Recently Read Cont…

Spring Break ended yesterday. A few books I finished over break (and the past month or so).

Empire of CottonSven Beckert One of the best global history books I’ve read in awhile. An insightful look into the origins of the modern capitalist system and a reminder that the more you read about the Civil War the more important you realize it is to the way the world looks today.

A Manual for Cleaning Women Lucia Berlin Once a year I come across one of those books or authors whom I’m shocked I made it to [x] age without reading, hearing about, etc… It’s only March and Lucia Berlin has that honor. Are these memoirs? Short stories? Incredible insight into the difficult lives of women in America in the second half of the 20th century.

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in AmericaJill Levy Leovy’s book is brilliantly reported and makes a compelling case around the failures of the American criminal justice system in our cities. When she sticks to L.A. the book is amazing. Some of the generalizations around U.S. history and the Great Migration oversimplify a complicated topic.

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I’m Gonna Do That

I have an odd feeling there are a lot of thirty- to forty-something middle and high school teachers doubling as rock fans that struggle to reconcile the songs and stories of our guitar-wielding heroes with the advice we give our students every day. Over break I read the excellent Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements. The book is full of incredible stories of the band “snatching failure from the jaws of victory“, a theme that Paul Westerberg applied to his high school career as well:

Though [Paul Westerberg] was only a couple of months away from a diploma, Westerberg stopped going to class. The elders at Holy Angels gave him opportunities to get his degree. “But by then I’d already made up my mind. It was also the rebellion factor: ‘Fuck ’em. I’m gonna stop before the finish line and not cross it.'”

Toward the end of his school days, Westerberg’s English teacher took him aside and offered a bit of advice. “He said, ‘Do what you know how to do.’ Hell, why didn’t you tell me that four years ago? What I really know how to do is play a G chord with the hammer on and the hammer off. I’m gonna do that.”

The Replacements fan in me loves this story. The teacher in me thinks, “um, couldn’t you have just stuck around and got your degree?” Regardless, his teacher’s advice is exactly the advice we need to give our students, and then just help them lengthen the list of what they know how [and love] to do. [The book goes on to explain that Westerberg spent hours in the library reading after dropping out: he could finally wear his glasses without fear of being beaten up.]

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We Filter and Warp the Thought of Others

With the APWH exam around the corner, my class is currently studying Period 6 (1900 to Present). Over the next few weeks we dig into the scientific developments of the 20th Century – Einstein, atomic bombs, immunizations, birth control, etc… Obviously, there is a lot going on right now to make these topics fascinating. Philip Ball’s Atlantic story, “Stop Calling the Babylonians Scientists“, provides an excellent entry point to the study of science in history class and “what” we define as science:

Historians call this tendency to scrutinize and judge the past according to the perspective of the present “Whig history,” a term coined in 1931 by the historian Herbert Butterfield, who criticized the practice for ignoring what people in the past were actually interested in doing. According to Butterfield, by engaging in Whig history we filter and warp the thought of others to make it fit our own—as though the aim of the past was to create the present. Weinberg’s book, along with a re-analysis of the “scientific revolution” of the seventeenth century by historian David Wootton (The Invention of Science; 2015), has reignited the arguments about Whiggishness in the history of science. Is it right to seek presentiments of modern science in the works of the ancients, or should we judge their “science” on its own terms?

Ball makes a clear distinction between the study of the heavens in ancient Mesopotamia with our more modern definitions of science as reflected in the works of the Greeks through the “scientific revolution”:

Reading these [astrological] signs was complicated and subjective. Certain features were omens, considered to presage particular events. One document, for example, suggests that if the moon is still visible on the 30th day of the lunar cycle then destruction of Babylonia is on the cards, but if the moon is seen on the first day of the cycle then good luck will follow. Mars, meanwhile, was a harbinger of evil, whereas Jupiter brought peace and plenty. With all the different possible parameters, it was never easy to read the gods’ code. That was the diviners’ job, and it more closely resembles a legal process of weighing up precedents than a scientist’s aim of finding an objective truth that “explains” the observations.

I will likely use this article for a seminar as we launch our study of 20th century scientific developments. My only  addition to the article would be some reference to the mathematic and scientific contributions of the Islamic world, South Asia, or East Asia to his world history comparison of civilizations.


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Oddly Aligned

The Sunday Review regularly produces a reliable number of history-related articles. Without trivializing the current importance of the stories, there are some great AP US History and AP World History connections in Isabel Wilkerson and Neil MacFarquar‘s stories this week (note: I could have sworn MacFarquar’s article was in the Sunday Review, but reading it online it does not look like it and substantively does not feel like it.)

Wilkerson strings together the parallels, changes, and continuities, from the murder of Emmett Till, through the Great Migration, to the murder of Tamir Rice. Any time Eric Foner, Wilkerson, and Jacob Lawrence make it into the Grey Lady, I’ll quote it:

It has been a century since the Great Migration that produced both boys began. Our current era seems oddly aligned with that moment. The brutal decades preceding the Great Migration — when a black person was lynched on average every four days — were given a name by the historian Rayford Logan. He called them the Nadir. Today, in the era of the Charleston massacre, when, according to one analysis of F.B.I. statistics, an African-American is killed by a white police officer roughly every three and a half days, has the makings of a second Nadir.

