Front of the Class

A Student Steps Up: Creative Impatience and the Willingness to Act

Stepping Up

As a High School Civics teacher, I am often and absolutely embarrassed by my own lack of civic activism. While I am encouraging and requiring and rewarding my students for getting involved in something – ANYTHING! – that they care about to protect or improve their communities, I nearly never practice what I preach.

And it’s not simply that as a young, charter school teacher, my time and energy seem to disappear into an unending vortex of planning/grading/updating/bureaucracizing.
OR the fact that as a perpetual presenter of the fair and balanced, I am daily forced to equivocate, moderate and pause for a more thorough examination.

I think there’s something deeper. Some way in which I have redefined myself as a person who no longer acts. I have reclassified myself as a bystander – shudder – although admittedly a vociferous one. Still, no more than an armchair analyst – not even the passive activist I once swore never to become.

As such, I find myself curious about what it is that motivates the folks who find the activation energy to make change. The folks who answer the call of – “Someone should do something!” With “I’ll do it.” And, high school senior, Caesar Loving-Manley offers the perfect case study.

Loving-Manley has not yet attained the larger than life status of the untouchable figureheads we so often imagine leading movements – the predestined messiahs of our time. For now, he’s just a regular High School student who, when faced with the injustices of the world, used some pretty accessible tools to create something larger than himself: his impatience, his creativity, and the willingness to simply step forward and DO something.

Caesar Loving-Manley is impatient.
Through his participation in the Racial Reconciliation and Healing Project run by the Southern Jamaica Plain Health Center, Loving-Manley attended a workshop on public health disparities in his home town of Boston and was outraged.

The fact is that in Boston, Black and Latino kids under age 5 are four times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma than White kids. Facilitators Abigail Ortiz and Cecilia Flores quickly dismissed the idea that those statistics are tragic byproducts of cyclic crime, irresponsible parenting or some broken window hogwash.

Low rates of asthma are linked to parks and green spaces – disproportionately absent in areas of Boston like Roxbury and Dorchester with large populations of Blacks and Latinos. High rates of asthma are linked to junkyards and bus depots – disproportionately present in Roxbury and Dorchester. And that’s just asthma! – to say nothing of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, or infant mortality.

Loving-Manley paired his training through the SJPHC with a Ta-Nahesi Coates interview that he watched in 11th grade history and concluded that racism was literally killing Blacks in Boston – not race but racism.

Moving quickly from his initial reaction of: “Really? This is systemic lynching!” to: “Why? Do people know this?”, Loving-Manley felt compelled to act. Someone needed to “make people open up their eyes” and “pay closer attention” and, for Loving-Manley, there was no time to think about who it was going to be.

He explains that while others were spinning their wheels saying “what if what if what if”, he knew that our school (and, incidentally, his core support network at the school) needed “to scream it rather than just to whisper it”. He needed to shake things up.

One of the things that has led to Caesar Loving-Manley’s success has been his natural attraction – and maybe the purely human drive – to innovate, to improve, and to be creative.

After the non-indictment of Darren Wilson in November of 2014, there were a wave of Black Lives Matter protests in Boston, including walk outs by students from Boston Public Schools. When Loving-Manley saw these school protests, he immediately recognized their importance but he was not impressed.

“It’s one thing to attend but it’s another thing to want to inform others. We miss educating people.”

As such, Loving-Manley decided that at our high school, the Academy of the Pacific Rim, he would not just organize a walk out, but a teach in.

“One of the major goals of the walk in was to educate people as to what’s going on to make clear the severity of the situation.”

Still, even with his well designed and attended teach-in in December of 2014, Loving-Manley worried that people weren’t being educated. They were just leaving class. Worse, some students saw the walk outs as counterproductive or pointless. Loving-Manley actually saw the walk outs turning some people off of the Movement.

The challenge as he saw it, was to “take something that grabs people’s interest and tie it into something that educates them”.

This is where his idea for a Black History Month Fashion Show came from. He knew he could draw his audience in with fashion and music and that he could use these tools to make them feel a fierce pride in Black Culture. So he started planning for January of 2016.

Once other students realized what he was trying to do, the momentum became contagious. People understood the importance and the power of what he was doing and they were excited about it. Loving-Manley fed off that energy.

