Veterans Day

One of five murals by artist Richard DeRosset in the Veterans Museum at San Diego’s Balboa Park. The museum holds an impressive collection of military artifacts and paintings and hosts period dances and other educational events.

November 11, 1918 marked the signing of the Armistice ending the First World War. At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the guns fell silent. Ten million men in uniform had died, along with countless millions of civilians. The exhausted Allied nations of Europe were relieved to be free of the bloodshed and dedicated November 11th thenceforward as Armistice Day.

France, Belgium, and Serbia still observe November 11 as Armistice Day; in the British Commonwealth of Nations it is Remembrance Day. Poland celebrates its independence from the former Russian and Hapsburg Empires. Last year was the centennial of the 1918 Armistice and included many moving commemorative events. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who led the United States into the war as a late participant, delivered a stirring address on the first anniversary of the Armistice, and Congress adopted November 11 as a national holiday in 1926.

Armistice Day was renamed Veterans Day in 1954 to honor all the men and women who have served the nation in uniform. Those of you still in school know it as a welcome day off after weeks of intensive academic effort. The First Quarter is over and the end of the First Semester is now in sight. The full week of Thanksgiving Break is right around the corner. It is time to rest and begin to focus on your final assignments and how best to finish the term successfully.

Think of the veterans you know on this day. Our rights and privileges have been protected by their service and sacrifice. Do what you can to support them. Learn about veterans’ issues and elect public officials who will protect their federal benefits. The way we treat our veterans says something about our national character and values. These are women and men who are willing to put their lives on the line for their country. They deserve our thanks and respect.

Hand painted miniature of my Union Army ancestor with his regiment’s XVI Corps badge. Copyright (c) 2003 Torin Finney.

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

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at

Guest Speakers

Demonstrating sketching techniques used by the Civil War era “Bohemian Brigade” for middle school students at a history fair in Los Angeles in 2005. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

Teaching is a team effort. Many schools have adopted a team teaching or block schedule model to replace the paradigm of solitary single subject teachers presenting separate material over the course of six consecutive periods. For those of you still working in this traditional environment, a time tested way to supplement your curriculum and reinforce state content standards is to bring in guest speakers. Experts in various fields can help your overall presentation and enrich the learning experience of your students.

The social sciences in particular offer endless possibilities for guest presentations. During my twenty years in the classroom I brought in many guest speakers and served as one myself. One of my students had a great uncle who served in World War II. His father brought in several artifacts, including a German headquarters flag captured in Italy in 1945. One of the Little Rock Nine visited the community college adjacent to our campus. Other guest speakers shared stories of travel to historical sites. In economics class, I brought in small business owners and entrepreneurs.

Over the course of my fifteen years in living history programs, I often served as a guest speaker at schools and home school programs, civic organizations, and community events. This was particularly true during the decade in which I portrayed an artist correspondent for Harper’s Weekly. I wore historical costuming and brought in artifacts for the audience to see and showed samples from my sketch portfolio. I presented for several years in the outdoor classroom program of the Fresno Historical Society at their annual Civil War Revisited event in Kearney Park.

My partner Jill and I gave many presentations to local Civil War round table groups and school history fairs. We brought extra costuming in which to dress volunteers from the audience in order to illustrate the ensembles of war correspondents of the period. We traveled throughout southern California and Nevada for many years and posted educational material online. We attended the premiere of historical films in period costume and set up tables with educational materials to share with moviegoers.

Jill was cast in several television programs and films because of her authentic materials and her background in directing numerous theatrical productions in Orange County, California. Both of us portrayed unusual characters of the American Civil War period (1861-1865). She was a Union Army vivandiere for many years and also took the field with me as a news reporter. In 2005 she created a website for my correspondent impression which included a list of guest venues in which we participated as a team.

Jill and I served as guest speakers together at several educational events throughout southern California and Nevada from 2005 to 2010. Here she is demonstrating period letter writing as a Union Army vivandiere at a Los Angeles middle school. Photo Copyright (c) 2005 Torin Finney.

Check with your district and administrator about guest speaker policies before you bring them in. When the guests arrive, introduce them to your students and explain the learning objectives for that period. Require the students to be more than passive listeners. Have them take notes or participate in a question and answer session. Structure the content of the guest speaker around a debate or Socratic seminar. Assign an essay response to what is presented. Leave some time in class for the students to divide into small groups and analyze what they have heard. Challenge them to make thematic connections and dig for deeper meaning.

Many prominent authorities in business, athletics, education, and the arts are more than willing to come to your class to share their expertise with your students. This can even include celebrities. Use your connections. Get creative in putting together your instructional units. Attend presentations by prominent speakers yourself. Most importantly, draw on the support of others to strengthen the content and structure of your class. Team effort produces better and more enduring results.

Jill and I attending a presentation by noted Civil War author and battlefield guide Ed Bearss at the Glendale Public Library in 2007. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

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

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at

Part-time and Seasonal Jobs

I worked a variety of part-time and seasonal jobs in high school and when I came home on college breaks. Artwork Copyright (c) 2017 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

No one is paid to be a student. It takes a lot of effort to show up on time to class every day, participate regularly, complete all your homework and classwork assignments, and keep up on required reading and writing. The compensation for these efforts in the end is your diploma or degree. But the financial costs of formal education must still be paid. Family assistance, savings, scholarships, or loans can help to cover the expenses of tuition, books, food, and housing while you are enrolled in school. Yet even these sources of income may not be sufficient or readily available. If that is the case, you will need to find work.

I came from a big family, the oldest of six children. My parents were both educated and worked hard, but the uncertain economic times of the 1970s demanded resourcefulness and perseverance. Accordingly, I found work as soon as I was able. I delivered newspapers on my bicycle as an 8th and 9th grader in all four seasons in Virginia and was paid to write in calligraphy on diplomas and certificates. When I moved to California to finish high school, I shelved books at several branches of the Long Beach Public Library in my junior year and served ice cream sundaes at a candy store as a senior.

I typically worked 10-20 hours a week during the semester and full-time in the summer and over winter break. Maintaining such a schedule while living at home had its challenges. I did not have much time for a social life. I had to go to sleep early to have enough energy to attend classes and work my shift. Sometimes I had to isolate myself to concentrate on my schoolwork after completing my household chores. This was not always easy in such a large family. I spent many hours in the high school library finishing assignments in order to have a quiet environment in which to work.

I did well in high school and was awarded a UC Regents Scholarship to attend college, but the full ride only covered my freshman year. I did not want to rely on loans, so I looked for part-time and seasonal work. I was hired as a busboy at a local deli when I went home for winter break, and a neighbor got me a full-time summer job as a restaurant host across from the Los Alamitos racetrack when my freshman year was over. I wore a cowboy hat and sang in the lounge band when I was not seating guests at their tables.

Over winter break of my sophomore year I worked as a custodian at Disneyland, sweeping the streets of Frontierland and following the horses in the Main Street parade. I helped lost children find their parents and cleaned out the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. When I returned north for the spring term, I went to work as a ride operator on the Giant Dipper roller coaster and other attractions at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. I also landed a position as a food server and dishwasher for the Saga Food Corporation on campus.

