Carole Levine February 1, 2022
Almost 50 years ago, in 1971, I began my first paid teaching position at Hanley Junior High School in University City, Missouri. I was thrilled to be able to teach social studies to 7th and 8th graders in this racially, economically, and culturally diverse school and community where I had student-taught and now lived. I knew it would be a challenge as the classes were not ability-grouped and I would have students who could barely read and students who could read what I was reading. And I was coming from the turmoil of student protests and campus life, seeking to make a difference in what I deemed the “real world.” This was truly my wake-up call. I now had real responsibility for not only my own future, but to offer guidance to those who would lead in next generations.
I am not sure who learned more in my first two years at Hanley, my students or me. But when I reflect on it now, we taught each other well. I have never been much of a “traditional learner” so following a set curriculum with tests and worksheets was never my thing. But learning experientially, through stories and literature and activities that took you to the times and places we were learning about always worked for me and seemed to work for my students, no matter what their reading level. We became a “project-based” class with the support of a very innovative assistant principal and a principal who ignored what was happening in my classroom! The last 10 minutes of each of my classes was what I called “free time” for students who had completed their class work. They could then read, do other homework, talk quietly, or choose from closet of games like checkers, chess, jacks (I’m very good at jacks!) to play with their friends. A lot of work got done before I would allow that access, and it was very popular. I completed my first year of teaching with successful reviews from my supervisor and my peers, but I never saw my principal spend more than a few minutes in my classroom, although I formally invited him to come see what we were doing. My students all managed to progress, and none were held back.
In my second year at Hanley, 1972, my classroom was moved from the front hallway, first floor, to the second floor about as far back as you could be. I guessed that my techniques did not sit as well with the principal as they did with the assistant principal. But I was not asked to stop doing what I was doing. And since 1972 was an election year, I requested permission to teach civics on elections and voting rights the entire first semester and to have all my students engage in some sort of hands-on election work (any election, any party, any race). I was granted permission! Again, this was some of the hardest and most hands-on work I have ever done. I spent weeks, and hours in planning and preparation for this process. What should be taught? Who should talk to my students? How to get them excited and wanting to participate? What options for involvement that would take 11-13 year old’s existed? And, of course, who else had to give their OK to what I was proposing.
Teaching adolescents about voting rights and how elections work, from school boards to Presidential elections (and this was the Nixon/McGovern Presidential election) so that they could then choose how they might be involved in a campaign was not so simple. Bias was not part of the program! And I needed to involve my students’ parents every step of the way. Having their permission for their students to be engaged in a campaign, and to be out of school on election day (that was part of the deal I negotiated with the principal) to work a campaign needed parental support. I learned a great deal about engaging families through this process. This was more than just gathering permission slips. This involved parent meetings, phone calls and even some home visits (which were allowed 50 years ago!). But even the most reluctant parent signed on and all of my students were part of this project! When I reflect on it now, it was a glorious semester of learning. I was able to bring in speakers to talk to 7th and 8th graders about civics who usually talked to high schoolers and adults and were amazed at what my students knew. Every student worked on a campaign. Some on local ones, some on state and some on national races. Some backed winners and a lot learned about how to take a loss. We were all exhausted by what we had done and by what we had learned. And we had all learned a lot.
The rest of that second year we focused on the Civil War and, again, it was not pretty. But I was teaching in a school where almost half of my students were Black and to gloss over what this part of our shared history was and to make the enslavement of Africans and the war fought to keep them enslaved seem less than it was, would have been dishonest to all of my students. It was important to me and to them and I only wish I had the knowledge I have now, back then.
We moved to Texas after my second year at Hanley Junior High and I lost track of my students and teaching colleagues as I became a mother, refocused my career on early childhood and then community organizing when we moved back to the Midwest. But about 20 years ago, I got an email from a former student at Hanley, who had somehow tracked me down. She was now a successful career woman but wanted me to know that she never forgot my classes and that they left a huge impression on her. I will be forever grateful to her for that email.
As I watch the turmoil and anger that is being directed at teachers, school boards and libraries, at books and curricula today, I am angered and saddened. I could easily be the object of that anger had I still been teaching today. Teaching the truth is not frightening to our youth. It opens doors for them to build a better world. I am grateful that I could do it. But apparently it is very frightening for adults whose world is threatened by the truth and what it may reveal about their own vulnerability and their own way of life. The sad part is our children will eventually find what we cover up and hide from them. And when they do, the questions they ask will be much harder to answer than teaching them the truth right now.