He selected three eras of Black Resistance he thought embodied the message he was trying to portray and named his acts: Selma; Black Panthers; and Black Lives Matter. For each act, he selected a song he felt laid the backbeat of the era; researched the fashion of the era and what those fashions represented; and selected a mood and pose for models to embody on the runway.

Act II: Black Panthers

Three Acts: Black History Month Fashion Show

At the end of the third act, the spotlights switched to flashing reds and blues and the music was interrupted by police sirens. Students ran to the stage where most died on the floor and four were left standing above them holding Black Lives Matter placards over their heads. The result was a collective loss of breath – a visceral communication of the message that “we can’t breathe” with the twist of four determined students still standing and still fighting.

His best friend, co-producer, and captain of the Stomp team, Janaya Burke-Smith, choreographed a step routine about Black Women in the movement to begin the show. To embody the indomitable pheonix of the Black spirit, the show ended with a dance celebrating pan African Black Culture, leaving students and staff not with just the raw sorrow of “dislodge[d] brains, block[ed] airways, rip[ped] muscle, extract[ed] organs, crack[ed] bones, and [broken] teeth” but with a fierce pride in the resiliency of Black Culture despite this terrifying and pressing reality.

The result was spell-binding, mind-blowing, and – absolutely – revolutionary.

Make it Happen
To be honest, Loving-Manley is incredibly charismatic . . . but I really don’t think that that is all there is to it.

When I asked him to describe himself, Loving-Manley laughed and admitted “I’m loud.”
But when I pushed him, asking: why him? Why was he the one to make this happen at our school, he replied:

“I wanted it to involve the input of all the students who wanted to participate but it needed to HAPPEN and I knew it wouldn’t happen unless I was the one to leave class first and spread the word to others. It’s easier to think: I’ll do it later, it’s not that serious, but I felt like I had the leadership qualities to get the ball rolling”

Fists RaisedI think it comes down to this. Loving-Manley is incredible. He is brilliant and passionate and unstoppable but the same impatience, creativity, and ability to get the ball rolling exist in all of us. And in truth, he’s right. When an issue of injustice arises, there is no reason not to take action and to use our imaginations to pull others into action with us. Someone has to do it. And that someone may as well be me. Or you. Or both of us in different ways.

As Loving-Manley explains:

“If I have the ability to start a conversation with someone about something . . . and then they get the lightbulb in their mind, it’s like woah – maybe I have the ability or the resources to fix this. If everyone was informed, there would be more action. It starts with a conversation; you don’t know where it’s going to go from there.”

Places to Go: Dr. Seuss and the Politicolors

Like any great model, the strength of the politicolors pairs their simplicity with their potential for greater interpretation.  The collective works of Theodore Geisel aka Dr. Seuss are just the same.  In my second year of utilizing Professor Harris’s model, I coupled Seuss stories with each of the boxes.

I teach upper elementary students, but believe that great children’s literature contains the same room for re-discovery as any adult “classic.”  What follows is a summary of some Seuss, supplemented with a flurry of outside resources which might add greatly to the discourse, no matter what age your group.

[Note: I taught the boxes in the order listed, spacing out the Seuss enough that the next story to appear became an exciting “reveal,” rather than a mechanical happening.  As of this post, we still hadn’t gotten to Oh! The Places You’ll Go!]

The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (Green Box).  I chose this story, as most of the students have read the original.  The plot remains essentially the same: Cat in said cap returns to unleash chaos upon (less?) trusting children.  Green box discussions match nicely with the beginning of the year in which rules are established.  Students easily grasp the notion of a state of nature and the importance of fencing off the “wilderness” in order to establish natural law.

Horton Hears a Who (Yellow Box).  A classic tale of humanity that moves the reader beyond his/her own world (nationality, culture) and into the perspective of another.  Excellent discussion can be generated by connecting this with current events such as the Tsunami in Japan.

The Sneetches and The Lorax (Orange Box).  The civilization box is one I continue to explore.  To me, an understanding of what it means to be civilized includes the control of our power.  Whether the racism in Sneetches or the environmental havok in Lorax, there’s plenty of opportunity to debate what it means to be “civilized.”