I worked several part-time jobs while completing my B.A. degree at UC Santa Cruz in the early 1980s. Artwork Copyright (c) 2017 Torin Finney.

Balancing school with work was even more of a challenge in college than it had been in high school. As an American Studies major, I was faced with hundreds of pages of reading each week in history, literature, and political philosophy. The essays I had to write occasionally in high school were now replaced with longer term papers on a regular basis. Both my part-time jobs were demanding, and I eventually had to drop the position at the boardwalk. The campus cafeteria job offered a free meal as well as wages for every shift, so I focused my energies there.

I decided to stay in Santa Cruz during the summers of 1981 and 1983 to work at the English language institute on campus. I served international students breakfast, lunch, and dinner and worked the big dishwashing machine afterwards. I was not enrolled in summer classes myself so I was able to work a full-time shift. In the summer of 1982 I went home to Orange County to finish the first draft of my senior thesis on the Japanese American soldiers in World War II (see my blog entry on “Ghosts of Manzanar”). I graduated the next year with only a small student loan balance to take with me. Part-time and seasonal work had covered most of my expenses.

I worked part-time as a research assistant during my three semesters in graduate school at UMass/Boston. Artwork Copyright (c) 2017 Torin Finney.

I applied to five graduate programs in American Studies and was accepted to three. I chose to attend the University of Massachusetts at Boston in part because they were the only school to offer me financial assistance. This came in the form of part-time work. I served one of my professors as a research assistant during my first two semesters and worked in the offices of a local peace organization as part of a work-study program in my final term. I went back to northern California in between semesters to work as a bilingual counselor at a summer camp operated by the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

I finished my coursework in Boston by December of 1984 and moved to the Bay Area to enroll in seminary. During the spring of 1985 I registered with a temporary employment agency and was hired to type housing contracts for the City of Berkeley while I finished the final draft of my Master’s thesis. Temp agencies are great resources for part-time jobs. Many firms and organizations have extra work that cannot be farmed out to their regular employees. Temporary positions are ideal for students and can sometimes morph into more permanent work. Develop your skill set in office and computer work and you will rarely be unemployed.

I worked several temporary jobs during my six years in seminary in Berkeley, California, including this position as a data entry clerk in the pharmacy at Alta Bates Hospital. Artwork Copyright (c) 2017 Torin Finney.

I spent six years earning my Master of Divinity degree at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. During that time I worked many part-time jobs, including student hospital chaplain, development assistant at a church-sponsored senior center, data entry clerk at a hospital pharmacy, painter of the president’s house on campus, and director of youth and education programs at a local parish. After returning from my internship year in Hawai’i, I worked part-time as an office assistant in the seminary’s field education office.

I spent my last semester in seminary finishing my M.Div. degree and working part-time in the Office of Contextual Education. Artwork Copyright (c) 2017 Torin Finney.

The field education job involved placing students in their internship and teaching parishes across the western United States and interfacing with local clergy and congregations. It was a helpful link between full-time student life and my first independent pastoral assignment in Kansas. When I returned to California the following year to pursue a new career, I found another job through a temporary agency in Sacramento. This developed into a full-time permanent job that lasted for many years and allowed me to transition to my first teaching position in 1998.

Most of my students over the next two decades were working in jobs during or in between semesters. Several joined their families in seasonal agricultural work. Some worked for their parents’ businesses. Many worked in retail, food service, or tourism. Whenever I asked my economics seniors how many of them were working outside of school, I always got a forest of raised hands. For six years in Bakersfield, I taught working adults in the evening. The task of balancing school with work is something many students deal with every day.

The costs of education have increased exponentially in the three decades since I was a student. The “Millennial” generation that formed the largest group of my own students is now faced with astronomical tuition and housing bills that deter many from pursuing higher degrees. For some, the best choice is to remain at home and attend their local community college while working part-time. Such jobs are still available to students, but conditions of underemployment in the economy have limited opportunities for advancement. The issue of student debt has made its way into political debate and national news.

Yet in spite of these challenges, higher education can still offer the path to a brighter future. Because of rising costs, more students need to work while attending school. But there are also more scholarship programs available, particularly to those with special skills or economic need. Working in the community or on campus builds a strong resume and helps you discern where you want to go next. Experimenting with different industries and career paths is a healthy way to work toward economic independence. Allow time for rest, exercise, and play while you work. A balanced life is a happy life.

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

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at

Confronting Prejudice

The word prejudice is derived from the idea of “pre-judging” something or someone before gathering sufficient information to make a measured opinion or decision. Prejudice based on race, color, gender, orientation, class, appearance, religion, national origin, accent, or any other characteristic incidental to human identity has plagued human society from its beginnings. I regularly told my students that a sound understanding of American history has to be grounded in a grasp of the fundamental issues of race and space. Confronting the reality of prejudice is a core element of our national story.

In 1968 my father accepted a faculty position at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. I was finishing the first grade in Columbus, Ohio at the time while he completed his doctoral degree in communications at Ohio State. I did not care for the harsh winters there and looked forward to a milder climate. We bought a new home in a comfortable neighborhood in suburban Raleigh and made our preparations for the move south. All went relatively smoothly and I was excited to start my second grade year in a new school with new friends.

We made the move and settled into our new home as the leaves of summer turned to fall. I enjoyed meeting the neighbor children and playing in the woods behind our house. On my first day of school, I stepped out onto the front driveway to get into our family car and immediately noticed an expression of consternation come over my father’s face as he looked at our front yard. There in the lawn was a dark, scorched patch of grass in the distinct shape of a cross.

I was about to celebrate my seventh birthday, and at that tender age I had no idea what the cross meant. My father explained to me that it was an expression of hate directed at him for being a white man employed at a black school. Shaw was among the historic black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and my father had been hired to help set up their academic media program and campus radio station. Our new neighbors were all white, and apparently some of the local kids had taken it upon themselves to teach the “damn Yankees” on their block a lesson.

The culprits were soon found out and their parents apologized, but the damage had been done. By the end of the school year we had moved to a different neighborhood, where I could associate freely with my best friend, the son of Shaw’s African American president. Racial tensions were high in Raleigh at the time. Civil rights champions Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had been murdered only months earlier. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ordered the dismantling of racial discrimination, but the hateful legacy of Jim Crow lingered in intransigent attitudes and de facto segregation. Angry new movements like the Black Panthers were making their voices heard.

When I moved to California to finish high school in the late 1970s, I was surprised to witness similar prejudice directed at other minorities such as Latinos and Asian Americans. There was hostility toward undocumented immigrants and the use of the Spanish language in school and at the polls. Harvey Milk was assassinated during my senior year and conservative groups were publicly condemning homosexuality, affirmative action programs, and anyone who did not espouse their particular religious beliefs. Women were still largely subordinate to men in public life.

When I got to college I enrolled in seminars where issues of prejudice and discrimination were discussed in detail. I learned about the World War II internment of Japanese Americans and took classes in Chicano history and Native American religion and philosophy. Years later in seminary I participated in an anti-racism workshop in which racial prejudice was characterized as a disease. Like chemical dependency, it could be treated with counseling, education, and group therapy, but all of these methods required honesty and courage.

