back into effect (that executive order is currently “on hold” thanks to the TRO from Washington state).

It doesn’t get much more relevant than that!

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Booker Spicely — revisited

Note: I first blogged about Booker Spicely in 2015 in a post called The Secret History of a local shooting, but I am updating my blog post a bit in 2016 so that it works better for teaching this material to my students — and now on the morning of 8-23-2019, I’m updating again (revising) for my students in 2019-20:

Less than a mile from where I live, in Durham, NC, a white bus driver shot this US soldier twice:

Spicely pichttp://www.opendurham.org/people/spicely-booker-t

The soldier, Private Booker Spicely, age 35, apparently did not sit where he was supposed to sit on the bus, and words were exchanged between Private Spicely and the bus driver, Herman Lee Council. When Private Spicely got off of the bus, Council followed him — he then shot Spicely twice. Spicely died soon thereafter at Duke Hospital. He could not be taken to Watts Hospital, which was across the street — because that was a hospital reserved for whites only.

After the shooting, the bus driver, Council, got back on his bus and finished his route before turning himself in. But he was not in jail for long. “The Duke Power Company, which owned and operated the buses in Durham, bailed Council out a few hours later.”

(source for this quote: a website about Booker Spicely from the Northeastern School of Law) (broken link — here’s the updated link: https://repository.library.northeastern.edu/downloads/neu:m0428465b)

This shooting happened in July of 1944, and I’m amazed — particularly as a history teacher — that I am just learning about it now. Why isn’t this incident more well-known? It seems like it should be a big deal in the Triangle.

Secret Game Cover

I learned about Private Spicely’s death from reading The Secret Game, a wonderfully engaging book that gets its title from a secret inter-racial basketball game played in March of 1944 in Durham, NC.

The game took place between a white team of graduate students from Duke — mainly medical students — who drove across town to play the black varsity team at what would become North Carolina Central University. For context, this game happened ten years before the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that ended school segregation.

Here’s a summary I found online:

On a Sunday morning in March 1944, most of Durham, North Carolina, was in church. That’s the way basketball coach John McLendon wanted it when his all-black college team from North Carolina Central University (then the North Carolina College for Negroes) faced off against an all-white team from Duke University’s medical school.

The game would be the first interracial college basketball game in the Jim Crow South, and it had to be kept a secret. McLendon even locked the doors behind the teams after they entered the gymnasium.

Source http://www.durham-nc.com/maps-info/black-history/features/secret-game/#sthash.ksRMoZ2v.dpuf

The book, as you can imagine, is about far more than a basketball game. To provide context and set the scene, the book describes life before 1944 in Durham, and traces the lives of many of the players involved in the game up to the moment of the game.

Let me set the scene for you about Booker Spicely that I described to open this blog post, and then you can read a few pages from the book that tell how he was shot and killed.

Booker Spicely, a Private in the US Army, was “on leave” in Durham on a Saturday night. He came from Camp Butner, an army camp with tens of thousands of soldiers that was set up just north of Durham During World War II.

So that you have some geographic context, I made this map showing roughly where Camp Butner was located, relative to the school where I teach, Research Triangle High School (my students in US2 — please click the link and zoom in and look around — as we talked about on day one, maps help tell stories).

In 1944, World War II was at its height, and the famous D-Day invasion (which my students will learn about in more detail later this year) had just happened on June 6, 1944. Up to that time, Hitler’s Germany controlled pretty much all of France Europe. Here’s a map I found from April of 1944:

Eruope April 1944source: https://dorkingmuseum.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Screen-shot-2013-04-30-at-10.21.35.png

This will connect to our speaker on Sept 18, 2019, Abe Piasek, who was in a forced labor camp in Germany in 1944.

So when the “secret game” took place in March of 1944, most Americans were focused on ending the war. I wonder how many American troops were in the European and Asian theaters of war at that time. I’m still wondering that — I don’t have a breakdown by region — but this website gives good statistics about who served in the US Armed Forces during WWII. Slow down and click the link.