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Red Box).  I’ve already written a post on this one 😉

Yertle the Turtle (Blue Box).  Among the shortest of any of these tales, it quickly gets across the point of a bad king.  To explore the possibilities of a good king, this can be paired with The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. The King in the latter is a bit more complex in that he offers many opportunities to stay BC’s execution; however, the threat of his sovereign power remains.

Oh!  The Places You’ll Go! (Purple Box)  A common gift for graduates, this story relates well the power of an individual as well as the pitfalls possible without self-discipline.  There’s a strong federalist message here, with one’s personal constitution as GPS, hot-air balloon, row boat, or mountain-mover.

Additional Resources and Sample Activity:


Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak; Hatchet; My Side of the Mountain; The Black Stallion; Duke Theseus’ soliloquy on imagination from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 5, Scene 1, Lines 7-22; Emily Dickinson’s “I Hide Myself within My Flower” and “Will There Really Be a Morning?”; Carl Sandburg’s “Young Sea” and “Summer Stars”; Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing”; Vachel Lindsay’s “The Rockets That Reached Saturn”; William Carlos Williams’ “Heel & Toe to the End”; Frost’s “On Looking up by Chance at the Constellations”; Gustav Holst’s “Jupiter”; David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” Peter             Schilling “Major Tom,” Handel’s “Scipio”; Selections from Cicero’s “The Dream of Scipio”; The Mayflower Compact

Activity: Draw an inverted triangle narrowing your location from broadest/ most general to narrowest/ most specific  (Ex. Universe…1234 Schoolhouse Road); create a mandala circle with your personal relationships in proportion to you (circle center); use Google Earth


The Stranger by Chris Van Allesburg; Sadako by Coerr and Young; The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth; Star Wars trilogies; Jacques’ reflective soliloquy on life from As You Like It, Act II, Scene 7, Lines 139-166); Portia’s soliloquy on mercy from The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1, Lines 182-195; Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” and “A Time to Talk”; Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody!  Who Are You?”; Carl Sandburg’s “Phizzog”; BandAid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and a kajillion other 80s songs with human themes; Selections from Aristotle’s Politics

Activity: Contest to list most human emotions/ use “stick figures” to illustrate; what “new” emotion is created when anger gets crossed with sadness?; explore one emotion you have not yet felt (access compassion); connect with Needs of Humankind” “No (hu)man is an island.”


King Henry’s stirring soliloquy from Henry V, Act 4, Scene 3, lines, 40-67; MacBeth‘s soliloquy in which he has murdered to become King, Act 5, Scene 5, Lines 19-28; Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade,” Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” “Dream Variations,” “I, Too,” “Words Like Freedom,” and “Mother to Son”; Carl Sandburg’s “A Sphinx,”             “Skyscraper,” and “We Must Be Polite”; Rudyard Kipling’s “Prelude to Departmental Ditties,” “If,” “Thorkild’s Song,” “Natural Theology,” and “The Ballad of East and West”; Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus”; ee cummings’ “Portrait VIII”; Poe’s             “Eldorado,” William Carlos Williams” “The Fool’s Song” and “The Problem”; reference Star Wars trilogies; excerpts from A Christmas Carol or other Dickens; Aesop’s Fables: “The Frog and the Ox,” “The Mice in Council,” “The Wind and the Sun,” “The Trees and the Axe,” “The Lion and the Other Beasts,” “The  Fox and the Stork,” “The Fox and the Crow, “The Wolf and the Goat,”  “The Boys and the Frogs,” “The Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs,” “The Monkey and the Dolphin,” “The Travellers and the Bear,” “The Kite, the Hawk, and the Pigeons,” “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” and “The Gnat and the Lion”;  mythology; Arrow to the Sun by McDermott; just about anything by Robert Browning; selections from the works of George Orwell, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Rachel Carson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Mead; video games such as Sims or 1602; “Manifest Destiny”; WtP (middle school) selection: Tragedy of Antigone; WtP (elementary): Two Years Before the Mast; What happens to social acceptance when other cultures are enmeshed?  What is the role of the layers below: Humanity? Natural rights?  What if the orange box grows?  What if it shrinks?

Activity:  Trace  the history of an invention to the notion of “standing on the shoulders of giants”, explore resources and the ways in which these are harvested and the human resources behind them; contrast locally-grown with industrial product.


Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”; Langston Hughes’ “My People”; Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?”; selections from Sherman Alexie; selections from Will Rogers; Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!”; Civil War as “house divided”; Who has been disenfranchised from our people?;  What does it mean to be Vietnamese, Iraqi, British, Japanese?  Who are these peoples?; Who are Native Americans? The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses by Goble; Revisit Mayflower Compact; Declaration of Independence; When did we become a people?/ How are we still becoming a people?; connect with Needs of Humankind; Shays’ Rebellion; Can a people coexist without a shared view of civilization?  Humanity?  Natural rights?; Through My Eyes by Ruby Bridges; Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin On?”; Bruce Hornsby’s “The Way It Is”; Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”; Neil Young’s “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World” (maturity dependent); Simon & Garfunkel’s “America”; Spinal Tap’s “America”; Arlen & Harburg’s “Over the Rainbow”; Williams’ “Rainbow Connection” (I like the Me First and the Gimme Gimmes’ version.); National Anthem; Bernstein & Sondheim’s “America” (West Side Story); music as very powerful connection to red box stuff

Activity: Find a song that represents “the people”; bring a copy of the song and printed lyrics; be prepared to explain your interpretation


Selections from “The Masque of the Red Death”; Articles of Confederation; selections from Notes on the Debates of the Federal Convention; Kipling’s “The King’s Job”; Milne’s “The King’s Breakfast”; Shelley’s “Ozymandias”; Andersen and Zwerger’s             The Nightingale; Tennyson’s “On the Jubilee of Queen Victoria”; selections from various British musical acts, maturity dependent (The Who, The Beatles, The Housemartins, The Clash, etc.)

Activity: Invent a card game using the royalty cards to show what you’ve learned about monarchy.


Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson; Langston Hughes’ “Youth”; Claude McKay’s “America”; Henry Van Dyke’s “America for Me”; U.S. Constitution; Emily Dickinson’s “Revolution is the Pod”; Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”/ Springsteen’s live version

Activity: Write a constitution of self; “mail it” to yourself one-year from today (delivered by teacher); how have you amended yourself/ how have you remained?

My Wish for You: A Letter to My Students Past, Present and Future

Katie Reen graciously shared a copy of her oral exam paper incorporating her insighhts from the National Academy at Occidental College last summer. Katie’s students are 11 and 12 years old and she explains, “The concept of my paper is a letter to my students, past, present and future about what I wish for them as people and as citizens.”

Below is the section related to citizenship…

Now you know that no love letter written to you from me would be complete without my wishes for you as citizens of our community, our country and our world.  And you may think that it is slightly strange that I would transition to the topic of politics in a letter about religion and spirituality as most see them as completely unconnected, or even the antithesis of one another.  But I actually see them as very connected.  You see when I think of our membership in a democratic society, I consider it to be a covenantal relationship.  Each one of us enters this sacred compact and agrees to jointly protect and defend one another’s freedom and liberty.  The preservation of this covenant ought to be the principle business of our work as citizens.

While I don’t want to put an undue amount of pressure on you, I do think you all should know that I fundamentally believe that the survival of our democracy rests on your shoulders.  Our Founding Fathers designed our unique form of democracy as a “Grand Experiment.”  They naively believed that the people, yes the people, could be trusted to guard their liberties and build a society based on justice and the common good.  And though they borrowed their ideas from the great thinkers of antiquity including Aristotle, Cicero, Locke and Hobbs, their ideas were revolutionary and a clear departure from the past.

Although the system they created is less than perfect, I would venture to say that you enjoy more security, more safety, more opportunity, and more freedom in the United States than people in any other part of the world.  If you want this experiment to succeed – your energy, enthusiasm and service is required.  George Marshall, an American general, once said that, “Democracy is the most demanding of all forms of government in terms of the energy, imagination, and public spirit required of the individual.”  You, the individual, the citizen, are the most crucial component of our nation’s survival. Just as it has been suggested that your teachers are not teaching you enough about religion and spirituality, it has also been suggested that they are not teaching you enough about the foundations of government and your role in its upkeep.  There is some irony in this phenomenon, as the original purpose of public education was to educate the citizen for it was feared that without an educated and virtuous citizenry, no republic could survive.  Until last summer, I would have considered myself to be a teacher that Thomas Jefferson would be proud of, as I always taught my students about their government.  However, after attending a three week long academy sponsored by the Center for Civic Education, I learned that I had been going about this study in my classroom all wrong.

