Day 5 – National Archives and Beyond


The fifth and final day of my stay at Mount Vernon was spent at the National Archives.  Since I was spending and extra day in Washington D.C., I packed up and checked out of Mount Vernon before the bus left for the Archives.  It was a pleasant, if not lightly trafficked, trip into Washington D.C.

We arrived at the Archives before normal business hours and went straight into the “special events” entrance.  It was the first time I’d had to put my backpack through a metal detector since the airport, but it wasn’t too bad.  We spent the rest of the morning going through what the students would do if we were to bring a group to the National Archives.  It was really well designed and implemented.  While we were there we also saw the Constitution and Bill of Rights before the public was allowed in, and then we went on a self-guided tour of the exhibits on display.  The crown jewel, at least for me, was the copy of the Magna Carta that was on display.  I had seen another copy before in London, but any time I get to see an original copy of such an important document I’ll get excited.

When our time was done at the National Archives, I parted ways with the rest of the group and struck out on my own in Washington D.C.  I quickly made my way to my hotel, found my bearings, and headed off for a whirlwind 24 hours in our nation’s capital.  Rather than go into huge detail, I’m going to summarize my thoughts on the sights I visited.

  • American History Smithsonian – I’m not 100 percent sure I’ve ever stepped foot in this museum before.  I had been told by a number of people that it was underwhelming.  The one thing I really wanted to see (a replica of Julia Child’s kitchen) was being repainted, but the rest of the museum is fascinating.  I think the name is misleading, it should be the “pop culture museum”.
  • Air and Space Smithsonian – I was very underwhelmed with this museum.  Sure it’s neat to see all the planes and space ships, but I’m pretty sure they haven’t updated a thing since I was there in the mid-90s.
  • Congress, the Supreme Court, and the White House – I did a “walk by” of these sights since I had no desire to spend any time waiting in line.  Congress was being refurbished, so it wasn’t as striking as it would have been.  The White House was madness.  The Supreme Court building was fun to see although uneventful.
  • Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument – I saw these amazing feats of architecture in both broad daylight as well as at night.  I highly recommend seeing these at night.  There is something oddly spooky about them after dark.  In hindsight, I wish I’d seen the entire mall at night, but a guy’s got to sleep.
  • Jefferson Stone – The original planned location of the Washington Monument.  Not much to see, but interesting to know the back story.
  • World War 2 Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, and Korean War Memorial – All three were very well laid out and conceptualized.  I was very impressed with the Korean War Memorial and I really wish I’d seen it at night.
  • Lincoln Memorial and Reflecting Pool – I had seen this before, but I’ll always want to see the Lincoln Memorial again.  There is something extra magnificent about the statue and two speeches on the interior of the Memorial.  As I turned around and gazed at the reflecting pool while standing on the spot Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” speech, I also had an odd flashback to the movie Forrest Gump.
  • MLK Memorial – I am completely sure I had not seen the MLK Memorial the last time I was in Washington D.C.  In terms of conceptualization, this was fantastic.  The execution was outstanding.  And the fact that he might be glaring at Thomas Jefferson for all time makes it that much more awesome.
  • FDR Memorial – Roosevelt’s presidency is one of the black holes of my historical knowledge.  I know I should know more, but I don’t.  That being said, this unorthodox memorial did a great job of telling FDR’s story as a president.
  • Jefferson Memorial – I can’t remember if I’d seen this before or not.  I’ll definitely remember this time not only because I got to see the memorial and gaze across at the White House, but also because the rose blossoms were blooming on that side of the tidal pool, so I’m considering myself luck.

It was a history-packed trip, and I’m so thankful my wife allowed me to have this opportunity.  I’ll remember this trip for a long time.  I’ll try and post some of the ways this trip has affected my teaching in the coming months.


Day 4 – Constitution and Bill of Rights


Today was my last full day at Mount Vernon and I was determined to get the most out of it.  I woke up early in the morning and made my way to the estate to watch the sunrise on the piazza.  I’ve seen the sunrise hundreds of times in my life, but there’s something special when you realize that the first president of our country no doubt saw that same view at some point of his life.  After admiring the view, I headed back to our living area for George Washington’s favorite breakfast…homemade hoecakes.

We started off our morning spending all the money we could in the gift shop of Mount Vernon before it opened to the public.  There’s nothing quite like running around an empty gift shop to work your pocketbook into a frenzy.

