Memorial Day Weekend

Memorial Day began as Decoration Day in the 1860s to honor the Union dead of the American Civil War. Copyright (c) 1995 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

For many of you, Memorial Day represents the end of the school year and final exams. Many people observe this three-day weekend with picnics and parades, much like Labor Day or Independence Day. In the midst of the jubilation and relaxation, it is easy to forget the somber origins of this important national holiday.

I drew the flag pictured above to commemorate the campaigns of my great-great-grandfather Michael Schneider, who served in Company G of the 27th Ohio Infantry throughout the American Civil War. He and the other volunteers of his regiment, many of them recent immigrants living in Cleveland, answered President Lincoln’s call to preserve the Union and later to end slavery. By the end of the war in 1865, 214 of them had given their lives in what Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion.” These are among the people we commemorate on Memorial Day.

More than one million Americans have died in the nation’s wars, with the fratricidal Civil War being the most destructive. Decoration Day began while the war was still raging to honor those who died to save the Union and was eventually renamed Memorial Day to include all those lost on distant battlefields throughout United States history. Over the course of that history, others have given their lives here at home to make America a more just, equitable society. These include the martyrs of the labor, suffrage, antiwar, and civil rights movements. I also choose to remember them on Memorial Day.

As the school year ends and summer break approaches, let us remember those who gave everything to preserve our rights, including our personal freedoms and the right to a safe community and quality public education. On this Memorial Day weekend, may we dedicate our own lives to the continued preservation of those rights for all Americans.

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

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at

Grading Procedures

Grading is one of the most demanding aspects of teaching, as well as one of the most necessary. Keeping up with the assignment, collection, assessment, and recording of student work is vital to maintaining the momentum of your course. The more proactive you are in your grading procedures, the better you can stick to your lesson calendar. Planning and executing your grading policies and procedures in a timely manner will allow you and your students to finish each semester effectively without feeling overwhelmed. This is one of the duties of teaching you need to get right from the beginning.

As any experienced teacher will tell you, this is easier said than done. It begins with collection. Make sure your students know from the first day of school when and where to turn in their work. In the years before I began using digital classrooms (prior to 2014), all assignments were completed on paper. During that time and thereafter, I placed stacking plastic trays on a table near the classroom door, marked for each of my five periods, into which students fed their homework and classwork papers every day.

As my rule was to have homework due on Fridays, I typically had my largest amount of grading to do on the weekend. I did this because I coached an after-school drama club and taught evening classes during the week and generally did not have time to get to grading until Friday afternoon, unless I could find time during my prep period every day. Sometimes I would bring a lunch and spend Saturday morning catching up on grading in my classroom when the campus was quiet. You may decide to do your grading every night so you can keep your weekends free. Do whatever works for your schedule.

Homework and classwork in my college preparatory classes were graded on a credit/no credit basis. I would look over each piece of work and award a point value based on how much of it was completed, write the score and circle it on the paper, and then record the score on a printed paper class roster for each period. The graded work was then placed in a manila folder according to period and stacked near the homework trays. I had students help me pass back the work at the beginning of each period and did the rest myself before school or during recess, lunch, and my prep period.

Online grading programs were already available when I started teaching in the late 1990s. Over the years I used Easy Grade Pro, Aeries, Illuminate, and others, according to whatever my school or district was using at the time. My rosters were printed from these programs as well as progress reports and final grades. I entered points before school every day so I could print out a current progress report at the request of a student, parent, or administrator.

Percentages and grading categories changed over the years (see my blog entry on Curriculum and Assessment), but generally I gave classwork and tests the largest values in determining the overall grade. Homework and projects rounded out the whole. Honors classes did more writing than college prep and required more carefully reading, so I made those assignments worth more. Unlike in my honors classes, college prep students were required to turn in their daily lecture and other notes for credit, so I raised the value of classwork since I had to invest more time in grading it.

All essays were graded with an attached paper rubric that included comments, points for each category of assessment, and the overall score. Only the overall scores were recorded in my grade book. Projects were graded holistically and given an overall score of up to 200 points. Your department or district may have grading guidelines for certain kinds of assignments which need to be incorporated into your procedures. Consult your administrator and department head before settling on a scale or weighted categories.

