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

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

September 15-October 15 is National Hispanic Heritage Month

Latinos are the nation’s largest minority, with some estimates counting Americans of Spanish or Portuguese heritage as 20-25% of the United States population. President Lyndon Johnson created Hispanic Heritage Week in 1968 from a bill sponsored by Mexican American Democratic Representative Edward Roybal (1916-2005) of Los Angeles. September 15-22 was chosen as the commemorative week because it included the independence days of Mexico, Chile, and several Central American nations. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan expanded the observance to the entire month period between September 15 and October 15.

“Hispanic” is a cultural rather than a racial designation, and pertains to anyone who has Spanish ancestry and/or was raised in a Spanish-speaking household. This, of course, includes people of all conceivable racial backgrounds. Latino/a (or the gender neutral Latinx) broadens this ethnic base to include Portuguese, Brazilian, and other non-Hispanic Latin American heritage. Chicano/a is a term coined during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s to refer specifically to Mexican Americans, many of whom are descended from families already living in the Southwest when those territories were annexed by the United States in 1848.

The incredible diversity within Hispanic/Latino culture provides innumerable learning opportunities for your students, especially in history and other social science classes. There is much to celebrate, from music, art, dance, and cuisine to the annual festivals of Cinco de Mayo (commemorating the May 5, 1862 Battle of Puebla) and Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Civil rights leaders such as Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta can be the focus of special lesson plans. So can elected federal, state, and local officials of Hispanic heritage; there are 38 members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus as of January 2019.

Landmark court decisions such as Mendez v. Westminster (1947) and Hernandez v. Texas (1954) call attention to historic civil rights struggles within the Hispanic community. I included these and others in my regular Civil Rights Movement unit in U.S. History when I taught grade 11. At the middle school level, I assigned different Latin American countries to student groups and had them construct “travel brochures” highlighting demographic, political, and economic profiles as well as the connection of those nations to cultural communities within the United States.

One of the keys to Hispanic identity is an understanding of the Spanish language. While teaching in Spanish is not a required part of social science instruction (see my blog entry on “Bilingual Education”), understanding proper pronunciation of Spanish words and names can help make some lecture topics more meaningful for your students. Individual cultures are shaped in part by their particular idiomatic expressions, including members of those communities who no longer speak the language. The three largest Hispanic communities in the United States, namely Mexican American, Cuban American, and Puerto Rican, each have their own dialects of Spanish as well as distinctive food, family traditions, and historical narratives.

A sensitivity to these varieties of Hispanic culture and identity is important in constructing lesson plans and dealing with your students and their families. There are Hispanic and Latino families, for example, of exclusively European, African, Asian, or Native American ancestry, as well as many that are a mixture of one or more of the above. Some speak Spanish as their primary language and others do not. Many speak “Spanglish,” a colloquial mixture of English and Spanish that has its own slang and idiomatic cadences. Mexican culture is very different from Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Venezuelan, or Chilean cultures. The Spanish-speaking cultures of the Caribbean have their own unique characteristics.

Historical topics to highlight in National Hispanic Heritage Month can include the United Farm Workers union, the building of the Panama Canal, debates over bilingual ballots and education, legal battles over immigration and desegregation, and the contribution of Hispanic veterans in the nation’s wars. The Chicano Movement that swept across the nation’s schools and university campuses in the 1960s, particularly in southern California, helped to define a generation and call attention to long-neglected political and economic inequities. The struggle for equality in the Latina community can be a fascinating study within the broader modern feminist movement. Latinx LGBT issues are a significant part of civil rights discussions today.

Your goal as a history teacher is to paint the national story with the broadest strokes and in the largest variety of colors as you can muster. In government and economics, focusing on diversity in campaigning and business will help your students better understand the complexities of today’s society. The story of Hispanic America is a microcosm of the American story as a whole. The mixture of native culture and successive waves of immigrants from all across the world is at the heart of the Hispanic story. Celebrate this story in fun ways this month. Your students will appreciate your efforts.

