I have never been the most athletic person. The only marathons I’ve ever participated in have involved reading books or watching screens for hours on end. Give me a choice, and I’d always choose a story over playing outside (much to my sister’s chagrin). As a kid, I didn’t try sports until middle school; my resume includes a couple of seasons of basketball at the Y, a little bit of soccer, and one brief foray into softball. In high school, I moved to martial arts, which is where I not only earned my black belt, but also got my first teaching experience and participated in a world championship weapons competition.
That was a long time ago.
In graduate school, I flirted with the gym on and off. I don’t think it was until my third year of grad school that I really got consistent, but in the second half of grad school, working out became an almost-daily activity. I completed The New Rules of Lifting for Women, Couch to 5K, and generally spent an hour each day working out to stay in shape.
By the time I finished my PhD in 2011, I was in the best physical shape of my life. And then I started teaching full time.
Note: I’m taking a brief break from my recent series on the women’s history course I’m teaching. I’ll provide a final update on the course next time I write here, but today I want to talk about teaching something else: the history of slavery in the United States.
Do you remember when and how you first learned about slavery? I don’t. I wish I could say I remember, but I have no memory of when I first read descriptions of slavery and enslavement, nor how I felt about it. I suspect this is not uncommon for white people like myself who grew up after the Civil Rights Movement seemed to end, and as school bussing began declining in the late 1980s and 1990s. There was also the matter of geography: my parents knew few black people, having grown up in Southern California (dad) and Northern Iowa (mom), and until I was 15, we lived in places that tended to be majority white or Latinx.
I can count on one hand the number of African American people I knew before I started college, including a friend when I was six or seven, and a youth minister when I was 15. Even my reading was pretty whitewashed: I know I read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cryand its sequels, but I have more vivid memories of Nancy Drew books and my obsession with British books (Secret Garden, A Little Princess…). I didn’t encounter A Raisin in the Sun until college. Probably the only thing I can tell you for sure is that I did somehow learn that slavery caused the Civil War, although I spent more time visiting battlefields than reading about the causes of the war. I know my historical knowledge expanded in undergrad, where I first encountered the concepts of analyzing race, gender, and class, and certainly graduate school deepened my knowledge and understanding much further.
Last year, I returned to teaching US History after several years of teaching only world history. Coming back to my specialty area was exciting, but also thought-provoking, as I worked to develop a new honors-level US history course that would spin off of AP US History (the class prepares students for that exam, while not being specifically an AP class). Over and over again, I found myself disappointed in how poorly I was teaching my students about the history of slavery. I could blame the AP curriculum, on the one hand, because there was so much to go through that it didn’t seem like it could be helped on the one hand, but on the other hand – that’s not the right place to direct the blame. As a result of this, I started a personal effort to better understand and teach the history of slavery to my students. It began with a lot of reading, beyond what I’d studied in grad school, to look more deeply at what I thought I knew, and how I’ve approached that in the classroom.
Part 3 in an ongoing series about Tanya’s fall elective on American women’s history. See Part 1 here and Part 2 here.
It’s September, which must mean that my course is ACTUALLY under way. Yippee!
We started the school year two weeks ago, and as expected, it’s been a good – but intense – two weeks of getting to know my students, getting my first lesson plans out the door, and, unexpectedly, getting hit with a massive head cold (on the second day of school, no less).
When I last talked to you, I pulled the veil back on my initial course planning efforts for my one-trimester Intro to American Women’s History. But a month ago, I didn’t know how many students I’d end up with, or who they were, or what they would want to do.
I’ve now solved 2 of those three problems, and reader, it’s about get interesting.
Last month, I wrote about my initial work designing my Intro to History of American Women’s Rights this fall. As I think I hinted at, I want to keep checking in on this course to let you know how it’s going, hold myself accountable through this blogging process, and to document my first opportunity to teach women’s history in a high school setting.
After writing last month, I stepped away from most of my teaching work for the month of July. July became, instead, a month of reading (mostly for school), momming, and just trying to be. (Oh, there was also the several intense weeks when I wrote a book chapter related to my academic research, but that’s another story.)
Last week, I got back into the teacher prep groove a little bit. My son had his final summer camp from 9-3 each day, which gave me a break from #momming (as I’ve taken to calling it) and a few precious hours between drop-off and pick-up to pull together whatever I could. I didn’t start with Women’s History, but it’s where I ended up, and I’m feeling excited about where things landed.
Readers, it’s summer. It’s that glorious time when teachers (like me) can kick back, relax, and just be in the peaceful bliss. (At least in theory. You probably already read a bit of my end-of-school angst and excitement here.)
