Pedagogy is Poetry: US Geography & Kim Davis

So, now I am a history teacher. Therefore, really I am a storyteller.

My audience really needs to understand setting to grapple with the narrative. So geography is our lens to meet the history waiting to be studied. But also geography will be our lens to current events. This week: the Bible Belt.

I always employ a Guiding Question to guide our study even if our topic, like today, if just a flyby. (This is all an elaborate set up to begin this curriculum next week!!! Keep you posted on that one. Nothing/Everything is an accident in my classroom.)

Our Question today: What is religious freedom and what does the freedom allow Americans to do?

Their answers are general and unsure. Doesn’t it mean that anyone can believe anything? Yeah, sure. What else? A Muslim can be a Muslim and a Christian can be a Christian. Right on. What else? Nothing more? That’s a good start.

I tell them that most of the class got the question about the Bible Belt wrong on this week’s quiz. All they had to know was a general location of this imaginary place and a few words of what it may mean. We had gone over this, but it didn’t land. No worries, class. Maybe it will today.

Perhaps to understand the Bible Belt we should look at current events. We should look at Kentucky.

Kentucky is a beautiful state. Horse country. Bourbon Trail. Lexington and Louisville. Kentucky is in the news. I make sure my students remember what Kentucky looks like.


Something important happened this week in eastern Kentucky. I don’t tell them outright what happened. Straining their short term memory, they are fairly certain they heard something happened there this week. But they don’t know. Basically, too many of them are unaware this is the shape of Kentucky.

This is a class of 21 Juniors and 12 Seniors. All of them will be able to vote  in the next election. So I show them this map. One students knows exactly what the colors mean.


This is the visual representation of how Obama won the election in 2012. Obama is blue. Romney is red. Well how did Obama win if most of the map is red? I respond by asking them which states are mostly red, if not completely red. Oklahoma is completely red. Same with Utah. Have you ever been to those places? Ever driven through them? Are people densely populated like New York City or rural like northern New Mexico? Rural. So it all depends on how many people live within those tiny demarcations.

(I also highlight that many, if not all, of the blue areas are urban counties/districts. I point out the cities of the Southeast and Midwest. I also point out that there is a curious area between Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana that is really blue and is not urban. I tell them to remember that.)

Especially on a Friday, tangents are a student’s best friend. I wanna talk about Trump! Perfect, let’s do that. What’s the only platform Trump is running on? He hates Mexicans. It sure sounds like it, huh? Do you know his platform besides that? Like his general idea about how to appeal to people in this country? No?

Make America Great Again. I assert, with the help of the website, that this is all Trump is saying. Otherwise, he is simply a skillful manipulator of the media. And seriously skillful manipulator/opportunist of the current situation in the US. He is summing up something critical for many people in this country.

People feel like America is not so great.

There are too many people out of work. There are too many rich people not sharing their wealth. But there are also too many people unwilling to work their way toward the American dream. Too many freeloaders. Basically there are a lot of economic scapegoats. The rich aren’t doing enough of this and the poor aren’t doing enough of that.

I show them this map. I ask them where Kentucky is? What’s going on in eastern Kentucky? Trump is talking to them. (I have also used this map in NM History to talk about our state and the Navajo. And we will certainly use it again when we talk about Pine Ridge in the next unit.)NMGeoDay1a

Another reason why America is not so great. The morality of American is going to hell. Abortion. Gay Marriage. Non-believers are ruining culture, politics, and now these problems are compromising religious freedoms. Something needs to change. Trump, but mostly other Republican candidates, is talking to these people.

So eastern Kentucky is rural, poor and votes Republican. We talk about how when a politician like Trump says something so vague it is hard to discern who he is talking to. Because the people in eastern Kentucky are very much unlike those people in the blue counties between MS, AR, LA. Is Trump talking to the people in rural KY? Rural MS? Is he talking to you, in Taos? This receives a universal head shake.

So if America is not great anymore. And it’s unclear that our politicians can help us. And it’s pretty clear that voting is usually along party lines meaning entire areas of the country are never dramatic on election nights. People need to take matters into their own hands.

Remember: What does our religious freedom allow us to do?

Isn’t Kim Davis just trying to make America great again? I give a brief background on the reason why she was in jail.

I don’t say my stance on gay marriage, but we live in a blue area and the tone of the room is already wary of why I would show a video of Ms. Davis’ release from county jail.