As far as accepting late work is concerned, decide on your policy and be clear about it with your students from the beginning. Changing your policy on this in mid-stream will undermine your authority and credibility. You will have students who try to take advantage of your good nature and flexibility. The clearer your grading policies are from the outset, the less trouble you will create for yourself later. The firmer you are in the beginning of the semester, the more flexible you can be at the end.

Organization is the key to success when it comes to grading. Keep the student work in neat piles according to period, place them in folders, and keep them within easy access of your immediate work area. Allow for room in your bag or satchel to accommodate them when you leave for home. Over the ten years in which I commuted by rail, I would try to get some grading done in one of the seating areas of the train car that included a table. The train also had electrical outlets with which laptops or other electronics could be used.

If you take grading home, designate a time and area where you can work there. I usually spread out all my papers on the kitchen bar or island or the dining room table. If you do not live alone you will need to create a suitable arrangement with your spouse, partner, or roommates. You do not want to allow grading or any other aspect of your job to interfere with the rhythms of your domestic life. This can be a challenge toward the end of the semester, particularly if the person or persons with whom you live are not school teachers. Be proactive, listen, and work together.

The advent of digital classrooms added an entirely new dynamic to grading as well as instruction and research. Piles of paper were reduced or eliminated, to be sure, but other challenges and difficulties appeared in their place. Watch for plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty when evaluating online work. Back up assignments and have students do the same. Remind them to do their own work and send it from their own computer. If you have a suspicion that a student is copying work from a friend or classmate, keep a close eye on the assignments from both students and keep the parents informed.

Like classroom management and teaching style, grading procedures are particular to the individual teacher. Experiment with different kinds of assignments and grading rubrics and settle on what is comfortable for you. Work within district and department guidelines and keep the students and parents up to date. The more you plan ahead and stay organized, the more you can keep grading in its proper place.

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

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at

Harvey Milk Day

Sporting a rainbow bow tie and vintage campaign button for Harvey Milk Day. The rainbow flag was designed as a symbol of LGBT pride by San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker (1951-2017) in 1978, the same year Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated at City Hall. Photo copyright (c) 2018 Torin Finney.

Harvey Milk Day was declared a special commemorative day in California public schools by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2009 and has since been recognized across the country and the world as a day to recognize America’s premier LGBT civil rights figure. Milk was born on May 22, 1930 and assassinated on November 27, 1978. He was America’s first openly gay public official and called for all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans to come out of the shadows and assert their rights as equal members of our society.

I remember well the day Harvey Milk was killed. I was a senior in high school in southern California and had several gay friends and classmates, many of whom had not yet made the decision to come out to their families. There was rampant homophobia throughout the country at that time and my U.S. history class did not include the contributions of LGBT Americans. When I became a history teacher 20 years later, I did what I could to correct that error in my classes. I included LGBT history in my curriculum and made sure my students learned about Harvey Milk on May 22.

June 28 this year will be the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York City, which later led to the first Pride parades across the country. The San Diego Pride Parade takes place in the famous Hillcrest neighborhood near where I live and promises to be the largest in the city’s history. While homophobia and hate crimes continue to mar our national life, prominent legal victories and the election of many openly LGBT public officials have paved the way for a new generation of activists and leaders. Harvey Milk once said that “hope will never be silent.” May all of us raise our voices of hope in support of full civil rights for all people.

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

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at

Interacting with Administrators

As a schoolteacher you are the authority figure in your classroom, but you are not the top authority at your school. Unless you are a private tutor or independent education consultant, the teaching experience includes serving under administrators. Over the course of twenty years in five different schools, I had six principals, fifteen assistant principals, and five department chairs. Working with them involved adapting to differing leadership styles within the context of common structural guidelines and procedures.

The three most typical forms of interaction with administrators are observations, evaluations, and staff meetings. I have dealt with the subject of staff meetings in a separate blog entry, which you can read here. Observations occur on a regular basis, particularly when you are a new teacher under probationary contract or if your school is under accreditation review. Your administrators will be looking for evidence of state standards, learning objectives, and effective instruction. The extent to which you are providing that evidence successfully will determine how well your evaluations go.