When I became a teacher in the late 1990s, I determined to adopt this approach to the study of history, government, and economics. My nine curriculum units in both United States and world history were structured to include cultural diversity and an unvarnished look at racism, sexism (including heterosexism), anti-immigrant movements, and religious intolerance. When we talked about firms and labor in economics, we looked at discrimination in hiring and workplace harassment. The use of gerrymandering to limit the power of the minority vote was part of our class discussions in government class.

I did encounter some resistance over the years. One parent objected to my teaching her daughter about Islam and other non-Christian faiths, despite state content standards that allowed for such instruction in 7th grade world history. Another felt I spent too much time on civil rights movements in 11th grade U.S. history. Others saw my instruction as too “politically correct” or somehow slanted against conservative views. I did my best to field such comments with as much patience and understanding as I could muster. But in the end, I had to stick by my convictions and the state content standards.

Political disagreement and conflicting views of history will always be a part of public discourse, including in school. As a social science teacher, your task is to present the material in a comprehensive manner and allow students to engage that material in as many different ways as possible. But neither should the social disease of racism and other forms of prejudice be sugarcoated. Discrimination remains a dysfunctional reality in the midst of our democratic society and market economy. Confronting denial is the first step in achieving recovery and justice for all.

Our classrooms include students of all imaginable cultural backgrounds who come from homes where many different languages are spoken. They profess a variety of gender identities and express themselves in a myriad of learning styles and artistic representations. Anything teachers can do to encourage tolerance and dialogue will help in the ongoing process of academic and personal development. Shame, ridicule, superiority, humiliation, and exclusion are hurtful behaviors which must be kept out of your class in whatever way works best for you.

Prejudice has no place in American ideals and does not belong in our schools and other public institutions. Our Constitution was founded on the principle of equal opportunity, and its various amendments have been added to expand the range of that opportunity throughout American history. The way we structure our social science curriculum must reflect this principle. These issues can be explored effectively in writing assignments, lecture and discussion, Socratic seminars, and the use of guest speakers from the community.

Your students depend on you for a balanced view of the past and present. Teach them to listen and keep an open mind. Equipped with these skills, they can begin to set goals for themselves to achieve a promising future.

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

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at

November is Native American Heritage Month

One of the great and tragic ironies of American history is that the original inhabitants of what became the United States were among the last groups to be granted the full rights of citizenship. President Calvin Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924, more than four centuries after Europeans first arrived in the western hemisphere and nearly 150 years after the birth of the United States. Article I of the United States Constitution empowered the new federal Congress to “regulate commerce” with native peoples, but nowhere were those people identified as citizens of the new nation.

What followed was a pattern of military conquest and systematic displacement of indigenous communities which some contemporary historians have described as genocidal. As the United States expanded westward across the Appalachians and the Great Plains and into the Rocky Mountains and the Far West, the influx of new settlers encroached upon historic tribal lands. Homesteading, the discovery of gold and silver, buffalo hunting, and the construction of the transcontinental railroad all contributed to the decimation of native communities. Smallpox, influenza, cholera, and typhus took their toll. Those tribes who did not move out of the way willingly were forced to do so by the army.

Racist stereotypes labeled Native Americans as “savage” and “uncivilized” and led to their children being taken from them and placed in segregated “Indian Industrial Schools.” Children who continued to speak their indigenous languages were severely punished. Many Christian missionaries sought to suppress native religious beliefs and practices. The long history of wars and broken treaties ended with the imposition of a network of federal reservations where the remaining tribes were confined to remote, desolate locations.

Today there are 326 reservations managed by the U.S. Department of the Interior in which many of the 562 recognized American Indian nations reside. Four Native Americans currently serve in the United States Congress, including Sharice Davids of Kansas and Deb Haaland of New Mexico, the first women of indigenous tribal ancestry to represent their respective states.

Yet native communities still struggle for survival. While sovereign Indian nations enjoy a degree of self-government and their members hold dual citizenship, many historic tribal identities and languages have disappeared, and the reservations continue to suffer from high rates of poverty, addiction, crime, unemployment, clinical depression, suicide, and despair.

Concern over these crises and other long-standing grievances led tribal leaders to add their voices to the growing struggle for civil rights. Like other minorities, Native Americans fought bravely in World War II and returned home with expectations of increased economic opportunity, political representation, and equal treatment under the law.

The American Indian Movement (AIM) was formed in Minneapolis in 1968 to address issues of poverty and police brutality in urban native communities. The movement later expanded to include campaigns to preserve indigenous languages, land and water rights, cultural practices, and religious beliefs, as well as efforts to end the use of stereotyped images as athletic mascots.

An inter-tribal takeover of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay from November 1969 to June 1971 attracted national media coverage, as did the occupation of the 1890 battlefield at Wounded Knee, South Dakota in 1973. AIM activist Leonard Peltier was imprisoned for the shooting of two FBI agents at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1975 and became a cause celebre for native groups convinced of his innocence.

More than 2,000 native people and their allies participated in the “Longest Walk” from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. in 1978 to protest the infringement of native land and water rights and the sanctity of historic burial grounds. Recent high-profile protests over a proposed oil pipeline through Lakota communities in South Dakota and a new observatory on Hawai’i’s Mauna Kea are painful reminders that those rights remain under threat.

In response to years of lobbying by tribal advocates, President George H. W. Bush declared November to be Native American Indian Heritage Month on August 3, 1990. Native objections to mainstream holiday portrayals of the first “Thanksgiving” and the celebration of Columbus’s “discovery of America” led many chiefs and educators to push for a more balanced view of history and cultural traditions. Some communities chose to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day, beginning with the state of South Dakota in 1990 and continuing with the California cities of Berkeley in 1992 and Santa Cruz in 1994.

Native American cultures yield a rich array of curriculum materials for your students. From the turquoise and silver jewelry of the Navajo and Pueblo to the sacred dances of the Kiowa and the Cheyenne, a focus on the visual and performing arts can provide lively ways of introducing the class to indigenous traditions. The Cherokee alphabet created by Chief Sequoyah (1770-1843) can be a good starting point for written activities. So can the traumatic experience of the five southeastern “Civilized Nations” on the Trail of Tears (1838-1839). Native American religious beliefs form another body of interesting ideas for lesson development.

Authors Dee Brown (1908-2002) and Vine Deloria, Jr. (1933-2005) wrote classic nonfiction works on Native American history and culture. Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee has never gone out of print since it was first published in 1970 and has been translated into 17 languages worldwide. An award-winning film adaptation appeared on HBO in 2007. Deloria’s Custer Died For Your Sins (1969) and God is Red (1972) became part of the curriculum of burgeoning Native American Studies programs on college campuses across the country.

Popular fashion and media began to focus on a revival of American Indian music, language, and dance in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The growing environmental movement also took an interest in indigenous beliefs in the wake of the first Earth Day celebrations. Tribal groups began making their voices heard and asserting their right to occupy their historic lands and celebrate their cultures without restriction. Inter-tribal powwows have multiplied in the years since then and many are now open to the public. I attended a large one in Wichita, Kansas in 1992 hosted by the Mid-America All-Indian Center during my fifteen months on the Great Plains.

