I always wanted to be an English teacher; reading and writing were what I loved best about school, and so I became certified to teach English at the secondary level. But early in my career, a colleague told me that I was really a “social studies teacher disguised as an English teacher.” Any chance I had to make connections between my class and various events in history, I was on it! If the social studies teachers asked me to join them in an interdisciplinary unit, I was in, especially if it was US history.
I never really liked my own social studies classes when I was a young teenager — I remember it now as lots of dull memorization and fact upon fact upon fact. No stories. No life. Just information, and finding the answers to questions 1-10 in the textbook for homework. At some point early in my teaching career I began to realize that I have lived during some of our country’s most important historical times. I grew up with parents who talked about current events on a daily basis. I was born in 1950 and attended a segregated elementary school in Virginia. Even as a child I knew about the civil rights movement, the cold war and the space race. My parents woke me up one night in October 1957 to look up in the sky and see Sputnik, and I once lived in a house that had a bomb shelter. I was in 7th grade when we first heard about a place called Vietnam, I was a senior in high school during the Tet Offensive, and I had been married for four years when we pulled the last troops off the top of the US Embassy in Saigon. I had learned about US history because it happened all around me; I had experienced it. Maybe my co-worker was right!
When I started working in my current school, I team taught with a social studies teacher and we developed deep, comprehensive interdisciplinary units, one of which, “Perspectives of Vietnam,” we presented as a workshop at a New England regional conference. It was so well received we were invited back to present several more times. Many of my older former students still tell me that’s the one unit in school that has stayed with them through all their years. But circumstances and teaching assignments inevitably change, and my teaching partner moved away. Later, I had a chance to become a teacher of English and social studies — it was heavenly! Out of 19 years teaching at my school, I taught both subjects for 16. I no longer have that dual role, and I miss it.
There was one amazing year of social studies teaching that I know will stay with me forever: the eighth grade class of 2001-2002.
The curriculum encompassed US history from the Civil War through the 20th century and a focus on current events, and I was on fire with excitement! I had a new M.Ed. in Creative Arts in Learning; I was trained in integrating the arts into the curriculum through differentiation, multiple intelligences, and learning styles. Social studies was the perfect playground for my expertise. We had a textbook and I had students read in it, but we never looked at the questions at the end of each chapter. I planned projects and special activities for every unit. After an immigration simulation project, we travelled to our state capital to witness a powerful and moving naturalization swearing-in ceremony, in which about 40 immigrants from many different countries all became new US citizens. During our unit on Westward Expansion, one student couldn’t decide which of the project choices she wanted to do, so she asked me if she could do two! I remember more than once telling the class that I had a new great idea for our next unit, and I’d say, “It’s still a little rough around the edges ’cause I haven’t had time to work out the details, so I’ll need you to help me out and we’ll all figure out the best way to make it work.” And they’d jump on board and we would make it work — together. They were always excited with me and social studies that year was a magic carpet ride.
But that year had started with the tragedy of September 11, 2001. That’s the group of students who were in my classroom when the news reached us, and we learned together about the Taliban, and Osama bin Laden. Now, nine years later, I believe that horrible day is what laid the foundation for the close rapport we shared as the year unfolded. We experienced and survived September 11th together, and perhaps my classroom became a refuge of sorts — we were all in it together for the rest of that year. That’s why I have not had another year like that since.
Every year on this date, when I remember the unfolding of the day’s events, I also remember that very special group of students, many of whom I am lucky enough to still call my friends.