Student Thank Yous

Despite rumors to the contrary, teaching is not a thankless job.

One of the most rewarding aspects of teaching is the realization that you are having a positive impact on your students. Dealing with things like paperwork, grueling schedules, discipline issues, budget cuts, and campus politics can erode your energy, patience, and motivation. But every once in a while, you receive a token or gesture of thanks that lifts your spirits and reminds you why you entered this profession in the first place.

Over my twenty years in the classroom, I saved every thank you note I received from students in a scrapbook. I was looking through it yesterday on the first anniversary of my retirement and was moved by the touching sentiments expressed in those messages. Some were written as part of Teacher Appreciation Week and others were simply spontaneous overtures of gratitude. I have included some of them on a new Student Thank Yous page which you can view here.

As in any other vocation, a teacher’s sense of purpose and validation must come in the act of serving others (see my blog entry on “Teaching as Vocation”). But it does feel good when the people you are serving show their appreciation. This is especially true with kids. I was more than an instructor to many of them, particularly those who came from disadvantaged backgrounds. Sometimes I was social worker, clergyman, mentor, father figure, or friend. Reviewing my scrapbook reminded me of the importance and effectiveness of all those roles.

Save the notes and drawings from your students. They will help you in times of struggle and doubt. The few who make the effort to thank you are speaking for many others who don’t. Believe in what you are doing. You are making a difference.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Bastille Day

Copyright (c) 2017 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

Today marks the day 230 years ago that ordinary citizens of Paris took to the streets to storm the infamous Bastille prison. Long a symbol of royal despotism in France, the Bastille held valuable stores of gunpowder in its vaults. The mob killed the guards and governor, seized the powder, and later tore the hated dungeon apart brick by brick. Three tumultuous years later, the centuries-old Bourbon monarchy was replaced by a new French Republic.

July 14 has become as important a day in France as July 4 is in the United States. The national holiday is celebrated by huge crowds with parades, parties, and a spectacular fireworks show from the Eiffel Tower. Today France is the sixth largest economy on earth and a leader in the 28-member European Union. People around the world still admire the French revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity.

Today also marks the one year anniversary of my retirement from full-time classroom teaching and the inauguration of Mr. Finney’s History Tutoring here in San Diego. I hope you find my blog entries and postings on Instagram helpful as you strive for success in learning.

Raise a glass today to the heroes of 1789 and the birth of modern Europe’s first republic. Vive la France!

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Independence Day

Historical flags displayed in my classroom from 2001 to 2018. The “Betsy Ross” flag with its circle of thirteen stars was first designed in 1777.

Happy Fourth of July! We are only seven years away from America’s 250th birthday. I still remember with fondness the historic festivities of the Bicentennial in 1976 when I was a teenager in Virginia. President Ford danced with Queen Elizabeth at the White House. Tall ships, elaborate fireworks, exciting parades, rousing speeches, television specials, and living history demonstrations all captured my young imagination.

In the 43 years since then, our increasingly diverse population has grown by 50% and our role in the world has expanded significantly. Our identity as a pluralistic nation continues to evolve, fed by the hopes and dreams of both newcomers and each new generation of Americans. The principles of equality and human rights articulated in the Declaration of Independence continue to inspire millions around the world.

Independence Day marks the halfway point of the calendar year and the last major holiday before the new school year begins. Whether you have the entire summer off or just today during your summer school session, I hope this day is fun and relaxing for you and yours. Put on something red, white, and blue, find your way to some fireworks, and join in the celebration!

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Preparing for Tests

Tests and final exams are standard methods of measuring your mastery of a subject in school. Although they may take many different forms, they usually represent the largest portion of your course grade. Whether they are multiple choice or matching questions, project presentations, essay prompts, or maps and diagrams, it is crucial that you perform well on tests. Coming up with a successful strategy for studying will ensure satisfying results.

Objective style tests typically come with some kind of study guide. Pertinent topics and vocabulary you will need to know should be included. If your teacher does not provide one in advance, ask him or her to give you a copy or post something in the online classroom. Verify which sources you need to review (chapters in the textbook, handouts, completed homework, etc.) and focus your preparation on them. Many of my most successful students color coded their class notes and went over the topics with dependable study partners.