Biographies of prominent figures such as war chiefs Sitting Bull (1831-1890) and Geronimo (1829-1909), World War II hero Ira Hayes (1923-1955) and the Navajo “Code Talkers,” AIM leaders Dennis Banks (1937-2017) and Russell Means (1939-2012), Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller (1945-2010), and folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie can form the basis of interesting and rewarding student projects. So can regional cultural profiles and the more recent cooperation between indigenous peoples from around the world on important environmental and political issues.

Other worthwhile lesson plans may include a critical examination of the portrayal of Native Americans in popular media, from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show to television programs and movies. Controversy over the use of names like “Indians,” “Redskins,” “Braves,” and “Warriors” as sports mascots continues to the present day. A chronological or thematic study of the so-called “Indian Wars” can tie in map activities as well as essays and visual display projects. From the colonial struggles of the 18th century to the Civil War and western campaigns of the 19th and the World Wars of the 20th, Native Americans have participated in every important chapter in American military history.

The iconic drawings of George Catlin (1796-1872) and photographs of Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952) as well as the poetry and essays of Pulitzer Prize winner N. Scott Momaday are great sources for projects and discussion in class. So is the music of Navajo flutist R. Carlos Nakai, who has performed all over the world and has many of his recordings preserved in the Library of Congress. The recent documentary film Rumble highlighted the contribution of Native American musicians to the history of rock and other forms of contemporary popular music.

Native Americans number around three million people today and live in every state of the Union. An emphasis on the rich diversity of their cultural traditions must be a part of any lesson plan design. Historic indigenous concerns over stewardship of the earth and its natural resources are especially timely in light of current debates over climate change and other environmental crises. These issues have moved beyond national borders to include the global community. Your students are a vital part of that community. Do what you can to get them involved. Native American studies is a helpful place to start.

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

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at


Something drew you into teaching. Perhaps it was the desire to work with young people, or maybe one or both of your parents were teachers and you wanted to continue the family tradition. You might have been inspired by one or more of your own teachers to follow in their footsteps. Some people are also attracted to the ten month schedule with its regular holiday breaks. Whatever your reasons were, you felt called to this job (see my blog entry on “Teaching as Vocation”). Remembering the origins of your career as an educator is an important part of maintaining and nurturing that path.

In my case, it all started with a trip to Mexico in December of 1981. I was 20 years old. One of my college housemates and I were looking for a new adventure during winter break of our junior year at UC Santa Cruz. We had already been backpacking in Yosemite and Mount San Jacinto and I had just returned from a hitchhiking journey to Mount Shasta. Someone told me the Mexican peso was inexpensive and that traveling south of the border was relatively easy. All we would need is a birth certificate, bottled water, a backpack filled with casual clothing and some personal effects, a few hundred dollars in travelers checks, and a rudimentary understanding of Spanish.

This last part I had. In fact, my two years of high school Spanish had been bolstered by four quarters at the university level. Peruvian, Andalusian, and Mexican American professors immersed me in a Spanish-only language environment that produced enough fluency to converse comfortably in class and write short stories as well as a term paper on the murals of Mexican artist Diego Rivera (1886-1957). I had spent the previous July and August working with Latin American students in the summer language institute on campus. I felt confident that my linguistic skills were enough to get us through any situation we might encounter.

Accordingly, we packed our things and took off south on Highway 101 in my housemate’s old Volkswagen bug as soon as our last fall finals were finished. When we reached Los Angeles we merged onto Interstate 5 to take us the rest of the way to the border. We left the car in Chula Vista at the home of another housemate’s parents and made our way across the international border at San Ysidro, boarding a bus for La Paz at the southern end of Baja California. My first taste of Mexico was stimulating and exciting. The sun was warm, the skies were clear, the food was good, and everyone we met seemed friendly.

The bus ride down the Baja Peninsula, however, posed new challenges. After dropping off and taking on a succession of passengers, including several chickens and dogs, we reached the settlement of El Rosario, where I played soccer with some local kids while we waited for the next bus to arrive at the town’s tienda or general store. Arrival time was supposed to be around 2 pm (every query I directed at the tienda proprietor was answered by the reply “A las dos”), but the bus did not show up until after 4. Shortly after boarding, some Mexican police asked to see our birth certificates. My Spanish fluency seemed to provide satisfactory answers to their questions, and we were soon on our way again.

Hours of driving through vast deserts and legions of tall cacti at last ended with our arrival in the coastal city of La Paz. From here we took another bus to the resort town of Cabo San Lucas, at that time a small beach hamlet with a few restaurants and a discotheque. We camped on the beach with the other gringos, who included tourists from France, Germany, Sweden, Australia, the Netherlands, and a Canadian traveling with his Barbadian girlfriend. I interacted with the locals as much as I could, asking about snorkeling spots and the best places to eat.

One of these places nearly proved my undoing. I had been careful about drinking only bottled water during the entire trip, but after eating a plate of huevos rancheros in which the iceberg lettuce had been washed with local tap water, I became violently ill. The devastating effects of amoebic dysentery abated only after staggering to the local pharmacy to purchase the proper medication. This all happened on our last day in Cabo as we were about to embark on the ferry across the Gulf of California for Puerto Vallarta. I did what I could to keep myself together and showed up on time to board the ship.

More trouble followed on the crossing. Some local kids rifled through the bags of the tourists after a night of revelry, and my backpack was among those opened, despite the fact that I had gone to sleep early rather than stay up with the others. I lost my camera, some plastic shampoo containers, and my remaining $190 in travelers checks. With the assistance of some Mexican marines on board, I was able to find my backpack and recover my remaining belongings. When we arrived in port, I went immediately to the local Thomas Cook offices and was reissued $90 of my money. The thieves had managed to cash the rest within an hour of disembarking.

My knowledge of Spanish helped me navigate all these challenges, and by the time we left Puerto Vallarta, I was enjoying myself and noticed a greater fluency in my conversational skills. I was able to secure us excellent hotel deals and find the best restaurants in town (carefully avoiding local fresh produce). The journey back to the United States was filled with exciting and memorable experiences, including a train ride in a first class Pullman car from Mazatlan to Mexicali and an intense philosophical discourse in the Tepic bus terminal with a local woman who bore a remarkably uncanny resemblance in both her thinking and appearance to Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954).

Back in Santa Cruz, I reflected on the impact of those two weeks in Mexico. I felt I had undergone some kind of spiritual transformation. My first hand encounters with the language, the art, the culture, the poverty, the customs, and especially the people there had somehow changed me. The illusion of the “ivory tower” had been shattered. I found myself wanting to learn more about Latin America and was even drawn to the religious roots of my European ancestors. I enrolled in Confirmation classes and became involved in worship and educational activities at my local parish, including services in Spanish.

Earlier plans to pursue a career in academia were gradually replaced by a new interest in pastoral ministry, perhaps as a missionary in Latin America. I went on to complete a Master’s degree in my college major of American Studies, but chose a religious conscientious objector as my thesis topic (see my blog on “Discovering New Stories”). Nine weeks working as a bilingual counselor at a summer camp for disadvantaged children strengthened my resolve to devote my life to a Spanish-speaking mission. By the time the final draft of the thesis was written, I had applied and been accepted to one of the nine seminaries at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California.

