Education, History, Race, USA

What Critical Race Theory looks like in my Social Studies classroom

One of the last units of study in the high school U.S. History course I taught this year was the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.  This unit functions as somewhat of a culmination of our study of the racial/racist history of the United States—a study that includes the colonization/extermination of indigenous peoples, the importation of the first black slaves, the debates over slavery at the Constitutional Convention, the growth of that institution through territorial expansion, the Civil War that abolished it, the system of Jim Crow that replaced it, and all the other ways that race and racism have manifested themselves as important historical phenomena in this country’s history. 

Our study of the Civil Rights Movement focuses predominately on the non-violent protests of those decades that lead to both concrete judicial and legislative victories as well as sweeping changes in the racial attitudes of white Americans.  However, my students and I conclude the unit by confronting a sobering reality: The Civil Rights Movement made significant progress, but it also left a lot of unfinished business. 

To illustrate this point, we read an article that enumerates the significant racial disparities that still exist today, particularly in regards to economics and education.  These disparities are not ideological inventions.  They are measurable and objective facts, and as I say to the kids, there are two ways to explain them. 

Explanation #1: The racial inequality that still exists today exists because there is something wrong with black people.  There is something about their race or their culture that prevents them from achieving educationally or economically at the same level as whites. The problem with this explanation is that it is literally racist.  It literally ascribes to black people some sort of shortcoming or inferiority that is rooted in the color of their skin.  Luckily, for those who believe in the inherent equality and potentiality of all human beings regardless of skin color—who believe that, everything else equal, black people, white people, and people of any race or color would all succeed and struggle at roughly the same rates—there is another explanation. 

Explanation #2:  The racial inequality that still exists today exists as a result of the historical and/or modern-day societal forces that produced it.  The racial disparities that exist in our country are not and have never been “natural”.  They were intentionally manufactured by a country literally founded on the idea of white supremacy—an idea that was built up and fortified over centuries through the history outlined above.  And while achievements during and since the Civil Rights Movement have dealt great blows to the system of white supremacy, we still very much live with that system’s legacy, and live with a current system that, despite many well-intentioned actors, continues to produce racist results. 

The above paragraph is a great representation of what Critical Race Theory looks like in practice—seeking to explain how structures and systems work to produce the racial inequities that have existed throughout history and that continue to exist today.  It also shines a light on the absurdity of one of the primary attacks levied against Critical Race Theory by its opponents: That it teaches white students that they are all a bunch of racists. 

In my classroom, this could not be further from the truth.  I don’t teach my white students that they are perpetrators of racism any more than I teach my students of color that they need to feel like victims.  Instead, I am trying to help all of my students understand the systemic nature of why people of color—particularly blacks—are more likely to live in poverty, to struggle in school, and to be incarcerated than people who are white.  As writer and researcher Clint Smith said:

“Critical Race Theory is not…thinking about an individual and their relationship to race or racism or their own relationship to their skin, necessarily.  It’s not concerned with what’s in their heart or their interiority.  What it is asking of us is to recognize the ways that racism has shaped what…the contemporary landscape of inequality looks like.   To understand that the reason one community looks one way and another community looks another way is not because of the people in those communities, but it is because largely of what has been done to those communities—the resources that have been given or taken away from those communities generation after generation after generation.”

In this sense, an understanding of Critical Race Theory can actually be quite liberating for the not-racist individual.  It can help not-racist cops and judges understand how they can be part of a criminal justice system that disproportionately targets black people.  It can help not-racist elected representatives and government officials understand how they can be part of a political system whose policies and legislation perpetuate racial inequities.  And it can help not-racist teachers (like me!) understand how they can be part of an educational system that continues to underserve its black students.  Critical Race Theory does not assume our complicity as individuals in any of the racist results that these systems produce.  It does, however, beg the question of what we as individuals and as a larger society should do about it. 

To answer this question, I have my students participate in a Socratic Seminar in which we discuss potential solutions.  The beliefs and attitudes shared by students run the ideological gamut, but they all start with an acknowledgement of the problem—an acknowledgement that racial disparities are a fact of history in this country, and they continue to exist today. 

And while opponents of Critical Race Theory often label it as inherently ideological or a form of indoctrination, acknowledging racial disparities is not an ideological act, no more than it is ideological to acknowledge that George Washington was our country’s first president or that World War II happened.  Acknowledging racial disparities—both historical and modern—is simply a recognition of an objective reality.  

Which is probably why I have never thought of myself as a teacher explicitly teaching Critical Race Theory.  It was part of my graduate school training, and definitely informed my philosophy in regards to the teaching of history, but it is not something I have actively or consciously considered since my official arrival to the classroom, and certainly has not been a term that I’ve used or shared with students.  That’s because to teach Critical Race Theory is simply to teach history and the role that race has played in shaping how individuals and groups have experienced this country in the past and in the present. 

I will concede that it’s not difficult for me to imagine unproductive attempts at teaching Critical Race Theory and teaching about race in general.  Not all teachers are currently equipped to tackle and teach a topic that requires so much knowledge and so much nuance.  I know I have been to plenty of social justice workshops and trainings myself that have not been done well or at times left me rolling my eyes.  But all that means is that we should continue to have conversations about how to best carry out this work, not if we should carry it out.  I also don’t think that school districts should run from the terminology.  Critical Race Theory is something that students should be learning in their Social Studies classrooms, and school districts should demonstrate both a commitment to equity and a backbone and stand by that. 

I’ve always told my students that in order to change the world, you first need to understand where that world comes from.  History gives us that understanding.  It teaches us that the world that we were born into did not fall from the sky—that the present that we inhabit is a product of the past.  This is true about every modern-day phenomenon that you can imagine, and race is no exception. 

Critical Race Theory provides students of all races with knowledge that is essential in understanding the legacy of racism that still lives and breathes in the United States today.  Critical Race Theory helps students to cultivate a true sense of patriotism that recognizes the country for both its virtues and its flaws, and sees criticism of those flaws as something that comes from a place of love that challenges the country to be better.  These are the reasons that I will continue to make Critical Race Theory an essential component of what I do in my Social Studies classroom, and I won’t apologize for doing so.  And if you’re a teacher teaching Critical Race Theory in your classroom, you shouldn’t either. 