Some questions can be answered in more than one way. Read every question carefully and always choose the best answer based on your intuition and knowledge. This strategy applies to state tests and AP/IB exams as well as those in your regular subjects. Answer the questions that seem easier at first and then return to the more difficult ones. Take your time. Breathe. Trust in your preparation and the work you have given in class all semester.

For essay questions, read the prompt carefully and flesh out your response completely. Present a strong thesis backed up by multiple points. Support your argument with whatever sources you can muster from memory or those provided during the test. If essay writing is more stressful for you than answering objective questions, get a head start on the essay before you return to the multiple choice. Let the teacher know if you need more time to finish. Most teachers will accommodate your request. They want you to succeed.

In your history class, keep track of personalities and patterns in your notes. Organize your notes, graded homework, and study guides according to unit and topic. Try to make connections between the people, places, and events. A multidimensional or interdisciplinary approach will bolster your retention and understanding. Look for links between history content and what you are learning in your other classes, especially in English. Demonstrating that you have done so will impress your teachers, especially on tests.

In government and economics, staying on top of concepts and vocabulary is key. Some economics tests include graphs and equations as well. If you have done your homework, you can build on theoretical foundations and show your understanding of real life applications. Supply and demand are at the core of the marketplace. Follow business news on your phone and pay attention to current events. The same is true for political science. Keep on top of the positions of both major parties on crucial issues in the public debate. Watch both conservative and liberal news channels. The more material you have, the better your responses will be on tests.

Be proactive in your preparation. Keep up on the material week by week. Turn in your homework on time and read all the required chapter sections as you go. Ask for help from the teacher and other classmates on a regular basis. Do you own work. Avoid procrastination and “all-nighter” study sessions. Get a good night’s sleep before a test. Eat a full breakfast and get to school early. Bring the pens, pencils, paper, and other supplies you need. Take all the time you are given during the test. If you finish early, go over all your answers before turning it in.

Save all your graded work and study guides until the end of the semester. They will help you when you prepare for the final examination. Most social science finals are comprehensive, so you will be responsible for everything you have learned during the term. Continue to organize your work as you move through each quarter. Always pay attention in class. Write your name on everything you submit. Remind the teacher to return your work before the test if you have to. Take charge of your own learning.

If you do poorly on a test, ask the teacher if you can make it up. If that is not an option, offer to complete an alternative assignment to be counted as extra credit. Most teachers will appreciate your desire to do well and rectify your mistakes. If you demonstrate a desire to succeed on a regular basis, your teacher will take notice. Your goal is to finish the class with the highest grade you can achieve. Adopting sound and organized test preparation practices will help you achieve that goal.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Religion and the Social Science Curriculum

The First United Methodist Church of San Diego first organized in 1869 and celebrates its sesquicentennial this year. The current sanctuary in Mission Valley was completed and opened in 1964. Photo copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney.

The study of religion can add a valuable dimension to academic programs in both the humanities and the social sciences. Religious history, theology, art, liturgy, organizations, and architecture have each played a large part in the development of our modern world. Religious conflict and cultural pluralism continue to shape politics and economics at home and international trade and diplomacy abroad. A sound understanding of the major world religions will help your students better understand the complex patterns and dynamics of U.S. and world history as well as government, geography, and economics.

Many people assume that religion can only be taught in private schools. At first, I was among them. I began my teaching career in the theology department of a Roman Catholic high school, where I taught Old and New Testament classes, the history of Christianity, and comparative religions. I was hired in part because I possessed a seminary degree and had a book published by a religious press. When I moved to the public school system after two years, I thought I would not have further use for this background. I soon discovered to my surprise that the state social science content standards also included topics related to world religions.

World history standards for grade 10 highlight Judeo-Christian and Islamic influences in the development of western democratic thought. The origins, teachings, and spread of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Taoism, Hinduism, Shinto, Buddhism, and Confucianism are all part of the California Social Science Standards for grades 6 and 7, as are the Crusades, the characteristics of Mesopotamian, Greek, and Roman mythology, and the indigenous religions of Africa and the Americas. Even religious texts such as the Bible, the Quran, and the Bhagavad Gita can be referenced as historical sources in class.

