As part of our Martin Luther King, Jr. Day observances, our school took the entire boarding community to view the film Selma. As a history teacher with an avowed interest in civil rights history (not to mention an Alabama native), I was asked to give a short talk providing some historical background during our morning assembly, especially for those students in 9th and 10th grade who may not be quite as familiar with the civil rights movement. Here’s what I wrote:

The setting for the film you’re going to see tonight is Selma, Alabama in 1965. To give you a sense of the historical context for this film, we must keep in mind that this twenty years after the end of World War II. Those twenty years were exciting ones, if a little scary: it was during that time that the United States had become the wealthiest country on the planet, and the nation was in the thick of Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union.

It was also during this time that what we today know as the civil rights movement emerged into national consciousness. African Americans, particularly in the South, had been advocating for their full rights as American citizens for decades (if not centuries), but it was in the wake of World War II that these scattered efforts became a full-fledged social movement.

There are a few key ideas I think you all should understand before you see this movie. As African American men returned home from war, having fought overseas in defense of democracy, they began to raise the question much more vocally of why they should be expected to fight and die for democracy in Europe or Asia when they were denied democracy at home in America. Despite the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments (which granted African Americans citizenship and the right to vote, respectively) at the end of the Civil War, white southerners had effectively denied those rights through a number of legal tricks, as well as through intimidation and physical violence. Without representation in government, southern states had passed extensive legislation (known as “Jim Crow laws”) that segregated African Americans from the white population and often relegated them to an economic and social condition not that different from slavery in some ways.

In 1946, a World War II veteran by the name of George Dorsey was murdered (along with his wife and another couple), which brought national attention to the problem. In the wake of Dorsey’s murder, then-President Harry S. Truman created a President’s Commission on Civil Rights to study the situation of black people in the United States.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (also known as the NAACP) began to challenge Jim Crow laws, especially those creating separate schools for whites and blacks. In 1954, this culminated in the famous Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, in which the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously held that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” and ordered the desegregation of American public schools. At last, the American government had signaled to African Americans that someone was listening. Of course, significant progress on the desegregation front was a long time in the making, and by some measures, one could argue that it still has not been fully achieved. But Brown v. Board is often viewed as the beginning of the “civil rights movement,” because in its wake, African Americans began to push much more assertively for their rights.

The following year, in 1955, a seamstress and activist by the name of Rosa Parks boarded a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama and took a seat near the front. When she was ordered by the white driver to move to the back of the bus so that a white passenger could have her seat, Parks refused. She was arrested for violating Montgomery’s segregation laws, sparking a black boycott of the Montgomery bus system that ultimately lasted an entire year. As the boycott got underway, local activists searched for a leader, ultimately settling on a young and relatively unknown Baptist preacher by the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. Soon, King was the public face of the boycott and would, in the years to come, become the most most recognizable figure of the entire movement.

Now, I don’t think it does any disrespect to Dr. King to point out that although we celebrate today as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, there were hundreds of other leaders of the civil rights movement, and thousands of people who put their lives and their livelihoods at risk to participate in the various boycotts, sit-ins, marches, and other actions that would dramatize the plight of southern blacks in the media.

As the civil rights movement progressed, King and his followers promoted what they called non-violent direct action. Often, they intentionally violated segregation laws in hopes of eliciting a violent response from the local authorities and gaining media attention for their cause. Often, this strategy worked perfectly. Occasionally—as in Albany, Georgia in 1961 and 1962—it did not. There, Police Chief Laurie Pritchett had read King’s books and studied his tactics, and Pritchett simply enforced the laws without violence. Because there was no dramatic conflict to play on television, the media gave the movement there little attention.

Still, demonstrations spread across the South, and in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. The Civil Rights Act outlawed many forms of segregation, but King and others believed that without the right to vote, African Americans would continue to suffer at the hands of whites.

King and his fellow leaders learned from their mistakes in Albany, and as the movement gained strength, they made the conscious decision to target cities with law enforcement known for their violent response. By 1965, they had identified Selma as a prime target for a march, and the focus of their efforts there would be voting rights in particular.