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

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at

Ozark Battlefields

Visiting the Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park in northwestern Arkansas in August 2001. My great-great-great-grandfather Thomas Laughery fought there with Company A of the 19th Iowa Volunteer Infantry on December 7, 1862. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

In the summer of 1997 my mother decided to leave southern California after twenty years and retire to Oklahoma with her partner Darrell. He was a native of Bartlesville and a member of the Cherokee Nation, whose territory encompassed most of the northeastern portion of the state. I had been compiling the family history for several years at that point and began corresponding with Mom and Darrell about our Cherokee connection. She had told me that her grandmother’s father, Missouri native James Allen Davis (1856-1894), came from Scots-Irish, French, and Cherokee roots.

Two years later, I developed an artist correspondent character for my Civil War reenacting hobby and named him after my ancestor from Missouri. In my genealogical research, I had discovered three other Civil War connections on my maternal side. Michael Schneider (1842-1900) was my grandmother’s paternal grandfather and had served in the 27th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, chasing Confederate guerrillas through Missouri and then participating in the Battles of New Madrid, Island Number 10, Corinth and Iuka, Parker’s Crossroads, the 1864 battles for Atlanta and the March to the Sea, and the 1865 Carolinas Campaign.

My grandmother’s mother, Clara Belle Davis (1892-1966) was the daughter of James Allen Davis. On her mother’s side, Clara Belle was the granddaughter and niece of two other Union veterans, father Thomas and son Samuel Laughery from Keokuk, Iowa. The military service records I managed to obtain from the National Archives indicated that Thomas had served in Company A of the 19th Iowa Volunteer Infantry and fought at the Battle of Prairie Grove, Arkansas on December 7, 1862, before being discharged into the Invalid Corps for an eye infection developed on campaign. His son Samuel enlisted in the 8th Iowa Cavalry and nearly died of dysentery in camp. He recovered and joined his regiment in Georgia and Alabama for the final campaigns of the war.

Civil War service of my maternal great-great-great-grandfather, Thomas Laughery (1821-1879) and his son Samuel (1844-1917). Thomas fought in the December 7, 1862 Battle of Prairie Grove, Arkansas, and Samuel participated in the 1864 Atlanta Campaign and Wilson’s Raid in 1865. Artwork Copyright (c) 1995 Torin Finney.

By the summer of 2001 I was ready to bring this information with me on my first visit to northeast Oklahoma. I drove through the Mojave Desert, Arizona, New Mexico, and Tulsa on Interstate 40 and arrived at Mom and Darrell’s home along a forested creek near Spavinaw, birthplace of baseball legend Mickey Mantle (1931-1995). Darrell had been researching some of his own ancestors from the Civil War period and we spent many hours comparing notes. I was happy to see my mother after a four-year absence and joined her and Darrell for a tour of the surrounding area. The summer days in Mayes County were sunny, warm, and humid, followed by languid, balmy evenings under the shade of a verdant forest canopy.

My mother gave me access to a big cardboard box full of old family photographs, and I borrowed several of them to copy and include in my genealogy scrapbook. A few days into my visit, we drove across the border into northwest Arkansas to visit the Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park near Fayetteville. I had been looking forward to this experience with great anticipation after everything I had learned about my ancestor’s participation there. Upon our arrival I immediately posed by a cannon at the entrance to the visitor center (see image above).

I was excited to enter the Hindman Hall Museum and immerse myself in its many engaging displays. There were uniforms, maps, artifacts, and a roster with the names of all the Union soldiers who had fought there that day. I found Thomas Laughery’s name and placed my finger on it. It was an overwhelming and magical moment for this amateur genealogist. I then toured the battlefield grounds, including the restored Borden House where bitter fighting between Union attackers and Confederate defenders had ended in a bloody stalemate before the rebels withdrew at the end of the day. Grim monuments bore witness to the three thousand men who were killed or wounded.

I returned to California with several rolls of exciting photographs and a few family heirlooms. In 2002 I was able to visit the battlefield at Glorieta Pass, New Mexico, site of a March 1862 engagement northeast of Santa Fe that was relatively small in numbers but large in strategic importance. Union soldiers from Colorado and New Mexico were able to stop a Confederate force from Texas in what has come to be called the “Gettysburg of the West.” The battlefield itself was relatively undeveloped at the time and was managed under the auspices of the Pecos National Historical Park. Only a few adobe buildings and a well remained from the time of the battle, but it was still a thrill to climb on the boulders where Union sharpshooters had stood.