Three years after returning from Mexico, I spent nine weeks working as a bilingual counselor in a summer camp for disadvantaged youth in Sonoma County, California. My experiences there inspired me to pursue a career in education, first in the church and later in public schools. Photo Copyright (c) 1984 Torin Finney.

During my time as a seminarian, I led an inner-city youth group in Berkeley and spent an internship year in Hawai’i. As it turned out, I did not have too many opportunities to use my Spanish in these settings. In the Bay Area I was working with mostly African American kids and in the islands all my parishioners were native English speakers of European, Asian, or Polynesian heritage. I did take the Berkeley youth group over the border to help build new housing for homeless families in the destitute Mexican colonias (shantytowns), and I preached sermons and led classes on the war in Central America when I was in Honolulu. But my Spanish went largely unspoken over the course of those six years.

Then a new ray of hope appeared. When I returned to the mainland to complete my senior year at the seminary, the church authorities initially assigned me to their Caribbean Synod. Spanish-speaking ministerial candidates were rare in my denomination and the bishop in San Juan, Puerto Rico had an opening. He called me on the telephone and floated the possibility of taking me there for my first independent assignment. I expressed my enthusiasm for the idea and began brushing up on my Spanish. I listened regularly to Spanish radio and began seeking out pastors who had served in Spanish-speaking parishes.

A few weeks later, I was extremely disappointed when the idea of Puerto Rico was replaced at the last minute by an assignment to central Kansas. The bishop in Kansas City had read my Ben Salmon book and thought I would be a good fit for one of his two-point congregations. I dutifully accepted the post and went through graduation and ordination, but my heart was not in it. Over the course of my fifteen months on the prairie, I realized that my interest in working with Spanish-speaking children was not going to be satisfied in the context of parish work. In the fall of 1992 I resigned my position and returned to California in search of a new direction.

I soon went to work for Sprint as a bilingual operator in the California Relay Service, a state telephone service for the hearing impaired. For four years, I relayed calls between voice callers and TTY (text telephone devices for the deaf) users in both English and Spanish and honed my language skills. By 1998 I began to look at teaching as a possible path for those skills. I found myself reading history and other subjects in the social sciences in my spare time and missed the intellectual stimulation of an academic environment. With a seminary degree and nearly a decade of experience in religious education, I was able to get a job teaching theology and U.S. history at a private high school in Kern County.

While I enjoyed the experience of learning the teaching trade, most of the students at that first school came from well-to-do families who did not speak Spanish. During my two years there I obtained my state teaching credential and began interviewing for positions in the local public school districts. The principal from the middle school where I completed my student teaching in the summer of 2000 learned that I was bilingual and offered me a 6th grade social studies classroom there. He told me that four out of five of his 700 students came from Spanish-speaking households. I leapt at the opportunity and heartily accepted the job.

That first year was a hard one, filled with struggle and anguish as I learned how to manage a class of 35 rambunctious 11-year-olds. By the end of the second semester, I was assigned a mentor who helped me begin to develop my own leadership style. My Spanish definitely came in handy, particularly in parent conferences and when I walked the neighborhood to meet families and recruit their support for my burgeoning after-school drama program. Ironically, this role seemed much closer to my original conception of the ministry than most of what I had done during my years in church work. I felt I had finally found my calling.

Over the course of my eighteen years in public schools, I made good use of my Spanish language skills with both students and their families. I steadily increased my academic vocabulary and incorporated Spanish language terms into my lectures and other activities in history and economics. By the time I retired in July 2018, I calculated that I had taught more than five thousand students of all ages in five different schools. The great majority of that number came from Spanish-speaking families. To many them I became more than just another teacher. I was Maestro, a concept that goes beyond mere instruction in state-mandated curriculum.

Find the inspiration in your own story. You were called to teach for a reason. It is easy to forget this in times of stress and exhaustion when the demanding duties of teaching take their toll. Remember what attracted you to the profession in the first place. Your calling is unique to your gifts and personality. Believe in that calling as your pursue your career. That faith in yourself will sustain you in times of trial. Get the support you need and take care of your health. Utilize your breaks to rejuvenate and renew your motivation. For every step you take in following your own path, the way will be opened more for you.

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

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at

Reading on the Go

Some of the titles I read during my ten years commuting by train in Orange County, California, 2007-2017. Photo Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney.

Effective teaching depends in large part on continual learning. The demanding duties of being a teacher sometimes make it difficult to find time to be a student. Yet the mind of the educator must always be honed by exposure to new material and methodology. I often told my students that reading is the key to succeeding. Over the course of my twenty years in the classroom, I realized that it was important to take my own advice. Consequently, I determined to augment my social science curriculum through reading in subjects that had hitherto escaped my attention.

This proved easier said than done. For the first nine years of my teaching career, I commuted back and forth to school by automobile, as did most of my colleagues. My time on campus was dominated by lesson planning and classroom management and my time at home by grading, particularly when I was teaching middle school by day and community college classes in the evening. On weekends I participated in living history programs. On winter and summer breaks I traveled or caught up on rest and errands. There was little time for reading. I owned an extensive library in my chosen subjects but was unable to make much use of it. I was simply too busy.

I had not always been too busy to read. As a college and graduate student in the 1980s I read hundreds of pages a week. I did not own a car in those days and took public transportation back and forth to school. I rode the MBTA while earning my M.A. at UMass/Boston and the BART when I was studying at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. In Washington, D.C. I took the Metro and in San Francisco I took the Muni. Whenever I boarded a bus, shuttle, train, or plane, I took a book with me. Reading occupied much of my free time. I even read during breaks when I began working full-time in the early 1990s. But when I began my teaching career at the end of that decade, my time for reading disappeared.

The irony of this dilemma did not escape me, and I wanted to do something about it. By my tenth year I was teaching high school in a tenured position and weary of commuting by car. The opportunity then arose to travel back and forth to school by train and I decided to take advantage of it. Gas prices were high at the time and the monthly train pass was cost effective. I had to leave home a half hour earlier and returned a half hour later, but I would have time during the thirty minutes in the train car to rest, catch up on the news, or read. My school was only a few blocks walk from the train station and I could use the exercise.

Here is the shoulder bag I carried with me on the train from 2007 to 2017. Some books would fit in one of the three interior pocket sleeves. There were also smaller pockets for office supplies and a mesh bag for my water bottle.

That walk exposed me to the elements, and I learned by trial and error how to adapt my wardrobe. I carried my papers in a shoulder bag and wore a wool hat in winter and a broad-brimmed straw one in summer. I brought along a portable umbrella, sunscreen, a water bottle, and proper footwear. I kept my work shoes in my classroom and changed into them when I arrived on campus. I also had to be mindful of heavy automobile traffic when I waited at lights to enter crosswalks. Traveling to school this way had its challenges, but I enjoyed the adventure of it and the opportunity to catch up on reading.

