Monday, August 24, 2015

Back to School Days . . .

Wow, has it really been nearly two weeks since I last updated this blog?  Oh no!

I don't know how many of you have been waiting with bated breath to drink up the bon mots that flow forth from this fountain of scribbled insight, but I'm willing to bet that you've worked up a powerful thirst by now!  So, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, and know that your long wait is now ended.

  So what to write about?  I've been pretty busy lately . . . to use an old Texas phrase, as busy as a one-armed man with a bad case of poison ivy!  It's the beginning of school - a week of in-service followed by the kids coming back to class last Wednesday.  We're also caregiving for my mother-in-law, who is 87 and increasingly frail these days.  She broke her arm in a fall a few weeks back and needs our help to get around.  My Dad's health has also deteriorated over the summer, so I am checking in on him at the nursing home even more often than I normally do.  That's part of the season of life my wife and I are in right now - our girls are in college and more independent of us than they once were, but our parents need us more than ever.

   But the stress and worry of that situation is alleviated by my wonderful job - and no, that's not sarcasm.  I teach in a small private school, and I single-handedly comprise our History Department.  Once they hit junior high school, our students have me every single year.  I get to watch them grow up from seventh grade until they graduate, and it is a wonderful experience.  I have six regular classes plus one elective that I started teaching this year that meets twice a week.  Let me tell you about them.

First of all, there is Seventh Grade Texas History.  This is the "Happy Meal" of history classes - predictable, simple content that is still enjoyable and informative, with a great "toy" thrown in - the annual trip to the Sulphur River to collect fossils and Indian artifacts.  We cover the maps of Texas, the Indians, the Spanish, the Alamo, and Texas in the Civil War . . . it's always fun.  I'm still getting to know my Seventh Graders, but they seem to be a bright, fun-loving bunch with an interesting mix of personalities.

  Then there is 8th Grade U.S. History.  One of my favorite courses, content-wise, and this year's 8th grade class is lively, fun, smart, and sassy.  The girls are all well-read and belong to various TV show fandoms, and most of the guys love Star Wars - it's neat when you have a group of young people who are unashamedly willing to embrace their inner nerd.  What a cool group of young men and ladies!

   Ninth Grade is World Geography, a relatively new course for me (this is my 4th year to teach it).  I've learned a lot about the world these last 4 years and am having fun sharing it.  The freshmen are another great bunch to hang with - they are smart and full of questions about everything from politics to movies to why the Middle East is so messed up.

   Tenth Grade World History is probably my favorite content area of all.  I'm an absolute sucker for the ancient world, especially "the splendor that was Greece, the glory that was Rome."  And I get to share it ALL with them this year - from the campaigns of Julius Caesar to the tyranny of mad Caligula, and then we move on to Mohammed and Buddha, the Byzantines and the Han Dynasty, Henry VIII and his half dozen spouses to Peter the Great and his penchant for amateur dentistry.  Plus we watch some great movies this year - GLADIATOR, Kenneth Branagh's HENRY V, and the wonderful LUTHER with Joseph Fiennes in the title role.  Not to mention this is a very sharp, funny, and eclectic young people that keep me on my toes every day!

   Eleventh grade is Dual Credit U.S. History, a super-accelerated course that offers six hours of college credit by the end of the year.  I re-cover all of 8th grade history in the first semester, then in the spring we do a whirlwind tour from Reconstruction to the present.  I require the students in this class to write me one book review per quarter; I have a huge library that they can check out titles from.  It's always fun to watch as a student picks up David McCullough's 1776, or Barbara Tuchman's THE MARCH OF FOLLY, or perhaps Doris Kearne Goodwin's magnificent TEAM OF RIVALS, which I consider to be the best book ever written on Abraham Lincoln.  My juniors are a big class, full of life and fun, with some marvelously quirky personalities - and some amazing talents as well.

  Last of all, there is Senior U.S. Government.  It's a one semester course, but it's always more fun to teach in an election season.  I have a huge Presidential Election Leader Board drawn up, and I adjust the poll numbers once or twice a week to show who's up, who's down, and who's dropping out.  We cover everything from the Constitutional Convention to Roe vs. Wade in this class, and it's fascinating to watch as these now young adults form the political convictions that will guide them for a lifetime.  This year's group is a special bunch, and it's going to hurt to let them go - we've had a great journey together, but this last trip promises to be an entertaining ride.

  But wait!  There is one more class, something brand new, so much so that I am writing the curriculum as I go along this year - it's called MODERN AMERICA: Pop Culture, History, and Politics from 1980 to the Present.  I've lobbied for this course forever, since in teaching U.S. History 2 in the spring I very rarely get much past Viet Nam and Watergate.  Now at least some of my students will be instructed about the world their grandparents built and their parents grew up in.

  My days are full but joyous; the sound of "learnage" carries out my door and down the hall as we daily declare war on ignorance and come forth leaving a little bit less of it in the world.  On any given day, my students might discuss anything from the Trump phenomena to how crowded Japanese trains are to how three cigars may well have determined the outcome of the Civil War.  I tell them every year: "You may like me or not, you may like history or not, but I promise you one thing - you will never forget me!"  And for 20 years now, none of them have.

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