By the summer of 2004 I was ready to return to the Ozarks to visit more battlefields. Mom and Darrell had moved to a converted barn near Jay and Lake Eucha, a few miles east of Spavinaw. My first stop en route to their new home was the Honey Springs Battlefield near Checotah. This was the site of a pivotal fight along the Old Texas Road on July 17, 1863, just two weeks after the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. 3,000 Union troops under General James G. Blunt (who was also in command at Prairie Grove) faced off against 6,000 Confederates under General Douglas H. Cooper. The soldiers involved included white units as well as African Americans in blue and Cherokee and Choctaw cavalry in gray.

Historical marker at the Honey Springs Battlefield near Checotah, Oklahoma. The battle took place between Union forces under General James G. Blunt and Confederates under General Douglas H. Cooper on July 17, 1863.

I found this multicultural aspect of the Trans-Mississippi theater of the war particularly fascinating. Americans of all cultural backgrounds were forced to take sides in this fratricidal conflict. Mexican American Union troops had played a critical role in stopping the Confederates at Glorieta, and Confederate tejanos fought the Yankees in Texas and Louisiana. The five “Civilized Tribes” (Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, and Chickasaw) had been resettled to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) after the Trail of Tears, and some of their wealthier chiefs owned slaves. Resentful of federal authority and protective of their economic interests, most of them sided with the South.

Other tribes fought on the Northern side. African Americans joined segregated regiments under white officers in free Kansas long before the Emancipation Proclamation gave official federal authorization of black troops. Some of these Kansas “colored” units fought at Honey Springs, and I enjoyed walking along the wooden sidewalk of the grassy battlefield and reading the interpretive markers (see image above). Souvenirs and information were housed in a trailer which was serving as the makeshift visitor center (it was expanded and rebuilt in the years following my visit). There was a large diorama of the battle and literature on the war in Indian Territory.

After I arrived in Jay, I used the converted barn as a home base from which to explore the battlefields of the surrounding area. The Ozark region was one of the more crucial theaters of the war, and I was now positioned well to explore its historic locations. Mom and Darrell were located within a few hours drive of more than a dozen preserved Civil War era sites in northeastern Oklahoma, southeastern Kansas, southwestern Missouri, and northwestern Arkansas. Over the course of my week there, I managed to visit most of them.

One of my first stops was to the Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield in Republic, Missouri near Springfield, site of the first major battle west of the Mississippi on August 10, 1861. The visitor center featured a large illuminated map and a captivating film with large numbers of reenactors, and the nearby Civil War Museum was filled with authentic weapons, uniforms, and battle flags. The drive through the rolling hills and forested glens of the battlefield was a memorable experience, especially the cannon atop “Bloody Hill” and the memorial marker at its base to General Nathaniel Lyon, the Union commander who was killed there.

Another day trip took me to Pea Ridge National Military Park in Benton County, Arkansas, a large engagement which decided the fate of the Ozarks on March 7-8, 1862. While Wilson’s Creek was a Confederate victory and Prairie Grove essentially a draw, Pea Ridge dealt the South a crushing blow from which its forces in the region never fully recovered. Over 27,000 troops were involved, with more than 3,000 killed, wounded, missing, or captured. Three high ranking Confederate generals were killed. I stood on the spot where a Union infantryman fired the shot that killed Texan General Ben McCulloch. The restored Elkhorn Tavern that was the scene of so much brutal fighting was surrounded by monuments to the dead.

Elkhorn Tavern at Pea Ridge National Military Park, site of the pivotal March 7-8, 1862 battle between Union forces under General Samuel R. Curtis and Confederates under General Earl Van Dorn. Photo Copyright (c) 2004 Torin Finney.

Baxter Springs, Kansas was the site of one of the more notorious incidents of the western war. Confederate guerrilla leader William Clarke Quantrill, fresh from his attack on the abolitionist town of Lawrence, Kansas, was heading south to winter in Texas when he decided to attack a Union garrison at Fort Baxter (Fort Blair). The rebels were repulsed, and as they retreated, they ran into another Union column under General James G. Blunt. Frustrated after their failure to take the fort, they determined to make these Yankees pay.