This brings us to the film.

My wife and I saw the film a couple of weeks ago, and I can tell you that it is powerful. For me, it has some personal significance. First, my mother was actually born in Selma in 1953—twelve years before the events depicted in the film. Although she and her family had moved away by 1965, they still lived in Alabama, and I grew up hearing her stories about that time and place. Those stories are ultimately what led me to pursue a two degrees in history, and when I was in graduate school at the University of Alabama, I did a lot of research on a very poor rural county about an hour and a half from Selma. In the 1960s, African Americans accounted for about 80% of the population of Greene County, Alabama, but the local government was all white. The banks and most businesses were white-owned as well, so whites had a pretty firm grip on the local economy. The schools remained completely segregated until 1965—the same year as the events in the film, and eleven years after Brown v. Board—and even then, only one black student (a girl named Mattye Hutton) was enrolled in the previously all-white high school. As soon as this happened, white families began to send their children to a newly formed private school called Warrior Academy.

By the end of the decade, though, things had begun to change. As a result of the actions you will see in the film today, African Americans did claim their constitutional right to vote, and in the elections of 1969, Greene County was one of the first counties in the South to elect a majority-black government. One of the first things the new school board did was to fire the superintendent—allegedly because he refused to allow a school program celebrating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who had been assassinated the previous year.

So in that sense, the events in Selma were a success. They did contribute directly to the passage of the Voting Rights Act and made it possible for African Americans to elect officials who would be sensitive to their needs and concerns. But let’s be clear: This story is not all rainbows and sunshine. For all the progress made as a result of the civil rights movement—and there has been much progress—the story does not end with King’s untimely death.

Warrior Academy did not admit its first black student until 2004—fully fifty years after the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board. Even today, we need only look at the headlines to see that injustices still exist: after all, Michael Brown and Eric Garner became household names in 2014. And here are a couple of other statistics that may startle you: Despite representing only 30% of the U.S. population, people of color make up roughly 60% of those in prison. On top of that, voter laws in many states permanently deny some convicted felons the right to vote, even after they have served their prison sentences. What this means is that in those states, more than ten percent of their voting-age African American population is actually ineligible to vote.[*]

So here’s a final thought that struck me as the credits rolled on Selma. In 1965, when he led the marches there, Martin Luther King, Jr. was in his mid-thirties—not that much older than me. Realizing this caused me to reflect on what I’m doing with my life. Am I standing up for the causes I believe in? Too often, I’m afraid, I’m not. Life is too busy; or maybe I’m just too scared to speak up.

John Lewis, another individual you’ll meet in the film, is now entering his twenty-ninth year as a member of Congress—a position he would not even been allowed to vote for, let alone serve in, prior to Selma. In 1965, John Lewis was in his twenties—not that much older than you.

So to me, that’s what this movie is all about—really, what this day is all about: it is an opportunity to reflect on some very important questions. What do you stand for? What kind of life do you want to lead? On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we have an obligation to honor the sacrifices made not only by King, but by the thousands of others who marched alongside him. To do that, I think, we must look not only to the past, but to the future as well. So what are the causes that spur you to action? We don’t necessarily have to put our lives at risk as the marchers in Selma did, but if we don’t work to make the world a better place—if we live only for ourselves, in other words—we will have failed those who paved the road we travel.

Thank you, and I hope you all enjoy Selma as much as I did.



I’ve been thinking lately about how we educators (whether explicitly or implicitly) often encourage students to spread themselves too thin. Part of this is the insanely competitive college admissions race. But another part of it is simply our well-meaning desire for kids to experience the richness of life. I was that kid once–getting good grades, playing sports, being in school clubs, doing community service, working a part-time job, playing in the school jazz band as well as a garage band with my friends, spending hours on video games, going to the movies, staying up late talking to my girlfriend (now wife) on the phone, throwing tailgate parties with my friends, etc., etc. You get the idea.