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Education, Politics, USA

How To Brainwash a Student Trump Supporter

It was pretty clear after the first few days of school that a Trump Shop had opened up in the town where I teach.  From “Keep America Great!” hats and swim trunks to “Trump 2020” sweatshirts and COVID masks, dozens of students arrived to school decked out in election-year gear, undoubtedly hoping to trigger the snowflake teachers that run most of their classrooms.  Credit to the Trump team, I guess, for building a brand that’s hip, with it, and wow amongst a certain population of teenager trendsetters.  And while it’s true I’m dismayed by the fondness so many of my students have of our current president, I’ve also commented to colleagues that it makes it easier for me to identify the kids I need to target for political conversion. 

Much like the title of this write-up, the last line of the above paragraph is a joke. I don’t want to brainwash students.  I want to teach students to think for themselves.  If a kid chooses to believe something simply because he presumes that it’s what I believe, then I’m not doing my job. 

However, like a lot of good jokes, there is some truth to it—not in a political, “vote for Joe Biden or you fail my class!” kind of way, but in the way that so much of the essence of Donald Trump conflicts with the values that school buildings everywhere are seeking to cultivate.  There is no curricular conspiracy against Trump the president, but when it comes to many of the beliefs and behaviors that make up Trump the man, they are alarmingly antithetical to the values we want to instill in our young people. 


Donald Trump is hardly the first president capable of being less than kind, but he is also uniquely capable of being mean.  The Twitter wars that have consumed so much of Trump’s time and energy during his presidency go beyond political mudslinging.  They represent the kind of mean-spirited name-calling that we have been discouraging in our children since pre-school. 

Well before “Sleepy” Joe Biden, Trump has employed a laundry list of nicknames to mock his political opponents.  They’re “creepy”, “crooked”, “wacky”, “deranged”, “shifty”, “heartless”, “phony”, and “slimeballs” just to name a few.  He’s made fun of men for their small stature (“Little” Marco and “Mini” Mike Bloomberg), questioned the intelligence and mental stability of women (“Crazy/Low IQ” Maxine Waters and Gretchen “Half-Whitmer”), and continually insulted indigenous Americans with his use of the name “Pocahontas” to mock Elizabeth Warren.  They have a name for this kind of stuff in elementary school—it’s called bullying.

To be sure, Trump is also the recipient of his fair share of mean-spirited mockery, which should be discouraged, as well.  Especially those insults that have no place in politics like disparaging Trump for his physical appearance.  However, while cheap insults are to be expected from liberal comedians and late-night talk show hosts, they should not be the norm for the occupant of the Oval Office.  And in a school setting where we work hard to help students resolve their differences civilly, it’s not helpful that the conflict resolution modelled by a president whom so many students look up to is mostly made up of language that would land him in the principal’s office.


Leadership is important in our schools on many levels.  It is important for teachers to show students what it means to be an adult and a professional. It is important for older students and student leaders to be good role models for younger students and impressionable peers.  And it often involves carrying yourself in a certain way in a public setting that might differ slightly from how you carry yourself in a private one. 

The current pandemic is a great example.  Like most Americans, I’m pretty imperfect when it comes to the practice of mask-wearing and social distancing in my personal life.  And while I’m a firm believer in the gravity of this virus and the necessity of these measures to limit its spread, I’m sure that in a school building of hundreds of professionals, there are those who are more skeptical.

Nevertheless, when it comes to our collective time on the clock, I have seen nothing but the utmost professionalism from my colleagues.  Mask-wearing, social distancing, and regular cleaning of hands and surfaces are employed in every corner of the building per the mandates and guidance provided by the state.  Even the students have been remarkable in their compliance with procedures that many of them question and none of them enjoy.  Sure, I’ve had to occasionally tell students to please pull up their masks, but overall, I’ve been extremely impressed with the willingness of young people to do their part to help keep our school opened during the pandemic. 

Which is more than I can say for our president.  It took the president months to explicitly endorse mask-wearing—an endorsement largely undermined by all the skepticism he had already sewn about the pandemic’s severity.  While schools like mine are working hard to provide the safe, in-person learning that the president said he desired, the president is holding indoor rallies that violate state COVID-19 restrictions and have little-to-no enforcement in regards to social distancing and mask-wearing.  With that kind of leadership, it’s little wonder why the U.S. is the leading the world in both cases and deaths and why so many people in the U.S. are resistant to pandemic-related precautions. 

Which is not to say that Trump’s task is an easy one.  The pandemic has left political leaders with the unenviable, lose-lose decision of either shutting down schools and businesses or risking the further spread of a virus that has already proven to be immensely lethal, especially to society’s most vulnerable. But when it comes to what many consider to be the president’s most important job, protecting the health and safety of the American people, and doing the bare minimum like encouraging mask-wearing, social distancing, and heeding the advice of medical professionals, Trump’s leadership has been abysmal. 


One of the main skills I seek to cultivate in my Social Studies classroom is encouraging students to be thoughtful.  I want students to ditch their black-and-white worldviews and see the varying shades of gray—to interpret a complicated and complex world with the nuance it deserves.  Donald Trump is incapable of that. 

Aside from colorful and creative insults, there are only a handful of adjectives that Trump uses with any regularity.  Everything is the “best” or the “most” or the “worst” or the “least”.  Things are either “good” or “bad”, “great” or “horrible”, with little room for a more measured in between.

There was a lot to be appalled by in Donald Trump’s early-August interview with Jonathan Swan of Axios.  People were rightly offended by his ineptitude surrounding the virus and his childish unwillingness to recognize the legacy of John Lewis.  But for me, the part of the interview that had my head most violently shaking in disbelief was when the subject turned to foreign policy (approximately 16:26-22:22).  The vagueness and imprecision in Trump’s language, his name dropping of countries like India and China, the boasting about his reading ability and meeting attendance—all of it left me with a complete lack of faith that this man understands the world complexly. 

Which isn’t to say that I do.  I couldn’t begin to tell you about the religious and ethnic tensions that complicate the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, or the geopolitical forces that drive policy decisions about South and East Asia.  But I don’t think the current president can either. 