I wound up spending most of my June in reading mode. It became a really good decision for me, because I had piles of pedagogy books I wanted to read and had no idea where to begin with the course planning that I so desperately want to tackle this season (also, when your kid is at a 3-hour-a-day summer camp for a week, books seem more digestible in those short spurts of time).
In the final full week of June, I began to switch gears, and readers, that’s what I wanted to talk about today: designing an intro to women’s history course for high school students.
On my first day of planning, I decided I’d document my efforts on Twitter, mostly in the hopes of keeping myself on track:
All in all, I felt the day was pretty successful. I didn’t accomplish everything I wanted, but I made a good start. Below, I’ll expand on that process, talk about what changed later in the week, and explain where I am now. Hint: if you have ideas/experiences, please @ me!
The summer ends and we wonder where we are And there you go, my friends, with your boxes in your car And you both look so young And last night was hard, you said You packed up every room And then you cried and went to bed But today you closed the door and said “We have to get a move on. It’s just that time of year when we push ourselves ahead, We push ourselves ahead.”
Every year when summer really does end, those words float back into my head, and they make sense then – but they also make sense now, because the end of the school year feels much the same.
It’s that sense of wistfulness in the face of impending change, which I also catch glimpses of when TS Eliot reminds me that
April is the cruellest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain. Winter kept us warm, covering Earth in forgetful snow, feeding A little life with dried tubers. Summer surprised us,
For teachers, summer is mostly a hopeful thing – a time of rest, if we’re smart, or exploration, if we’re lucky. It’s a moment to catch our breaths and step out on hiatus from the school building and the classroom and experience our lives in different ways. We bring our heads up from the papers we’ve spent all year marking and our students say good-bye (if we’re fortunate, not forever, but just for now), and we say hello to the million little things we’ve waited months to do. It’s that time to just be us.
Did I mention that sounds easier than it really is? At least for me, and I’m hoping I’m not alone in that.
Facebook’s been reminding me that it’s been eight years since I defended my dissertation and got my job. I love these reminders, although I shake my head at them, incredulous that so much time has passed.
Although I still live in the same metropolitan area, I don’t make it back to my PhD institution very often. Life just doesn’t take me that direction more than once every year or two, and that’s okay. I’m fine with the nostalgic, honey-glow tinge of contentment and wistfulness I feel when I retrace part of my old commute or come within a few blocks of the place.
Last week, I went back as an invited guest – a panel discussant, no less!- which really felt like getting to go home. The whole afternoon was far too short and I saw too few people, but for a couple of hours, I basked in the feeling of being back on campus, back in a world that was – even at its toughest moments – one I loved dearly.
There was also this new, unfamiliar sense of feeling like I’d accomplished something. After eight years, none of the graduate students are the same ones I knew (which is good!). The faculty are still there, their offices somewhat smaller and less intimidating than I recall. I retraced my steps in one of my favorite buildings. I almost went into the (newly remodeled) library, but stopped myself because my memories are better. I paused outside the entrance of the history building, and for a moment, it almost felt like I was heading back to class as a student again.
Last week, I came back to talk to current graduate students about teaching K-12 with a PhD. This is the type of professional development that didn’t exist when I was going through – we heard lots of talks from professors, and lots of job talks from prospective hires, but the department – and the school – never provided resources for thinking about jobs outside of academia.
We were on the cusp of all that, even if the department didn’t fully recognize it yet: some of my cohort and the cohorts around me went into academia, but several of us became K-12 teachers. As I finished my dissertation, plenty of people were starting to talk about so-called #alt-ac jobs and working outside of academia, the beginnings of conversations about what you can do with a history PhD. It’s only in the past few years, however, that there’s been sustained efforts to help students explore their options more fully.
There’s still a lot to do, but on Friday, I came home again, this time as a graduate who’s been successful in her career, flourished, even managed to get a little writing in, and, well – if I didn’t get the career everyone talked about when I was doing my PhD, I certainly got a career that was right for me.
We K-12 teachers spend a lot of time teaching, but we don’t often get to spend time talking about what that career looks like. Over the course of two hours, the other panelists and I dove deep, telling the students about the schools where we teach, explaining what our daily lives look like, answering the grad students’ questions, and generally trying to demystify all we do. We tried to offer resources and things to think about, putting ourselves, just a bit, back in the shoes we used to wear, thinking of what might have helped us back when we were on the other side of the table.
I don’t know whether any of these graduate students will decide to seriously consider a career teaching in independent schools, but I am happy to know that people are inviting in conversations and getting students to think beyond the tenure track.
Eight years ago, I helped open a door. It wasn’t anything new; after all, the other panelists have been teaching much longer than I have. But every time a graduate student steps through a different doorway, we help expand the possibilities for those who haven’t yet arrived.
And we’ll leave a light on, always happy to come home again to share what we’ve learned and help others find the path that suits them.