Just the other day, though, I had a conversation with one of my classes about how I’m finally realizing–now that I’m in my thirties–that I can’t do it all. My interests are still as wide-ranging as ever, but the realities of work and home life mean that I just don’t have the time (or the energy) to pursue everything that tickles my fancy. And I’m struggling with that.

A couple of things I’ve read recently brought this idea to the fore. First: “The Unending Anxiety of an ICYMI World” from the New York Times. ICYMI (in case you missed it), the gist of the article is the fact that the ever-increasing amount of content available on the web means that we’re caught in a perpetual “catch up” mode. For me, this is no doubt the case. Twitter, blog subscriptions, the NextIssue app for iPad, my constantly growing Amazon wishlist, Netflix, etc., etc. Again, you get the idea.

The other source that provoked this line of thought was Mark Crotty’s recent post “Death of the Blog?” In it, Crotty writes:

For me the best blog posts have a meditative quality, as if the writer has peeled back his or her scalp and allowed you to see the neurons firing. Such posts echo the origins of the essay, its name derived from the Middle French essayer, which means to examine and to test. Part of the power lies in the struggle to construct that scaffolding, and it’s why we hold in awe those who can do it so gracefully that we read the words and they seem so natural, so easy, so much what we want to say…but can’t figure out how. They capture humans at their reflective best.

This struck a chord with me. As I wrote in my very first post on this blog, “I hope that this blog will be a forum where I can ‘wonder aloud,’ so to speak, about the things that arouse my curiosity, most notably teaching and learning, history, and ideas in general.” And it has been just that. Occasionally. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to “wonder aloud” as much–or as deeply–as I would like. Blogging, like so much else, often feels extraneous. I do value it, but then again, I value lots of activities, and there are so many that feel much more urgent than blogging.

These days, the struggle at the forefront of my mind revolves around basketball. I’m the head JV boys’ basketball coach this year. I’ve invested significant time learning (re-learning) the game over the last couple of years, but as our season progresses, I’m realizing every day just how much I still don’t know. And here’s the thing: I don’t know if I want to. I do enjoy coaching basketball, and I enjoy learning the intricacies of the game, but to become a truly successful coach at the high school level would take a serious commitment of time and energy. And I just don’t know if I want to make that investment.

The nature of working in boarding schools is that you’re often required to be a jack-of-all-trades, but in how many realms can we be truly competent? I can be a passable basketball coach (depending on how one defines “passable”). But I don’t know if I can be great–at least not while still doing all of the other parts of my job well. In fact, I don’t think any of us can truly do it all well. And if we try (as many of us in boarding schools do), what is the cost? What is the cost in terms of our family lives? In terms of our longevity in our careers? In terms of our health?

And how do we apply these questions to our schools and our students?

I recommend the following articles from the past month:

Graeme Wood, “The Future of College?The Atlantic (September 2014)

Sara Mosle, “Building Better Teachers,” The Atlantic (September 2014)

Ben Hewitt, “We Don’t Need No Education,” Outside (September 2014)

Brenda Santos, “Embracing the Challenge of the New AP U.S. History Exam,” Perspectives on History: The Newsmagazine of the American Historical Association (September 2014)

Nathan Heller, “Poison Ivy,” New Yorker (September 1, 2014)

Michael Muhammad Knight, “I understand why Westerners are joining jihadi movements like ISIS. I was almost one of them,” Washington Post (September 3, 2014)

Alexis Okeowo, “Freedom Fighter,” New Yorker (September 8, 2014)

Joe Dejka, “New AP history course outline takes flak from the right,” Omaha World-Herald (September 13, 2014)

Nick Paumgarten, “Take Picture,” New Yorker (September 15, 2014)

I was talking with a colleague today, and he said something very simple that nevertheless made me stop and think. He said of one student, “He does his work. He’s not going to do any more than than he has to, of course, but he gets his stuff done.” The student in question is not an academic superstar by any means, but my colleague is right: he does his work.

I’ve had countless students like this over the years, but for some reason, I never stopped to think about in quite this way. As our conversation continued to play in my head this evening, it occurred to me that we don’t really have a label for students like this. We have our “overachievers” and our “underachievers,” but we rarely talk about the kids who are simply “achievers.”