I explain who Mike Huckabee is and how he needs to appeal to voters in the Bible Belt if he is going to beat someone as powerful as Trump. He needs to get behind someone like Kim Davis. Because, in America, the dominant shape of Christianity sees gay marriage as immoral. And to this shape of Christianity, in America, immorality is a political issue. Mike Huckabee, as he campaigns, will look to the Bible Belt and say Kim Davis is everything right with this country. Acting on your sense of Christianity is just if you don’t believe the law of the counties/states/country.

(At some point this year we’ll talk about Rosa Parks, but I am not going to give into the easy meme.)

We watch this video. The students laugh at the idea of using “Eye of the Tiger” for something, in their eyes, so odd. Mike Huckabee ushers Kim Davis to the stage. Kim praises God, thanks those present for their prayers, rallies the faithful to their act with their convictions.

I ask them when they look at that video and see the demonstrations, if they see an America they can identify with. They shake their heads. I ask if the people in eastern Kentucky saw a demonstration in northern New Mexico, would they see an America they identify with. They shake again.

I know, I’m leading the witness. But this leads us back to the Trump tangent. So, Make America Great Again. Whose America? Is it my America? I’m white. I have a college degree. I might make more money than your parents. Is it your America? Students of color, living below the poverty line, in one of the poorest states in the Union. Is it Kim Davis’? Is it those in the Mississippi Delta, home of the hill country blues? Is it the people in the school district of Normandy?

It’s a critical question. What is religious freedom and what does the freedom allow Americans to do?

I don’t need to lead my students to answers, but exploring one guiding question begs another.

It’s a critical election. What does it mean to be great? Again? For who?

(after this segment ended, just as I planned, we had ample time for me to engage the students about 9/11. I told them about my experience. About how rarely anyone lives through an event that so drastically changes the world. I reminded them that a random morning when I was in high school altered the course of our century. I think they believed me. We watched one video recalling the timeline of the day, with the usual footage of the towers being hit, then collapsing then Washington then PA. We watched President Bush’s address from that evening, and his announcement in front of Congress about al-Queda. They left classroom in silence.)

A New Teaching Job. A New Subject. A New Imperative.


I am beginning a new job this week! But, today, I am fluish, worn from a summer of traveling the world on a magnificent honeymoon, absent from today’s Professional Development session and trying to find my bearings.

I am leaving the English classroom of a small charter school for the History Department of Taos High School. I have New Mexico, US, and World Histories to teach as well as the History of Film. I have a great deal of leeway, it seems, to attack the curriculum as I see fit.

At this point, I have fleshed out American history only. High School US history, a year long course, covers the story from the close of the Civil War to present. That means, the curriculum expects students to carry knowledge dating back at least two years prior when they were in Middle School of American history from pre-Columbian times to the Civil War. That says something crucial about the lack of emphasis and analysis we put on the country’s messy and discordant history. (That coupled with a one-semester course on the American Government rounds out American History credits needed to graduate. No Frederick Douglass, no John Brown, no Nat Turner, no President Jackson and the Trail of Tears.)

I have yet to speak with a teacher who says they can get through the curriculum past the Vietnam War. As well, no teacher has said they ever feel the time allows for them to study that period in any comprehensive way. So with WWI and WWII, the Great Depression and the New Deal, monopolies and Rockafellers, immigration and urbanization, there is not enough time to cover more than 100 or so years of history in one school year. I am anticipating the glossing over of an inexcusable amount of social history.  So. I am going to start with the Struggle for Civil Rights and frame our history through that lens rather than risk omitting it from the curriculm. Backwards, forwards, everywhere at once: chronology and place do not matter.

A lot has happened in a year. Last August, as we began our school year, the country was trying to piece together the tragedy in Ferguson. And as we tried to figure out the puzzle, tragedies and confusion mounted over the next 12 months. Names the country never knew came to light. Churches were targeted. A hashtag was launched. This year, we begin a new school year with fresh, but not new, tensions in Ferguson.

You already know this. Let’s leap to education as one of the puzzle pieces.

For the last two weeks, This American Life has grappled with a question regarding the achievement gap in American schools. Why do students of color, and most importantly black students as studied in the case of the first podcast, still lag so far behind their white counterparts. Highlighted was the school district Michael Brown graduated from three weeks prior to his death on a Ferguson street. Normandy. It was always a word of pride for American historians when we think of WWII and our heroes. But in this context? A terrible, terrible blight on equality and the state of public education.

I could recount the podcasts, but you should listen to them. I could rattle off the discouraging and indicting statistics of neglect characterized by the marginalization of communities of color. I could explain to you how racism pervades in our American communities, or at least around St. Louis. I could explain how Americans fear change, or are too impatient to let it take real hold. It’s all troubling. And that’s why you should listen to it. You have a responsibility to know these things for yourself. In our Buzzfeed world, everything is curated second hand or speedily consumed. I will not make it so easy.