Dressed in blue uniforms, the guerrillas managed to catch their enemy off guard and charged into them with pistols blazing. Nearly all the Union men were killed, many of them after surrendering or trying to escape. One was Major Henry Curtis, son of the victor of the Battle of Pea Ridge. Another was James R. O’Neill, an Irish-born artist correspondent for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. He had covered the Battle of Honey Springs and was traveling with General Blunt’s personal escort. O’Neill was the only known member of the “Bohemian Brigade” to be killed during the American Civil War.

The excellent Baxter Springs Heritage Center & Museum held an extensive collection of artifacts and photographs on these events. I spent quite a bit of time there before taking the driving tour that followed the course of the battle and ended at the cemetery where O’Neill and many of the other Union dead are buried (see image below). As someone who portrayed a member of the “Bohemian Brigade” on the reenacting field, seeing O’Neill’s name carved into that stone column was a poignant moment for me. Afterwards, I wanted to continue north and visit the Mine Creek battlefield in Linn County, Kansas, but ran out of time and had to return to Jay for the night. I simply could not see everything in one week.

Monument to Union non-combatants killed at Baxter Springs, Kansas on October 6, 1863. Artist correspondent James R. O’Neill’s name is at lower right. All of these men were shot down in cold blood after surrendering to Quantrill’s guerrillas, leading many to call the incident the Baxter Springs Massacre. Photo Copyright (c) 2004 Torin Finney.

I spent my remaining time closer to my base, visiting sites within the Cherokee Nation in northeast Oklahoma. I went to Fort Gibson, a marvelously restored 19th century frontier outpost that changed hands during the war. The Cabin Creek battlefield was the closest site to my mother’s house and the most secluded, with a circle of stone monuments hidden in a shadowy forest grove. The Murrell mansion or Hunter’s Home near Park Hill is one of the few stately mansions that survived the war period. And the Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah is an outstanding display of traditional culture and crafts as well as extensive exhibits on Cherokee history, including the Trail of Tears and the role the tribe played in the Civil War.

By the time my visit was over, I realized how much more I could have seen if I had more time. I was grateful for what I was able to do, however, and returned to California to share my photos and stories with reenacting friends and my middle school and community college students as the new school year began. 2004 was a busy year for historical journeys. My trip to Lancaster and Antietam preceded the week in Oklahoma, and 140th Franklin was held in Tennessee that October. The historical importance of the Ozark region during the Civil War period astounded me. I continued to pursue my research and incorporated what I learned in my U.S. history classes and living history presentations.

My mother passed in February 2019 in Rogers, Arkansas, not far from the Prairie Grove battlefield where her ancestor had fought to save the Union. I will always be grateful for the opportunity I had to spend time with her and Darrell in 2004 and the wealth of information I was privileged to share with my students on this important chapter in American history.

Looking out over the now peaceful Pea Ridge Battlefield landscape in Benton County, Arkansas in the summer of 2004. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

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

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at

Ghosts of Manzanar

The Manzanar War Relocation Center was one of ten internment camps built to confine Japanese Americans during World War II. Of the 110,000 people interned nationwide, more than 10,000 were imprisoned here at this desolate place in eastern California’s Owens Valley from 1942 to 1945. Photos Copyright (c) 2003 Torin Finney.

I did not learn about the World War II internment of Japanese Americans in school. I don’t remember much diversity in the curriculum when attending history classes in the South in the 1960s and 1970s. There was no Black History Month, no International Women’s Day, no LGBT Pride Month, no Hispanic Heritage, and certainly no Asian American and Pacific Islander Month. Confederate generals were still exonerated in my state history classes. Despite my fair complexion and blond hair, some of my classmates still referred to me as “damn Yankee” since I had a Northeastern accent and my father taught at the local black college. I can’t imagine what they would have called me if I had a last name like Gonzalez or Yamashita.

Much changed when I moved from Virginia to southern California to finish high school in 1977. Now I had classmates of every conceivable cultural and religious background. Among my closest friends in class were several Japanese Americans. As I got to know them, I realized that they were as American as everyone else, as were their parents. One was a fellow 4.0 scholar who joined the Key Club with me. Another was a popular cheerleader and ASB officer who went on a date with me once to Disneyland and sat near me in AP U.S. History class. But even that class taught me nothing about what happened to the Japanese Americans in World War II.