For the most part, the evaluation process has progressed over time from the hierarchical model of the 20th century to the collaborative one of the 21st. Administrators now try to present themselves as supporters and teammates rather than traditional authority figures. I found this to be true of most of my administrators over the years. They would give feedback and offer suggestions during the meeting based on what they saw in my classroom, and I would try to incorporate their ideas to the best of my ability. A large part of my success as an educator was due to the helpful suggestions of my principals and assistant principals.

Naturally, I connected with some of them on a personal level better than others. Many of my private conversations with them were very comfortable and encouraging. Yet even with those whose personalities may not have been that compatible with mine, I tried to find the value in what they said. As a teacher, it is very important that you keep an open mind, especially during an evaluation. Your administrators are there to help you. Try not to take criticism personally. Remember that you were hired on the merits of your skills and background. Any suggestions for improvement are just that. No one is making character aspersions or questioning your competence as an educator.

This is easier said than done, particularly if you are given a “needs improvement” score in a given category of your performance. This only happened to me once in the course of my career, in the area of classroom management. I was in my first year teaching in a public middle school and my only year teaching the 6th grade. I had come from a wealthy private high school and was having trouble adjusting to the new discipline needs of working with lower income inner-city children. My principal at the time was stern but fair, and offered to provide me with a mentor to help me improve my classroom discipline.

I heartily accepted and immediately began to notice improvement. By the end of that school year I was beginning to find my stride, and my performance steadily improved over the next few years. Despite my fears of being overwhelmed, my administrator helped me reach my learning goals over a few short months. I needed his help and that of my mentor. Admitting that fact was the first step in becoming a successful teacher at that school. By the end of my career I had become known as a strict and effective disciplinarian. This never would have happened without the support and guidance of strong and committed administrators.

Be flexible and open minded. The administration often changes at a school over time. Having the same principal or assistant principals for many years in a row is rare. You must learn to adapt to whomever is in charge. Flexibility is also needed to dealing with changes in state standards and curriculum and the latest educational theory or practice in favor with your principal or district. Try to keep up as best you can and keep your focus on what works best for your students. There are many different ways to teach the same subject. Make use of as many of them as possible.

As far as interacting with department heads is concerned, remember that they may have more experience than you but are not above you in rank. Department chairs do not have the power to evaluate you as a teacher or determine your tenure at a school. They are there to support you and the other teachers in your department, which can include providing needed supplies, passing on communication or updates from the administration, and leading department meetings. Ideally, the department chair position should be rotated every few years among all the teachers in that department. Getting involved in leadership can help you grow as a teacher and strengthen the profile of your school.

Remember that you are the front line leader with your students. The administrators are part of the team that supports you in that important work. Listen to their suggestions and implement them as needed. Your goal and purpose is to provide your students with the best educational experience possible in your subject. Stay focused when the administrators enter your room to observe a lesson in progress. Stay in step with the other teachers in your department. Implement the state and federal content standards to the best of your ability. Above all else, believe in yourself. You have been called to teach. Appreciate the opportunities and value of that calling.

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

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at

Teaching Summer School

With spring final examinations approaching, most teachers and students are looking forward to the end of the school year. The relaxation and exciting activities of summer are just around the corner. Many of your students and colleagues will be discussing their plans for summer travel or family vacation. But not all will be taking a break from classes. Summer session is technically the last term of the academic year, and many students and teachers will be returning to the classroom after the last spring final is over.

Summer school is a different kind of teaching experience than the regular year. Usually you have no more than four weeks in which to lead your students through the equivalent of a semester length course. The school day is shorter, typically five or six hours instead of eight, and more often than not you teach fewer than five days per week. You have to cover the same amount of material in a day as you would in a week during the regular school year. The pay is typically by the hour and less than what you make in your regular salary. All of these factors can make summer school a daunting challenge.

On the positive side, you will probably have an appreciative audience. Summer school is a privilege rather than a right, and an opportunity rather than a requirement. Those students who are making up a class for a better grade are grateful for the chance to improve their GPA. Those who are there to complete a core course in advance of the regular year are happy to get it out of the way. The district is glad you are willing to take on an assignment that most teachers do not consider. The atmosphere is more relaxed than the regular year. You are usually done in time for lunch. Often the school week ends on Thursday, leaving you a three-day weekend every week.