Listening to the podcasts a bit late also coincided with Progressive golden boy Bernie Sanders getting jammed off the stage at an outdoor rally in Seattle by two women who affiliate themselves with the #BlackLivesMatter movement. There are so many angles to look at this, as no doubt you have seen online. The facts. The women were booed. Bernie left quietly, but now he has a black press secretary and a plan to address race issues comprehensively. The conjecture. The protesters weren’t actually affiliated with the BLM movement. Maybe there’s a conspiracy that the Clinton juggernaut supported or organized the protest. Wait, no props for the moment of silence for Michael Brown? Yeah, sure, but those women were too shrill for us to hear them! 

My biggest take away? Indeed those hot takes above. How we are digesting the protest as insight as to how we’ve digested our history. Think about it. The protesters were ridiculed and booed by a white audience at the event. Next, for compromising the attractiveness of a candidate, the two women were chastised online by a largely white Progressive electorate who thinks 70 year old white man Bernie Sanders is the only viable option in a circus of an election (still 14+ months away). Claiming the moral high ground, arguments developed that these women don’t respect that Bernie marched during Civil Rights campaigns in the 60s. Nothing acknowledging Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford may have been right to push the politician on his platform for racial issues?

By and large, the online media (including all of us on Facebook and Twitter) searches for holes in the protesters’ argument. The argument that Black Lives Matter is an organized entity worthy of respect. The argument that these two women even possess the intelligence and background to act with integrity and truth. The argument that this Presidential campaign for Sanders2016 even need to bother so publicly with issues for those of us with color when his platform already targets equality and the economy. Again though, BLM.

Here’s some more reading from Imani Gandy. Once again, do your part and read this. Couple this take with your knowledge of Charleston, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, and (once you’ve listened) the podcasts from TAL. Then try to tell me that protesting at the Sanders rally wasn’t an imperative for many of us to reckon with history.

Try to enter a classroom and face students like mine, minority, poor, at-risk. Try to teach sincerely about a world that carries real opportunity for them. That the institution of State, at times even the institution of their own school, operates with their best interests in mind. Rather, go outside the classroom and express to communities of color that the institution of elections are colorblind.

And on that voting front, Bernie Sanders supporters are complaining that they are not getting enough access to the media with exception to the negative press from Seattle. So in concerning ourselves with access, I say, in education, the economy, our universities, places of power and respect, people of color still do not have the access. Their access is prisons. Poverty. Marginalization. Boohoo about Bernie not getting coverage on CNN. His campaign will persevere. In fact, as we have learned from Obama’s 8 years, campaigning with coverage doesn’t matter a whole lot anyway. If the candidate you choose becomes President, what you vote for may never happen.

If I take a second to look at them as my teachers, Ms. Johnson and Ms. Willaford protesting for a voice in national politics have the power to help me realize these truths of our history and present. I don’t need them to be right, just like I hope my students never blindly accept what I offer them. Or, better put to counter what is being pedaled on the Web, I don’t need their platform to be what I want it to be. Nor their Curriculum Vitae to be bulletproof. Nor do I need the satisfaction they protested the right way. If I demanded those ideals, and considering my whiteness, I would be abusing my privilege or defaulting to the racial ignorance pervasive in America. Both indefensible. Both everywhere on the Internet.

But at least the teacher can tear open the fabric that colors how we imagine the American story. We can refuse the light coming through. Let it blind us and wildly take up the gospel. Or consume it in meaningful doses with pause to think, letting it refract over our experience to this point.

More people, mostly of my background, either first hand or through a podcast, need to experience that this country is in dire need of a reckoning with its history and its future. I am thankful Bernie does not yet have the entourage that would discourage this type of protest because the disruption crystallized something important for me.

Understand: recognizing the power of this protest action does not mean I was asleep or unmoved when Michael Brown was shot, nor complacent when Charleston happened, Baltimore, Bland…this protest and the popular reaction to it (as well the rest of our political circus) are daggers of reminder of how America doesn’t really get it.

I want to believe in equality politics, too, Bernie supporters. But equity, in America, is pretty solid only in the sense that a lot of humans are left out of the ideal. Maybe a President can change that. Maybe a movement borne of a hashtag can change that. But nothing is as consistent in America like the uneven playing field we all deal with.