Or perhaps, in the words of Eric Foner, the leading scholar of Reconstruction, a “second Redemption.” That is what historians call the period of backlash against the gains made by newly freedmen that led to Jim Crow.

Oh, and if you have not, you must read Wilkerson’s excellent history of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns.

Moving around the globe to Russia, the story “Russian Orthodox Church Blocks Funeral for Last of Romanov Remains” tells the bizarre (or maybe expected in Russia these days?) story of the church denying the evidence pointing to the final remains of the Tsar’s family. We spend a lot of time looking at the Russian Revolution and its aftermath in APWH. These details shed pretty unique light on what was going down in the early days of the Civil War.

Early in the morning of July 17, 1918, the czar, his wife, their five children, as well as their doctor, a cook and two servants, were executed in the basement of a house in Yekaterinburg, in central Russia. The firing squad had the most difficulty killing the czar’s four daughters, because the bullets ricocheted off all the hidden diamonds sewn into their clothing.

In a series of steps that took investigators decades to determine, the executioners first dumped the corpses in a mine, named Ganina Yama in Russian, which had long been thought to be the burial place of their ashes.

The bodies of the 11 victims were actually loaded onto a truck for transport to a deeper mine, however. The vehicle got stuck on a muddy road through a bog. To lighten the load, the bodies of Alexei and Maria were removed and carted off into the forest — burned, doused with acid and buried. The Bolsheviks then decided to inter the rest right there in Old Kaptikovskaya Road.

As for using these in class? A few ideas:

  • Have students read the Wilkerson piece and identify changes and continuities over time. Push students to explain Wilkerson’s argument and propose potential counterarguments that she ignores. Also push for students to ask why there are continuities over time.
  • For APWH, I may have students read the selected passage as a Do Now  and just ask them to contextualize and make inferences based on dates and terms. What was going on in Russia in 1918 that caused this event? Identify three terms to connect this passage to the Russian Revolution.

Other thoughts?



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Let The Ice Melt Slowly

Prior to teaching I simply had no idea it was possible to be THAT physically and emotionally tired at 5 PM on a Friday night; even after 7 years practicing law in Manhattan. I love my job and the organization I work for, but I still think about how teachers I work with spend their time. My wife recently sent me the Atlantic article Why Introverted Teachers are Burning Out and it really put together a lot of developments that many people I know struggle with daily. While the article is valuable, John Spencer’s post referenced in it provides the best diagnosis of the problem:

Over the years, it became harder and harder to be an introverted teacher. Every professional development opportunity involved sitting in a massive group, doing ice breakers (I would rather let the ice melt slowly) and then tons of pair-share exercises. We shifted toward more time before and after school being out on duty. In the name of collaboration, we started planning lessons together and meeting in groups to form common assessments. Slowly, prep periods became group planning time.

I have some thoughts on ways to support our quieter teachers that I’ll write about later. But for now, I think I have a meeting to go…

(And yes, I agree with the observation that being an “introvert” is kind of becoming a trend. Or maybe Susan Cain is on to something.)

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“I’d Like to Chime In”

There are many things I love about Doug Lemov’s post Exit Tickets that Encourage Self-reflection. The substance of it is important – I recently added something similar to my APWH Exit Tickets (I think I stole it from some awesome teacher at KIPP). But what I really like about the post is that it captures what Doug and the crew at Teach Like a Champion do so well – they watch what teachers do, write about it in a way that others can replicate, and then add to it as they hear from more great teachers. While the formula appears obvious, it takes a lot of time and patience to do it right, and that’s why their work can be so valuable.





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Du Bois Fought Back

Ta-Nehisi Coates brought this article on W.E. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction from the African American Intellectual History Society to my attention via Twitter. I wrote about the current “debate” awhile ago, but Guy Emerson Mount  provides a crucial reminder of how universities and political institutions use positions of power to define historical memory around the Civil War over time. Mount writes (emphasis added):

Yet, in 1935, Du Bois found few friends outside of a small circle of black activists, white political dissidents and intellectual radicals. In the field of Reconstruction, he was almost single-handedly facing a brick wall of white supremacist scholarship that had taken hold in nearly every elite history department in America. Yet Du Bois courageously named names and called out the profession for what it was.  William A. Dunning, John W. Burgess, and a host of other celebrated scholars working on Reconstruction were lambasted by Du Bois for perpetuating “The Propaganda of History.”  The now infamous Dunning School held that slaves were docile, unprepared for freedom, and racially inferior.  The mythology of the Lost Cause was in full effect from Columbia to Johns Hopkins University. The North and the South had apparently fought gallantly over just about anything and everything but slavery—emerging in the end as a divinely unified and thoroughly perfected nation.  Du Bois fought back.

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