I Wouldn’t Change A Thing

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One of my earliest recollections is kneeling on the cold basement floor in our Spokane house, lining up plastic Yankee infantry against an equal number of plastic Confederates. My brother would narrate the battle that was about to break loose, building up the suspense and drama that was destined to follow. But the art and beauty of the exercise was in the meticulous preparations, lines crafted and lovingly placed by my brother, an expression of his deep reverence for the past. And our fascination wasn’t limited to the basement, but rose upstairs to the rest of the house.
Our childhood dinners consisted of meals cooked for quantity, not quality, my mother bending over backward to please her crew of picky eaters. One brother only liked tomatoes, no lettuce. Another wouldn’t eat onions, and I wouldn’t eat potatoes, (I’ll get fat!). My mother should have tossed a loaf of white bread and peanut butter on the table and said to hell with us. But in truth, our dinners weren’t ever about the cuisine. That table was a place of interaction, debate and information. And we, my parents and three brothers talked about all sorts of topics; politics, swing music, classical music, FDR, and JFK. My mother knew every actor and singer ever filmed or recorded, so popular culture also had a rich review over those dry, bland hamburgers. My younger brothers typically listened and chewed, passively soaking up the banter as a normal dinner conversation.
My childhood memories are mainly a potpourri of All-American road trips. Slides of Montana’s Lewis and Clark Caverns, the Little Bighorn Battlefield, Yellowstone Park, and Wall Drug, flash on the screen of my memory. These destinations were of such value to my folks; that they packed up a station wagon, replaced later by a truck and camper, crammed in their four noisy kids, and made many magical history tours. I especially remember standing on Calhoun Hill near Hardin, Montana, wondering how Custer missed the massive Sioux and Cheyenne encampments. Constructed in 1805 on the Pacific coast, Fort Clatsop, Oregon sheltered the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Visiting the site permitted me to physically touch this stockaded sanctuary of another time.
Wonder became permanently hotwired into my temperament.
A degree in American History came as no surprise to anyone. As in medical families, military families, or law enforcement families I followed my childhood path, nurtured in a family that treasured our nation’s history. As though I had been handed Diogenes lamp, illuminating past events became my present-day pursuit. I had to share this passion with others. This journey of discovery was not a solitary enterprise. So earning a secondary teaching certificate set my future into motion, allowing a way to disseminate the fire I felt for the past.
What a ride! I am now at the other end of my teaching career, and can honestly say that I even loved the tough days. I made a living out of being myself, constantly reinforced with a sense of liberation, and vindication. Magic happened after that tardy bell rang. And I knew then as I know now, that there was no cooler place to work than in my classroom. Who needed Hogwarts, I had Lincoln! Service projects came to life behind that door, efforts such as the Veterans Oral History Project in conjunction with the Library of Congress—fund raising for the World War Two Memorial—donations to support local history museums, and the yearly spray of flowers for the Vietnam Memorial each Memorial weekend.
And most gratifying of all was the connection students made to an earlier America. They grew beyond what they could see, feel and touch. They became more than just themselves. I can recall an essay on Richard Nixon where a girl ruled his desire to win at all costs, cost Nixon his place in history. Another student who pointed out that after Washington’s humiliation at the 1754 Battle of Fort Necessity near present-day Pittsburgh, later foreshadowed the President’s crack down on the 1794 Whiskey Rebels in the same location. The student pointed out that Washington would not be made a fool twice in the same place forty years later. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.
Those voila moments transcend the past to a present relevance. How Washington used his few military strengths to undermine the military strengths of the British in the Revolution. How Ho Chi Minh used those same strengths to undermine the same American efforts in Vietnam. Likewise how British violation of American trade lead the US into the War of 1812. And later how German violation of American trade lead the US into World War One. The examples are vast and instructive, processed with the same reverence and regard as my brother and his toy soldiers.
Now, in retirement, an entire archive of historic primary sources have fallen into my lap. An original story has come my way detailing a young ambitious couple who challenged the Twentieth Century and left a notable trail. I have been handed a micro-history narrative, to add to the larger picture of America. What an unexpected gift for this history addict!
Writing River of January has fed my soul. It turns out that Chum, my main character, rubbed shoulders with aviators Howard Hughes, and Amelia Earhart, and even actress Kathryn Hepburn. And from his words and records, he barely took notice of their celebrity. Helen, the other main character, knew “Red Hot Mama,” Sophie Tucker, the dashing Frenchman Maurice Chevalier, and a very young Humphrey Bogart in his first film. Those people were her peers and she rolled with that crowd on an equal footing.
This story grips my heart. I’ve was groomed from my parents dinner table to craft such a book. This Saturday missive is perhaps my long overdue expression of gratitude. I am thankful for my hardwired passion for earlier times, and how vital a role the past eternally plays. I am grateful that I value ideals, ideas and vibrant lives over material possessions . . . I will never be poor. I thank the Lord my heart is enriched by remembering what came before.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the creative non-fiction work, River of January