And when you combine that with Trump’s complete and total lack of humility, that’s kind of scary.  Thankfully, the president almost certainly has a team of advisors that understand the world with far more complexity than he does, but it’s still pretty disturbing that the man ultimately making the final decisions has a worldview that appears so incomplete and simplistic.

Presidents should be intellectuals.  Even if we disagree with them politically, presidents should provide a model of what it means to be intelligent—to possess vast knowledge about the world, its issues, and its people, and what it means to be a perceptive and thoughtful person.  Once again, as this kind of role model, Donald Trump leaves plenty to be desired. 


Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.  It’s being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and consider their perspectives and experiences, even if they don’t reflect your own.  It is an essential skill that students need in order to make evaluative moral judgments about things like justice both in history and in the present time.  And while empathy won’t always lead us to change our beliefs, it still has the power to strengthen and refine them. 

It’s hard to imagine a less empathetic political figure than Donald Trump.  On the contrary, Trump seems unable to make any issue he comes into contact with about anything other than himself.  Just the other night at a town hall, Trump was asked whether or not he believes that there’s a “race problem” in America.  His response: “I hope there’s not a race problem.  I can tell you there’s none with me.” 

Empathy and conservative politics do not have to be mutually exclusive.  It is possible to recognize the tragic plight of refugees while still advocating for a secure border.  It is possible to acknowledge the racism and inequities still experienced by black people in the United States while also questioning some of the goals and tactics of groups like Black Lives Matter.  But that’s not what Trump does.  Instead, Trump seeks to demonize, divide, and desperately cling to the disgusting blend of fear-mongering and racist dog-whistling that he hopes will scare enough white voters into giving him a second term. 

I teach a lot about empathy in my U.S. History class.  We are constantly seeking out multiple perspectives in an effort to understand how experience and identity shape the way that people perceive history.  We look at the American Revolution through the eyes of the powerful, the disenfranchised, and the enslaved.  Manifest Destiny through the eyes of white settlers, Native Americans, and Chinese immigrants.  The Vietnam War through the eyes of the president and the public, the soldiers and the parents, hawks and doves in Congress, the Vietnamese in the North and the South, and the Hmong. 

Studying these perspectives not only helps my students to understand history, it helps them to understand each other. It helps them to understand the different ways that we all perceive the history we are living right now due to the varying intersections of our experiences, our identities, and our current seat (or lack thereof) at the proverbial table.  Empathy is among the most important virtues we seek to instill in our students.  It’s just so sad that we have to work against the White House in order to do it.


I don’t think that it’s possible for education to be apolitical.  While objectivity is something to strive for, teaching as a profession is just too personal and too tied up in our values to ever be completely void of bias.  Even if it were possible to teach a curriculum with complete neutrality, the decisions about what to include in and exclude from that curriculum are also value judgements that are not neutral at all.

However, what I can say is that when it comes to American politics, my teaching does not and should not have any desired political outcomes.  The goal of education is not to turn students into Democrats or Republicans—it is to help them become good people. 

Neither liberal nor conservative ideology has a monopoly on what it means to be a good person.  At my school, there are students from across the ideological spectrum that have the potential to be the kind, thoughtful, empathetic people we need to lead the next generation.  Unfortunately, teaching them that skillset also implicitly means teaching students to be very unlike the man whose name is emblazoned on so much of their merchandise.  If that’s brainwashing, so be it.


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Education, Immigration, USA, World

Immigration, Compassion, & Policy

During the last week of school, I set aside my Spanish Immersion Human Geography curriculum for a class period in order to host a special presentation.  That presentation was led by five of my students.  All of them are teenagers from Central America, all of them immigrated to the United States within the last three years, all of them, save one, made the journey alone, without accompaniment from any friends or family, and all of them are now living in the United States as refugees.

Their stories are literally amazing.  This was evident in the astonishment on my other students’ faces as the five Central American boys shared their experiences of hours spent crammed into semi-trailers and trunks of cars, hiding from both Federales and narcotraficantes as they trekked across the Mexican desert, occasionally happening upon the corpses of failed migrants from the past, and fending off snakes and coyotes as they tried to find sleep in the montes at night.

Immigration had been a topic that we studied earlier in the quarter.  We learned terms like “push factor” and “pull factor”, “chain migration” and “quota”, “unauthorized immigrant” and “refugee”, and how these things all connect to the current immigration crisis at our southern border.  At the end of that unit, we also had a discussion—a Socratic Seminar about immigration in the United States, what we think about what’s happening and how we think our country should respond to it.  Opinions ranged across the board, some echoing Trump’s call for a border wall, some advocating for a more welcoming immigration policy, and many taking more nuanced positions somewhere in between.  My five Central American boys were conspicuously quiet during this discussion, but their presentation on this last Tuesday of class undoubtedly caused some of their classmates to reconsider some of their previously held positions.

I did not facilitate this presentation in hopes of carrying out some hidden liberal agenda that would turn all of my students into advocates for open borders and sanctuary cities, or convince them to vote Democrat in the 2020 election (most of the students are freshmen, so they won’t even be eligible).  Like any source that we consider in my classroom, I saw this presentation as an opportunity to offer my students a lesson in perspective—what this issue might look like to five individuals who have experienced it rather intimately.  And while I do hope that students will take these perspectives into consideration when forming their own opinions on this particular issue, I do not think that compassion for these young men and others like them needs to be nor should be the sole consideration that they take into account.

It would be a mistake to advocate for an immigration policy based solely on emotions like compassion.  While the desire to help people in need is an admirable one, it is foolish to think that the United States, even with all its relative wealth and resources, could offer comfort and refuge to all those who seek it, not only from Mexico and Central America, but from all of the world’s more troubled places.  Compassion can and should play a role in policy-making, but so should realism and practicality, and they do not need to be mutually exclusive.  For example, while I hate the oft-repeated Republican lie that congressional Democrats are advocates for “open borders”, I am also annoyed when any proposed border security measure—be it wall, barrier, or border control agents—is automatically labeled as racist, even though in some cases, it probably is.

Many people levy this accusation at President Trump, and while I would agree that many of his comments are ignorant and insensitive, I’m not sure that he is a racist.  I certainly cannot point to any utterance that represents definitive proof of hatred in his heart towards Latin American migrants.  But what I am certain of is that President Trump’s proposed immigration policies are dramatically lacking in compassion.