I taught summer school for every one of my twenty years as a teacher. I taught one session to private high school students, one at a public middle school, seven at a community college, and thirteen in a public high school. My courses included United States History, World History, Economics, Health, Summer Reading, Beginning Journalism, and Honors Economics. For a few summers I taught kids in the morning and adults in the evening on the same days of the week.

Some of my classes had as few as a dozen students and others exceeded fifty people. Many of those summer sessions were held in my own classroom with my resources and audio-visual equipment, but many others were in an unfamiliar environment. Sometimes I had to carry all my materials with me across campus and log in to a common computer. I had to adapt to an abridged curriculum on a shortened schedule in a strange space.

In spite of these contingencies, I generally enjoyed the experience. Discipline is not as much of a problem as the regular year, since the school is not required to offer a summer session. Any student who does not take your class seriously will be swiftly removed and will not return. Those who do not show up the first day are dropped. Others lose their place if they miss more than two full days. No failing grades were issued; those who did not pass had to make up the course at a later date.

These conditions make your job easier and those students who remain more appreciative. Curriculum standards and district guidelines must be followed, of course, but the structure of your class can be flexible. There are few or no evaluations from administrators, and usually no department meetings to attend. Attendance is done by the hour rather than by the day. Attire is casual and the weather is warm.

My summer classes were usually comprised of one or two 2-3 hour blocks. In the interest of time and engagement, I mixed writing assignments in with lecture and discussion, audio-visual presentations, group work and testing. I made sure my students were involved in a variety of learning activities. Make sure you mix it up. They are there for a serious purpose, to complete a required course in a satisfactory manner. Keeping them busy and interested will make the day go faster for them and for you.

Get your grading done quickly, preferably the same day it is submitted, so you can stay on top of things and return graded work for your students to use in test preparation. If you assign homework from a textbook (in many cases I did not), enter the graded points from that work right away. Keep the students informed of their grade on a daily basis. Summer school will be over before they know it. They cannot afford to fall behind, and neither can you.

There is usually no time for an academic progress report. Students must keep up on their assignments every day. Your class is probably their only subject in summer school. There is no excuse for them to give in to distractions or indifference. This may be their only chance to complete this particularly course successfully. Impress upon them the seriousness and importance of their task. Their transcript will not favor the classes they finished in the regular year. Their work in summer school is just as valuable.

Of course, the decision to teach summer school will shorten your own summer break as well as theirs. Remember to take full advantage of the days and weeks you do have off. If you teach more than one session of summer school, you may have only two weeks before the regular year begins in August. Get enough rest and relaxation before you have to go back, and advise your students to do the same.

I am a big believer in the value of summer school. There are no extra-curricular activities to distract the students, it is easier for them to get through a shorter day, and they do not have to juggle a full schedule of several subjects. They have an opportunity to focus on excelling in a single subject at a time. Do your best to help them take advantage of this unique opportunity.

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

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at

Malcolm X Day

Observing Malcolm X Day with a vintage 1960s bow tie and lapel pin. Copyright (c) 2018 Torin Finney.

Malcolm X (1925-1965) was one of the most important civil rights figures of the 20th century. A reformed convict who emerged from prison as the fiery spokesman of the Nation of Islam, he decried racism and injustice to a largely urban African American audience fed up with police brutality and government inaction in the black community. Criticized as an extremist by the mainstream media and rival civil rights leaders during his lifetime, he has since been recognized by many as an articulate and charismatic champion for political, economic, and cultural self-determination.

I remember listening to recordings of his speeches as a child, and years later shared those recordings with my students. By the time he was assassinated in 1965, Malcolm X had begun reaching out to other civil rights and religious leaders and calling for international unity among all people of African descent around the world. My mother was a great admirer of Malcolm X and saw him as an inspiring example for anyone struggling to throw off the shackles of shame and discrimination. He is also perhaps America’s most famous Muslim, an important role in an age of emerging religious pluralism.

The city of Berkeley, California (where I lived, studied, and worked from 1985 to 1991) adopted May 19 as an official municipal holiday in 1979, with public schools and city offices closed in honor of Malcolm X’s birthday. The state of Illinois passed a resolution adopting Malcolm X Day as a holiday in 2015. Many other local communities commemorate his life and work either on this day or during the third weekend in May.