American religious history has its own category in U.S. History state standards for grade 11, including key events such as the First and Second Great Awakenings, the Disestablishment Clause of the First Amendment, and the role of religious reformers in the Antebellum and Progressive Eras. The establishment of churches and synagogues in America is part of what is covered in the story of national development, as well as new Christian denominations in the 19th century and other faiths brought through the Ellis and Angel Island immigration stations in the first half of the 20th.

The caveat in public schools, of course, is that religion can be taught but not preached. Classes in my first teaching assignment began with a Catholic prayer as well as the Pledge of Allegiance, and students of all faiths were required to attend mass several times a year. This made sense for a school run by the local diocesan office of education. In the public schools where I spent the remainder of my career, however, religion became a purely academic subject. Students of various faiths could form their own extra-curricular clubs, but the practice of religion was no longer appropriate on a school-wide level.

Religion may be taught in public schools as long as no particular tradition is favored. The focus must be inclusive and balanced with respect to the variety of religious pluralism. Many public schools offer comparative world religion courses as humanities or social science electives, but the emphasis is on critical study rather than personal spiritual or moral development. Tread carefully and deliberately as you design your lesson plans. Misunderstanding can lead to conflict. Be clear with parents that you are teaching material from the state social science content standards. Be willing to offer alternative assessments, but stick to the standards. Your state teaching credential grants you the right and the duty to do so.

Religion appears all across the curriculum. From the role the Bible played in spreading literacy on the American frontier to the conflicts over war and slavery between Quakers and other groups in the 19th century, many topics arise in class that tie in religious themes. The various faith traditions introduced by immigrant groups are as vital a part of the national “melting pot” story as are their cuisine, language, dress, and culture. Many landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases have dealt with issues of religious doctrine and practice. Faith still motivates political activism on both the right and the left.

When I taught world religions, I had students of various backgrounds bring artifacts and stories to class. We took field trips to local houses of worship, including a Hindu temple, a Jewish synagogue, and a Protestant chapel. We compared theological traditions and liturgical practices and discussed how they influenced political and cultural relationships. In my history and economics classes, the attitudes of different religious groups toward the environment, the role of women, the treatment of labor, and the growth of business and trade were great topics for Socratic Seminars, class projects, and DBQ essay assignments.

Religion plays a large role in the lives of many of your students. A careful study of diverse religious traditions will increase your cultural literacy and sensitivity as an educator. If you decide to pursue formal studies at an accredited institution of higher learning, there are many excellent choices. My Master of Divinity degree was completed at the interdenominational Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, a renowned center of religious pluralism adjacent to the University of California campus.

When I was there, there were nine separate seminaries and several affiliate centers for religious study. GTU students were enrolled at a particular school but were encouraged to take classes at all of them. Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians learned alongside Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and secular humanists. My church history course included a series of lectures with faculty and students from all the schools as well as a smaller weekly seminar at my school of affiliation. For someone like me who did not come from a particularly religious background, studying at the GTU was a rich and rewarding experience.

This was in the time before the internet. The new digital world in which we live offers far more opportunities for learning than what I had at my disposal then. Take advantage of these vast resources to develop the religion element of your state standards. Like rhetoric, etiquette, Latin, and Greek, theology and religion were once part of a “classical” education. Now they have been largely discarded from today’s course offerings. I think this does our students a disservice. As long as state standards include religious topics, their study should be included in what the kids get in class.

Learn as much as you can about world religions (to read my World Religions Topic Summaries, click here). As you do so, be aware of your own biases. Get to know the cultural and religious backgrounds of your students. Respect those who are believers and those who are not. Hold to your own personal beliefs, but avoid favoritism in class. Teach rather than preach. Give your students the forum to explore various ideas and come to their own conclusions. Empower them to be critical thinkers. Their ability to do so will serve them well in our complex and challenging world.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.



Testimonials Page

“Everybody is talking about Mr. Finney’s Testimonials Page!”

Happy Summer Solstice! With the longest day of the year upon us, you will have more time to check out my new Testimonials Page. Click here to read letters of recommendation from some of my former administrators. Testimonials from former students will be uploaded soon. And don’t forget to follow me on Instagram!

