08/27/2013 05:05 pm ET Updated Oct 27, 2013

How Should We Teach the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington?


I miss teaching. This week, my inner-city high school students would be finishing a unit on the 1963 March on Washington. We would have been doing it under the cover of some creative writing, however, as I would phrase my lesson plans so it would not appear as if I was in direct defiance of the teach-to-the-test curriculum pacing guide.

When school started around the first of August, we would mark the week of the 28th as the time when we would pull our first unit together. We would start with the metaphor of a blade of grass, which Walt Whitman said could not be understood without understanding the entire universe. Similarly, we cannot understand American history without understanding Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. And, we can not truly grasp Reverend King's words without understanding their place in our history.

I would draft daily and unit lesson plans and teach my plans, as well as the subject matter, to my students. Since Black History and multiculturalism have been virtually driven out of so many classrooms, my plans would say we were covering, "background information," i.e. a "review" of the African-American history that the kids had never been exposed to, in order to understand the march which occurred 50 years ago. This would allow the front-loading of our classes with lessons that were guaranteed to captivate, meaning that we would build momentum by going from one great lesson to the next.

Using the term "orientation" in the first week or so of my lesson plans, I would challenge my students, saying that each generation must rewrite history from its own perspective. This would give us some of the cover necessary to study a key organizer of the March on Washington, Bayard Rustin, and rethink the controversies that surrounded his homosexuality. This year, some students, undoubtedly, would have investigated an Oklahoma civil rights hero, Portland Williams, and brought up Kanye West's recent return to Oklahoma for his grandfather's funeral. Of course, the students would debate how much progress we have and we have not made during the last 50 years.

Even though my students would have my back in case an administrator dropped in to check whether I was obeying our curriculum pacing schedule, during the second and third weeks I would have to sell our in-depth study of 1963 as a project-based learning exercise. Since today's "reformers" claim that they respect critical thinking and synthesis, that rationale would probably keep us safe for a little while. Sooner or later, though, I would be called on the carpet for not staying on our vertical alignment schedule. I would then obey the teacher's classic dictum, "It is better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission."

A measure of "creative insubordination" has always been necessary for teachers and students to create authentic and engaging classrooms. For instance, I always took full advantage of dramatic current events, Black History month and Latino history in order to sneak relevant and authentic lessons into our classes. In an age of test-driven "reform," however, it has become far more difficult of carve out some space for teaching for mastery. Unless a teacher wants to risk his job, the safe path is to rush through the testable curriculum in a way that is a mile wide and an inch deep.

Curriculum pacing "guides" have become ubiquitous. I have seen their regimen push as many as 40 percent of my school's students out of school in only three months. Once a class gets to page 63, when the time comes for studying civil rights, if it is Tuesday, it may be OK to spend 20 minutes on the "I Have a Dream" speech. If it is Wednesday, students might get 20 minutes each on the 1964 and 1965 civil rights laws, and the Great Society. On Thursday, a little subversiveness might be allowed for mentioning Malcolm X, as long as time is left for review for the Friday Benchmark test.

Twenty years ago, however, it was much easier to evade the system's primitive efforts to teacher-proof instruction. We began each semester with a multimedia, multidisciplinary investigation of a major theme that was guaranteed to capture the students' imagination and get the class off to a good start. We thus created a team spirit and established procedures for "working smart" from bell to bell. After a few weeks, of course, we looped back to the conventional timeline. We thus brought our classes' traditions to the study of as many curriculum standards as we could cover.

Back then, I was accountable not to the politicians but to my students. My goal was to slow down instruction as much as possible so my kids could engage in deep reflection, analysis and synthesis. The students, and the students alone, determined the pace of instruction.

In one sense there is nothing new in the politics of classroom instruction. Teachers must always strive to win the students over and to share the joy of learning together. We have always had politicians who intruded into teaching and learning. Today's edu-politics is different only in the degree to which educators have been subject to micromanaging.

But, I doubt that many non-educators, from the Red Scare to the Tea Party, have been as effective as today's accountability hawks in intimidating educators and undermining our ability to teach well. In the name of "reform," students have been subjected to teach-to-the-test malpractice. Schooling is now like drinking from a fire hose. Students face bloodless, "in one ear and out the other" lessons, as adults focus on test scores.

Even so, I miss teaching. I'd like to relearn how to play enough school politics in order to devise ways to again teach and learn something "real" with my students. Once test-driven "reform" is consigned to the ash pile of history, I want to see education resume its role in helping to bend the arc of history to justice.