Malcolm X was among the most exceptional orators in American history. Many of his speeches have a contemporary ring today. His message remains inspirational to all who seek to transcend the negative voices of the past and embrace a positive, independent future with confidence and courage.

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

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at

San Diego at 250

Historical marker at Presidio Park in San Diego, California. Photo copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney.

Two and a half centuries ago today, on May 17, 1769, a party of Spaniards led by Gaspar de Portola founded the Presidio of San Diego in the hills above the bay first sighted by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542 and named by Sebastian Vizcaino in 1602. Portola’s fortified camp was followed a few months later by the first of 21 Franciscan missions, called San Diego de Alcala by Father Junipero Serra.

The Spanish were eager to establish a foothold on the west coast of North America in the vast and rich land they would later call Alta California. Their conquest of the local indigenous people was efficient and ruthless. The Kumeyaay and other native tribes were driven off by the soldiers or baptized and put to work by the friars, and by the 1820s a small Spanish-speaking adobe settlement had been built at the foot of the hill where the mission stood. By the time California was admitted to the United States on September 9, 1850, this pueblo of 650 people had been incorporated as the city of San Diego.

This has led many to consider San Diego the “birthplace of California.” Annexation by the United States and the Gold Rush began a century of astronomical population growth, and by 1962 California had become the most populous of the 50 states. The Golden State today boasts the widest ethnic diversity of any state, including the largest Hispanic and Asian American communities, and California’s economy is now the fifth largest on earth. Summer 2019 will see many celebrations commemorating San Diego’s role in the origins of this great success story.

The original pueblo at the bottom of the mission hill is now Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, maintained and administered by the State of California since 1968. For several of the past 50 years, it has been the most visited of the 280 sites in the California State Park System. Its Cinco de Mayo and Day of the Dead festivals are among the largest in the United States. Old Town’s 27 restored historic buildings highlight the settlement’s 19th century history and are surrounded by scores of popular restaurants and shops.

Naturally, an honest appraisal of California history must include its darker side. San Diego’s story in particular includes many shameful chapters. In addition to the decimation of local Native American peoples by disease, warfare, and subjugation, the Spanish-speaking Californio families who formed the original community were soon marginalized by the English-speaking newcomers. “Old Town” was eventually eclipsed by the “New Town” of downtown San Diego along the bay side waterfront, notorious for shady business deals, a vibrant red light district called “Stingaree,” and a succession of corrupt politicians.

Then came the Panama-California Exposition in 1915, celebrating the completion of the Panama Canal a year earlier. San Diegans and thousands of visitors were welcomed to the newly completed Balboa Park with its grand Spanish colonial architecture and lush gardens. Twenty years later, the California-Pacific International Exposition was held in Balboa Park to boost morale during the Great Depression. By then San Diego had become a vacation destination and tourism had grown into a major local industry. A thriving tuna business and active military bases led to further development and new communities.

The burgeoning shipping and aviation industries grew exponentially overnight with the coming of World War II. San Diego became the civilian and military port and base of operations for the war in the Pacific. Many who arrived during the war decided to stay afterwards and contribute to the city’s growth. By the end of the 20th century, San Diego had become California’s second largest city and the eighth largest in the country. Today the city is host to many new and exciting industries, resurgent historic neighborhoods, and a metropolitan population of more than three million.

San Diego’s story set the pace for the growth of California, as California did for the nation as a whole. Despite a high cost of living, a struggling public school system, unresolved immigration issues, and continuing economic inequities, there is still much to celebrate this summer. California represents the land of promise for thousands of newcomers who arrive each day, and the state government in Sacramento has made valiant efforts to expand public health care and other social programs to reach more of the state’s 40 million people.

I have called California home since 1977. In those four decades I have lived in Long Beach, the Bay Area, Sacramento, Bakersfield, Orange County, and many other places before moving to San Diego last summer. Over the years I moved to other states for a brief time, but the excitement, beauty, and opportunity of California always brought me back. The Golden State has led the way in the emergence of our diverse, entrepreneurial, digital, global society. I am pleased to be here in the place where it all began 250 years ago.