Today was more or less a wrap up day where we were introduced to all the online media available to us on the Mount Vernon website.  We were also turned loose to plan assignments and activities using all the resources at our disposal.  It was great to finally have some time to plan on how I’m going to use the overwhelming amount of data that I acquired over my few days.

We then had a couple of lectures and round tables with various people about how to handle some of our most challenging TEKS using primary sources.  I loved this part because I’m always looking for ways to up my game on these particular TEKS.  At dinner, we spent some time thinking about how we would take what we’ve learned back to our communities.  I might have even gotten talked into presenting at a conference next year!

Day 3 – Convention and Ratification


Today we spent the majority of today in the library, so it was a lot of lecture.  That being said, the lectures were amazing, so it didn’t really seem like a lot of sitting.  We first heard from a local Washington D.C. teacher for ideas on how to teach to students who do not speak English as their native language.  We got a lot of resources that will be super helpful in the classroom.

The biggest lectures of the weekend happened today, we heard from Dr. Carol Berkin about the Constitutional Convention and the Bill of Rights.  I would love to be able to tell you that I knew all this material before, but that wouldn’t be honest.  I learned so much from these two lectures that I feel pretty confident that I can say this was the best part of the entire trip.  Her insight was exceptional and I could sit and listen to her speak all day.

We then spent the afternoon reenacting the Virginia Ratifying Convention.  It was a fascinating activity and helped me internalize the arguments that were going on in that room.  In between Dr. Berkin’s lectures, we also reenacted the Constitutional Convention.  I had the honor of playing Gouverneur Morris in our reenactment, so I had fun on one leg.

In the evening we were entertained by David and Ginger Hildebrand playing Colonial music.  I watched them expertly play a number of instruments that I had never seen played.  After dinner, a small group of us walked down to see George Washington’s tomb, the memorial to the slaves on Mt. Vernon, and down to the wharf on the Potomac River.  It was a great day, although very mentally strenuous.

Day 2 – Washington’s Influential Documents and Experiences


Waking up on Day 2, I was in a much better place mentally.  There is something therapeutic about getting a good night’s sleep and a hot shower that makes the world a little better.  The only thing that threatened to bring down the day was the constant threat of rain.  None the less, we walked over to the Library building to begin our day.

We started out with a lecture on the Magna Carta and its effects on the Constitution by  Robert Pallitto.  It was a great day because I think the Magna Carta is very difficult to teach because it’s difficult to shoehorn in.  We all know if plays a role in the principles of the Constitution, but how to do it effectively is a challenge.  He did a great job of making both the Magna Carta and the Constitution in bitesized pieces and then arranged them in a way they made sense.

From there we proceeded to my current favorite thing we’ve done, we headed off to the working whiskey distillery and gristmill on the Mt. Vernon property.  We got to talk with the master distiller as well as watch the gristmill in action.  It was a fantastic experience and according to the staff a really big surprise to do both.

When we returned to the library, we had a couple of application sessions about the Declaration of Independence as well as Project Based Learning in the classroom.  These presenters did a great job showing some practical application steps and how we could use things like the Texas Declaration of Independence to compare with the US Constitution.

After lunch, we toured the actual library on site.  We walked into their special collections rooms and got to see a number of vary rare books, including some owned by George Washington.  While the library is small compared to most public libraries, I was in awe of the amount of material at your disposal about Mt. Vernon and the Washington family.  We followed the tour with an application session about pictures of Washington and their transition throughout the years.

In the afternoon we had a lecture and application session about Washington’s thoughts and practice of government.  It was a fantastic look at how the (arguably) most important man on the planet at the time thought about government as well as his effect on the brand new government.  We transitioned to a tour of the grounds of Mt. Vernon with the lead horticulturist.  He brought huge amounts of insight about the gardens and layout of the mansion…and there may have been adult beverages shared by him as well.

We finished the evening at the Mt. Vernon Inn Restaurant talking with an actor portraying Tobias Leer, George Washington’s secretary and tutor of his children.  It was a fantastic day and I enjoyed every moment of it.

Day 1 – Washington and Civics


I arrived at Washington’s Reagan Airport in the late morning on Sunday.  While it was late morning Washington D.C., my morning began long before in the wee hours of the morning as DFW Airport.  I’ve never been happier to be out of a less than three hour flight.  I gathered my bags, checked the my information, and called my ride to Mt. Vernon.  The rubber met the road, as they say, at that moment.  My five days in residence at Mt. Vernon is beginning.