Trump has tried to argue otherwise.  In one of his more well-known statements on the matter, Trump said that “tolerance for illegal immigration is not compassionate,” but “actually very cruel”, as it encourages human trafficking that may not take place if the border were more secure and immigration policies were more stringent.  There is an argument to be made there, but that argument cannot qualify as compassionate if it does not address the situation of people who are sufficiently vulnerable to be taken advantage of by human traffickers in the first place.  A wall would probably reduce the number of people seeking refuge at our southern border, but it would do nothing to alleviate the suffering that influenced those people’s decision to make the harrowing journey that my immigrant students described.

With Trump, it’s also not just about what he says, but how he says it that suggests a lack of compassion.  It is not necessarily uncompassionate to say something like, “I think we need to secure our southern border, perhaps with a wall or structure, before we can begin to address the myriad other issues that contribute to the humanitarian crisis in Central America.”  However, it is something very different to start a nativist “Build the Wall!” chant at a rally packed almost exclusively with white people, some of whom likely scream those words with a fervor at least partially rooted in racist attitudes.  And Trump does nothing to discourage that.

I think those chanters might think twice about their choice of words and tone of voice if they were given an opportunity to sit in on a presentation like the one given from the Honduran and Guatemalan boys in my 9th grade Human Geography class.  That’s not to say that they would necessarily abandon their desire for a “wall”, but perhaps attaching some real human faces to the issue of immigration would push them to consider it with the nuance and complexity that it deserves.

I’m not sure what effect this presentation had on the thinking of my native-born students.  I did not assign any sort of reflection, and have no hard data to gauge any potential ideological shifts.  However, I do suspect that even my most conservative-leaning students might be more hesitant to stand behind any policies that would revoke their classmates’ refugee status, especially after hearing their stories.

And I think that’s a good thing.  Compassion is something that we should try to cultivate in the leaders and decision-makers of tomorrow.  Perspective-taking is something that should influence the way that we think about issues, and ultimately arrive at conclusions.  If we are going to make decisions to erect walls or ban refugees, then those decisions should hurt us, not excite us.  Because even if those decisions end up being the right ones, they also guarantee that human suffering will go unalleviated.  And if someone does not possess a level of compassion that allows them to feel the harmful impact of those unfortunate circumstances, then they should not be the one making those policy decisions.


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Education, Military, USA

Teaching, Ideology, & Neutrality

I had a substitute teacher in my classroom the other day when I was out for some PD.  I got a chance to meet him when I arrived back at the building prior to the end of the day.  He was a cool guy with an interesting story.  Just in the brief conversation that I had with him, I suspected that he and I might have some ideological differences.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  I like a sub that offers a change of pace from me. It keeps my kids on their toes.

It wasn’t until a couple days later that I noticed the bumper sticker.

In the corner of my whiteboard, I have a bumper sticker that I found in a filing cabinet underneath a pile of posters.  It’s a historic bumper stick, created in 1979 by a group called the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.  The bumper sticker reads: “It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.”

I’ve had this bumper sticker for a while.  It’s a bit of an oversimplification, but I appreciate the premise.  However, on this day, it wasn’t the bumper sticker that caught my eye, but the slip of paper that was hanging beneath it.  It read: “Were it not for a strong, well-funded military, our schools would not have the freedom to do what they do!”  Following the quote there was a hyphen indicating the quote’s author.  Following the hyphen was the name of my sub.


I was not sure how to feel about this at first, but I definitely felt things.  Part of me felt annoyed that a guest in my classroom would have the audacity to make such an alteration to the physical space.  Part of me felt angry at the implication that the messages that I am providing to my students are somehow misleading or harmful.  Part of me felt impressed by the balls and conviction of such a bold, unapologetic move.  And part of me felt a tinge of self-doubt that perhaps my sub had a point.  I spent some time thinking about those things, and I think that I know how I feel now.

Both of the quotes make legitimate claims.  It is legitimate to claim that a strong, well-funded military allows Americans to enjoy many of the freedoms that we enjoy, but it is also legitimate to claim that we spend too much money on our military, particularly when compared to other potential areas for public investment, i.e. education.  To be sure, a strong military and an educated populace are both essential components of a free country, and the debate over allocation of resources towards establishing each of those components is a fair one.  In hanging his quote next to my bumper sticker, my sub definitely did his part to facilitate a conversation that undoubtedly has a place in social studies classrooms.  That is why my sub’s quote continues to hang on my whiteboard.

But what motivated him to do it?  What motivated my sub to go through the trouble of typing that quote, printing it out, cutting it down to size, and hanging it on my whiteboard?  The way that I see it, there are two possible explanations.

The first is that my sub is a self-appointed member of the neutrality police.  He believes that high school classrooms are places where knowledge should always be presented in a way that is unbiased and objective, and takes it upon himself to address any potential violations of this most important principle.  However, something tells me that this guy is not going around posting Peace Corps flyers next to National Guard advertisements or pinning re-elect Obama buttons next to portraits of Ronald Reagan, meaning that there must be a different explanation.

That explanation is ideology.  In my bumper sticker, my sub saw an ideology that he did not like, so he decided to amend it with one that he liked better.  Since he names himself as the author, I think that I can safely assume that the ideology expressed in my sub’s quote is his own, and I’m guessing that the sub also assumes that the ideology expressed on the bumper sticker is mine.  In that assumption, he is partially correct.  I do sympathize with some of the concerns expressed on that bumper sticker—that the spending and veneration we commit to our military existed for our educational institutions as well.  But aside from that ideological overlap, there is another, more pedagogically powerful reason that that quote hangs on my whiteboard: it makes my students question things.

In a school that is chalked full of national guard posters and pencils, college acceptance recognition for current seniors who will soon be members of the United States Army, Navy, and Airforce, and the best damn Veteran’s Day ceremony that you’ve ever seen, that bumper sticker makes my students question, just for a brief moment, whether the veneration that we provide to our armed forces can sometimes be just a little bit much.  In a school that is the constant victim of budget cuts and failed bonds, growing class sizes and shrinking resources, that bumper sticker makes my students consider, just for a brief moment, whether the value that we place on our schools and on their education can sometimes be just a little bit insufficient.  It’s a 3” by 12” piece of paper that makes my students question the pro-military messages that they are subliminally bombarded with every day of every school year. They may choose to embrace the sentiment expressed in that bumper sticker, or they may choose to reject it, but at the very least, just for a brief moment, they are asked to consider it.