I scored a 5 on the AP U.S. History Exam and could have opted out of freshman history at UC Santa Cruz, but as a potential history major, I decided to enroll in the year-long survey course anyway. The first quarter covered the colonial period and the Constitution, the second the Civil War and westward expansion, and the third the 20th century from the Progressive Era to Vietnam. It was here that I first heard the word Manzanar. Yet even in this university level core course, the internment camps did not get more than a few minutes coverage in the professor’s lecture on America in World War II.

But then our instructor recommended that we all attend a presentation on campus by local writer Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, author of the memoir Farewell to Manzanar (1973) and spouse of James Houston, an award-winning novelist who taught writing part-time in the UCSC English Department. Her book had been published for less than ten years at that time, but was already an international bestseller and a staple textbook in high school and college classes across the country. She was an engaging speaker who moved us with her tale of courageous resiliency in the midst of terrible struggle and privation.

I was appalled to learn for the first time about the devastating effects of Executive Order 9066 on her family and thousands of other Japanese Americans. Many lost their businesses, homes, and jobs, and were forced to resettle elsewhere after the war. I found the callousness of local government officials at the time incredulous. That the United States government could sanction what amounted to concentration camps for its own citizens while decrying fascist dictators for doing the same thing to their minorities seemed beyond belief.

When I learned that much of the reasoning behind the camps was rooted in deep racial prejudice and economic rivalry in the communities of the western United States, I was outraged. The historic treatment of Asian immigrants in California seemed little better than the anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism of the northeast, the genocidal campaigns against Native Americans, discrimination against Mexican Americans in the southwest, or the hateful Jim Crow laws of the segregated South. The fact that as little as one sixteenth (only one great-great-grandparent) Japanese ancestry could land someone in the camps was particularly absurd.

The real turning point for me, however, was when I learned about the bravery and sacrifice of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated unit of nisei (second-generation, i.e., American citizens born of Japanese immigrant parents) soldiers under the command of white officers. President Franklin D. Roosevelt hesitated to allow young men of Japanese descent to volunteer for military service, but finally relented in 1943. This special army unit, recruited both from the nisei of Hawai’i (who were not interned, due to their disproportionate numbers in the island population) and the young “relocation center” internees, was sent to train in Wisconsin and then segregated Mississippi before being shipped to fight the Nazis in Italy and France.

What they did there was remarkable. For their numbers, they sustained the highest proportion of casualties and received the greatest number of awards of any single military unit in United States history. Their dramatic and costly rescue of the surrounded Texan “Lost Battalion” in the Vosges Mountains in eastern France in October of 1944 is in itself worthy of a major feature film. President Harry Truman awarded the 442 several Presidential unit citations, and many historians agree that their valor and sacrifice helped to inspire him to issue Executive Order 9981 in 1948, which desegregated the armed forces and the federal government and paved the way for the modern Civil Rights Movement.

I was so inspired by the ironic and compelling details of this story that I decided to make it the focus of my senior project in American Studies. I contacted a nisei veteran named Chet Tanaka who had just published a history of the 442 entitled Go For Broke. He referred me to several of his old comrades in arms, who were at that time in their 60s and living across the country, and secured me an invitation to a 40th reunion of the unit at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History. Several months of exhaustive research led to a first draft which I wrote in the style of a multidimensional historical novel along the lines of John Dos Passos’s classic 1930s U.S.A. trilogy.

My final revised version was more a narrative history and garnered me thesis honors on my diploma. It also attracted the interest of Dr. Irving Bartlett, head of the American Civilization graduate program at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, himself a veteran of World War II and a noted author. UMass/Boston was one of five graduate programs in American Studies to which I applied in the fall of 1982, and Dr. Bartlett told me that my work on the nisei soldiers was one of the reasons he decided to offer me a full tuition waiver and paid research assistantship.

Before I left for Boston, I decided to visit Manzanar during my spring break in 1983. I was returning to California from a backpacking trip with three college friends to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. One of those friends was from the small Owens Valley town of Bishop and wanted to see his parents on his way back to school. He and the others agreed to stop at the Manzanar site, since it was on the way. We drove through Las Vegas and spent some time in Death Valley before heading over to U.S. 395 by way of highway 190 through the stark Panamint Mountains.

