Creative Control

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We cannot teach everything.

I learned this during a world history graduate seminar years ago. I hadn’t thought about the challenges of teaching world history until then, but there it was, staring us all down: what do you teach when you can’t teach everything? How do you decide what stays and what goes?

How do you shape the narrative?

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Writing And Teaching About Difficult Subjects

Recently a tweet on #Twitterstorians caught my eye:

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Tweet from @JohnRosinbum: A student just asked me, “In research how do you deal with reading depressing things?” Any help #twitterstorians?

I replied twice, but soon realized there was so much more to say.

I’m a historian of the Atlantic Slave Trade. There’s nothing but depressing things in my research and writing. Just when I think I’ve bottomed out on the amount of cruelty humans can inflict on one another, I find a new, more grotesque piece of evidence that proves me wrong. After a decade of researching this, you would think that I would grow numb to it, but I haven’t. Some days are definitely harder than others.

Our political climate compounds that- I know for certain that the racism pervasive in every element of our society today comes from what I’m studying- the horror of slavery for which we as a nation have never fully taken responsibility. The racism perpetuates itself because we haven’t had any reconciliation. We tell our children that we are all equal, and expect the descendants of our enslaved populations to pretend that the very real trauma they still face as the result of this history is all in the past and best forgotten. This perpetuates the mental violence of our slave society, to the detriment of all Americans now.

So when I see these depressing things in my source material, the weight of the terribleness is magnified. Not only am I crushed for the people who never had a voice, never had justice, but I’m so conscious of how this unaddressed act of violence I’m reading about reverberates into the present.  Our current systemic racism is made possible by these millions of historic acts of race-based violence that went unaddressed.

So what do I do with information like that?

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Autumnal Reveries

I’ve felt restless this month, caught between one thing and another, going here and there, completing work, finding new tasks, never quite feeling done. It is a month of muchness: three days of parent-student-teacher conferences and four consecutive weeks of assessment after assessment to read and mark. October is that time of the school year, when we come into our own as students and teachers, reaching into potential more deeply than we did when the leaves were still green and our minds turned back to summer.

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Nobody Wants to Change

Generally, people don’t like it when you tell them they need to change.

They really don’t like it when you tell them how to do it.

They might grudgingly do it when they recognize you are right, but the world will be a little duller for it.

At this year’s Southern Festival of Books, everyone seemed to be ruminating on these truths in one way or another. Without having planned it, most authors I got to hear speak and read kept circling back to this idea that those who most desperately need to change are also the most resistant to it.

A few even took stabs at figuring out what to do about this. I was so drawn especially to Nicole Krauss, whose latest book, Forest Dark, is about the courage to turn from the certainty of self, toward the unknown in hope of personal transformation.

She said (and I’m paraphrasing- it’s possible this isn’t exactly how she said it, but it’s how I heard it) that the self is a narrative- a story we tell ourselves, and are told, since we were small children. This means that the story is much more flexible than we think. When the narrative we tell ourselves stretches too tight and limits who we are or who we can become, it’s entirely possible to enlarge our sense of self.

But so few people do this, because changing is terrifying and it is stigmatized. It’s embarrassing to concede that we have grown into a corner and must now take a different direction. It’s doubly embarrassing to be told what to do in that moment of personal crisis.

In the end, you’ll change when you have no other choice. And when it’s time to change, what do you need? Continue reading “Nobody Wants to Change”

Drafting the First US Nomination to the UNESCO Slave Route Project: Nashville’s Fort Negley

The other day, I did something terrifying.  I gave my professional opinion as a historian in front of an overflowing room at a televised Parks Board Meeting. I had the honor of speaking about one of the most rewarding and illuminating things I have done for history in a while: completing the involved research for the nomination of a local landmark, the Union Civil War Fort Negley, to the UNESCO Slave Route Project. If accepted, Fort Negley will become the first US site, ever, to earn this monumental designation.

…which is a big deal, because the park that the Fort sits on is slated for a controversial development that has consumed local and state news for months. This meeting drew a huge crowd of people concerned about the sale of city land to private developers at the expense of this fort and its history.

My relationship with this fort is as long as my relationship to Nashville itself. When I first moved here in 2007, I lived in a house with a few others in the neighborhood of historic Edgehill. When grad school got stressful, I would climb up to the ruins of Fort Negley, and sit under one of the trees there, soaking up the peace and quiet. To be able to see Nashville’s skyline but not hear many of the city’s noises felt like a luxury.  I would daydream and doze and if I let my brain relax and I squinted just right, I could see the way the fort looked when it was first built.