I don’t have a problem with ideology in education.  In fact, I don’t think it is possible to avoid it.  Nothing in education is neutral.  Even neutral itself is an ideology.  As Brazilian educator Paulo Freire once wrote, “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”  Our goal as educators should not be to eliminate bias—it should be to teach students how to detect it, analyze it, and ultimately choose whether to embrace its sentiments or reject them.


Lots of different perspectives are included in my classroom, both in the content that I teach and in the voices of my students.  As a source of authority, I usually don’t like to include my own.  However, in certain situations I will share my perspectives on issues, not in an attempt to convince students to think like I do—although I’m perfectly happy to convince them if they’ll let me—but to explicitly teach them a more important lesson: while I may be a source of authority, I am not an ultimate source of truth.

I’m an adult.  I’m educated and informed, but ultimately, students should question me just like they question their books, their newspapers, and any quotes that might hang on their classroom whiteboard.  I want students to hear different perspectives, understand different perspectives, consider how different perspectives might merge with or challenge their own, and then ultimately, choose whether or not to accept whatever it is that those perspectives have to offer.

I have my own perspectives and opinions on everything that I teach.  Education is an inherently political act, and there’s no doubt that my leanings and biases enter into my classroom even when I’m actively trying to suppress them.  But because my classroom is built around teaching students not what to think, but how to think for themselves, I don’t shy away from the ideological.  I hope that my sub approaches his teaching with the same humility.

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Education, Minnesota

The Disbandment of the Forest Lake Police Department and Student Resistance

I’m home sick from school today.  It is the first sick day that I have taken on a school day in my three-year career as a secondary teacher with Forest Lake Area Schools.  I threw up in a garbage can after 5th hour yesterday, so you know it’s legit!  But even in my sickly, sofa-ridden state, I cannot help but feel moved and inspired by what is taking place in the school and community in which I teach.

The events I refer to started back in January, when Forest Lake Mayor, Ben Winnick, first floated the idea of disbanding the Forest Lake Police Department.  To take its place, Winnick proposed a cost-saving measure that would switch the city’s law enforcement services to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, potentially saving the city more than $300,000 annually.  The switch would also cost 23 Forest Lake police officers their jobs.

The idea was met with strong resistance from the community—resistance that last week culminated in a flurry of emergency meetings in which dozens of Forest Lake community members (high school students included) aired their grievances about the proposal.  The final meeting took place Monday night, when the Forest Lake City Council voted 3-2 to approve the contract with Washington County Sheriff’s Office, effectively disbanding the police department of the city of Forest Lake.

 Resistance only escalated from there.  At 1:15 on Tuesday afternoon, as many as 1,000 students walked out of Forest Lake High School, and went on to march all the way to City Hall in a show of support for their police officers.  While Monday’s vote was an ominous one for FLPD supporters, the decision ultimately needs to be approved by Washington Country, lending the protesters hope that further action can still halt this unpopular decision from taking root in their community.

Forest Lake High School did not sanction the students’ actions.  Students who chose to walkout should have been marked with unexcused absences and will be responsible to make up whatever learning they missed.  In my opinion, that’s what gave this protest teeth. Student willingness to stand up for what they believe to be right, in spite of whatever consequences they might face from their school and/or parents, provides a powerful undercurrent to Tuesday’s actions.  Cancelled classes and signed parental permission forms would have turned Tuesday into less of a walkout and more of a field trip, and field trips usually don’t create social change.

What is more, it is not the school’s place to take a stance on this issue.  The school expressed its support for the free speech rights of its student body, and that was all that it should have done. Certainly every one of us educators has an opinion on the issue at hand, but as one of my students put it, regardless of what our own personal opinions may be, we live in a democracy, and on this issue, it appears that the people have spoken.

As a teacher, I could not feel more proud of the student leaders who are so effectively using their voices to stand up for what they believe in.  Even if their quest proves to be unsuccessful, I hope that this experience leaves them feeling empowered, and that it encourages them to continue to act as the agents of change that they are proving to be, in Forest Lake, in Minnesota, in Washington, and in the world.

Tomorrow I will return to work and rejoin the student body who, during a difficult stretch of the year, have reminded me how special it can be to teach high school students—guiding them as they find their voice and identity in the world.  More than anything else, that is what us teachers are hoping to cultivate, and in the case of many of yesterday’s class-ditchers, it appears that, to at least a certain degree, our school is succeeding.

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Note: The opinions expressed in this piece are my own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Forest Lake Area Schools or anyone else associated with the district.

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Public education and Teaching outside the ideal

The end of the school year is a reflective time for teachers. We think a lot about the things that we did well. We think more about the things that we could have done better.

There’s a lot of good vibes floating around. The end of the year offers us teachers an opportunity to admire the fruit of all the care and work and thought and love that we poured into our students over the months that we spent with them.  It’s a time when we can feel like we actually made a difference in their lives—a time when we can say things like, “Wow…I taught them that,” or for the less egomaniacal/more pretentious among us, “Wow…I helped to facilitate that learning.”

Reg 2

Minnesota Regional History Day competition, St. Cloud, MN, 2016.  Some of the most inspiring young ladies I’ve ever had the privilege of teaching.

I’ve got a long way to go in my professional development. I’m still in the very early stages of crafting my curriculum expertise and honing my pedagogical skills. Hell, I’m still discovering who I even am as an educator. Looking back on my 2015-2016 school year, there is a lot that I would have done differently, and a lot that I will look to change heading into next year. But what is disheartening to me is that while my own personal shortcomings surely played a role in curbing my effectiveness in the classroom, I feel that the most limiting situations that I encountered resulted not from a lack of knowledge or ability, but from the impossible task incumbent upon me as a public educator in the United States today.