With that context, let’s get into the story of Private Booker Spicely, as it unfolded on July 8, 1944:

Private Spicely did not comply with the segregation guidelines about where he was supposed to sit. Since I read about this incident in the book The Secret Game, I’ve done a a bit more research. As with most events in history, accounts vary about the details — so I am not sure exactly where on the bus Private Spicely was sitting — he was likely in the second-to-last row of the bus. He certainly would not have been at the front of the bus, which was reserved by law for white people.

(I will show my students a picture of a bus from Greensboro)

Durham Bus station in 1940
https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-jim-crow-45387 (click this link for more info about Jim Crow segregation)

This is the bus station in Durham, NC, in 1940. Blacks and whites even had separate waiting areas — can you think of other facilities that would have been segregated in the 1940s?

Now that you know some of the basics, let’s pick up the story with a few pages from the book. It’s a Saturday night in Durham, four days after the 4th of July.

Start reading below where Private Spicely says “I don’t see why I have to move back,” he told them [two white soldiers]. “In Pennsylvania, we pay our fare and sit where we please.”

Secret Game p285



I went to college at Duke, I have lived in Durham for much of my adult life. Before I picked up “The Secret Game” a few years ago, I had never before heard anything about this shooting.

The whites-only hospital was the old Watts Hospital — now the campus of the North Carolina School of Science and Math (NCSSM). I wonder if students who attend NCSSM know anything about this shooting.

What I find most chilling is this sequence of events:  1) the bus driver shot Booker Spicely, 2) the police arrived, and 3) the police allowed the bus driver to get back on his bus and finish his route, before turning himself in to the authorities.

This is a bad story. I’m glad that I can’t picture these events happening quite the same way in 2016 (though with all the shootings this summer, and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, it’s sadly easier for me to imagine). I would like to think that a jury today would at least deliberate for more than 28 minutes (see below) and might even find the bus driver guilty. Someone would probably capture the events on their smart phone as the conflict started to brew. Council, the driver, claimed he was acting in self-defense. But given the facts I’ve found so far, I find that claim hard to believe.

I wonder how these events played out in 1944. Were there other people who stayed on the bus while the bus driver/shooter finished his route? Was there anyone on the jury who wanted to deliberate longer? We’ll probably never know…

At the trial, here’s what the judge told the jury — this is from a few pages later in “The Secret Game” — start reading at “The law of North Carolina is supreme…”


This is compelling history.

This is a troubling moment in Durham’s history, and it seems like a good moment for students in my US History 2 class to consider as we start thinking about race in American history. There are lots of quality questions we can ask so that we can empathize with this moment.

As I have told my students this year, I care more about asking thoughtful questions than I do about the answers (though I do want us to develop strong research skills as well). Thoughtful questions show that you are making connections!

I am not sure it’s possible to piece together what actually happened in 1944 in Durham. But here are some questions I have:

Where, exactly, was Private Spicely seated on the bus? What, exactly, did he say? (in an age before video cameras were prevalent, can we ever know?) And why was Herman Lee Council, the bus driver, found innocent so quickly?

So let’s think about sources — if we wanted to do a deep dive on this topic, where could we get information?

I wonder if we could get our hands on the court records in Durham from the trial. Did local papers cover the story? I also wonder if anyone on the bus (or on the street who witnessed the events) is still alive today. That person would be a primary source, just as Anthony Timberlake, our guest speaker some time this year (assuming his schedule permits) will be a primary source for growing up in Durham in the 1960s and 1970s, and living in the US as a black man. Anthony (he insists we call him “Anthony” and not “Mr. Timberlake”) was born in Durham in 1960 and went to a largely segregated Hillside High School, where he played on the football and basketball teams.

I want my students to think about why they have never heard Booker Spicely’s story before. By contrast, I’m betting that nearly all of them will know something about Rosa Parks and the year-long bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, that followed her arrest.

How are Rosa Parks and MLK typically portrayed in our history books? Do we talk about MLK as a crusader for economic justice and an anti-war advocate or do we just focus on his work in relation to civil rights? What is the typical account for Rosa Parks? Is that account accurate? The book Lies My Teacher Told Me has an interesting chapter about this. It argues that Parks is typically portrayed as some woman who randomly decided she didn’t want to move, when in reality, she had been working for a while in the civil rights movement. (Update for 2018 — Oprah Winfrey, in her Golden Globes acceptance speech, mentioned that a woman named Recy Taylor was raped by a group of men, and the investigator for the NAACP was a young woman named… Rosa Parks — click here to see the part of Oprah’s speech that describes what happened to Recy Taylor — it should start the video at 5:10, and Oprah mentions Rosa Parks at 5:50).