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

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at

Helping Students with Special Needs

As a teacher, you must be ready and willing to help all the students in your classes achieve the best level of success possible. Public schools in particular draw from the diversity of the community, and you will have students of all backgrounds and abilities on your roll sheets. This may include children with learning disabilities, limited language proficiency, or legal difficulties as well as kids without a safe or stable home and family environment. Equipping yourself with the skills needed to reach these students is essential to your success as an educator.

Advocates for children with special needs have worked tirelessly for equality in public education since the beginning of the public school movement at the end of the 19th century. Many reformers reached out to poor and immigrant communities in an effort to bring their children out of the factory and into the classroom. Privately funded scholarship programs for students from disadvantaged backgrounds developed. The Brown v. Board of Education decision of the United States Supreme Court in 1954 outlawed segregation in public schools, which paved the way for more equality of instruction regardless of race or background.

Government social programs expanded during the Great Society period in the 1960s. The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 allowed for the mainstreaming of children with special needs in regular classes and schools, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 protected the civil rights of many previously marginalized groups, including the right to a quality public education. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) of 2004 established specific guidelines in which students with special needs could succeed within the structure of a regular school schedule.

This structure for many includes an Individualized Education Program (IEP). The parents cooperate with the school district in providing a medical and other information on their student’s needs for special accommodation in class and a roadmap on how the teacher can help that student achieve success. I attended many IEP meetings with parents, students, and administrators over the course of my career. Many were conducted in both English and Spanish for the family’s benefit.

It is important for you to participate in these conferences as much as your schedule allows. Try to attend even those in which your presence is not required. The front office will provide you with a list of your students in special education programs as well as those with limited English proficiency (LEP) in English language development (ELD) classes. Study these lists carefully and incorporate the necessary accommodations in your curriculum and classroom structure.

This might involve moving the student to the front of the class where they can hear or see better without distraction. I usually placed all my special needs students near the front of the room and paired them with partners who could help them in team assignments. Sometimes alternative assessments are required if the student has trouble with writing, spelling, or reading comprehension. You may need to allow some students more time to complete tests and exams. Their regular special education or ELD teachers are willing to help if more time or a different room is needed to finish an assignment.

I waived late penalties on homework and class projects with many of my special needs students. As long as they were completing the work to the best of their ability, I gave them full credit for the work they did and the time it took them to do it. Offer to meet individually with the parent so that the student can receive all the help on the assignment they need at home. Focus on what interests the student in your class and give them credit for special independent study projects. Ask for help if you need it. The basic special education coursework of most teaching credential programs does not always include every condition or contingency. Do your research.

Help your ELD and LEP students by providing extra vocabulary aids and allowing them to use a digital translator program in class if appropriate. Learn Spanish (see my blog entry on Bilingual Education). Be willing to offer alternative assignments for those students with limited language skills and seek the assistance of the family and other teachers. Be an advocate for your students who lack a safe or stable home environment. Report suspected child abuse immediately to your administrator and be understanding of those students who have attendance problems because of homelessness, migrant work, immigration status, or neglect.

Some students with special needs may need an update to their educational profile, so your input with administrators and parents can be valuable. Learn as much as you can about the various learning disabilities as well as the social services available to students from different social and economic backgrounds. Parents, administrators, and other teachers are your allies in this important work. Make use of them. Most importantly, maintain good rapport with your students. The more they feel you believe in their success, the harder they will work to achieve it.

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

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and Jewish American Heritage Month

Japanese American members of Congress Norman Mineta (D-CA), Daniel Inouye (D-HI), and Spark Matsunaga (D-HI) introduced bills in the summer of 1977 to recognize the first ten days of May as Asian-American Heritage Week. The bill was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1978 and later extended to a month by President George H. W. Bush in 1990. President Barack Obama issued a Proclamation in 2009 recognizing May as Asian American and Pacific Islander Month across the nation.

Mineta, Inouye, and Matsunaga originally proposed the first ten days of May because they encompassed the anniversary of the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants to the United States on May 7, 1843 as well as the contributions of Chinese workers to the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869. Focus was later expanded to include the historical and cultural contributions of all Americans of Asian ancestry in both the past and the present.