There is no perfect teaching job—no perfect set of circumstances in which an educator can completely and totally enlighten every mind that has been assigned to them. Even if there were, the teacher occupying that perfect position would still teach like an imperfect teacher. But the problem with public education today is not that the teaching jobs aren’t perfect, it’s that they are so far away from perfect that they make the fulfillment of our professional responsibility, the responsibility to provide a high-quality education to all students, damn near impossible.

Class sizes are growing. I have colleagues that see over 150 students every single day. That’s a lot of students for one person to educate. What is more, many of those students have individualized educational plans that call for special adaptions and modifications in order to meet those students’ unique learning needs. In an ideal world, every student would have one of those plans. In the real world, those students are often the ones who fall through the cracks.


The deprofessionalization of teachers is at an all time high. Between the federal government, the state, the district, and the school administration, there are so many standards and mandates and regulations that seek to control what and how you teach that it almost makes you wonder why you even went to teaching school in the first place.


Teacher bashing is everywhere. Many parents see teachers as incompetent, a sentiment often emulated by their children. To be honest, they sometimes are right, but that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of the educational system, a prophecy that is bound to come true in a job that has become so undervalued, a job in which disrespect is such an inherent norm. Even for us teachers who feel tremendously appreciated, we as a collective bunch are still a far, far cry from the days when teachers were viewed as public intellectuals.

All these things work together to make my job very tough to do well. That doesn’t mean that I’m not doing my best. It just means that even my best is nowhere close to enough.

The decisions that I have to make on any given day reflect this dilemma. Do I spend my time trying to provide students constructive feedback on their latest exams, or do I put it into writing thoughtful lesson plans that will make for a richer in-class learning experience? Do I stay knelt next to the desk of Kid A and continue to provide them with the guidance that they desperately need, or do I cut them off early in hopes of addressing the raised hands of Kids B, C, and D before the bell rings? Most of the time you can’t do both, and sometimes, you can’t do either.


It’s crazy how quickly you can get sucked into the trap. Less than two years ago, I was a spring chicken, an idealistic young whippersnapper hell-bent on taking on the status quo, on transforming social studies education into something deep and meaningful—something beyond the boring memorization of the names and dates and facts so often associated with classes from my department. Yet here I am two years later, bulldozing through content in hopes of getting my U.S. History students through the end of the Vietnam War, in turn satisfying the requirements placed upon me by my state and school.


This is not a slight against my specific school district. The problems are much deeper and more systemic than that. Some teachers would kill to be in my situation, but I think that says a lot more about the undesirable circumstances of their job than it says about the desirable circumstances of mine.

You can’t always fix a problem by throwing money at it, and a lack of funding is hardly the only problem with public education today. That being said, some well spent dollars could go a long way in helping to address some of the things mentioned above, such as reducing class sizes and hiring more staff that can help meet the needs of all the unique learners that inhabit our schools. I know that spending like that would help me to do a better job and be a better teacher.

And at the end of the day, that’s all I’m really looking for. I don’t need perfect, just better. Better for me, better for my colleagues, better for the kids. I want to be able to do my job more successfully—to help kids think and learn and grow—to care for them and challenge them and help them to blossom into beautiful human beings that will make this world a better place to be. If education is something that we truly value in this country, better is exactly what we’ll do. We’ll fund schools, rethink curriculums, and turn teachers back into the respected figures that they need to be if schools are going to work the way that we want them to. But until that happens, us teachers are stuck with no other choice but to just keep doing the best that we can.


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Student Loan Debt: One year in

A year ago last week, I officially started paying back my student loans. Although I finished my undergraduate degree in December of 2010, a unique set of circumstances allowed me (or forced me) to put off my payback for a number of years. Upon graduation, I immediately enrolled in grad school, and with the help of a scholarship, was able to pay for that tuition out-of-pocket. Because I was still a student, I did not have to make payments on my undergraduate debt during this two-year endeavor, not that I could have afforded to make them anyway.

Immediately after grad school, I took a teaching job in Mexico, and while my job paid plenty to enjoy a comfortable standard of living down there, it certainly did not leave me with enough pesos to pay back my growing debt up here. When converted into American dollars, my salary qualified me for what the banks called “financial hardship,” allowing me a yearlong grace period to get my financial shit together.

That grace period ended last October. Between my three banks, my total student loan debt as of October 17th, 2014, was $82,961.02. That’s how much it cost me to get a B.S. in Social Studies Education from Minnesota State University, Mankato.

It was worth every penny. My education from Mankato readied me not only for teaching, but for life. I am a better person today because of the things that I learned at that institution, and the knowledge and skills behind the paper diploma I ultimately received.

Do I wish that it had cost me less money? Yes. Do I think that it should have cost me less money? Abso-fucking-lutely. Higher education is way too expensive in this country, and even though my debt is partially the result of more than three years of untouched accumulated interest, it’s still a travesty that anyone could end up $80,000 deep for a four year degree from an in-state university. That being said, if I could go back in time and see that $82,961.02 price tag, would I still do it? You bet. Every fucking time.

But here’s the part that pisses me off: For twelve months, I have been making student loan payments of just over $500 a month. That means that over the course of a year, I put about a $6,000 dent into my student loan debt, or so I thought. On October 17th, 2015, a year to the day after I began paying off my loans, my total student loan debt was…


If you don’t have a calculator handy, that adds up to just under $700—$700 out of the $6,000 that I put in. $700 that actually went towards reducing my nearly six-figure debt. $700: about 11% of the total amount paid, just enough to reduce my total debt by almost 1%. Where did the other 89% go? The other $5,300? Interest. Not interest that I gained during my time in grad school or Mexico, but interest that I earned over the year in which I was paying.

That’s fucked up. I mean c’mon, man, I understand interest. That’s why loans exist. The lender needs to see a return on their investment. I get it. But this is more than a return. This is a rip-off.

Full disclosure: I am making minimum payments. Had I chosen a different repayment plan and paid a little more each month, that huge number would undoubtedly be just a little bit slighter, that percentage reduction just a little bit greater. But the key words are “a little bit.” Either way, the lenders still win. They win big.