So, in this moment of fervor and ignition, I envision an American History curriculum that begins with The Declaration of Independence. Then an excerpt from Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. And then a check in with Arizona’s white washed curriculum. Then a reminder what’s good up in Pine Ridge. Then we will return back to The Declaration of Independence, the cornerstone of America, and remix a new version of the document from those voices that usually do not have access to it.

Then we’ll give it to you and see what light you can take from it.

I’m Lost: On Privilege, Identity and Teaching


Continually with this world, I am at a loss. I think that’s an important quality that I can carry into the classroom because I think this temper of loss manifests itself in many ways. I am a person filled with both wonder and bewilderment. One I see as a stand of capacity and opportunity. The other I take as a feeling of confusion and a posture of exasperation.

In this day and age, people are always two things at once. At least two. And in this moment, in these trying days for my underserved community and at-risk students, I am white. And I am male. I am cognizant these distinctions help me access the world in ways others cannot. But I am also gentle and a poet. So I am vulnerable and sensitive. These help me access the world and those around me in ways that see through, or beyond, or into.

From eight years of teaching in northern New Mexico, I have a pretty strong idea of what my whiteness and maleness represents to my students: I am powerful, authoritarian, wealthy, worldly, and decidedly other. I was conscious of these facts from day one and I continue to grapple with them as to how I can better serve these young people.

Trust is a key to working together. And in light of those five descriptors associated with my skin-deep identity, I have had to work earnestly and tirelessly to earn that trust from my students and the larger Taos community. I have struggled to do so at times, as in when I have believed myself actions to come from the courage and vulnerability associated with being a teacher in the twenty-first century only to be stopped in my tracks by distrust or my ignorance.

My students, when they are most lost and struggling for their own answers, revert to seeing the world in that we/other binary that separates us. Of course, neither of us are conscious of this in the moment of our conflict or misunderstanding, but the mention of how I am treating them because of their brownness or my perceived authority always amps our emotional responses as we try to work through a challenge.

I also know that my students only do this when they are on the defensive. And after years of moving first with compassion or humor or understanding, I have established the level of trust that allows us to cut to the bone more quickly and efficiently. This way we can more effectively tackle the education system that so often marginalizes these young people with such heartbreaking efficiency. I am blessed to have this sort of working relationship with my students.

But as their life circumstances conspire against them (homelessness, divorce, illness or loss, addiction or depression, teen pregnancy or abandonment, and often a cruel cocktail of many factors), their perception of the world devolves into the simplest, but deepest, separation of us. Overtly or not, they’ll deflect the support into an attack because of their skin color because they don’t want to be accountable…to me. After the initial shock and spike, we’re able to find the common ground that supports us in our shared goal: the sparkling, if not beleaguered graduate.

I am lucky enough to have the patience to weather that storm of misunderstanding and see through that student’s shield. After all they are mostly protecting the wounds from past injustices. Whether they were inflicted against my students and whether or not they were carried out by me, those wounds are legitimate and often generational. This is a critical understanding I must carry into every workday in that my job is one of participating within and repairing a world that I had no part in creating. It is a razor-thin double-edge.

But also, I am also operating within a classroom, where safety and positivity and the belief in opportunity are fundamental to our work. I am not working a beat or street corner. I am lucky in that I have not had to push something illicit to make a living, and that I am not sworn to protect those streets. On both sides of that coin we find Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, two young men who found themselves in an extraordinary, but an increasingly common, moment where souls intersect and collide for all our world to see.

And here is where I am at a loss. As a teacher, how do I contribute to a world where this generation operates beyond the fear and explosiveness that define the deeper associations to the names Travyon and Zimmerman? Tamir. Fruitvale. Garner. I am talking about associations beyond the umbrella term of racism. I am talking about: Why was George Zimmerman so afraid that he was compelled to follow a young black boy through his neighborhood? Why do police officers solve their disputes with firearms in communities where the police and people are of different colors? I am not ready to assert the answers to the questions are solely based upon racism. But then, a counterpoint: How are fears racist?

How can I tackle these issues of identity and association head on? Our communities of color, my school, need answers. My students do not live in a world like Ferguson, but Ferguson reinforces what my insular community understands of how the world works. And I do not want my students fearful of entering a world that sees them as only Indian or simply Brown. I want them to emerge from high school ready to live anywhere and do anything. I want them to live their dreams. And now I wonder how naïve that is.

The access that I have to the world beyond where I grew up is an opportunity that everyone has, but it is a privilege that I can take advantage of that opportunity and enjoy living anywhere, even as a minority. I have been aware of this as I work as a teacher in my community. But never has it been so painful and obvious. I want to create a different world with my students because I am beyond expecting this one to change for them. We have to play the long game and trust each generation will be subsequently less and less lost.