This may be the most culturally, linguistically, and religiously diverse group of Americans of any ancestry, as Asia is the largest continent on earth, both in landmass and population. This diversity is reflected in the Asian immigrant experience in America. Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Filipino immigrants were the four largest groups to arrive on American shores in the 19th century. Their labor added to the work of Polynesian Americans to build much of the agricultural and industrial infrastructure of Hawai’i and the West Coast.

The later decades of the 20th century saw Vietnamese, Thais, Cambodians, Laotians, Hmong, and Indonesians arrive from Southeast Asia, and Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Nepalese, and Bengalis from the Indian subcontinent. Taiwanese came in significant numbers after the Communist victory in China in 1949. Armenians, Mongolians, Afghans, Kazakhs, and Turkmens came from central Asia. As the new millennium arrived, Arabs and Kurds from across the Middle East added their contributions to the ever evolving cultural landscape.

In 2006, President George W. Bush designated May as Jewish American Heritage Month as well, to highlight the enormous contributions Jewish immigrants and their American-born descendants have given to the development of the nation. From the early synagogues established during the colonial period to the large waves of Jewish immigration to Ellis Island in the early 20th century, Jews have been a significant part of American society from the beginning. Their contributions to art, literature, language, ethics, cuisine, business, and entertainment have transformed the nation and the world.

As a social science teacher, there are many topics and resources you can incorporate into your lesson plans to highlight the historical contributions and experiences of these cultures in America. The Chinese experience in California, for example, serves as a microcosm of the immigrant story as a whole, from their role in the Gold Rush and building the railroad to the discrimination they faced in the period of school segregation and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Historic “Chinatowns” across the country have helped the development of all our major cities, and Chinese language, food, health care disciplines, and beliefs have become part of mainstream culture.

The Japanese American internment camps of World War II and the heroism of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team is one of the most dramatic stories in American history. The U.S. annexation of Hawai’i and the consequent Hawaiian cultural and political renaissance of the 1970s and 1980s are fascinating chapters of our national story. The experiences of refugees fleeing war in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria and establishing vibrant and productive communities here in the United States also offer many possibilities for creative lessons.

Language and cultural activities as well as comparative religion studies are good ways to examine how Asian and Jewish immigrant communities influenced American democracy and popular culture. Utilize the resources available to you among your students and their families and in your community. Incorporate Asian and Jewish cultural decor in your classroom. Host a multicultural potluck. Invite guest speakers to class. Showcase traditional music and dance. Take advantage of the wonderful documentary films produced in the last 30 years on the experiences of Asian and Jewish immigrants.

Works by authors such as Maxine Hong Kingston, Gavan Daws, Iris Chang, Ronald Takaki, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, Saul Bellow, E. L. Doctorow, Susan Sontag, Arthur Miller, and Alfred Kazin can add rich multicultural and interdisciplinary dimensions to your units and lessons. There are now many well known Asian-American, Polynesian-American, and Jewish-American actors, directors, artists, musicians, corporate leaders, athletes, and politicians who have become household names. Look at how these immigrant communities have contributed to popular film, music, dance, visual arts, fashion, technology, slang expressions, ethical values, politics, and social behavior.

It is always better to have too many classroom resources than not enough, and the possibilities of topics to cover this month are endless. Build your unit around a structure of classwork, homework, essays, and testing assessments and support those assignments with a rich array of multimedia and participatory activities. Experiment with what works best and capitalize on what your school and students have to offer. Most of all, enjoy yourself as you celebrate these important elements of America’s cultural heritage.

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

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at

Earth Day

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

Earth Day has been celebrated in the United States since 1970 and is now observed in nearly 200 countries across the world. Unprecedented environmental crises such as deforestation, desertification, famine and drought, polluted seas and rivers, and rising global temperatures demand that all of us work together to protect and sustain our common planet.

We can do this through simple acts of conservation. Planting trees and flowers, recycling our waste, caring for animals, and buying organic foods can all help contribute to a renewable lifestyle. Deciding to walk, bicycle, drive an electric or hybrid vehicle, or use public transportation will help make a difference.

Stay informed. Use renewable energy. Learn how to plant and grow your own food. Vote for elected officials who pledge to support the environment and hold them accountable. Do what you can every day. Small acts can produce big results.

Most of all, go outside today and enjoy the beauty of spring. Happy Earth Day!

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

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at