I began with the books I already owned and then added what I needed to my home and classroom libraries by ordering new material online or making purchases at local bookstores. Any expense that related to my career as an educator could potentially be counted as a tax deduction, so I kept meticulous records of receipts for my accountant. I focused on authors whose work highlighted the subjects I was teaching. United States and world history formed the bulk of my material, but I also explored studies in geography, religion, political science, current events, and economics.

Some of my favorite authors included British geographer Simon Winchester, American journalist Rick Perlstein, and historians Candice Millard, David McCullough, H. W. Brands, and Donald L. Miller. I read biographies, memoirs, dispatches, regimental histories, classic novels, anthologies, textbooks, travel guides, illustrated atlases, collections of speeches, and autobiographies. I obtained a library card and checked out whatever my local branch had to offer. Some books were heavier than others, and I had to be careful not to take on too much weight for my walk from the train station to school and back. On rainy days I had to carry my books in a plastic bag in one hand and my umbrella in the other.

I purchased this portable umbrella from a shop near Trinity College in Dublin during my Ireland trip in April of 2000 and carried it with me on rainy days over the ten years I commuted to school by train in Orange County, California. Photo Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney.

My commuter train had seating areas with tables and electrical outlets, and I sat in these seats as often as I could. This allowed me to charge my smartphone and use it to look up information. I could spread out paperwork on the table and take notes on what I was reading or catch up on grading tests, homework, classwork, and essays. I often wore earbuds and listened to music and other audio files. The train was punctual most of the time, but the inevitable delays due to rail traffic, accidents, or mechanical trouble provided extra time in which I could work. I also read while waiting on the platform for trains to arrive. My latest book became my constant companion during my daily commute.

This was a welcome respite from the thousands of miles and many hours I had to drive during my first nine years as a teacher. For the next ten years, I took the train almost every day, unless I had to remain at school after the last train because of extra-curricular duties. My car sat safely in the parking garage at my home station and I enjoyed walking through the restored historic downtown district in which my school was located. My monthly pass allowed me to ride the local commuter rail service as well as the Amtrak trains that used the same routes. I made new friends and acquaintances among my fellow commuters, some of whom shared my reading interests.

My colleagues in the Digital Arts and Humanities Program helped me plan an annual field trip into downtown Los Angeles to visit the museums there, and we decided to ride the train as a group. I was able to secure a school rate for the three teachers and thirty or so students we took every year. Many of the kids had never traveled by train before and enjoyed the experience immensely. I even inspired some of my other colleagues to begin commuting by rail themselves. My social science colleagues in particular were intrigued with my return to regular reading and began finding time in their own schedules for new books.

Technology changed the nature of reading as an activity over the course of my decade on the rails. The decline of local bookstores and newspapers as part of the “retail apocalypse” of the new millennium made it more challenging to obtain new reading material, at least in traditional form. Amazon became an excellent resource for rare books and educational videos I could use in class. I incorporated new material I was reading into my slideshows and lectures and came up with new lesson plans for my students. The rise of smartphones and online classrooms allowed for new ways of learning. I tried to make connections between these innovative digital platforms and traditional books and magazines.

When I retired from full-time teaching last year, I gave away much of my collection of books to the local public library. Many of them were volumes I enjoyed reading during my years on the train. I was happy to share with others the resources I had used to augment my own knowledge and understanding and that of my students. Websites, podcasts, sound bytes, downloads, blogs, and online forums have their place, but none can substitute for the experience of holding a book in one’s hands and turning its pages to follow an engaging story. I tried to teach that to my students and continue to support the work of public libraries through my donations and patronage.

Read what you can, when you can. If you commute to school using public transportation, bring a book along with your other personal effects. There is always something new to learn, especially in the study of history and the other social sciences. If you still drive or walk to work, find time elsewhere in your schedule to sit down with a good book. Follow book reviews online. Experiment with new authors. Reread old classics. Check out books from your local public library. Reading is indeed the key to succeeding, in personal as well as professional development. In our busy, distracted, digital world, taking quiet time for learning and reflection can make a positive difference.

Sign on the train platform at the Irvine Transportation Center in Orange County, California. I commuted by rail between Irvine and Fullerton for ten years and led an annual field trip by train from Fullerton to Los Angeles Union Station. Photo Copyright (c) 2017 Torin Finney.

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

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at

October is German American Heritage Month and Italian American Heritage and Culture Month

German Americans are the single largest ethnic group in the United States, with numbers estimated at more than 50 million people, one sixth of the general population. President Ronald Reagan proclaimed October 6, 1983 as German American Day to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the arrival of thirteen Rhenish families in colonial Philadelphia. Four years later, Congress established the day as an official annual observance to recognize the contributions of German Americans to the nation’s history and culture.

When East and West Germany reunited on October 3, 1990 after nearly five decades of Cold War division, German Unity Day was included in American celebrations as well. The Bavarian tradition of Oktoberfest spread to other German immigrant communities and then made the leap to American popular culture. Many local associations and municipalities, particularly in the “German Belt” of Pennsylvania and the Upper Midwest, organized parades, festivals, concerts, and other special events to highlight historic German American communities.

When the United States proclaimed independence from Great Britain in 1776, there were more than 300 separate German-speaking states and free cities in central Europe. Immigrants from all of them helped to develop the new nation. German doctor Johannes Fleischer (1582-1608) was among the first settlers in the Jamestown colony in Virginia, and Lutheran pastor Peter Muhlenberg (1746-1807) was a general in the Continental Army and later a United States congressman. More than seven million Germans came to America in the century between 1820 and 1920. They augmented the already substantial German populations of New York and Pennsylvania and helped to settle new states from Ohio to Oregon.

Among them was my great-great-grandfather, Heinrich (Henry) Meiring, born in Hannover in 1849. He fought in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 but then fled the anti-Catholic purges of Otto von Bismarck’s Kulturkampf. First arriving in Canada, he later made his way to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where he opened a flour mill near the town of Sheridan. His daughter Anna married one of his mill workers, George Finney (1868-1936), the son of Irish immigrants. In 1900 Anna Meiring Finney gave birth to my paternal grandfather, who later married the daughter of another German immigrant from Frankfurt.

The 300 German states had consolidated into 39 by 1820, but internal political, religious, and economic unrest drove many to seek a better life across the Atlantic. Many brought skilled trades, education, and distinct cultural traditions with them. The Christmas tree, kindergarten programs, glee clubs, lager beer, gymnasiums, and many other aspects of American daily life all originated with these German-speaking newcomers. German churches and German language newspapers proliferated in the young republic. St. Louis, Milwaukee, Chicago, and the farm communities of the Great Lakes region soon had large German populations.

Many German Americans opposed slavery in the years leading up to the Civil War, and 200,000 served in the Union Army, including my maternal great-great-grandfather. New York and Ohio each provided ten divisions. They fought in every major campaign of the war. Some German settlements in the Confederate states endured persecution for their Unionist views. German Americans were derided as “Dutchmen” by Southern sympathizers in Missouri and attacked by Confederate guerrilla bands. After the war, most German American newspapers and civic groups sided with the Republican Party’s Reconstruction platform, particularly its support of full civil rights for African American freedmen.