A veteran teacher turned coach shadows 2 students for 2 days – a sobering lesson learned

Critical understanding for those who think their teaching is ‘good enough’ or their students are not!

Granted, and...

The following account comes from a veteran HS teacher who just became a Coach in her building. Because her experience is so vivid and sobering I have kept her identity anonymous. But nothing she describes is any different than my own experience in sitting in HS classes for long periods of time. And this report of course accords fully with the results of our student surveys. 

I have made a terrible mistake.

I waited fourteen years to do something that I should have done my first year of teaching: shadow a student for a day. It was so eye-opening that I wish I could go back to every class of students I ever had right now and change a minimum of ten things – the layout, the lesson plan, the checks for understanding. Most of it!

This is the first year I am working in a school but not teaching…

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I have been sitting on this poem for a long time. Over the summer, two students passed away in separate automobile related accidents in New Mexico. Both were graduates of the class of 2012. Both had hearts of gold. I composed this poem during a summer poem-a-day workshop the week of the first students’ passing. I was clumsy in my writing during that week because of her passing.

The day of her passing, before I knew of it, I was in the library watching an elderly woman reading the newspaper. I composed a piece about reading the obituary column and finding the light of life in strangers. It was a beautiful moment. It was a dark moment.

Later, I tried to write her a love poem, but decided, in revising, that a stronger voice was writing to the love of my life. And so the writing carried the student in, but the poem left her behind.

Then the newspaper came out with a brief note about her death. The gory details and little else. It felt so impersonal and frighteningly vague. So I decided to write a better story. For a better news. For her.

It was intensely emotional reading it to my fellow poets. It wasn’t emotional until it was loud. Until it was spoken. Our living is this way. The important moments are loud: the crying baby, the applause of graduating, the celebration of marriage. It is why people remember eulogies and not obituaries.

This was also the poem that spurned a new project that may or may not have legs. I have been experimenting with a way of using voice to play with meaning and audience. This was the first work that incorporated the second person voice to interplay with the she in the news. The poem from a few weeks ago is a strong example of where that ‘voice’ has taken me. You. You should call your mother!

As well, this poem was a chance to play with the page and recreate the newspaper aesthetic, as if the weekly columned print could be a creative expression. And as a footnote to the creative word, I included a mashup screenshot of the news article that detailed the poor woman’s death. Bleeding profusely. If you had never met her, the story begins and ends there. I didn’t want that to be the case.

This poem has complicated syntax and does not fit well into a conservative view of space and time. In these moments, my grieving was greatly complicated and perhaps transcendent in some way. It gave me the chance to reimagine this shining of light of a student/young woman. To give her passing a new voice and grace. If all you have is the news clipping, then all you have is the red against the pavement. The pooling blood.

Well, in remembering, red cannot heart a ceremony beadwork soul.

Thank you, MS. I miss you.

News Clippings

National Poetry Day: Love & Skee Ball



It’s national poetry day, so I guess I should post something. A large part of me wants to soapbox about education, but I couldn’t pass the opportunity to share this little guy on my blog. That’s nephew, Finn, who shares a birthday with Gandhi (today). He’s poised to earn enough tickets for a plush toy or whatever his heart desires.

And the best poem I know was announced on Facebook yesterday: my Lovely Love and I plan to wed next year. She posted something on her blog about us, and I said I would do the same. Here goes. A poem about wedding planning.

Here’s nothing, Universe.

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The Tree of Liberty in Missouri

There is no reason, in my mind, to wait for the dust to settle on issues before ruminating on them and expressing myself. I find that once the issue has been ‘resolved’, whether it be Israel-Palestine or Trayvon Martin or Renisha McBride or Ersula Orr, the resolution often is a great sweep of the dust under the rug to hide the deeper roots of the issue. The media moves on. The school year or summer continues. And, anyway, it’s almost Black Friday. America can address her problems through turning the blind eye of justice toward the funny Vines instead. 

Earlier this month, I posted a poem about Gaza and Israel. I think it is a work in progress. I know I need more time with it. But I needed to address it creatively. It is a minor healing. It is my part. No matter how haphazard, or one sided. Some poetry, but not all, is safer because the lines of right and wrong are everyone’s responsibility to grapple with. So here is another work in progress for Ferguson. To help all sides. Buried within are allusions to the Civil Rights movement, the Civil War, the Tree of Liberty, the media treatment of our domestic issues, and the inner dialogue of witness. Find a way to express yourself, or it will eat at you. You may even be complicit. 

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