Nestled on the western side of the highway between Lone Pine and Independence, Manzanar was easy to miss. In fact, we reached Independence before I realized we had driven past it and needed to turn back. When we finally arrived at the site, my eyes beheld an arid, desolate, windswept landscape of sagebrush and a scattering of April wildflowers. The massive granite wall of the Sierra Nevada, immortalized in the haunting Ansel Adams photographs from 1943, formed a forbidding backdrop. All that remained of the internment camp was a small monument and a few stone buildings and foundations. An historical marker held a plaque with a brief history of what happened there. It was a sad, lonely place. I walked the grounds for a few minutes, took some photographs, and left.

Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s 1973 memoir recounts her experiences as a young internee in Manzanar during World War II. In the years since I visited the site, a visitor center and museum has hosted tens of thousands of students and tourists and commemorative events have attracted camp survivors and their descendants. Photos Copyright (c) 2003 Torin Finney.

I did not return for twenty years. By that time I was a history teacher in Bakersfield, California, within easy access of the Owens Valley via highway 178 from the south. Manzanar in 2003 looked much the way it had appeared in 1983 (see above photos), but plans were by then underway to renovate the site after President George H. W. Bush awarded National Historic Site designation in 1992. In the years since these photographs were taken, building efforts have created an informative visitor center, a reconstructed barracks, a period guard tower, and much more. Annual reunions and educational events are regularly held there. More than a million people have visited the site, which has become a place of pilgrimage for anyone interested in learning about the Japanese American internment camps of World War II.

In early 2007 I helped to design an interdisciplinary project on the camps for a special Digital Arts and Humanities program. While my colleague in the English department had the students read Farewell to Manzanar, I covered the story of the internment in my World War II unit, and my technology department colleague helped the kids create an animated story of a fictitious young internee using software and digital imagery. One student created a digital “Peacemaker Mural” on a campus wall (see image below). For seven years, we finished the unit with a field trip to the Japanese American National Museum.

Photoshop mural created by one of my Digital Arts and Humanities students on Japanese American scholar and activist Gordon Hirabayashi (1918-2012), who challenged the legality of Executive Order 9066 in court and spent a year in federal prison rather than submit to wartime internment.

The museum itself is an outstanding collection of exhibits located in the Little Tokyo neighborhood of downtown Los Angeles. We took the train as a group from our location in Orange County to historic Union Station and walked the several blocks to the museum, where we were guided through the exhibitions by a surviving internee who shared personal stories of the war. The reconstructed barracks and adjacent pile of vintage suitcases were particularly memorable, as were the fine collection of medals and uniforms from veterans of the 442 and the large diorama model of the Manzanar camp. Afterwards, we walked outside to the “Go For Broke” memorial to the 100/442 and all-nisei Military Intelligence Service (who interrogated Japanese prisoners and translated captured enemy documents in the Pacific), and met living veterans of those famous units (see photo below).

During my twenty years in the classroom as a history teacher, I did my best to correct the error of my own teachers in earlier decades. I tried to create a U.S. history curriculum that included the story of all the cultural, religious, and ethnic groups that helped build this great nation. The story of the Japanese Americans and their experiences in World War II formed an extensive section of my unit on America in the Second World War. Most of the nisei veterans and many of the internees are gone now, but their legacy lives on in the efforts of their descendants, as well as committed educators and scholars, to preserve their stories for future generations.

Survivors of the internment like Star Trek actor and activist George Takei, who recently published the graphic novel They Called Us Enemy, are helping to make the story of the Japanese Americans in World War II more accessible to contemporary audiences. As students of history, our duty is to add our own voices to this effort, whether or not we have Japanese ancestry. The targeting of Americans of Middle Eastern and South Asian backgrounds since 9-11 and the mistreatment of immigrants from Latin America are grim reminders that racial prejudice is an ever present danger, particularly in times of international tension. We can never take our democracy for granted. “Liberty and justice for all” is only possible through the determined efforts of dedicated citizens who are committed to defending those ideals.

Standing with a Nisei veteran of World War II at the Go For Broke Monument near the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles during our Digital Arts and Humanities class field trip in 2007. The monument was dedicated in 1999 and bears the names of more than 16,000 Japanese Americans who served in World War II. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

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

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