Whether you are still teaching or enrolled in summer school, traveling, catching up on summer reading, or just resting before the next school year, I hope you have a summer filled with relaxation and inspiration!

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Continuing Education

Perfecting your craft as an educator is an ongoing part of the teaching profession. This involves on the job experience in the classroom as well as supplemental courses and training. Earning a clear teaching credential usually includes additional coursework to augment the preliminary certification granted at the college or university level. After you secure your first regular teaching position, you are expected to keep up with the rigors of the job by enrolling in workshops and classes in order to improve your knowledge and performance.

Most of this continuing education will take the form of campus or district in-services on new technology, educational theory and practice, guest consultants, or training in new skills and procedures. Whether you are working with college prep kids, honors students, English learners, special needs children, or all of the above, you will need to stay current with the latest trends in meeting the needs of the young people you have in class. Your school and district will let you know of the requirements and opportunities presented to you as an employee.

Beyond your school, however, lie many other venues for continuing education. If you do not already possess an advanced degree, returning to graduate school will bolster both your confidence and competence. Most districts also place you higher on the salary scale when you earn additional credits or diplomas. Check your district’s compensation guidelines and remember to submit the proper paperwork and certifications to your district office.

Secondary level social science teachers are wise to pursue a Master’s degree in their chosen field. Graduate level work in history, psychology, sociology, political science, ethnic studies, women’s studies, regional or cultural studies, philosophy, religious studies, anthropology, archaeology, geography, economics, public policy, museum curation, or even business will strengthen your curriculum and your standing with your district, administrators, colleagues, students, and their families. Choose the program that best answers your needs and inspires your passion as a teacher.

You may also choose to earn a Master’s degree in the field of education. Most colleges that offer teacher credential programs also have these kinds of programs specially designed for teachers. This kind of training will help you in curriculum design, dealing with classroom management and discipline issues, interacting with students and their families, and helping those with special needs. If you are eventually interested in working as a school administrator, a Master’s or doctoral degree in education might be the best way to go.

Special weekend events are offered all year to add specialized training to the arsenal of teaching skills. I attended a CUE (Computer-Using Educators) Conference in Palm Springs, California in the spring of 2010 with my colleagues in the Digital Arts and Humanities Program and garnered many new ideas for multimedia and interdisciplinary learning. I also participated in many other staff retreats and seminars over the years that were held off campus and provided an entire weekend to build teamwork and competency in new areas. Take advantage of all these events and attend as many as you can.

Reading is another important part of continuing education. Visit the education section of your local bookstore or online sellers. Follow educational sites on social media and subscribe to teaching periodicals. Sign up for training in the latest software for use in schools. Ask your colleagues for help with new technology and ideas. Spend time visiting and observing other teachers at your school. Be an early adopter of new grading programs. Try to move away from paper and embrace digital classrooms and curricula.

Whatever you do, stay current in your craft. The world of technology changes at an astronomical rate, and your students will have the latest gadgets and programs. Keep up with them as best you can. Incorporate software programs into your teaching. Read the latest books on teaching. Follow the advice and guidance of your administrators. Seek out your colleagues in other departments as well as your own who know more.

As in the business world, international diplomacy, and the garden in your own yard, whatever does not grow will wither. Do what you can to grow as a teacher. Both you and your students will benefit from your efforts.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Teaching as Art

Teaching credential programs generally include courses on topics such as educational theory, child psychology, language acquisition, and curriculum development. Some also focus on the use of technology in education, classroom management, and working with English learners and special needs children. The science of education has undergone great advances in the last several decades, and these developments have been incorporated into teacher training programs.

What cannot be taught in an academic program, however, is the art of teaching. Each educator must develop her or his own personal style in the real life laboratory of the classroom. This task is organic and evolves over time. It must be refined in every new teaching setting. Your distinct personality shapes how you teach, and your students will remember you more than they will your subject. Embracing your own way of teaching is key to creating a successful learning environment.

I participated in a lot of theatrical productions as a kid, so my teaching style naturally included role play, mimicry, costuming, and music. As a visual artist, I also spent a lot of time decorating my classroom board and walls with the calligraphy, artwork, posters, and photographs that I thought would capture the interest of my students. Engagement in the material is vital in learning the detail-heavy social science curriculum. To this end, I tried to enliven the human element of historical narrative and the contemporary relevance of political and economic theory.