I wonder why. It’s as if simply achieving is not enough. To be worthy of our attention (that is: teachers’, college admissions officers’, prospective employers’), you can’t just do what you’re supposed to do. You have to do more. How much more? As much as you can, of course. And if you do more, we’re going to push you to do even more than that. More, more, always more. Are kids so wrong to say, “No thanks, not for me. I’m good with a C if it means I get to enjoy my life a bit during these four years of high school?”

As an educator and on a certain level, I get it. This is Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development in action. Except when it’s not. Sometimes, we’re not expanding kids’ comfort zones. Sometimes, we’re simply pushing to see just how much kids can handle. (And, oh yeah, because we “have to” sort them into honors classes, elite colleges, and competitive labor markets.) And we wonder why “kids these days” are grade-grubbing, perfectionist, careerist, etc., etc., etc. As Denise Pope argued in her book Doing School, it seems that we are indeed creating “a generation of stressed-out, materialistic, and miseducated students.”

I haven’t posted much here in a long while. My last post detailed the reasons for my last hiatus. I’ll be far less descriptive this time. Suffice it to say, the new job (I guess it’s not so new anymore) doesn’t leave much time for blogging. Or rather, that kind of time is not readily apparent in my schedule; it must be carved out. I don’t know that I’ll do any better this time around, but I do miss writing, so I hope to try.

Year 2 in the “new” school is well underway, and I can already tell a difference. I’m more comfortable with the culture and the personalities, more confident in my interactions with both students and colleagues. I’m also teaching a new course (theology) for the first time this year, which has proven thus far to be invigorating, and I will serve as the head coach of the JV basketball team. All in all, there’s a lot going on.

Last year was a blur, and in some ways, a rather rude awakening. Having spent five years teaching at an all-girls school (and mostly teaching junior and senior girls, at that), I suddenly found myself in classrooms and a dormitory hall full of freshman boys. Talk about a culture shock! As I’ve come to tell people, the difference–in terms of maturity–between an 18 year-old girl and a 14 year-old boy is not four years; it’s about ten! So the past year has been an eye-opening experience, for sure. I’ve been forced to confront my deeply held beliefs about education, and at times, I’ve found some of them wanting. I had grown too comfortable in my previous school, I think, and though there are aspects of that job that I miss quite a bit, I believe that stepping out of my comfort zone has forced me to become a better teacher.

One adjustment–though it comes as no surprise–is the lack of time and mental/emotional distance that comes with working at a boarding school. During the three years that I lived off-campus at my previous school, I was a much better teacher (in the strictly academic sense) because I had more control over my evenings. I could plan more thoughtfully and reflect more regularly on my classroom practice. But the beautiful opportunity (and challenge) of boarding schools is that teaching is rarely defined in strictly academic terms. Over the past year, I’ve found it rewarding to have difficult conversations with students about their lives outside the classroom, and at times, I wonder if those types of interactions will not have a greater impact that what I teach in the classroom. I suspect they might. Despite the adjustment, I’ve also found it rewarding to help boys as they mature into young men. I’m increasingly coming to believe that schools and society are not generally friendly places for teenage boys, and they need help as they learn what it means to be a man. But that’s another post for another day.

So it’s been almost a year since I lasted posted here, and much has changed since that time. When I last posted (early December 2012), I was anticipating a busy spring. Little did I know. Things always seem to get busy in February with the start of baseball season (check the blog’s archives–or lack thereof–for evidence of this phenomenon), and on top of that, I was gearing up for a national job search.

Shortly after that post, job referrals started coming in, and we were off to the races. Between writing approximately 60 cover letters to schools all over the country, doing numerous phone/Skype interviews, traveling for three hiring fairs (Atlanta, Atlanta, and Boston) and six campus interviews (Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, Virginia, North Carolina, and Virginia), baseball, and–oh, yeah–teaching a full courseload, the spring flew by. The end result of all of that, though, was that I found a great new opportunity, and my wife and I are excited to be back in our home state.