And those other repayment plans sucked anyway. Could I afford a little higher payment if I cut out some social outings, cancelled next summer’s travel plans, and scratched my monthly subscriptions to HBO and the WWE Network? Yeah, probably. But I enjoy those things, and I don’t want to sacrifice the quality of life that I enjoy today just so I can pay my loans off by the time I’m 48 as opposed to 52.

Some people say that these things are not mutually exclusive—that you can spend for today while also saving for tomorrow. That might be true if you’re making bank, but it’s not exactly true if you’re not. Every dollar spent now is a dollar not saved for later. Every dollar saved for later is a dollar you can’t spend now. And when you don’t have a ton of money left over at the end of every paycheck, this does turn into an either-or scenario, either you enjoy life now, or you enjoy life later. In other words, you’re either making bank, or you’re making decisions.

At the end of the day, I don’t expect people to feel bad for me, a middle-class white guy who, immense student loan debt aside, has it pretty damn good. However, I do expect people to be angry at those mother-fuckers who are keeping me, and millions of others like me, from having it a little better. Those greedy sons of bitches who rig the game in their favor and then force us all to play. Those lenders who are preying on the vulnerable, exploiting those in need of help for their own personal gain, and exacerbating the enormous gap that already exists in this country between the haves and the have-nots.

As for me, I’m hoping our political leaders will figure something out, that they’ll come up with some kind of combo-platter solution that offers forms of student loan forgiveness mixed with caps on the currently exorbitant interest rates that our lenders are allowed to charge. Until then, I’ll just continue being one of the millions of fucked-over young adults in this country, lucky and privileged enough to receive a college education, but not blessed enough to be born in an era where this kind of exploitation has been outlawed.

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Textbooks are not neutral

A few weeks back, there was a news story about a rogue world geography textbook with a couple of historical inconsistencies. The main point of contention involved the choice of language that the textbook used to describe the Atlantic Slave Trade of 16th-19th centuries, particularly its description of the unwilling participants in this system most commonly referred to as “slaves.” Instead, the textbook labels these owned and oppressed peoples with the title of “workers,” and furthermore, refers to the system of human-trafficking that they were forced to endure as if it were a form of “immigration.”

It’s easy to see why these semantical slip-ups created such a stir. On one level, it’s just bad history. It’s an inaccurate portrayal of what the past was, and begs people to arrive at false conclusions when trying to answer the what’s and why’s of history.

On another level, this historical re-write could have potentially dangerous consequences. While words like “workers” and “immigration” certainly sound friendlier than the horrible truths that they replace, they could reinforce some dangerous disbeliefs regarding racism in the United States that far too many Americans already hold today. How are we supposed to convince people that racism is still a problem in the United States if they are taught that it never was?   How are we supposed to address the racism that still exists if we don’t understand where that racism comes from?

“Immigrating workers” may create a more digestable story, but it does so at the expense of a truth that we need to hear in order to fix a problem that’s still very real. We need to hear the ugly truth, not the pretty lie.

This story was treated as an anomaly, a crazy-ass outlier that somehow slipped past the all-seeing auspices of textbook publishers and district curriculum boards. But while this error may have been particularly egregious, what was missing from this story was a larger discussion about the ways that textbooks, particularly history textbooks, shape and sometimes distort the ways that we learn about the world, despite their claims of neutrality.

All textbooks are biased. They are over-simplified mono-narratives that emphasize the stories and perspectives of all things white, male, and European at the expense of those things with more colorful, feminine, or indigenous flavors. Voices of the former take center-stage while those of the latter are relegated to supporting roles and side margins.

This is no accident. The aforementioned geography textbook from publishing giant McGraw-Hill was approved, like most textbooks in the field of social studies, by the Texas State Board of Education, a conservative body responsible for buying 48 million textbooks a year. Approval from this body is often viewed as a green light for publishers to begin marketing nationally. Hence, no matter what corner of the United States we may happen to live in, it shouldn’t surprise us when our textbooks seem to have been baked and barbecued in Texas conservatism.

That being said, you would need to be pretty well practiced in the detection of ethnocentrism to pick up on that conservative bias. That’s because these books are supposed to be neutral—objective presentations that strike an unbiased balance between liberal and conservative principles. And while it’s possible that these books do indeed have a conservative agenda, I think it’s probably much more likely that they are just written by people with conservative worldviews, and that those worldviews are reflected in their writing.

And that’s why their neutrality is bullshit.

To be neutral means to not favor one side over another. It means to give equal voice to all parties, no matter how many parties there may be. This is impossible for a textbook to do, no matter how many pages the authors decide to include.

Nor is neutrality even neutral. The goal of neutrality is to not choose sides, but neutral is a side. By staying out of the conflict, neutral leaves things the way that they are. By refusing to challenge anything, neutral automatically legitimizes all positions, with no consideration given to whether or not all positions are equally deserving of legitimization. By neglecting to ask questions, neutral teaches its readers to do exactly the same.


This is what makes “neutral” textbooks so dangerous. They portray themselves as objective truths, when in reality they are not. All bias is not created equal, and there are certainly more biased accounts out there, but there is a key difference. Usually when reading accounts more traditionally thought of as “biased,” the reader is conscious of that bias. They will evaluate the information with the proverbial grain of salt, and carefully consider how that bias will affect their consideration of what it is they are reading.

With textbooks, it’s the opposite. Readers read the textbook as a neutral report of the topic at hand, all the while being unknowingly persuaded and influenced by the hidden values of the author written between each and every line of text.

Referring to slaves as “workers” is pretty bad, and it deserved every ounce of bad publicity that it recieved. What I would like to hear is more discussion of the larger problem, the one that this particular incident is only a symptom of.

Textbooks have a place in the classroom as a resource, a version, a voice…but never should they be presented as the objective truth. Textbooks are as biased as Howard Zinn and Bill O’Reilly, no matter what they pretend to be. If we don’t treat them that way, if we refuse to be critical of them and challenge their versions of history, our students will continue to grow up believing that early black Americans were migrant workers and that Christopher Columbus discovered America—that important women are the wives of important men and that people of color only exist in the margins.

Slaves were slaves, Columbus was a jackass, and the stories and perspectives of women and people of color have always been important, whether or not society recognized them as important at the time.