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My Serial of Boxes (Pt. 3 of 3)

In the previous installment, I overcame my apprehension at introducing the politicolors, and began to share student responses to political theory.  At one time, I had been worried about the abstract nature of such an approach, yet here they were truly excited to use colored pencils in their notes and making connections of which I couldn’t have dreamed.

I usually turn up the heat on critical thinking skills once students hit sixth grade, but here the fourth and fifth were sweeping off my socks.  I also found that they were a bit more realist than I had been at that age.  This was saying something, in that our police resource officer always comments on our kids’ intelligence, yet inevitably adds that they are oh-so sheltered.

Maybe it had been our cool conversations on the state of nature, but the students saw plenty of disparity between the real world and American ideals.  Whether it be a news story or their own experiences in Detroit, the kids knew that the world wasn’t completely shiny and happy.  Delving further, we explored why they thought that was; if anything, what prevented the notion of Utopia?  Could government make people be better?

Somewhere in here, I suggested that the boxes might move.  Very quickly, A., my sole sixth-grader, realized that if the blue box grew outward, it would effect the red.  “The government would control the people,” he said.  “It would be a dictatorship.”  I offered up several bows.

Fifth-grader J. referenced an earlier conversation on perfection, born out of the wording of the Preamble.  J.’s attentive and he recalled the Aryans, commenting that pushing for a utopia can lead in the opposite direction.

C’mon, I told them.  Our blue box wants right.  We’re America.  (It didn’t come off so sarcastic.)  Couldn’t our government be trusted to mandate good behavior?  Debate ensued with no clear consensus.

Conversely, could the red box push as well?  Would it if the blue box began to grow too big for its britches?  What happened if the red box pushed back so totally that it obliterated the blue?  Didn’t Aristotle also warn of democracy run amok, of mob rule?  What was the consequence of no government?

The model proved itself remarkably effective.

In the end, the students understood quite well when I added the purple box.  The notion of limits had arrived, just before the tug of war ended with a crash.

The boxes also helped in another way.  One of the trickiest concepts to impart to the kids had been the differences between a constitution and a constitutional government.  Once they could contrast a purpleless system with a checked one, they easily got it: all governments had a make-up, but not all of them had a healthy one.  This allowed for a connected conversation to propaganda, including places on our maps with “Republic” in their name yet not in their nature.

Our unit’s culminating activity brought out another surprise: Legos!  Using a photo of James Madison’s temple at Montpelier,  we first discussed the importance of order and balance in architecture.  From week one, the kids had been tickled that the structure doubled as a refrigerator.  Now, we went beyond that still-important function to other aspects of the temple’s order, then on to its elegant balance.  Since we’ve been studying the middle ages in history, the students noted parallels with the great cathedrals as well as St. Anne’s , a  cruciform church we’d visited downtown.


We connected the temple with We the People‘s lesson on the contributions of the Romans to republican government.  Using the computer, we accessed photographs of Washington, DC, then discussed the great buildings as well as the city plan.

Finally, I dumped thousands of building blocks into the center of the room and offered only this direction: build a structure that is balanced and ordered and be prepared to explain how it is each.  Again, I’ve got to exclaim the merits of teaching middle school students.  Yeah, I’m spoiled by small class size (too small with the Michigan economy!), but middle years kids have a ton of energy and they are not so socially focused that they’ve lost their excitement for learning.  The colored pencils elicited ooos and ahhs, but the Legos–in more ways than one–raised the roof.

house1 windmill1 robot bike-factory yellow-pyramid factory

What impressed me is that many kids didn’t sacrifice creativity in the process of fulfilling the parameters.  Some of the creations had elaborate stories which added to their order, such as G.’s–a factory that ran on pizza grease while it created hats.  This activity goes beyond its initial success; it’s an investment in future We the People lessons.  We’ll come back to the ideas of balance and order, and the kids will feel invested as I relate ideas to their structures.

As I said in the beginning, for me, this material has to unfold as a story.  So, I’ll share with you that I’ve already got the climax of our tale.