US2 students — please slow down and click that link and listen to Oprah for a minute

In December of 1954, when Rosa Parks was arrested, she was the secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP. While her act of defiance was not planned for the particular day she got arrested, civil disobedience in Montgomery had been considered for quite some time. It was not a random event that happened because she was “tired.” See the Wikipedia article about Rosa Parks for more details.

When we start to learn about the Civil Rights Era in some depth during the third quarter, we will see that it’s far more complex and complicated than it appears. We will also see tons of connections. For instance, if you look up Booker Spicely, you get this blurb on Wikipedia.

Spicely Wiki

I’m assuming many of my students know about Emmett Till (if not, please look him up — but be prepared — that’s a truly awful story). But I’d never heard of Irene Morgan before I started this blog post. I certainly did not know her case went to the Supreme Court in 1946. That case never came up when I was in law school.

And then we’re back to asking what history gets recorded (and who records it). Beware the Danger of a Single Story! If Wikipedia is right, and Booker Spicely’s murder “contributed to rising activism in the Civil Rights movement,” why isn’t he more well-known? I understand that the U.S. is a big country and we can’t include everything in the history books — but shouldn’t Booker Spicely’s case be well-known here in the Triangle?

The Triangle has three local law schools — Duke and NCCU are in Durham, and UNC is in Chapel Hill. Why is the best collection of online resources I could find about Booker T. Spicely housed at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston? (If Duke or NCCU or UNC Law has looked into this case, their resources are not easily found online)

[to be fair, there was a piece on the NCCU website in 2011, and Scott Ellsworth, the author of The Secret Game, did write a piece for Duke’s Alumni Magazine before he wrote his recent book — but there’s far more information about the case at Northeastern’s web site — why is that?]

(I cut those two paragraphs because they don’t belong here — when you do your final project, you will similarly write some material that you end up cutting from your final project — think of taking video and then doing post-production editing and deleting of scenes — that’s similar to the revision process for writing history).

I did some basic research, and learned that in 2013, there was a column in the Herald Sun that talked about Booker Spicely  (sadly, that link is broken now — the paper re-did its website)

In that column, I learned about George Stinney, a 14-year old boy who, in 1944, was falsely accused and convicted and executed for two murders he did not commit.

Stinney’s story happened in Alcolu, a segregated mill town in South Carolina (look it up and put a map of Alcolu in your notes). When I looked up George Stinney, I found an article in the Washington Post about how his conviction was vacated 70 years later.

The judge in the case that overturned the conviction from 1944 wrote that “I can think of no greater injustice than the violation of one’s Constitutional rights which has been proven to me in this case.”

George Stinney

We need to know about these cases of past injustice — about Booker Spicely and George Stinney — and we also need to know about cases in the news today. In 2015, I asked my students to consider cases such as Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner (do students in 2019-20 know who those people are?) Sadly, that list has expanded to include many shootings during the summer of 2016, including Alton Sterling and Philando Castile (July 5 and 6).

Here’s a resource from 2016 that lists nine high-profile police shootings of African Americans.

Here’s some troubling context on police shootings nationally, compiled by the Washington Post.

From Booker Spicely to today, we need to work to make sure these shootings of young black men stop. It’s time that America lived up to its pledge — which we recite every morning — of providing “Liberty and Justice for all.”


By the way — I got the picture of Private Spicely from a local history website called Open Durham. It’s a pretty good starting source for historical research about Durham.

In an effort to picture how World War II changed Durham, I looked up Camp Butner.

I was amazed that 3,500 buildings were constructed in six months! And it surprised me to learn that Axis prisoners of war were actually housed at the camp. Here’s an excerpt from the Wikipedia artcile about Camp Butner:

The Camp site was chosen around early January 1942 to have a major training area built and in just 6 short months, over 3500 buildings were constructed. There were enough beds in the enlisted barracks alone to accommodate over 35,000 soldiers.

Camp Bunter

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