I had started my search with a three-pronged mission: 1) to find a school with a baseball program where I could teach and coach–as opposed to teaching in one school and coaching in another, which had been the norm for me; 2) to find a school that was very intentional in its curricular design and committed to a more constructivist approach to education; and 3) to find a school that was, ideally, in Virginia. As my travelogue above indicates, I was willing to settle for two out of three, but in the end, I found an opportunity that accomplished all three. I feel like I hit the jackpot with my new school. (I wasn’t necessarily committed to boarding schools, but I did see rejoining a residential community as a definite plus. Make it a fourfecta!)

I remember spotting this particular opportunity on the NAIS job board. It was the end of my Spring Break, and I had just completed three campus interviews in three different states in four days, and I was exhausted and ready to put the search in the rear view mirror. Although I liked all of the schools that I visited that week, I vividly remember saying to my wife, “Well, I just found the job I really want.” I submitted my resume, and from there, things moved pretty quickly.

Of course, once I accepted the position, the focus shifted from finding a job to planning a move. That meant making all of the little repairs to our house that suddenly seemed more urgent, interviewing realtors and preparing the house for market, and hiring movers. It also meant figuring out the housing situation here on campus, and paring down our belongings as we moved from a 3BR/2BA house with a deck, a garage, and an attic to a 2BR/2BA apartment with a small porch and no deck or attic. Then it meant shuttling across the North Carolina/Virginia border several times as we painted the new apartment, moved valuable or fragile belongings ourselves, and closed on the sale of our house. (Fortunately, our house sold quickly and relatively painlessly–no small relief given the housing market woes over the last few years.)

Once we were moved in and unpacked (early August), my attention shifted to planning for the school year. I usually spend a significant portion of July pulling together ideas/resources/etc. for the year ahead, so the start to this year felt a little like I was flying blind, but it’s gone OK. (Does this mean that perhaps I don’t have to work quite so hard in the summer anymore? That would be a nice “bonus” after five years in the classroom.)

Anyway, needless to say, there hasn’t been much time for blogging. However, we’re now–more or less–settled into our new place, the school year is rolling along relatively smoothly, and I’ve been itching to write again. Given that I’m back on the dorm duty rotation and will be helping out with JV basketball in addition to baseball, there’s a good chance that the busy season will start in November instead of February. With that in mind, I don’t know how long my regular posts here will last this time around, but I’m looking forward to getting back to using this as a place where I can “wonder aloud” about teaching and education in general.

The Learning Pond, “Template for Faculty Poster Conference via St. Andrew’s, Potomac”
“Poster sessions have been a cornerstone of academic conferences in many disciplines for decades – but not education. And this is strange because it is a perfect forum to share, examine and reflect on the work we do. This event not only professionalizes our pedagogy, but it also encourages an informal, creative space and time for conversations among colleagues to happen. This event is a beacon and a forum. It inspires us to keep rigorously and enthusiastically addressing that fundamental question, ‘what is great teaching?'”

Granted, but…, “On Feedback: 13 practical examples per your requests”
“As readers may know, my article on feedback in the September edition of Educational Leadership has been one of the most widely read and downloaded articles of the year, according to ASCD data. That’s gratifying feedback! . . . But numerous people have also written saying that while they liked the piece, they wished that I had provided more specific examples of how to design in such feedback, how it all works in practice. So: Voila! Below, find thirteen examples of how teachers have made feedback (as opposed to advice and evaluation) more central to their work with students.”

New York Times, “Regrets of an Accomplished Child”
“I was one of the middling sort, endowed with a reasonable amount of natural ability. But, I figured, if all went according to my carefully hatched plan, I could graduate with all my “to do” boxes neatly checked off, my teachers impressed if not wowed, and the ultimate achievement: an acceptance letter from the Ivy League college of my choice. It all went as planned. I didn’t learn much of anything.”

