Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jan 04 2009


My learning objective that day wasn’t necessarily related to slavery. I was teaching about the characteristics of different colonial regions and wanted to provide a context for understanding the uniqueness of American slavery in the South. To do this, I began to lecture about the concept and origins of slavery, explaining that slavery had existed in many major civilizations for thousands of years prior to the enslavement of Africans on the American continent. Jordan raised her hand, “Are you saying there were Asian slaves and white slaves, too?” I replied in the affirmative and searched my mind for some good examples, but before I could even get started, she interrupted me – “There were no white slaves. They were the masters. I don’t believe you.” What started as a curious question was quickly turning into an act of intellectual defiance. I went on to show pictures of European, Egyptian and Indian slavery and explained that these civilizations had enslaved their own people as a means of extracting labor. My goal was to make clear the distinct type of slavery used in the Americas – one in which people were enslaved and involuntarily transported to a different civilization for labor, rather than a people enslaved by their own rulers. Despite my best efforts, Jordan was still unconvinced by the end of class. Afterward, I thought to myself, “was this concept too deep for them? Should I have approached it differently or skipped it altogether?” I decided that my intentions were good, but I had certainly been unprepared for such an obstacle.

Instead of simply moving beyond it, I found Jordan after school to have a conversation. I sat her down in my room to discuss her thoughts on slavery and to feel her out in a more private atmosphere. Perhaps she had just been showing off for her classmates when she dueled with the teacher. I told her that although I appreciated her input and skepticism, she couldn’t decide what to believe and not believe in history. “There are different ways of thinking about history,” I told her, “but history happened – whether it makes sense to you or not.” Jordan walked over to our class set of American history textbooks and laid it on the desk in front of me. “If it happened, then show me.” I was taken aback by her forwardness and conviction to proving me wrong, but it only fueled my desire to win her over. I probably searched that text for 10 minutes before giving up. There was nothing about slavery before America, nor was there any mention about the unique nature of the Middle Passage or the Atlantic Slave Trade. From Jordan’s perspective, she was the victor. My words were just that – my own thoughts and ideas. In her eyes, they had little credibility. It was in the textbook that Jordan found truth, and that scared me.

12 Responses

  1. Cambi

    Facebook found me your blog :) I am sharing it with both the newsroom here and the newsroom back in Sacramento. Sacramento will be dying for the next time you come into town to do a story on you. I am dying to see where life takes you! Love the blog

  2. Erika

    Don’t be scared…see it as an opportunity to teach your kids that history isn’t all about what’s in textbooks. And then when you’re in education policy, you can make some changes to the way that information is traditionally presented in the classroom.

  3. Ralph


    If the problem is that your student believes something to be true only if she sees it in print, why not pull out almost any copy of Newsweek and show her the issue (usually the immediately preceding one) to which the CORRECTIONS relate? You can probably do the same with the Philadelphia newspaper (Inquirer?)

    A good example of people denying fact is the Catholic Church’s treatment of Galileo, who was only “forgiven” for asserting that the earth wasn’t the center of the universe in 1992 — 400 years later. “On 31 October 1992, Pope John Paul II expressed regret for how the Galileo affair was handled, and officially conceded that the Earth was not stationary.” (Wikipedia)

  4. I just got back from the civil war. We went to Virginia. Tons of photos on Facebook. Had way too much fun in a costumers shop.

    Your blog is fantastic. I wish I were reflecting more about our experience. I haven’t posted any images of the kids because I was worried about the legality of it. All of my blogging has been about my artist life so that I can compartmentalize. I never write on my TFA blog. I think you’ve really struck a nice balance. See you tomorrow.

    P.S. Tell me who is Jordan tomorrow please. I have a short list.


  5. diana

    So, she wants to see it in a book?

    Buy this–

  6. Dad

    Hi Jeff,
    Your handling the situation just fine. It’s nice that you have so much support from your friends. Follow your gut feeling and teach what you think is right, remembering that there are bounderies in every situation.

    Love Ya,


  7. Dad

    Sorry it should be boundaries.

  8. Mom

    Hon, Don’t forget the Chinese and the railroad and delta levees – right in our own backyard (City of Locke) – you are doing just great – correct the wrongs. Love, Mom

  9. jmanassero

    Cambi! I hope you are well – I want to watch a weekend newscast – where can I find it. I’m so proud of you! Stop by the blog anytime – I try my best to make it something worthwhile to write and read. Happy New Year!

  10. jmanassero

    I guess being scared pushes me in that direction. I’m definitely opening their eyes to know the text books can’t always be trusted, but its hard to do when they have it so ingrained in their way of learning. And yes, hopefully things can change one day. One thing I have found difficult, though, is tackling the history that is “most important” or “must be taught.” Ultimately, it comes down to me to decide – and I’m not even sure I fully trust myself to decide what they should know. What a responsibility…eh?

  11. jmanassero

    I love the idea. If things continue down this road, I’ll be sure to be more innovative. The Pope thing is also a good insight – you sure can think off the top of your head!

  12. jmanassero

    Beautiful – yeah, I have shown her stuff as of now, but I think a lot her resistance stems from something at home – and me being white. Not sure, but I’ll keep digging. I LOVE YOU!

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a Teach For America teacher’s blog

Greater Philadelphia
Middle School
Social Studies

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