Teaching History at Mission High School (Kristina Rizga)

This is the third excerpt taken from Kristina Rizga’s new book Mission High. With her permission I have excerpted descriptions of math  and English lessons. In this post, Rizga describes a history lesson that Robert Roth, a long time community activist and veteran social studies teacher, taught.

“Your essay on the Mendez v. Westminster case was so powerful,” Roth says as he rests his arm on Maria’s shoulder in the hallway one chilly winter morning in 2011. “You really nailed it this time.” He concentrates on Maria’s face. Roth is dressed in a black, long-sleeved shirt, black jeans, and black shoes. His closely cropped hair has lost most of its pepper.

“Huh? Me? Thanks, Mr. Roth.” Maria stops for a brief moment to soak in the praise before she walks through the classroom door. Clenching a thick bundle of tissues in her hand, she looks out an open window for a moment, smiling.

The J-Church train outside shrieks along the rails near the school. Maria closes the window before settling into her desk. Propping the classroom door open with his right hand, Roth scans every face in the morning rush of students flowing through the hall.

“Have you been avoiding me, Pablo?” Roth shouts. “I saw you near the cafeteria yesterday and you didn’t even say hello.” Pablo smiles reluctantly. “Am I going to see you after school today to look over your outline?”

“Yes, I will be there,” Pablo heaves a long, dramatic sigh, with arms akimbo.

“How are you doing, Darrell?” Roth turns his head toward a tall student walking into his classroom. “Are you coming to see me after school today for a test review?” Darrell nods in agreement as he joins the rest of the students.

Ten minutes after the bell rings, Jesmyn slowly cracks open Roth’s classroom door, peeking through with one eye before she tip-toes inside. The class is quiet. Students are writing. Everyone is working on the “Do Now,” a fifteen-minute review exercise on topics students studied in the last class. Today there are three “short identifications,” events or ideas students have to describe in their own words in no more than three sentences. There is also a short, one-page essay in which students have to discuss the significance of a historic event and connect it to other topics they have already studied.

“I’m late. I know, I know,” Jesmyn whispers to Roth as she moves toward her desk in the front row. She sits down, planting her legs widely on the floor. She puts her red glasses on and reads the instructions on the board, “Test Review. Twenties and the Start of the Great Depression (15 pts).”

“Look at you, kiddo!” Roth walks over to Jesmyn and says quietly, “Showed up even though you are upset about being late,” he smiles. Her pinched lips relax into a smile.

Roth gives Jesmyn a sheet with instructions and whispers, “Respond to each of these questions. Briefly explain the Scopes Trial, who was Henry Ford, and the assembly line. Then a short essay on who supported Prohibition and why.”

“Whoa, this is too much, Mr. Roth!” she exclaims out loud. “How much stuff do I need to write for each?”

“As short as you can,” he whispers back. “Just include the most relevant information. You can look in the textbook, but you must use your own words. If you copy, you don’t learn. But you don’t need the textbook. Just get started, and you’ll see that you know much more than you think.” Jesmyn exhales a long breath and writes her name on a blank piece of paper. Roth is setting up the projector while students are writing.

“Two more minutes, everyone!” Roth interrupts.

“No!” Destiny and Jesmyn protest.

“See, this is my problem.” Roth enters the middle of the classroom. “You don’t listen to me. I say two more minutes and you say, ‘Leave me alone, I’m writing!’”

“OK, Destiny,” Roth says five minutes later. “Tell me one group that supported Prohibition and why.”

“Women’s groups concerned with domestic violence,” Destiny replies confidently.

“Great. Jesmyn?”

“Businesses.”

“Why?”

“They didn’t want drunk workers.”

“That’s exactly right. Who else?”

“Church groups, because they felt it was a sin to drink,” Maria adds.

Jesmyn jumps in with her hand up: “Oh, gangsters rise in Chicago because of Prohibition.”

“That’s a really good point. Why is this happening?” Roth probes.

“They get into the business of bootlegs, and Al Capone had the law on his payroll,” Jesmyn rushes to explain.

Darrell raises his hand and adds, “Anti-immigration groups also supported Prohibition.”

“That’s true. Why are they doing that?” Roth inquires.