The Historical Society, “San Francisco, the 1906 Earthquake, the Progressive Era”
“San Francisco has become for me the quintessential Progressive Era city for another reason, too. In 1905, a photographer attached a camera to a trolley car traveling along Market Street. The result was a nine-minute recording of urban life before the reforms of the Progressive Era. There are no stop signs, no traffic lights. Children are playing in the streets and running in front of the cars. People are walking, horses are pulling carts, and automobiles are in a free-for-all on undivided roads. It makes you realize how many of the world we take for granted today was, in fact, a product of the efforts of reformers to draw up some rules to make the modern world safer.”

The New York Times, “A School Distanced from Technology Faces Its Intrusion”
“Past the chicken coop and up a hill, in a spot on campus where the wooden buildings of the Mountain School can seem farther away than the mountains of western New Hampshire, there sometimes can be found a single bar, sometimes two, of cellphone reception. The spot, between the potato patch and a llama named Nigel, is something of an open secret at the school in this remote corner of Vermont where simplicity is valued over technology. ‘We’re at the periphery of civilization here,’ said Doug Austin, a teacher. But that is about to change.”

Blogg-ed Indetermination, “Left to Their Own Devices”
“But schools are foremost places of learning and teaching and the role of IT is to facilitate rather than to encumber these ends. Given the role that technology plays in the lives of teachers and students it therefore makes sense that IT departments provide a safe haven in which its users to become self-sufficient, confident managers of digital devices. Yes, some users may screw up their computers. Some may inadvertently download a computer virus. And I can practically guarantee that many users will store personal data on their computers. But I also know that if you treat people with respect and given them responsibility that the vast majority will demonstrate that they deserve your trust.”

Education Rethink, “Post-Election Thought”
“What if the other side isn’t heartless or lazy or even misinformed? What if they simply see the world differently and cannot fathom the notion that you have the same end in mind: a healthy, strong, free, safe nation? This isn’t a call to put aside our differences. If anything, I think it might be a time to clarify the big questions about the role of government in our lives and what that means in both social and economic terms. Howeevr, this is a call to recognize that the differences in worldview do not mean the other side is inherently evil.”

it’s about learning, “Gijs van Wulfen’s map for innovation”

The History Channel This Is Not…, “Historical Haikus – Final Exam Edition”
“So, I just finished administering my Fall Trimester final exams and am now in the midst of grinding through the grading in order to maximize my holiday merriment. However, I stole an extra credit idea from one of my colleagues who had offered a few additional points on the exam for writing pertinent historical haikus. This idea turned out great, as a number of students wrote very entertaining and some pretty insightful haikus. I’ve posted a number of them below, and for the sake of haiku fidelity, I omitted any that veered from the syllable pattern in spite of the fact that some of those were really good. . . .

Sparta and Athens,
Fighting over their power,
Caused damage to both.

Away with the knights
And down with Feudalism
Renaissance begins.”

The Historical Society, “Christmas Creep and Other Joyous Holiday Traditions”
“Remember the time when Christmas was simple and less commercial, when you could step out of your door into a Currier and Ives print.  No?  How about a $29 Thomas Kinkade ‘Memories of Christmas’ print?  Precisely.  One of the greatest of all holiday traditions is recalling a holiday seasonhistorian Stephen Nissenbaum reminds us in his superb book, The Battle For Christmas—that never existed at all.”

John Fea’s Virtual Office Hours

it’s about learning, “Brain Food: Education @Unboundary”
“We also enter this challenge offering Brain Food: a proven approach for shifting the din of idea-sharing into a useful design-thinking discussion. Brain Food is curated provocation. It is both question and answer. It is both perspective and focus. We welcome you to Volume One, Number One of Unboundary’s Education Brain Food. And we look forward to the discussion it opens among us.”

Seth’s Blog, “Non-profits have a charter to be innovators”
“The biggest, best-funded non profits have an obligation to be leaders in innovation, but sometimes they hesitate. . . . The magic of their status is that no one is expecting a check back, or a quarterly dividend. They’re expecting a new, insightful method that will solve the problem once and for all. Go fail. And then fail again. Non-profit failure is too rare, which means that non-profit innovation is too rare as well. Innovators understand that their job is to fail, repeatedly, until they don’t.”


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