AP History: Learning to Think

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My computer was on the blink, and a friend came over to fix it. We are lucky to have such a friend because this guy is an IT guru as well as a great neighbor. Sitting around the table, waiting for some curative program to upload, we got to talking about all the world’s problems. Soon enough the discussion moved to kids and education. Frustrated, he had just left a math position at an alternative high school, while I had just retired after a long career in public schools. We found we agreed on many, many points. In particular he still felt exasperated by the constant refrain of, “I’ll never use this (Algebra) again. Why should I have to learn it?

Now believe me, there was a time that I would have joined the ranks of complainers, because math was not, and has never been my strong suit. Today however, I’ve changed my mind about this age old gripe, realizing it wasn’t about math at all. With new eyes I looked at my math-computer friend and replied, “You were simply trying to teach him how to think–how to use steps to problem solve.”

And that, in my humble opinion, is the essential purpose of educating young people in all academic disciplines.

I spent over half of my career, before retirement, teaching AP US History, and Sophomore Honors History. This accelerated teaching assignment changed my approach and my philosophy of education almost at once. Rather than pontificating a fountain of facts to eager little test takers, I instead became a trainer of thinkers.

Embracing a new sense of purpose, classroom instruction no longer meant listing chronologies of events and dates, (though these have a place in coursework) but on how to synthesis those facts into a broader, deeper, meaning. Students were required to sort through diverse pieces of information, measuring facts into a larger coherent idea, a political viewpoint, an economic trend, or an emerging social movement. Let me illustrate.

In a simple compare/contrast question the kids had to examine the expansionist policies of Presidents Thomas Jefferson, and James K. Polk. Jefferson doubled the size of America in 1803, while Polk stretched the nation to the Pacific coast by 1848.

With a line down the middle of a piece of paper, students listed every fact concerning both presidential policies. Next they examined those facts: Louisiana Purchase through a treaty with France . . . Lewis and Clark Expedition . . . War with Mexico . . . land acquisitions of the Mexican Cession . . . opening of California, the Oregon Territory, etc . . . With all that listing and sorting of facts, the students drew conclusions from the historic record.

If done properly learners were able to make some solid observations regarding Jefferson’s diplomacy in his negotiated real estate deal with France, versus Polk’s use of military options with Mexico. In this exercise students also developed a competent writing style, finding a distinctive voice while crafting their conclusions. A literary flair.

Eventually, kids would find both presidents wanted the same thing—western land. But they realized Jefferson’s approach was more peaceful, or more principled, and France was too powerful to provoke, while later President Polk cast aside negotiations, opting for war against a weaker foe, (or something like that).

The art of teaching critical thinking, and expository writing, takes lots of discipline, dedication and tons of practice. And to be honest, some kids simply weren’t willing to take that risk, resistant to pushing themselves that hard in coursework. Some parents balked, believing that teachers shouldn’t ask so much of their young ones, and GPA’s were too valuable to risk with such a tough course. I understood the hesitation; critical thinking is an acquired skill.

And I, too, often worried and stewed over my students’ progress, often perceiving poor performance as a personal failure. I sometimes considered lowering my standards so everyone would get an “A,” and I would be their favorite teacher.
There were many tears throughout the year, a fair share of grumbling and resentment to the rigorous workload. Still, by June the majority of my students had persevered, growing exponentially as thinkers. They had bravely risked a relentless “boot camp” type of course, and prevailed.

To drive home their personal achievements, I’d ask the kids to read some of their first essays from fall, and compare the writing to pieces of more recent efforts. These students were pretty proud of themselves, satisfied they were prepared to take on the world. From the beginning of the year to the end, these young people never realized how accomplished they could, and eventually did become.

The point is that, we, as teachers, and also as parents, must expect more from our kids beyond showing up to class, and staying awake. How can young people hope to stretch themselves and mature without expectations and guidance to reach those aspirations? They cannot. Frankly, if we expect nothing from our students in the classroom, that is what we’ll get, nothing.

I was, in reality, teaching the same thing as my friend, the Algebra teacher. We were both trying to show our students how to independently process information and formulate thoughtful responses.

Teaching students to think is a demanding commitment to sustain each day. Risking the chance of failure is an unattractive proposition to students, and parents bent on preserving that 4.0 GPA. As one student honestly quipped to a colleague “Tell me what I need to know to pass the test. I’ll learn to think later.”

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January