I found my ride at the curb and was joined by another participant for the week.  We were a part of a group of educators invited to Mt. Vernon to learn more about George Washington and stay on the grounds of his estate.  Along the ride we had some light chatting about the area with our volunteer driver and I enjoyed watching the Virginia colonial houses and the Potomac River fly by.

When we arrived, I found my way to my room and prepared myself for our opening session.  To be completely honest, I was whipped from travel but also extremely excited at the prospects for the week.  We had a brief session setting up the goals for the weekend and introducing people who would be helping out for the weekend.  After lunch, we listened to a lecture about George Washington about Washington as a citizen and how he viewed citizenship.  The lecturer, Lorri Glover, was eloquent and spoke directly to the heart of Washington’s beliefs about citizenship.  Following this lecture, we headed to the museum on Mt. Vernon’s property and had some time to look around and see all the wonderful artifacts on hand.

After the museum, we headed to the Mt. Vernon Inn Restaurant.  It was closed at this point, so we got to enjoy a quiet dinner where we played George Washington trivia.  While my team came in second that night, we all felt like winners as we headed to the estate on Mt. Vernon for a private, evening tour.  Our tour guide was extraordinary and we got to see all the rooms of the estate including the third floor as well as the basement.  It was a really great day, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

I understood from the moment we introduced ourselves that I was the junior educator here.  Most of the teachers were in their twentieth or more year of teaching, and I am not even close.  I think that’s why I’m most appreciative of this experience.  Most of the time the teachers I’m with already know much of what is being said, but I’m learning a ton.  I feel like I’m hanging on every word that’s said.  I can’t wait to use these new perspectives in the classroom next year when we’re covering the life and times of George Washington.

Autonomy In the Classroom


Maybe it’s because I have written curriculum for two districts now and can see the overlap.  Maybe it’s because I have taught all three grades of middle school history.  Maybe it’s because I like to help people.  Maybe it’s because I like to fix things.

All these things are true statements and reasons I’ve always given up time in my own personal curriculum to help introduce students to the 8th grade curriculum.  For the first time this year I heard a dissenting opinion during a district meeting.  The teacher outlines a very well thought out opinion that they should not have to teach any material that pertains to the tested 8th grade curriculum.  It shocked me that someone would say such a thing, but the more I thought about it, the more the debate raged on in my head.

If it is acceptable to ask teachers in non-tested grades to teach some of the tested standards, in Texas it needs to start in the 6th grade.  There is not much overlap from grade to grade, but the conceptual vocabulary definitely can be taught.  When I taught 6th grade I focused on the US Government, the ideas of Revolution and Colonization, and really tried to get the students to understand how natural resources determine a civilization’s economy.  In 7th grade there is more overlap with 8th grade US History.  I usually tried to compare the colonization of Texas to the colonization of the United States, really focus on Westward Expansion, and taught the full 8th grade TEK driven Civil War and Reconstruction units.  The question I always asked myself was, “do I really believe that students are carrying over knowledge from 6th and 7th grade to 8th grade?”  My answer was usually no, but the more times the students are exposed to the material the more likely it is to stick in the heads.  This also wasn’t burdensome for my classroom because I was already teaching those concepts.

As I thought about what it would be like to not have taught those concepts, I think about the freedom that would give me.  I think about all the other ways I could have taken those concepts in my classroom.  It also made me wonder whether that is good for the student or good for the teacher.  We all prefer to teach the way we want and how we would like to teach it, but is that good for the student?  In some ways it would be to the student’s benefit because they could potentially have a more passionate teacher who is teaching things a way that they are super passionate about.  The case that was made to me was that the overlap is what non-tested classes should focus on.  In the case of history this means social studies skills, reading skills, and writing skills.  I’m completely on board with these things.  My counterpoint to this is that if the teacher is already going to be teaching something in their classroom, why not go ahead and help the teacher who will be tested some day?

I guess when it comes down to it, this debate is whether you think that it is valuable to be willing to give up a little of your own time for the betterment of your students or not.  I, personally, will always side on the side of the students and their needs not my own wants and desires.  I want my kids to understand as much material as they can in as easy a way as possible.  I want the teachers that come after me in line to have an easier time with their curriculum than I have with mine.  Does that always work?  No.  But I’d like to think I’m helping in some small way.

A Case For More Vertical Alignment


In my seven years of teaching, no topic has come up in my history departments as much as vertical alignment.  Middle school history is super challenging in this regard because our curriculum doesn’t overlap as much as other subjects.  That being said, I would like to make the case that vertical alignment is one of the most important things we can do as history teachers.