German immigrants included Roman Catholics, Jews, and a number of Protestant groups, including Lutherans, Moravians, Pietists, and Mennonites. Targeted during the First World War, they sought to prove their loyalty in the Second. General (and later President) Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) and Admiral Chester W. Nimitz (1885-1966) both came from German ancestry and helped lead America to victory in World War II. German Americans contributed to the tremendous growth of the postwar economy and shaped the future of American politics, business, education, music, and art.

October is also Italian American Heritage and Culture Month, declared by Congress in 1989 during the presidency of George H. W. Bush (1924-2018). Italian Americans constitute 6% of the U.S. population and are the fourth largest group of European heritage after those with German, Irish, and English roots. Local celebrations of Columbus Day on October 12 eventually developed into an entire month of special events and festivals. More than five million Italian immigrants became Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries, with the vast majority arriving in the decades between 1880 and 1920.

Like Germany, Italy became a single unified nation in 1871, ending centuries of feudalism and regional conflict. Unification led to improved living conditions, but local infrastructure could not support a growing and more mobile population of largely unskilled labor. Poverty and oppression throughout the country, particularly in the former Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, drove many to emigrate. Millions fled the country over the next several decades. Many of them followed friends and relatives to America. In 1892 the U.S. government opened the immigration station at Ellis Island in New York Harbor. Many Italians arrived here until the First World War restricted new arrivals from Europe.

Italians formed tight-knit communities in the cities of the Northeast and Midwest and became involved in local business and politics. They built on the contributions of earlier generations of newcomers. The Italian American 39th New York Infantry or “Garibaldi Guard” was one of the first regiments to answer President Lincoln’s call to preserve the Union in 1861. Others went West and developed agriculture and other industries. Most were Roman Catholic and contributed to the growth of parishes, schools, hospitals, universities, and social service organizations. California native Amadeo Giannini (1870-1949), whose father came from Genoa in 1849 to participate in the Gold Rush, founded the Bank of Italy in San Francisco in 1904. In 1930 Bank of Italy became Bank of America.

As was the case in many immigrant communities, discrimination and hardship were daily reminders that success in their adopted land would not be easy. The Sacco and Vanzetti trial of 1927 exposed anti-immigrant prejudice and popular hostility to the radical labor movements in which many Italian workers became involved. The bootlegging empire of Al Capone (1899-1947) generated sensational news during the Prohibition years and inaugurated a popular obsession with Italian American organized crime families for decades.

Many Italian Americans pursued careers in public service. Four have been Mayor of New York City, including Fiorello La Guardia (1882-1947), Rudolph Giuliani (who led the city through the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks), and current Mayor Bill de Blasio. Mario Cuomo (1932-2015) was the 52nd Governor of New York. His son Andrew has been the 56th since 2011. In 1984, Democratic Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro (1935-2011) became the first candidate of Italian descent to be nominated for Vice President. World War II Marine John Basilone (1916-1945) won the Congressional Medal of Honor at Guadalcanal and became a national hero. When he was killed at Iwo Jima, the entire country mourned.

The observance of Columbus Day became controversial in the closing decades of the 20th century as the emerging Native American civil rights movement challenged the idea that early European explorers had “discovered” the land and peoples of the western hemisphere. This debate cast a shadow across many local celebrations of the holiday, much to the chagrin of some Italian American communities. President Bush designated November as Native American Indian Heritage Month in 1990 to address these concerns and similar objections to the portrayal of native peoples in Thanksgiving traditions. This allowed October to remain a focus for educational and festive events on Italian culture and heritage.

The impressive list of prominent politicians, business leaders, artists, actors, musicians, athletes, writers, intellectuals, and military heroes of German and Italian heritage can serve as a starting point for developing a host of engaging curriculum activities in your classroom. So can cuisine, language, music, decor, and costuming. From portraits of Ellis Island immigrants to famous paintings and films, the material available to the resourceful and creative teacher is without limit. Have your students design a board game on the immigrant experience. Draw maps showing the settlement and growth of historic ethnic communities. Assign projects and special reports on important figures and events in history.

Whatever you decide to do in class, strive for inclusiveness and inspiration in your lesson plans. Engage the kids in activities that celebrate all the cultural traditions that have shaped the course of modern American history. October is a good time to focus on the contributions of Italian and German immigrants and their descendants. As in other special cultural commemorations throughout the year, teach your students that each of them has something important to offer. Each ethnic heritage has contributed to the strength and richness of the society as a whole. Learning about one another can help us work together to build a better future.

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

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at

Community Service

I was involved with the Key Club as a student in 1978-1979 and as a faculty advisor from 2013 to 2018. Photo Copyright (c) 2016 Torin Finney.

Community service is an integral part of a well-rounded education. Many schools include it as a graduation requirement, particularly for honors students with a weighted GPA. Getting involved in your community increases your awareness of social issues and helps in advancing personal development. Most religious and civic service organizations offer programs that give young people the opportunity to learn and serve. Balancing your academic load with extra-curricular activities can be challenging, but the rewards of service are worth the effort.

Start with your own school and neighborhood. Learn about campus clubs and discover which ones involve serving the community. Ask your relatives, neighbors, and local clergy and elected officials what needs to be done. When I was a student in Virginia in the 1970s, I helped with a summer educational program for mentally disabled adults at my church and participated in neighborhood clean up efforts with my scout troop. As a senior in high school, I joined the Key Club and rode in bike-a-thons to raise money for heart disease research. All these activities made me feel as if I were making a difference in improving the quality of life in my community.

On campus activities such as cancer awareness days and blood drives provide opportunities for you to do your part. Cultural clubs can call attention to civil rights issues as well as artistic expression. Canvassing for local candidates can familiarize you with current political debates and help you form your own opinions on important public issues. Visiting your local courthouse and attending the grand openings of new businesses are other ways to make your presence known as an active member of your community.

Religious organizations in particular offer a myriad of charitable activities in which young people can participate. Local churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and other congregations sponsor soup kitchens and food banks for the needy, shelters for the homeless, counseling and health care programs, recreational and educational events, and opportunities to visit the elderly, the homebound, the hospitalized, and the imprisoned. Those of you who are religious can ask your clergy or other members of your community how you can get involved. If you are not religious, these groups will still welcome your participation. There is always a need for more dedicated volunteers.

I was heavily involved in church work from 1982 to 1992. I taught adult classes on issues of war and peace and sang in both folk and traditional choirs. I led an inner-city youth group in Berkeley, California in the mid-1980s and assisted a local pastor in visiting the sick and the infirm. In Honolulu, I spent an intern year preaching and teaching and helping with a local food program for the homeless. I served as a student hospital chaplain for patients with cancer and HIV/AIDS as well as for those participating in a substance abuse rehabilitation program. In 1984 and 1989 I worked in outdoor summer camps with at-risk children as a recreational and educational leader. I served for over a year as the co-pastor of a two-point parish in central Kansas.

Part of an art project I began in 2014 called my “Rock Resume.” These stones commemorate my years of service in religious organizations between 1982 and 1992. Artwork Copyright (c) 2017 Torin Finney.

