A Dilemma for the Historian Who Gets Personal: Reconstructing Classroom Lessons (Part 2)

I was nervous that journalist Martin Mayer was coming to watch me teach (See Part 1, “A Journalist Describes a History Lesson”). I had read his book The Schools when it came out in 1961.  I had just returned from a year at Yale University on a John Hay Whitney Fellowship, an opportunity then given only to high school teachers. The director of the Fellowship had given Mayer my name. I was 26, in my fourth year of teaching at Glenville and I had never been observed by a journalist.

How can I remember this one lesson out of thousands that I have taught in high school history classes? One reason is that he had his version published and simply reading it in print nearly fifty years later jogged my memory so that I could even recall some  students’ names.  A second reason that this summary lesson on the causes of the Civil War stayed in mind for years was the way that I had brought together conflicting historical interpretations and recall how they had resonated strongly with students.

Mayer’s crisp description of the community and students was accurate. When he caught some students correcting my mispronunciation of the “The Mar-see-yay” Mayer showed how sharp-eared journalists use a grain-of-sand detail to capture student demographics and a school’s curriculum.

In less than a thousand words, Mayer caught the main elements of a 20-minute teacher-led discussion. Skilled non-fiction writers use the craft of fiction to create drama. Mayer did that at two points.  The first time was when I prodded students to explain how a minority of white slaveholders could convince the majority of small non-slaveholding farmers to fight for the Confederacy. I used a paradoxical statement to provoke students to become aware of the centrality of race in the South. So I pushed students and Mayer picked that up.

The second instance of  drama was when a student role-played a planter and referred to slave rebellions. I followed up with the phrase “white supremacy” and then nudged students to leap ahead to the post-Civil War years and Jim Crow laws. That is when the student delivered the one word “segregation.” In ending the vignette of the lesson on that note, Mayer ends on a dramatic note.  I remember that moment well, even recalling the tingles that ran up my back when the student made the connection.

All that is missing from his account is a clanging bell ending the period and students exiting the classroom talking about the connections between white supremacy before and after the Civil war. But the period did not end then. The bell rang undramatically minutes later after I gave the assignment for the next day.

Where Mayer was less accurate was in omitting the hard work of beginning and ending a lesson. I was teaching five classes a day of 30-plus students and enduring rough spots in the early part of the 47-minute period such as handling tardy students, collecting homework, taking head counts to determine which students were absent, etc.  He also left out the tedious Q & A review of the previous day’s lesson. In Mayer’s description everything seemed milkshake smooth. It was not.

While Mayer captured the major elements of the discussion, my memory of the class and Mayer’s description do differ. Of course, there are solid reasons why our two accounts differ. For one, Mayer was a journalist and had to report what he saw and heard while retaining readers’ attention using the art and craft of a writer. For me, a researcher recalling one lesson I taught decades ago, as memorable as it was, revealed holes in my memory. This creates a dilemma for me in reconstructing how I taught a half-century ago.

I value my experience as a teacher and remember so much of the highs and lows of teaching for nearly 15 years. Writing now about those experiences drives me to write personal accounts. Yet as a scholar, writing autobiographically is uncommon.

And here is where conflict enters. I also value my training as an historian who is highly aware that the sources available to me about how I and others taught a half-century ago are not only fragmentary (e.g., Martin Mayer’s account) but also contain biases: former students’ recollections, teacher journals, high school yearbooks, etc.  I have learned to be cautious when using autobiographies and interviews with students and teachers recalling bygone lessons. So I know that writing a personal account means that some things are said and some things are left unsaid. Psychologists, lawyers, and social scientists have written extensively about how  memory is selective and distorted. The novelist Cormac Mc Carthy summed it up well: “You forget what you want to remember and remember what you want to forget” (The Road, p. 10)

So these values I prize conflict in writing about my teaching.

In writing about myself and others teaching history a half-century ago, scholarly objectivity, that “noble dream,” is very difficult to attain. Writing autobiographically means that in using memory and documentary fragments to reconstruct my seven years at Glenville I will portray the truth as I see it knowing full well  that writing about one’s past means one writes about some things and leaves other things out.

Thus, the historian-autobiographer faces questions about the facts and style of writing. How will I, for example, document statements that I make? Or what will my experiences reveal—the micro-history I write about teaching at Glenville high school in the late-1950s and early-1960s—about larger trends in the teaching of history, schooling, and the Civil Rights movement as it touched Cleveland, Glenville, and my classroom. Knowing all of this does not soften or erase the dilemma; it present a challenge to an historian-autobiographer. One that I welcome.

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