Textbooks are not neutral. They do there due diligence in cramming the entire history of a world and/or nation into a 974 page volume, but they are still only one version of the truth. To pretend otherwise is to lead our students down a perilous path where they will believe everything that they read and hear and be susceptible to the very indoctrination that we were hoping to avoid in selecting a “neutral” resource.

So at the end of the day, neutrality is not only something we shouldn’t strive for, it’s something we can’t achieve anyway. History is objective in the sense that it happened the way that it happened, but we still rely on humans to tell us about it. And once a human puts their fingerprints on something, be it history, geography, math, or science, that neutrality ceases to exist.  That is what needs to be recognized and acknowledged, be it textbooks or otherwise.

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What a professional educator looks like

The deprofessionalization of teachers is one of the greatest threats to American educators today.  From curriculum confining state and federal standards to micromanaging administrators, we teachers are constantly fighting back against a system that treats us as glorified presenters rather than the intellectual professionals we study and work so hard to be.  And while this form of deprofessionalization deservingly receives the lion’s share of the attention from those who are fighting back against it, there are other infringements on teacher professionalism that should be challenged too.  One of those infringements is the monopolized dictation of what a professional educator looks like.

I have a somewhat unique appearance for an educator.  I’m a white guy (which ain’t all that uncommon), but I also have tattoos on my neck and forearms, gauge earrings, and prefer to dress in black jeans and flannel shirts nearly every day of the school year.  My district was great last year in letting me be me, but after a week of back-to-school workshops, I am a little worried about some of the language that was being thrown around about “professionalism.”

What is more, I know that I have male colleagues in other districts that have far less liberty in this area than I do. Teachers who have to dress in collar shirts and ties, Dockers and penny loafers, and whose visible tattoos would not be tolerated.  Teachers who, in a word, are required to dress like “professionals.”

The accepted notion of what it means to be a professional is one that is generally unchallenged in educational circles. However, I would argue that it is a notion that is incorrect on the one hand, and worse, harmful to our mission as educators on the other.

Professionalism Defined


The idea that professionalism can be defined in a dress code is blatantly false.  An incompetent teacher gains no additional ability or credibility by slipping on a necktie.  Likewise, a competent teacher is no less capable of providing a quality education to her students when she happens to be wearing a pair of sneakers.

Professionalism is not a look; it’s an attitude.  Professionalism is not about the way you dress; it’s about the way that you carry yourself.  Teachers demonstrate professionalism when they hold all their students to high expectations, when they create a curriculum that is rigorous and culturally relevant, and when they show respect to each and every one of their students, eliciting a mutual respect in return.

I understand the rationalization behind “professional dress,” the idea that we need visual representations of the line that divides teacher and student.  I simply disagree with its ability to achieve those results.  We teachers distinguish ourselves as professionals by what we do in the classroom, and that is something that a dress code cannot help nor hinder.

The Paradigm of a Professional


But how can a dress code for teachers be harmful?  Dress codes for teachers can be harmful because they monopolize the idea of what a professional can look like.  We want all of our students to grow up to be professionals in their chosen trades.  But when we create a cookie-cutter version of what a professional is, we are consequently alienating any students who don’t fit that mold, oftentimes students that already feel alienated in school due to things like culturally irrelevant pedagogies or a lack of peers who look and think like they do.

To link professionalism to certain articles of clothing, clothing that for the most part descends from White European traditions, alienates those students that struggle to envision themselves dressed in such attire, as well as students who simply do not desire to dress in that way.  Hence, those students may come to the (false) conclusion that they can never grow up to be professionals.

But what happens when you expand the paradigm of a professional to include those of us who choose to look or dress less traditionally?  What kind of cognitive dissonance might that create?

Admittingly, at first, it could be met with some resistance.  “Professionals tuck in their shirts. My teacher leaves his shirt untucked. Therefore, my teacher is not a professional.”  But as the school year passes, this initial rejection to expand one’s paradigm will be repeatedly challenged as the teacher continues to gain students’ trust and to facilitate a safe, caring, rigorous learning environment.  The only option the student has left is to allow their paradigm to be expanded, to accept that teacher as the professional they have proven to be.

Credibility as a Status Quo Challenger


The other reason I believe that stringent teacher dress codes can be harmful to our mission as educators, particularly educators like myself who wish to build their classrooms and curriculums on a platform of social justice, is because they reduce our credibility as status quo challengers. Social justice teachers are constantly encouraging their students to challenge institutions and question traditions. This message simply isn’t as powerful when it is delivered by someone who looks like either a tool of corporate capitalism or like they have a 3:30 tee time after school that day.

Social justice teachers gain credibility by practicing what they preach. Students recognize them as different, an especially powerful experience for those students who feel different themselves. Witnessing such challenges from their teacher could inspire students to push back against unjust policies as well. This probably isn’t what most districts want, but it is what a district deserves when they enforce student dress codes that contain so many racist and sexist underpinnings.


Of course there are limits to how far one should take the “new professionalism” that I propose. For instance, I would never advocate for teachers to be able to wear bathrobes and slippers to school, nor would I approve the wearing of a t-shirt featuring Bob Marley enjoying a marijuana cigarette. That being said, a tee containing some Marley lyrics, “One Love” for example, could be very powerful both for making connections with students and spreading a message of love and acceptance. Bob, too, was a social justice advocate, after all.





 Also, I do not want this to be misperceived as an attack on those teachers who do choose to dress in attire more traditionally considered as professional. I think it’s great when teachers rock funny ties or high heel shoes or don a dry-cleaned suit. Some kids really dig this too. I just don’t want these to be the only kinds of professionals that I see in my building.

Teachers with non-traditional dress and appearance show students that there is more than one way to be a professional. They teach students that being a professional is about who you are and how you act, not what you look like. And in that lesson, those teachers also teach students to be fuller, truer versions of themselves, to chase passions and follow dreams. “Be you,” they say, “and be the fullest, most successful version of that you that you can possibly be.”

Our physical appearance is how we express who we are. It’s how we show others our history and our culture, our interests and our values. Limitations on a form of expression so vital should only be made with the utmost care and caution, and only when the added security provided clearly outweighs the consequences of any damages such limitations might cause. That rationalization works for swastikas, but not for blue jeans, especially blue jeans with so much potentially powerful symbolism sewn into their seams.

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