Monday, May 2, 2011

When History Comes Alive.

I had phenomenal history teachers when I was in middle school and high school. All of them were dedicated, passionate people who truly made each moment of history come alive for their students. And while English was certainly my favorite subject, history was a very close second.

Once I was in college, I realized that it wouldn't be that much more work to turn my history minor into another major, so I did. It was one of the smartest decisions I ever made and I am glad that I have that degree as well. My history background has helped me understand literature better. It has helped me understand the world in a way that I hadn't before. Yes, it was a great decision.

I am reminded again today of how glad I am that I can teach history. After the events of last night, I knew that today I would be able to have an important conversation with my history students. On Friday, one of my students asked me, "Why do we study history?"

I gave him my normal answer-that history teaches us where we have been. Knowing where we came from, and the events that have brought us to this moment, explains why things are the way they are. We learn history to know our past, our mistakes, and the things that have shaped the world around us. It teaches us to think critically and question decisions our leaders make. Most importantly, it teaches us to be grateful for what we have and who we are as people.

He didn't like that answer. He said, "I like you and your class, but history doesn't matter."

The events of the last 24 hours have proven him wrong. And I made sure that I got through to him.

Both of my history classes watched Obama's speech from last night. Many of them hadn't seen it, so they were enthralled. When it was over, we talked about Obama's phrasing, the way he broke the news to the nation. We talked about the fact that he said, "One nation, under God" and what that meant.

But mostly we talked about this moment in U.S. History. I showed them the images of the people cheering and gathering outside the White House and Ground Zero. We talked about what the death of Osama bin Laden truly meant to our nation as whole, and why people were cheering that a man had died, instead of remembering the people we lost on September 11.

They asked if I remembered where I was on September 11, as most of my students were only 5 or 6. They couldn't remember seeing footage of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center, of the anxiety of the nation. I told them I was a junior in high school at the time, and my computer teacher had turned on CNN to check his stocks. CNN was showing footage of the first tower, with smoke billowing from its top. We all stopped and listened as the anchors explained that a plane had somehow crashed into the tower when a second plane came from nowhere and hit the second tower.

I told them that there are moments in everyone's lifetime that you remember vividly. For me, one of those moments include September 11. That day is forever etched in my mind. That is why yesterday is so significant, why it changed history. While hate and anger may not be over, this is a step in the right direction. It is the end of an era. It is the end of questioning where that man is hiding, and when are we going to find him.

I wanted them all to know that we should be grateful for what we have and where our history has brought us. While many across the globe hate us for our freedom and diplomacy, we are who we are for a reason. The decisions that our government has made in the past brought us to this moment. We should not be cheering that a man is dead, but that our beliefs have held true. We should be cheering in remembrance of the people we lost that date, and knowing that as Obama said last night, "Justice has been done."

Yes, I am glad I made that decision in college, and I'm glad I was able to share my love of history with my students today.

History is very much alive, whether we want to see it or not.


  1. I'm so proud of you. Yes, a great day to be a teacher. I remember when I was a senior in high school how my government class finally came alive for me. That summer was when Richard Nixon resigned as President and Gerald Ford took over. (oh how I'm dating myself) From that point forward, politics made a difference for me, along with all the history that I had learned, finally had meaning.

    I too agree, that it brought back all those emotions from that day and finally some peace for all those families who lost loved ones.

    So glad to be an American and yes, God Bless America.

    Love, Mom

  2. I know exactly how you feel! I teach 7th/8th grade, so none of my students were there to experience 9/11 (I had only graduated college two months before).

    I really wanted them to understand why we adults were so emotional after yesterday's events, and the best way I found was to make them all read Leonard Pitts' column from 9/12/01: My kids kept talking about how powerful that column was, and that made me so glad.

    Today was such a great teachable moment - glad you felt the way I did!

  3. It's hard to imagine people being only 5-6 years old when 9/11 happened. I was 22 and had a 10-month old son, and was living temporarily at my in-law's house as Jason and I were in the process of moving. A year or two ago, i sat down on 9/11 and showed my boys some videos from that day, since two of them weren't born yet, and one was of course only an infant. It's funny, because it's easy for me to imagine people being born afterwards and not experiencing it at all, but it's hard for me to imagine a five year old seeing that on tv and then growing up in today's times. My youngest is just barely seven...that makes the idea more real, but definitely something I've never thought about before.

  4. I am Mexican, and on September 11 I was 13 and having Spanish class when they made us evacuate the school because some "bomb" inside of it... it was horrible to know that some persons were making jokes of that tragedy (some of my relatives live in New York and Miami)... I am glad that "jastice had been done." I'm still sorry for all of those who lost somebody there, but I also hope this give them some peace...

    Again, I would love to be your student... you're so passionate about what and how you teach!

  5. I wish I had had a great history teacher at school. Unfortunately, I didn't and as such I opted out of history as soon as I could - 3 years into high school (I'm in the UK so that equates to age 13/14). I love history now, but it's taken me a while as an adult to really appreciate it. I feel like if I'd had a teacher that made it come alive for me, I would have loved it that much more when I was at school. It's great that you're so passionate about it and so can pass that onto your students!

  6. I wish I had had a history teacher at school that made me love it. Unfortunately I didn't and so I gave it up as soon as possible when I got to year 9 in high school (I'm in the UK so that would be around age 13/14). I now love reading about history, both British and worldwide, but it's taken me a while as an adult to really appreciate it. If I'd had a teacher that brought it alive for me I would have gotten so much more benefit out of those history lessons.

    It's great that you are so passionate and can pass that on to your students. It seems like it's such a rarity to find teachers that are truly passionate about their subject.

  7. What an extremely thought provoking post - and it's great that you were able to discuss recent events with your students and help them gain an understanding, rather than having to be chained to a lesson plan or the syllabus. We live in such confusing times; it is great that your students have a teacher like you to help you navigate through them.

  8. Thank you for sharing this. I find it hard to believe that so much time has passed since 9/11, that today's high school students were so young then. (I guess the equivalent for me was the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union--I didn't understand what the Cold War was or the significance of these events until much later.) I've had this sense though, through these past ten years of constantly watching history happening. It's almost hard for me to believe that students can't understand why we study history, when it is all around us.

  9. I was one of those students who loved history. I couldn't understand why would anybody wouldn't want to learn it.

  10. I find it strange to put 9/11 in perspective like that -- that your students were only 5 or 6 or that you were in high school. But you are right about putting history in to context, and about those moments that we don't forget.

    I should have studied more history in school...I'm sorry I didn't.

  11. History is one of those things that is always relevant, and I think this week proves that just because something is a part of history doesn't mean that is stays in the past.