Memphis teacher connects students with history

Daniel Warner was drawn to the profession of teaching by the opportunity to cultivate thinkers and learners. Now, his students are engaged in vigorous debates drawing on primary sources.

Chalkbeat interviewed Warner to learn more about his background, classroom practices, and the connections he tries to make between history and contemporary society.

Before he was leading students on explorations down the path of American history, Warner was a college student who hadn’t even considered a career in teaching. During his senior year he learned about an alternative certification program that would allow him to become a teacher directly after graduation. He relished the opportunity to have an immediate impact.

While there are portions of any U.S. History course that can be tedious, “The teacher has to keep it upbeat when it’s the third day in a row on the issues of 19th-century farmers,” he jokes. There are also themes that are just as applicable today as they were 140 years ago.

In particular, Warner requires his students to read Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta Exposition Address” and W.E.B. DuBois’ “Talented Tenth.” Warner says, “At the end of the week, we have a rigorous classroom debate in which students have to quote from the primary sources to defend their positions.”

Warner finds that as a result of comparing and contrasting the ideologies of these two different leaders, students develop personal connections with the historical thinkers.  Ultimately, this should be the goal of any social studies educator: to show students that a historical understanding of the world can help them to build their own contemporary views of society.

Warner also finds it beneficial to try and tie classroom instruction to the interests of individual students. Through this, he signals to them that they matter to him as more than students—their own passions and interests are reflected in the choices he makes about curriculum.

“How a school is organized, the course structure and classroom practices, the relationship between the school and outside civic institutions—all of these matter in the moral and civic formation of the child,” write James Davison Hunter and Ryan S. Olson, the editors of The Content of Their Character, a recent publication from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

“Each year, students walk away empowered to connect their stories with the ones of those who have gone before them. History class becomes worth their time,” reflects Warner.

But there’s something even more fundamental in Warner’s classroom practices—caring for his students as persons. He says, “I heard James Baldwin say that Malcolm X was so adored by his followers and stirred them to action because he made them ‘feel as though they truly exist.'”

Warner’s students seem to feel that same deep affirmation.

The Library of Congress has suggestions for teaching Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta Exposition Address” for educators looking to follow Warner’s example.

Storytelling event in Wichita lures children with the call of stories

Wichita Griots, a 12-member group of storytellers, recently hosted the 35th annual National Association of Black Storytellers Festival, drawing national attention to its efforts to develop character and promote literacy through their craft.

Jean Pouncil-Burton, who founded Wichita Griots nearly a decade ago after retiring from a career as a librarian, told The Wichita Eagle the group visits local schools and other organizations to tell stories, teach character, and promote literacy.

“We tell a number of stories from folk tales to ghost stories to historical stories,” she said. “We inform, educate, inspire, motivate, uplift, and heal with our stories.”

The local group is one of 15 affiliates of the National Association of Black Storytellers, which held its annual festival at the Wichita Marriott for the first time on Nov. 8. The five-day event kicked off with a concert featuring local talent and activities that included performances by Wahoto, a children’s group; a drum line from the Bunker Performing Arts Magnet Elementary School; and a local choir called ARISE, the Eagle reports.

The events, built around the theme “The African American Story: From Chains to Wings,” continued with a series of concerts performances, dances, workshops, and contests through Nov. 12.

The festivities featured several “master storytellers,” as well as renowned drummers like Jeremie Meadows, a Georgia high schooler, and Kunama Mtendaji, a Missouri percussionist who specializes in drumming and dance from Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, and the Ivory Coast. In addition to the festival at the Marriott, Wichita Griots also guided festival participants on a tour of the city’s black history sites, including The Kansas African American Museum, the site of the Dockum Sit-In, and the Ulrich Museum of Art.

Melody McCray-Miller told the Eagle one of the most popular events is the tall tales contest, which encourages adults and youngsters to craft outlandish yarns.

“They’ll get in a mood and a groove and they’ll tell some stories,” she said.

Immersing oneself in stories, and learning to tell those stories, is an essential part of developing a moral compass and good character.

Robert Coles, Pulitzer Prize-winning psychiatrist and author of The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination, notes that “Novels and stories are renderings of life; they cannot only keep us company, but admonish us, point us in new directions, or give us the courage to stay a given course.”

Stories also affirm our belonging in a community, reinforcing the strength of that community. According to Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture founder James Davison Hunter in The Tragedy of Moral Education in America, “The story implicit in the word character is one that is shared. It is never a story just for the isolated individual. The narrative integrates the self into communal purposes binding dissimilar others to common ends.”

The storytellers festival provided both an opportunity for master storytellers to guide a younger generation to stay the course of good character, and encouraged youngsters to craft their own stories that will undoubtedly draw others along the same path.

Virginia cuts history tests, potentially leading to disastrous results

The Washington Post’s education columnist, Jay Mathews, is calling out Virginia education officials for doing away with standardized tests on U.S. history, a subject many believe is critical to instilling a sense of citizenship among students.

Mathews explained that Virginia’s Standards of Learning once required exams in U.S. History to 1865 in 5th grade, U.S. History 1865 to Present for middle schoolers, and a high school exam on U.S. and Virginia History.

But the tests were difficult for some students, and the state has eliminated all but the latter in recent decades. Now, the state is expected to kill off the high school history exam, as well, while keeping similar tests for English and math, he wrote.

“Many students scored poorly. At one point, the state school board tried to solve the problem by lowering the passing score, but that didn’t help. In 2014, the Virginia legislature ordered a cut in the number of tests taken by the state’s children, and specifically eliminated the fifth grade and middle school U.S. history tests,” Mathews wrote.

“The U.S. and Virginia history exam in high school is also about to disappear. The history courses remain without the required tests,” he continued. “I predict this will happen in other states, too. Politicians seem to think the best way to reduce testing pressure is to dump tests, no matter how important.”

The shift of focus away from the country’s history follows a trend across the country that’s not only led to embarrassingly uninformed youth, but also the erosion of a shared sense of citizenship and civic engagement that was once a bedrock of American education.

It’s a serious issue that could be leading to other problems discussed in “The Vanishing Center of American Democracy,” a 2016 survey of American political culture conducted by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.

“The ‘vital center’ of a hopeful and substantive liberal democracy . . . has all but disappeared, having been depleted through deliberate strategies of oppositional research, disparagement, and political theater that have become the stock and trade of consultants, special interest groups, and political parties,” according to the report.

“It does not go too far to say that a discourse of negation—and the fear, animosity, distrust, and lack of comprehension that it fosters—is the common culture of early twenty-first century American democracy. It hasn’t helped that the mediating institutions directly or indirectly charged with political formation—schools, youth organizations, churches and other institutions of faith, and local political parties—have weakened over the past half century,” it continues.

“For many reasons not of their own making, these institutions have failed to cultivate the shared civic sensibility at the heart of citizenship.”

And the result has not been good.

“In the process, the shared civic dispositions that underwrote and therefore limited political disagreement have not been replenished. Neither has the civility, civic realism, and idealism that accompanies vital democratic practice,” according to the report. “To be sure, the internet and social media have filled the gap, offering a certain kind of political community, along with a voice for many who were voiceless, but it is a weaker form of community, divided into enclaves and built on anonymous ties, with little more than virtual solidarity.”