First, the students do not care about vertical alignment.  In fact, they do not care at all about most things we think about as teachers.  They are mostly ego-centric beings swimming in a sea of hormones.  Given this fact, why should we even care about vertical alignment.  By not being a unified front, the students have shown their weakness…or at least a potential weakness.  Imagine if our students all came together and acted as one to get what they wanted.  How scary would that be?  If we as a history team can use the same academic vocabulary, teach concepts in similar ways, and have common goals for the learning goals of our students, isn’t that more powerful than simply doing what we want?  If we expect to change the culture and how our students learn, isn’t it better to work together with other professionals toward a common goal?

Second, the kids have summer break in between grades.  Maybe that’s overly simplistic.  Kids struggle to retain things they learn from year to year.  If our history departments teach as lone wolves, it’s going to be increasingly harder to get the students back in the swing of things.  Humans are creature of habit, so if they have a comfort level doing things a certain way, why would you not continue things that effective?

The thing about vertical alignment is that we all are opinionated.  We all think our way is the best.  But what if “our” personal preferences aren’t as good for the team?  Does the kid’s learning mean more or does our personal preference mean more?  It’s uncomfortable to compromise, but before you protest with vertical alignment think of the kids.

In the beginning


The beginning of the school year is full of new possibilities.  New teachers are learning their craft and putting theory into practice for the first time.  Experienced teachers are refining their craft and becoming a better teacher day by day.  There are plenty of ways people start anew each August and the more times I go through this the more I reflect on what makes any new school better than another.  Here are a few of my musings.

  1. Try something new every school year.  The quickest way to become a boring, soulless educator is to stop innovating and become stagnant.  Make it a point at the beginning of every school year to try something in a new way or try a new strategy you’ve been meaning to try.  For me this shows my students in a small way that I’m willing to take the risks that I’m asking them to take in class.  It also reminds me in a small way that I’m not a finished product and need to keep reinventing things and seeing growth in new ways.  This year I’m trying to relate to my students better from the start.  I’m diving into their lives and working with them in ways I never have before.  I’m also sponsoring a student group to get to know students in a different set circumstances.
  2. Be flexible.  This is not in my natural skill set.  I want to be someone who goes with the flow and isn’t rattled by anyone, but that’s just not me.  I like a little bit of control in the classroom and when I don’t feel like the kids are responding to me in certain ways I get easily frustrated.  At the beginning of the school year especially I have to remind myself that things happen and I need to just go with it.  Students are figuring me out and I’m figuring them out and that takes time.  I usually have to harken back to my days coaching c-team football and laugh a lot more than I get angry.  
  3. Communicate, communicate, communicate.  It’s my belief that 99% of the problems in a school could be solved or de-escalated by better communication.  I like to try and have as many face-to-face conversations as I can at the beginning of the school year because it forces me to learn about everyone in the building.  If I can’t meet face to face I’ll try and call them on the phone.  It’s not ideal, but at least you can understand the tone of the person you’re talking to.  Lastly I’ll e-mail someone if I can’t reach them any other way.  It’s the least personal and most frustrating.

These ideas are nothing new, they just help me reframe my mentality to that I can make the most of the beginning of the school year.  Ideally I’m using these all year, but I really like to emphasize them the first few weeks of school.

Do Creations Have Rights?


I enjoy going to the movies, and I don’t need my movies to be filmed in revolutionary ways or have unusually deep plot lines.  When it comes down to it I really want to be entertained for a few hours.  Recently I’ve noticed a current flowing through movies set in the not too distant future: Do things we create have inherent rights?

The first movie I remember having this theme was made in the 1980s, Short Circuit.  I loved this movie because not only did a robot get made, but somehow a lightning strike rendered him alive and apparently gave Johnny 5 a personality.  I’m no computer scientist, but I’m not sure a lightning strike would give a robot the ability to think, feel, and show emotion to humans.  The basic premise was that Johnny 5 wanted to stay alive by whatever means necessary.  At first he was a happy-go-lucky robot without a care in the world.  By the end of the movie he was actively fighting “the man” to keep himself alive.  I remember thinking as a child watching this movie that this was so ridiculous and that there would never be a day where computers would be able to think…guess I was wrong.

