Monday, January 19, 2015

#youredustory, Week 3: How are you, or is your approach, different than your favorite teacher?

Hmm. Another loaded question in week three of #youredustory.

My favorite teachers in high school were both history teachers: Mary Schmidt was my junior year rise of western civ teacher and Jon Friedberg taught my AP US history class my senior year. They were very different styles of teachers, but both excellent in their own way.

Ms Schmidt taught our western civ class at an AP level. Her class was probably the hardest class I took in high school. She regularly used high level vocabulary - I occasionally had no idea what she was talking about - and really pushed her students to think. Additionally, it was in her class that I first came into contact with a different view of history: at some point in the first semester, we read Howard Zinn's chapter on Columbus from A People's History of the United States. That blew my mind: I can't remember reading such a jarring narrative about a historical figure I thought I knew before this. Perhaps most importantly, and probably more than any other class in high school, I wanted to do well in Ms Schmidt's class because I wanted her to see me as an intelligent student.

I hope I challenge my students the way Ms Schmidt did. I hope I force them to build their academic vocabulary in my class. I hope we look at things in history that run counter to the dominant narrative in my class the way we did in her class. I do know that I'm very different from Ms Schmidt in some ways though: I remember her being very serious with us. I can't imagine a singalong to 'I Want It That Way' breaking out in her class like it did in my 7th period a couple weeks ago.

I still have lunch with Mr Friedberg when I'm back in Wisconsin. He encouraged me to apply to Stanford, which is what brought me to the Bay Area initially. He was tasked with getting a bunch of us ready for the AP test in May of our senior year. We did a lot of DBQ (document based question, a staple of the AP test then) writing in his class. He was also a great lecturer. He knew all the funny and a bit controversial facets of American historical figures. I read ahead in his class - read to cover the content of the upcoming lecture before the actual lecture - so I could more completely pay attention to all these tidbits. He also put up with us saying he wore shirts that looked like table cloths and allowed us to compile a list of oft quoted Friedberg-isms.

I know in terms of personality and how I relate to kids, my class is similar to Mr. Friedberg's. Kids pick at me and my idiosyncrasies in a way similar to how I interacted with him. I'm not the storyteller that Friedberg was. Similar to his class, I try to have a systematic approach around writing, like he had.

I think that both of these teachers emphasized aspects of their class around an idea that shows up in my class: there isn't a right or wrong answer - there are varying levels of achievement in justifying your answer. Both were hugely influential in my burgeoning love of history. I can safely say I wouldn't be a history teacher today had I not had these two great teachers.

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Laurie Stapleton in this post. I had the privilege of being in a class Laurie taught in grad school. I don't remember what she taught - grad school was a blur, with student teaching all morning and going to class in the afternoon and then trying to be ready for the next day. I do, though, remember that Laurie listened and empathized with her students in a way I've not ever seen another teacher do. I hope my students feel half as heard as I felt in Laurie's class.