Draw on your hobbies and life experiences to enliven your subject. My high school math teacher was with Patton at the Battle of the Bulge and used to regale us with World War II stories to illustrate and explain equations. My chemistry teacher was an avid amateur geologist and shared his rock collection and slideshows of national parks with us. My government teacher was fond of wordplay and employed literary witticisms to entertain as well as educate. Whatever you have done or like to do can be included in some way: sports, fishing, travel, fashion, organizations, the arts, or other careers you have pursued. Use your imagination in coming up with creative instruction.

Even your classroom rules and the way you enforce them can be creative. In my first school I developed a three-strike system which I called “hammer time” and devoted a section of the front board to its artistic representation. Many of the students found this amusing, but the clear boundaries also kept them in line and discouraged disruptions. I created a similar infrastructure at my next school under a different name. In my last school, one of my students found my aphorisms so engaging that he created a meme around my treatment of cell phones in class (see image below).

Teaching involves many artistic endeavors. There is the art of diplomacy when dealing with parents, students, colleagues, and administrators. Achieving a balance between listening and initiative is an essential element of the profession, but one which is unique to each individual teacher. Then there is the issue of classroom setup and decor. The visual aids you decide to hand on your walls, the way you arrange your desks, and the supplies you make available all reflect your personality. Celebrate yourself in the way you educate.

Of course, teaching is about the kids. But the kids depend on you to teach them in a memorable way. The impression you make upon them as a person will color the extent to which they understand and like your subject. This is particularly true with college preparatory and special needs children. These are students who struggle with academic tasks for a variety of reasons, and anything you can do to help them move forward is important. Honors students enjoy an engaged teacher as well, even if they already like your subject as they enter your class. Give whatever you have to offer. In your class, that is more than enough.

Graphic design created in 2011 by student artist Juan Romero.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Social Media

The internet has irrevocably changed the nature of human interaction. The worldwide web was born out of our innate need to connect with one another on a global scale. I can remember the first “bulletin boards” that allowed for messaging between personal computers in the early 1990s. These were followed by the early websites and online networks with their simplistic graphics, accessed by burdensome dial-up servers. Then came high speed digital subscriber lines, more complex code and programming, and finally social media sites.

As someone from the tail end of the Baby Boom generation, I watched the development and dissemination of the internet with incredulity and awe. I grew up interacting with faraway people only through corded telephones, handwritten letters, or traveling in person. Information was stored in libraries or spread through newspapers, magazines, books, radio, or the four channels on television at the time: ABC, NBC, CBS, and PBS. Photographs were taken with hand held cameras and rolls of film processed in darkrooms. Computers were gigantic and inaccessible and controlled by the government and big corporations. Many still used paper punch cards to process data.

After witnessing the advent of personal computers, cellular phones, digital cameras, satellite communication, microwave ovens, and cable television as a young man in the 80s and 90s, I was even more amazed by the internet revolution that inaugurated the new millennium. Seemingly overnight, the library, the newspaper, the magazines, the television programs, and all my personal accounts were all available on a single screen in the privacy of my own home. Email and messaging soon replaced letters and cards. Paper became obsolete. I thought I had seen everything computers could do.

Then came social media. When Facebook was first introduced fifteen years ago, its users were almost exclusively college students. One by one, campuses across the country and the world signed on to create their own Facebook networks. By the time other sites such as Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram allowed for more specialized interaction, children and adults of all ages had become regular users of most social media platforms. LinkedIn developed as a network for professionals. Poshmark and Etsy provided online marketplaces. Products and goods of all kinds could be sold on Amazon and auctioned on eBay. The economy and society were forever transformed.

As an educator, I soon began seeing opportunities to expand my curriculum and enrich my lesson plans through the use of social media. I had been teaching for six years when Facebook appeared. Three years later, I signed up to join a group for those of us portraying artists and correspondents from the American Civil War period for community and school presentations. I created a profile and posted a few things in the group. It was indeed fascinating to have such a user friendly format with which to connect with people who shared my interests. I started looking for new ideas to use in the classroom.