“They say immigrants are drunks and are destroying American morals and should not be allowed here,” Darrell explains.

“That’s right,” Roth nods his head.

“Mr. Roth, what’s a bootleg again?” Marvin jumps in.

“Emilio, could you answer Marvin’s question?”

“Selling something illegally.”

“That’s right. And I know that none of you are bootleggers,” Roth smiles. “Oh, no. You don’t copy CDs. No, I’ve never seen that.”

“All kidding aside,” Roth continues, as he moves back to the center of the room again. “We’ve been studying the Twenties for a while, and this will be on the test in a few weeks. Remember, if we are doing something in class, it will be on my test. I’m studying with you. You have my e-mail and my phone number. Come see me after school if you need help with any of these topics we went over today.”

Roth turns on the projector and a black-and-white photograph appears on the projection board: Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother (1936).

“What do you see here?” Roth asks while students flex their wrists.

Darrell raises his hand and answers, “A mother who is moving around and struggling to feed her children.”

“There is something very thoughtful about this picture,” Marvin says.

“That’s so true,” Roth chimes in. “What do you see that makes you say that?”

Darrell raises his hand again. “Children are tired and hopeless, but the mother doesn’t look hopeless.”

“What makes you say that?” Roth probes.

“Children turned their heads away, like they are ashamed,” Maria comments. “But the mother is not ashamed. You see perseverance and determination in her eyes.”

“Exactly,” Roth jumps in. “As Maria pointed out, this photo is not exploitative. Lange shows us both the struggle and the inner strength of the mother.” More of Lange’s photographs appear on the projection board. As students take turns describing what they see, Roth reviews previous material—the Dust Bowl, the Bonus Army, the beginning of Social Security—and connects it to the faces students see in the black-and-white stills. After the Lange introduction, he moves into the center of the classroom.

“OK, Emilio, you gotta sit down,” Roth scans the room quickly. “And put the phone away, please.”

“Jesmyn, are you ready to present?” She nods and comes up to the front of the class.

“How many of you have heard of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921?” Jesmyn asks her classmates. Two hands go up. A few weeks earlier, Roth had offered students their choice of preselected research projects that were not in the textbooks or required by the state standards. The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 had jumped out at Jesmyn right away. She admired her boyfriend’s grandmother, Edna Tobie, and knew that she was originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma. So one Sunday Jesmyn had spent the whole day at Tobie’s house talking to her and her sons about life in Tulsa before the violence broke out. Tobie had described how despite the legacy of slavery and the Jim Crow laws, black people in Tulsa created a proud, self-sustaining community with jobs, churches, and two newspapers.

The next day Jesmyn had stayed up until 2:00 a.m. summarizing her findings and preparing for the presentation. She wanted her classmates to know that despite centuries of slavery and exclusion, black people always found ways to survive and thrive. She wanted them to care about Edna and the Tulsa community as much as she did after hearing Edna’s story. As she wrote, she looked up more precise words in the thesaurus, trying to craft more moving sentences. She reviewed drafts on lined, three-hole-punched paper and threw them on the floor if she wasn’t satisfied. Each new draft felt a little better, more refined, and engaging, and sounded more like her.

“Tulsa had the second-largest African American community in the United States at the time,” Jesmyn says to the class. “More than ten thousand African Americans lived in the Greenwood District. There were black-owned businesses, two newspapers, churches, and a real sense of pride in people. The riots started with a rumor that an African American man had raped a white woman. These rumors were typical at the time. Hundreds of white men attacked the community. They burned it down. Mrs. Tobie’s mother was ten at the time, but she remembers holding her mother’s hand, looking at their burned-down neighborhood filled with white ash, smoke, and people crying.<el>The local government didn’t come to defend Tulsa residents from the violence. No justice was served then or later. Mrs. Tobie explained to me that because no justice was served, some older folks blame it now for the young men’s distrust of the government. Young men don’t trust that the police are there to protect them either. It made me realize that even though it happened a long time ago, there are deep, deep scars in Tulsa. Mrs. Tobie and her sons couldn’t stop talking about it even though they weren’t even alive then.”

“I want to be a social worker one day and work in my community,” Jesmyn reflects in the conclusion of her presentation. “It is important for me to understand where deep scars come from.”

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