“Confessions of a School Reformer” (Part 2)

Glenville High School, 1956-1963

My memory of teaching over a half-century ago is filled with holes. In thinking back to the time when I began teaching at Glenville High School in Cleveland (OH), I can remember some events, some students, some teachers, and my first principal but there is much I cannot recall. Slivers of memory remind me of what I did daily in my five U.S. and world history classes over the seven years that I taught there. And even those fragments are disconnected.  What helps me from sentimentalizing my memories are yellowed copies of actual lessons I taught, student papers with my comments on them, old spiral-ringed gradebooks listing students and their marks, occasional articles about one or more classes of mine in the student newspaper, and photos of me teaching in the annual yearbook. That’s it.

I do recall my shock when I had lunch with Glenville principal Oliver Deex just before I had to report for teaching in September 1956. I was startled to find out that Glenville’s student body was over 90 percent Black—the word then was Negro. He gave me a once-over-lightly account of segregated schools in Cleveland, the differences between the increasingly Black East Side and the all-white West Side, separated by the Cuyahoga River. He began my education in Cleveland’s residential segregation and the growth of ethnic and racial ghettos.[i]

Segregated Cleveland

Patterns of ethnic and racial segregation in Cleveland had developed early in the twentieth century, when neighborhoods became easily identifiable as Italian, German, Polish, Jewish, and Black. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, upwardly striving immigrant Jewish families clustered in the Central, Scovill, and Woodland Avenue neighborhoods close to downtown. By the 1920s, many of these families began to move eastward into the Glenville area in response to an influx of Southern Black migrant families seeking better housing. The result was the gradual transformation of these areas into a Black ghetto. By the 1930s, Jewish businesses, synagogues, hospitals, and charitable institutions services dotted 105th Street, one of Glenville’s main thoroughfares, and Glenville High School became nearly 90 percent Jewish in that decade.[ii]

Residential segregation (homes on sale often had racial covenants in their deeds) and in-migration of Blacks after World War II again created overcrowded housing in already racially segregated neighborhoods. Upwardly mobile Black families entered the Glenville area in the late 1940s and early 1950s. As that occurred, more and more Jewish families moved into the eastern suburbs of Shaker Heights, Cleveland Heights, South Euclid, and Beachwood. Middle-class Black families increased their presence in the Glenville area, so that by the time I arrived, Glenville High School and the adjacent junior highs and elementary schools were already over 90 percent Black.[iii]

Classroom teaching

Although my teacher preparation at the University of Pittsburgh was steeped in the Progressive tradition of student-centered instruction, if an observer had entered my high school history classes in those initial years they would have easily categorized my instruction as wholly teacher-centered. Students sat in rows of movable chairs with tablet arms facing the front blackboard and my desk.

I planned detailed lessons at home for the five classes. In my written lessons, which I would follow religiously in the early years, I would carefully list the questions I would ask for whole-group discussions, lecture on the text and additional readings Iassigned to the class, all the while orchestrating a sequence of activities aligned to the questions. Over 90 percent of instructional time was spent teaching the whole group.

Toward the end of my first year at Glenville, I realized, albeit slowly, that teaching five classes a day with multiple lessons (I taught world history and U.S. history), grading homework from over 150 students, and learning the ropes of managing groups of students a few years younger than me not only wore me out–I was also taking late-afternoon and evening graduate history courses at Western Reserve University– but drove me to rely on lectures and the textbook far more than I anticipated.

Slowly, however, I became dissatisfied about how I was teaching. I routinely lectured, watched maybe half of the students take notes and the other half stare into the distance or try to look attentive. Some fell asleep. I asked students questions about the textbook pages I assigned and got one-word answers back. Occasionally, a student would ask a question and I would improvise an answer that would trigger a few more students to enter in what would become a full blown back-and-forth discussion. It was unplanned and brief but mysteriously disappeared in the snap of a finger. Periodic quizzes and current events topics one day a week altered my routines but student disengagement persisted.

After six months, I realized that I did not want to teach history mechanically drowning students in forgettable facts that left me drained and dissatisfied at the end of a long day. I wanted to break out of that pattern. But did not know how to do that yet.

These were the years before the civil rights movement had traveled northward. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in the midst of his Montgomery ministry; Rosa Parks had just triggered the boycott of Jim Crow buses in that city. After nearly a year teaching, I became more aware of how Cleveland’s racially segregated neighborhoods had blanketed schools like Glenville with malignant neglect. But it was slow going for a white teacher who gradually learned from his students and Black colleagues what was happening outside of school. Slow as it was, I began to see my work inside the classroom where students took notes and participated in discussions connected to students’ lives outside school.[iv]

That insight occurred as I grew Intellectually. Oliver Deex, my principal was midwife to expanding my mind. A voracious reader and charming conversationalist, Deex introduced me to books and magazines I had never read: Saturday Review of Literature, Harpers, Atlantic, Nation, and dozens of others.