Over time, I discovered the educational value of social media platforms. I began joining pages for news networks, documentary films, historical documents and photographs, cable television programs, investigative journalism, civil rights and government organizations, and research groups. The Library of Congress, National Archives, the New York and Boston Public Libraries, National Public Radio, the National Park Service, the BBC, and The History Channel were among the many users who were posting cool stories, pictures, and quotes I could use in the classroom.

With new platforms came new challenges. As a teacher, it is important to maintain your personal and professional boundaries. Exercise caution in adding people to your accounts. Fair use copyright issues must be considered when reposting pictures or using them in your slideshows. When I bought my first smartphone in 2013 and began observing student usage, I saw “phoning” become a discipline issue. I had to start confiscating student smartphones in class so they could pay attention to what they were learning. I generally returned them at the end of the period unless the student was a chronic offender, in which case I sent the phone to the office and called the parent.

The internet allows for vastly expanded educational methods, but the majority of school districts have learned to block social media sites on their servers. The advent of digital classrooms and district-issued student Chromebooks allowed for more effective ways of conducting research and communicating with students, colleagues, parents, and administrators. Over the course of the four years in which I used digital classrooms, I encouraged my students to bring their Chromebooks to class and turn their assignments in online. There was no need for a smartphone unless the Chromebook was absent or malfunctioning.

Despite their many pitfalls, social media sites can still be a great source of new ideas and creative presentations of information. Like any other form of media, proper discernment is required in their use. Not all information on the internet is reliable, and critical thinking skills must be used in assessing the value of a post or website. Cyber crimes such as fraud and identity theft are ever present dangers. Predators and terrorists have learned to use the web for their own nefarious purposes. Online bullying can be extremely damaging, especially to impressionable teens. Artistic property and existing fair use laws must be respected.

This is not to discourage you from using social media sites for educational purposes. Memes and other creative posts can often make learning fun. But use your own personal judgment when logging on and especially when posting something. What goes onto the internet usually remains there. Personal information can easily be shared and misappropriated. The term “friends” can be a misnomer. And it is easy to forget that the seemingly omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent social media networks were created by imperfect human beings just like us.

The caution that famous journalist Edward R. Murrow advised when dealing with television during the Cold War years can easily be applied to internet use today: “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box.” The technology itself is just a tool. How that tool is used is entirely up to us. For students and teachers, its best use is to advance the intellectual development of what Thomas Jefferson called “an enlightened citizenry.” It is always within our power to employ it as a means to that end.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

June is LGBT Pride Month

President Bill Clinton declared June 1999 to be Gay and Lesbian Pride Month, the first time an American President publicly commemorated the contributions of LGBT people to American history, culture, and society. President Barack Obama continued this tradition through his eight years in office (2009-2017), designating June as LGBT Pride Month. After decades of litigation, the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges decision of the United States Supreme Court struck down state bans on same-sex marriage in 2015. The following year, Stonewall National Monument in New York City became the first site in the National Park Service to highlight LGBT history.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people were the nation’s “invisible minority” for much of American history. Prevented from pursuing identity and relationships of their choice by local and state “sodomy laws,” most gay men and women hid their sexual orientation. Lesbian relationships were stigmatized as “sapphism” within the confines of sexist social structures that kept women subordinate. Many LGBT people reluctantly embraced heterosexual marriage to gain social acceptance. Living “in the closet” often seemed preferable to a life of humiliation, rejection, and abuse.

The medical community considered homosexuality a form of mental illness and “treated” it with isolation, medication, and electroshock “conversion” therapy. The American Psychiatric Association did not remove it from their catalog of “disorders” until 1973. Homosexual attraction was routinely condemned as “unnatural” and “sinful” by religious leaders. Gay people were shamed and ostracized by their families, their employers, and their communities. Many fled their home towns or went into hiding out of fear for their physical safety. Untold numbers of them became homeless or the victims of hate crimes.

Large numbers of LGBT men and women served honorably in World War II and Korea, despite the risk of dishonorable discharge if their sexual orientation was discovered. Like other American minorities, they returned home with raised expectations about the exercise of their civil rights. Instead, they were met with the homophobic paranoia of the “Lavender Scare” of the 1950s. Thousands of LGBT government employees were fired as “moral deviants” and “security risks,” accused of being especially vulnerable to Communist propaganda and blackmail. Many in Hollywood were hounded and blacklisted.