There have been other movies that have similar plot lines in some ways like Chappie and Wall-e, but I recently saw a movie that brings this issue to life for me in a way that I never thought about…

I’ve always loved the movie Jurassic Park, but for some reason I never thought we would get to a place in my lifetime that people would be splicing genes together to create new species.  I went and saw Jurassic World recently and it brought the issue of whether creations have rights.  At this point in the Jurassic series, there are people in the corporation that would like to turn some of the dinosaurs into weapons of war.  When they are questioned by other management/ownership level employees, one character makes the comment that, ” we created them, they have no rights.”  Other movies have attempted to bring up similar situations, but this one really stuck with me and made me think.

Seeing that I teach history, it got me thinking of historical situations that were similar to this.  Too often we focus on what we are doing in the moment without thinking about what may have happened in the past and how it can inform the present.  I came up with two parallels:

  • Slavery – Immediately my US History teacher brain went back to colonial slavery (although any slavery works for this).  We chose a group of people that only had a limited ability to fight back and we forced them to work for us.  This is similar only in so much as we took the inherent rights of all people that our European forefathers outlines for us in the English Bill of Rights and our US forefathers outlined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  Were they of a different race?  Sure.  But they were still human beings that we subjugated and forced to do our bidding.  I think we can all look back and see why slavery is wrong, right?
  • Children – I’m not going to to claim to have the answers to this, but let’s just say that there are all kinds of debates going on about how much control parents have over their children.  It starts with the heated debate over abortion, and there are passionate arguments on both sides.  Moving forward a little bit, there are children who have divorced their parents…which seems weird to me.  I’ve even had arguments with my students in class about what rights children have.  There are a lot of hazy gray areas in the area of children and rights.  I’m not sure this helps do anything but muddy the waters on our current debate.

Reflecting a little bit on the history of rights and creation/subjugation, I would say that we need to think long and hard about the moral ramifications of creation.  If you neglect your child (or your pets even) you are considered a criminal.  Do those penalties follow us if we create a computer that learns, but we neglect it?  We are quickly moving from an age where we need to move away from the question of “can I create this?” and toward the questions of “should I create this?” and “what are the potential problems with creating this?”  Not that we’ll be able to predict everything, but we should at least try.

To Textbook or Not to Textbook


The state of Texas has decided that this is the year that Social Studies gets to purchase new textbooks.  And why shouldn’t they, it’s only been twelve years since the last textbook adoption for Social Studies.  As a brief aside, think about that for a moment…what in your life has been around for more than twelve years.  Twelve years ago I had just graduated from college, unmarried, and wondering what I was going to do with my life.  All that is beside the point though.  As I sat in a meeting listening to different textbook publishers extolling the virtues of their product and subtly bashing the other publishers, I began to realize that maybe publishers have gone beyond the requirements for a textbook.

First of all, textbook publishers seem to think that all teachers have no brain and would like for someone to do their jobs for them.  All of the publishers we looked at had pre-made lesson plans designed to cover all the TEKS we need to cover.  While I appreciate all the time spent on all the lesson plans, I’ll never use any of them.  I’d also like to survey all teachers and see how many would plan on using any of these lesson plans except in extreme scenarios.  I’m not saying that there are zero scenarios where these would be useful, but I’m saying they should be the exception, not the rule.  If districts see it beneficial for a teacher to use textbook curriculum rather than design lessons to meet the needs of their students, why even bother certifying teachers in the first place?

Second, every publisher hyped up their outside partnerships with other content specific experts, but do I need that?  Publishers attempted to sell us that documentaries, foldables, mind-maps, animations, visuals, primary sources, and audio content were top of the line and that only they have access to them.  In reality, little to none of the content was designed specifically for their textbook from these outside agencies.  I can access almost all of the useful material without buying the textbook because it was made for other purposes and was copied and pasted into the textbooks.  I could at least make the argument that the textbooks could be more useful and cost a lot less for the districts if they left out all these partnerships and concentrated on their textbook.

The main benefit I saw with the publishers is that they are making the long, slow transition into the digital age.  Publishers, by nature, prefer print media, but the rest of the world prefers digital media.  All the publishers we looked at had some sort of online component that could be used on either a computer or smart phone.  Some of the publishers did it better than others, but all attempted digital content.  Until 100% of students have access to the internet at home, textbooks will be necessary, but at least they are starting the transition.

Textbooks are not the devil.  I choose not to use them in my classroom as much as the publishers would like, but I do see benefits of textbooks in the classroom.  I wonder if publishers assume too many teachers need their bloated offerings to do their job.  I also wonder if all this bloat is “necessary” or ” trying to make districts feel good about their purchase”.