Local service organizations such as the Lions and Kiwanis sponsor regular activities to help the community. All welcome the participation of young people, particularly high school and college students. Whether the activity is trash cleanup, fundraisers for health care research, listening to those in need, literacy classes for newcomers and the poor, writing to members of Congress or uniformed personnel overseas, or collecting canned goods for the local food bank, there are always possibilities available for someone seeking active community service.

Not all service roles are strictly volunteer. If you have time for a part-time job while you are in school, consider one that would allow you to help others in some way. Working as a paid staffer in a food bank or nursing home will offer you non-monetary rewards beyond your paycheck. Make use of your skill set. If you are bilingual, think about working for a business or non-profit organization that serves the immigrant community. If you have construction or home improvement skills, go to work for a contractor who participates in low-income housing projects. If you are facile with words, write for a public advocacy periodical or start your own blog.

Whatever you decide to do, make the most of the service opportunities in your area. Everyone has something to offer. Identify your skill set and contribute to the common good. Doing so will round out your educational experience and strengthen your college applications. But most importantly, you will know that you are helping to improve the quality of life in your community. As the old saying goes, making a difference is just as important as making a dividend. There are always opportunities to make a difference. Open your mind and your heart to finding your place in that effort.

From December 1992 to October 1996 I worked as a bilingual operator for the California Relay Service in Sacramento, a telephone service for the hearing impaired. Artwork Copyright (c) 2017 Torin Finney.

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

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at

Staying Informed

I have been an avid NPR listener since 1983.

Freedom of the press is one of the hallmarks of our democracy. This pillar of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is also linked to freedom of speech, expression, and association. We are free to say and think what we want, to listen to and wear what we want, to join or unjoin the associations of our choice, and to choose our own personal and business relationships. But with this freedom comes responsibility. The other side of freedom of expression is critical thinking. As students of history, politics, and economics, it is important that we stay informed of what is going on in our nation and our world. Ignorance is not bliss in the social sciences. Information is power.

America is a country obsessed with the news. Early observers such as Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) and others noticed the proliferation of periodicals as well as societies, clubs, and associations. By 1800 there were 200 newspapers in the United States. By 1860 there were 3,000. Giant steam presses and the telegraph revolutionized the journalism industry. 500 artists and correspondents were sent out to cover the Civil War (1861-1865). They sent innumerable dispatches home for printing and sketches for engraving. By the end of the war, photography had joined the ranks of the burgeoning media frenzy.

Radio emerged from the First World War, and by the end of the Roaring Twenties everybody had one. Television followed in the 1950s. The original three networks of ABC, CBS, and NBC were joined by PBS in 1967 with the signing of the Public Broadcasting Act by President Lyndon Johnson. This legislation also created the framework for National Public Radio, which began broadcasting in 1971. Local affiliates gradually grew over the following decades, many of them on college campuses. Today there are more than a thousand NPR stations serving over 30 million listeners.

I became one of them in the fall of 1983 as a graduate student at UMass/Boston. I began listening to WUMB Radio 91.9 FM from my apartment in Wollaston near Quincy. The mixture of folk music, entertaining shows, and comprehensive news grabbed my attention immediately. I especially enjoyed listening to All Things Considered with Robert Siegel, Susan Stamberg, and Noah Adams. The news was commercial free and focused on in-depth analysis of complex political, social, and economic issues in a way I had never heard before.

I was an avid television news follower during my childhood in the 1960s and 1970s, especially during the year my uncle was flying a helicopter in the Vietnam War. But radio news had not come under my radar. Radio was for music and television was for news. But then I went off to college in 1979 and no longer had a TV. The campus radio station at UC Santa Cruz, KZSC 88.1 FM, broadcast mostly reggae and other world music at the time, but I don’t remember listening to NPR during my time there. KZSC carried the Pacifica Evening News, as did KPFA 94.1 when I lived in Berkeley a few years later. Pacifica programming had a left-leaning slant that counterbalanced the more conservative orientations of popular AM talk radio.

I appreciated NPR’s more measured approach to political discourse and the detail into which it delved to uncover the causes, course, and consequences of current events. Prominent Democrats and Republicans as well as independent and third party candidates were interviewed during election season and in debates on contentious issues. Small business and large corporations were covered. World news was given as much attention as local and national. Thematic series were developed. Special music and other cultural programs appeared and grew. Profiles of artists, writers, and independent filmmakers attracted a growing audience.

The cable television revolution of the 1980s and beyond offered a myriad of new choices for the discerning viewer. Fox News began to offer a more conservative perspective, as did MSNBC for more liberal viewers. CNN and other Turner programs grew exponentially, covering stories that the mainstream networks had ignored for decades. Television coverage became increasingly complex in both technology and analysis. The growth of the internet in the 1990s and smartphone technology in the new millennium led to further transformations in the media. Online journals, blogs, and podcasts competed with traditional newsprint.

I took advantage of all these new outlets as they each made their appearance. My personal favorite remained NPR, however, and I found my local station wherever I lived. In the Bay Area I listened to KPFA in Berkeley and KQED Public Media. In Honolulu in 1989-1990 I listened to Hawai’i Public Radio. During my year in Kansas I followed Radio Kansas out of Hutchinson Community College. I listened to Capital Public Radio when I lived in Sacramento and Valley Public Radio when I was in Bakersfield. In Orange County I had KPCC and KCRW on the radio during my commute. When I moved to San Diego last year, I immediately found KPBS.

I paid extra attention during Presidential election years, beginning in Boston with the Reagan-Mondale contest in the fall of 1984. During my decade in church work and my twenty years as a classroom teacher, I remained informed and encouraged my students to do the same. News programs helped me produce better essays and papers as a student, better seminars and lectures as a teacher, a comprehensive genealogy scrapbook project, and a more informed choice at the ballot.

NPR entertained me on long drives and allowed me to consider important issues in greater depth and detail. Morning Edition and All Things Considered occupied my daily commute for years. Weekend Edition helped me wind down after a hectic week at work. Jazz, classical, folk, and world music programs formed the backdrop of my day to day ops and social gatherings. Special educational and cultural programs like The Thistle and Shamrock and The Thomas Jefferson Hour entertained and inspired on a regular basis.

Now you can listen to news podcasts on your iPhone or Android device. Opinion pieces, blogs, and online forums number in the millions. Search engines allow for comprehensive browsing. Sound bytes are an effective marketing tool for potential new listeners. YouTube channels give anyone the opportunity to contribute to public discourse and the dissemination of information. Attracting new online followers can lead to better programming. Many entrepreneurial startups add new media options to the menu every day.

The exponential growth in news coverage over the last fifty years has offered the contemporary reader and listener an endless smorgasbord of choice. This is a good thing in light of the First Amendment. It can also be daunting and perplexing. The best approach as a media consumer is the same as that of a serious student of history and other social sciences. Consider as many perspectives as possible while forming your own opinion. The more you listen, the more you will learn. Thomas Jefferson identified an “enlightened citizenry” as the foundation of a strong democratic society. Staying informed is an important part of achieving and maintaining an enlightened mind.

I portrayed a 19th century newsman during my participation in living history programs across the United States from 1999 to 2008. To read more, visit my James Allen Davis website here. Copyright (c) 2014 Torin Finney.

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

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at