He often invited to his home a small group of teachers committed to seeing Glenville students go to college. When we were in his wood-paneled library, a room that looked as if it were a movie set, he would urge me to take this or that book. In his office after school, we would talk about what I read. I have no idea why he took an interest in the intellectual development of a gangly, fresh-faced, ambitious novice, but his insistent questioning of my beliefs and gentle guidance whetted my appetite for ideas and their application to daily life and teaching.

The next year, I decided to experiment with different content to break out of those instructional routines that numbed me by the end of the day. For two of my five classes, I began to design lessons that differed from the assigned U.S. history text (David S. Muzzey’s History of Our Country published in 1955 had no entry for “Negro” in the index). Drawing from my University graduate history courses, I began to type up excerpts from primary sources, duplicate them on the department’s one ditto machine, add questions and assign them to those two classes–the thought of doing this for all five classes overwhelmed me; two seemed do-able. [v]

For example, in a textbook chapter on the 13 colonies in which Muzzey’s History of Our Country dismissed the origins of slavery as unimportant, I would copy readings that included descriptions of slave auction and bills of sale and historians’ accounts that spelled out the issues surrounding the introduction of Africans into the colonies. I would add questions to these readings that called for students to analyze both primary and secondary sources. In addition, the librarian gathered the few books on Negro history that we had in our school and nearby libraries and put them aside in a special section for my two classes.

By my third year at Glenville, I had found that gaining students’ interest in U.S. history was only half the struggle. I was now using these materials in all five classes. Student response to non-textbook ethnic materials, however, was mixed. The novelty of studying Black figures and broader issues of race triggered deep interest in maybe half of the students in the classes. But many students felt that such content was sub-standard because their texts didn’t mention the information contained in their readings and, moreover, they complained openly that other history teachers didn’t have readings and used the textbook more than I did. Some students even asked me to return to the text. I was surprised at first that some students wanted me to return to the deadening routine that left me and most students anesthetized. Then I realized that using textbooks in high school was all that they knew.

Overall, however, I judged student response as sufficiently positive for me to continue and, truth be told, I was excited about the readings and ways of getting students to think about the past that I had developed. I saw that students studying a  past in which racial content and practices were important enabled both students and me to make connections between then and now that had been missing when I began teaching.  Sure, I was weary at 3:30 PM, but now I looked forward to the next day of teaching.[vi]

Within four years, I had expanded my repertoire beyond weekly use of ethnic and racial subject matter. I slowly introduced new content and direct instruction in skills into my U.S. history classes. As I learned the methodology of the historian in my graduate courses, I designed more lessons on analyzing evidence, determining which sources of information were more or less reliable and assessing what makes one opinion more informed than another. A later generation of scholars and practitioners might have labeled my uncertain baby-steps in changing the content of lessons,  “teaching historical thinking.” [vii]


[i] Leonard Moore, “The School Desegregation Crisis of Cleveland, Ohio, 1963–1964,” Journal of Urban History 28, no. 2 (2002): 135–147. Within the school, I quickly learned from experienced colleagues that the district personnel department customarily assigned young, white, inexperienced teachers to mostly minority schools to see if they would survive. 

 [ii] Kenneth Kusmer, A Ghetto Takes Shape: Black Cleveland, 1870–1930 (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 157–173; David Van Tassel (ed.) The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 595–599.

[iii] Kusmer, A Ghetto Takes Shape, 170–171.

[iv] A reader knowledgeable about Progressive thought in the early 20the century could easily point out that such a connection I had come to realize was within Progressive educators’ thinking decades earlier.

[v] For the reference to David Muzzey’s U.S. History textbook, see Larry Cuban “Jim Crow History,” Negro History Bulletin, 1962, 25(4), pp. 84-86.

The ditto machine (or “spirit duplicator”) came into schools in the 1940s. It did not need electricity to run and was cheap compared to a mimeograph machine. The machine was basically a crank-turned drum to which I attached a stencil that I had typed up. I inserted paper in the tray, and turned the handle until I had enough copies for my lesson. The finished copies were purplish with the distinct fragrance of alcohol (which was in the drum). The purple type ran occasionally and after producing many copies my hands were often bluish. With the invention of the electronic copy machine in the 1970s, ditto machines became another footnote in classroom teaching.

[vi] In 1962, I was asked to present at a national conference of social studies teachers on the ethnic and racial content lessons I had created. A member of the audience, Ted Fenton, came up to me afterwards and asked me if I would write a volume for his Scott,Foresman series on problems in American history. I said I would and in 1964, The Negro in America appeared in the series (it came out in a second edition in 1971 re-titled The Black Man in America.. It was the first book that I had published.

[vii] Sam Wineburg, “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts,” Phi Delta Kappan, 1999, 80(7), pp. 488-499; Roy Rosenzeig, “What Is Historical Thinking Matters,” at: http://historicalthinkingmatters.org/about/


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach, school reform policies

2 responses to ““Confessions of a School Reformer” (Part 2)

  1. wjshan

    What a significant mentor you had then, I mean Mr. Oliver Deex! By the way, I finally learned that the exact bibliography of the paper ‘Jim Crow history,’ the first paper you published. Thanks.

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