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Interpretive marker for the African American Laborers who built Fort Negley, at the Fort Negley Visitors Center, sponsored by the Robert Penn Warren Center at Vanderbilt University.

The tree behind me would have still been a sapling. I pictured the soldiers, in sweat-stained blue union uniforms, pulling cannons up the hills, and the laborers digging ditches in the hot sun. I could imagine the charge of the Confederate army’s attempt to storm the hill, smell the burning gunpowder, and hear the scrambling of people and horses as they moved defenses into place. Before moving to the US, the Civil War was just a series of films for me, but at Fort Negley, it felt real for the first time. I felt a special sense of wonder about this secret jewel of a place hidden in plain sight.

At the time I was only 23. I had an undergraduate degree in history and religious studies, and a year of museum work under my belt. With even that limited experience in public history, it struck me as odd that the city had not made more of such an important place. Where were the historical interpreters? The tours? Merchandise? Displays for all the artifacts found? Why wasn’t there a twice-daily reenactment for tourists?

It wasn’t until I completed my PhD in history at Vanderbilt in 2014 that I understood how Fort Negley, a union stronghold built by conscripted and escaped slaves, and defended by the US Colored Troops, had been allowed to purposely languish by the same people in this city who continue to try to rewrite history.
Continue reading “Drafting the First US Nomination to the UNESCO Slave Route Project: Nashville’s Fort Negley”

Summer Living, Teacher-Style

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a teacher approaching the end of the school year must be in dire need of summer break.
Not Jane Austen, but close

This spring, the end of the school year crept up on me. I spent months being in denial that we had blown past spring break and were approaching the end of the year. At the start of May, a piece of me still imagined I’d get to continue for weeks more with my students, exploring this or that topic.

(I’m confident none of them envisioned spending their summers that way.)

At the end of May, I completed my sixth year as a high school teacher. I’ve now spent as many years teaching as I spent working on my PhD. There is something really cool about that, and also totally impossible to think that it’s been a dozen years since I began grad school.

In these six years, I’ve approached summer a variety of ways. I’ve chaperoned trips, done PD weeks at various programs, drafted a book, presented at a conference, and spent a little downtime with family.

Every single year has also involved a lot of lesson planning, at least in the last two weeks. It’s just what I do: I get my head away from school a bit, breathe, and come back to planning courses when everything is a little fresher in my mind.

1338776063923_5400305Last year, I was exhausted when June hit. This year was different. A lot of my colleagues were exhausted, physically and emotionally. I should have been exhausted, too: it’s certainly where I was in January and in February and even before spring break in March. But when the students left this past May, I was ready to look ahead to next year. I usually don’t do a lot of prep in June, but this year, I wanted to work on things while they were fresh in my mind and I was energized.

In the month of June, I was on campus almost every single weekday, keeping pretty close to usual school hours (plus some). In part, I went to campus each day because my son’s preschool is only a couple of miles from there (our house is much further away, and I do afternoon pickup). I get a quiet place to work, surrounded by books and space, and I maximize my work time since it takes only 5-10 minutes to get to the preschool (instead of leaving 30 minutes in advance from home).

Campus is quiet in the summer, but not totally silent.  In addition to the summer camp kids running through the halls periodically, you eventually discover that you’re not the only one sneaking in a little work. A few other teachers snuck on to campus to get some work done, and some of the staff are still around (and happy to enjoy a good lunch elsewhere, like a local German-American restaurant, or all-you-can-eat sushi).

b86cf7a41d08f31aca61ac17892979a11I love planning courses and classes in the summer because you get these uninterrupted stretches of thinking space: no assignments to grade, no classes to cover for someone else. No meetings with faculty or students, no daily obligations in between your classes. If you’re really good at getting stuff done without someone making you do it, well, summer is a magical time to imagine what the next year could be and start to build that reality.

I love what I do. Spending my time on campus this month – and a lot of spare time reading and thinking about courses – hasn’t felt like work. It’s just felt natural, and fun. Thinking about courses and how they’re organized, articulating the course standards, rethinking assessments, and setting goals and class plans? These are some of the fun puzzles that make me happy in my career.

So far, this summer is incredible. I haven’t yet accomplished the big goals I set for myself, but I’m discovering some good things that I think will help me be a better teacher next year.

No matter how we spend the summer, I hope that’s the goal all teachers have in mind.

Note: Tanya pre-wrote this entry because she’s chaperoning a school trip for two weeks. She looks forward to telling you more about it when she gets back in mid-July. This gives her plenty of time to fine-tune her courses for the fall, which she’s already itching to get back to.