Throughout the 1960s, stiff fines and prison terms awaited anyone caught in public acts of same-sex affection. Openly gay poets and artists such as Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) and Andy Warhol (1928-1987) attracted devoted fans of all backgrounds, but the hateful sodomy laws remained in place. Mainstream hostility toward gay culture was reinforced by negative news coverage, erroneous academic scholarship, and homophobic clergy and politicians. Police raids on gay bars, long the gathering place for the community, increased dramatically.

The situation came to a head on the sweltering night of June 28, 1969 during a raid on the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village. For the first time, angry LGBT patrons fought back in large numbers, driving police officers back and damaging property. Within a year, the first Gay Pride parades were organized in major American cities. LGBT neighborhoods such as the Castro District in San Francisco, West Hollywood, Hillcrest in San Diego, and Provincetown on Cape Cod grew in strength and numbers. Gay and lesbian Americans began speaking out publicly and defending their rights.

In 1977 Harvey Milk was elected to the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco, the first openly gay public official to gain national prominence. His assassination a year later and the moderate sentence given to his killer led to riots and outrage. Throughout the 1980s, the LGBT community continued to organize and agitate for equal rights and treatment, surviving the trauma of the AIDS crisis and the indifference of the Reagan administration. Many gay voters saw a potential champion in Bill Clinton in 1992, but his subsequent “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on LGBT military personnel and the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) came as bitter disappointments.

Clinton began to come around as an ally of gay rights toward the end of his presidency, and more than a decade later President Barack Obama publicly acknowledged the struggle for LGBT civil rights in his 2013 inaugural address. Federal hate crime laws were strengthened and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was finally dismantled. Spectacular legal victories struck down discrimination against domestic partnerships and eventually all remaining state bans on same-sex marriage. Gay candidates began winning local and state elections.

Helping your students understand the tremendous contributions of LGBT Americans is an important step forward in presenting a balanced view of United States history. From President James Buchanan, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Susan B. Anthony in the 19th century to the numerous television, film, music, and sports stars of the 20th and 21st, LGBT artists, leaders and celebrities have shaped the fabric of the nation’s course and character. The songs of Cole Porter and literary works of Alice Walker, Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Gertrude Stein, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and Armistead Maupin are among many resources for cross-disciplinary activities.

According to some estimates, LGBT Americans constitute up to 10% of the U.S. population. They come from every state and cultural background and are numbered in every profession. Politicians of all parties have finally accepted the power of the gay voting bloc. You will have LGBT students in your class as well as many others who have gay friends and relatives. Bullying in school and online has led to alarming rates of depression, alcohol and drug use, and suicide among LGBT teens. As their history teacher, you have an important role as advocate and ally. Telling the whole story of American history, including the part played by the LGBT community, is a good place to start.

With the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots approaching, this is a banner year for highlighting LGBT history. New York is hosting a massive commemorative celebration called Stonewall50 which will attract thousands from around the world. Pride parades across the country are expected to be the largest ever. In the four decades since Harvey Milk, 46 of the 50 states have elected LGBT local or state officials. Three have served as state governors and ten now sit in the U.S. Congress. On April 14 of this year, South Bend, Indiana Democratic Mayor Pete Buttigieg entered the 2020 race as the first openly gay candidate for President of the United States in American history.

Take advantage of the many online resources available at your fingertips. Have your students research openly LGBT candidates for public office. Explore the history and development of federal hate crime legislation. Analyze the background and findings of the 1950s Kinsey Reports. Study the history of early civil rights groups like the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis. Create an art activity on the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Assign a project on the 1998 Matthew Shepard murder case or the recent Supreme Court decisions. Have them write a news story on a local Pride Parade.

Whatever you decide to do, remember to include this important segment of American life in your curriculum. The political debates on gender identification, public accommodations, equal employment and housing opportunities, and rights to privacy and freedom of expression have only intensified in the last several years and show no signs of quick and easy resolution. Adding your voice and those of your students to this public discourse will enrich the quality of your students’ learning experience. The story of LGBT America must continue to be told, and as a teacher you are in a unique position to tell it. Your students of all orientations and the society at large will be empowered by your efforts.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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