For, after all of the students had gone, I created my own structure.  It’s a pyramid of Legos: one with the politicolors stepping upward.  Ready to emerge upon the given day–timed smartly with Unit 6, I hope–the seventh color.  From the structure’s center, with each of my student’s names inside.  Hokey?  Hell, I’m glad I can get away with it.  I’m incredibly lucky to teach kids that are yet open enough that this moment can affect them.  I’ll keep you posted as to my progress…

politipieces politipyramid lego-boxes

(I don’t believe there are purple Legos…  Is that because Denmark’s a constitutional monarchy?  ; )

The politicolors are another investment.  We’ll continue to reference them as we delve into the American Revolution, Shay’s Rebellion, and the Philadelphia Convention; the boxes are that powerful a model.  And, although I’m too restrained to declare them a resounding success, I’m damn giddy to see so much of my own excitement reflected in my students’ eyes and all-new thoughts hatching from their minds.

I’ve been fortunate to have dozens of my students return to our school’s annual picnic and remind me how much our little school has shaped them, how they hit the ground running.  I’ve felt vindicated for teaching toward the older students, offering what Will aptly terms a “surplus of knowledge”.  Now, though, I know that given the right structure, even fourth-graders can be mighty theorists; and these kids, they’re capable of flying.

As opposed to last year’s tact, the key lies far from the text.  In fact, the key is the key itself.  That is, creating a classroom open enough for plot twists to be interpreted, for new lines to be added to the script.

What I hope I’ve done is create a much more federalist classroom.  Whether through the construct of the National Academy or the concrete pillars of Madison’s temple, I’ve allowed myself to leave more space.  It’s not about locks on knowledge and thought; for, even elementary students can supply the mind to support (and lift!) the ceiling, if we allow them the will.

This year, that’s what I’ve so far learned.  To get there, I just had to get over the fear of trusting myself even more.

Thanks for sitting by the fire,


My Serial of Boxes (Pt. 2 of 3)

When last we met, I was explaining my dread, as I contemplated using Will’s boxes with my 4th-6th classroom.  Here was this rich, layered theory, which I still hadn’t mastered; yet, the politicolors had given dimension to the founding, I’d never before imagined.  Could I bring them to life?

It was understood that I had a looooong way to even near Will’s grasp.  After all, I’d still look back at photos of the concept maps and ponder the meanings of words written in the corners of the boxes or lines that could sometimes be dotted, and I’d wish for a National Academy 2.0.  However, I easily recalled Will’s self-effacing persona: one that was not just a style, but his genuine self.  He was always open with our crew, explaining that he was still discovering new meaning here, that our questions were important to the illumination.  And that was a comfort to me: that I didn’t need to know everything to open the pack of multi-colored Expos that would paint our white board.

A few lessons into the We the People curriculum, I had introduced the philosophers: Cicero, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, and Madison.  Knowing they were a well-educated assembly of Framers, the students understood that the Constitution had not appeared out of thin air.  It helped that I teach across curricula: Cicero could be connected to math and the laws of physics, and Aristotle’s biology background could be easily referenced with our studies of classification.  I guess my grasp of Cicero is a bit weak, because the kids latched on to the “body politic” notion far more tightly than the music of the spheres.  Perhaps it was because we had been using the microscope that week, for they related well to the idea of citizens as cells and their functions as differentiation.  The students ran with one of the last Aristotelian nuggets I offered up: “One who is not in the polity, must be a beast or a god.”

One student alluded to the notion that no man is an island; while several realized that one would have to be almost extra-terrestrial to not need others, if not a “deranged, crazy guy”.

This provided a perfect segue to my next lessons on Thomas Hobbes.  For me, Hobbes had been the most difficult philosopher to access, yet ultimately the most rewarding.  For my Nat’cademy project, I’d even chosen one of his pages for my writing assignment.  I wanted so dearly for the students to know him for more than life as “nasty, brutish, and short”.  Indeed, they would have to, for Hobbes was represented by the red box.  The kids needed to understand the idea of what it meant to be a people.

As providence runs, we were heading into the last week of school before the holiday break.  Here was my chance to access Hobbes just as I had.  For in the July sun of Loyola Marymount, my unveiling of the red box: sprung from Will’s lectures, then rose with the provocation of  preceptor break-out sessions, only to finally land firmly in the sagacious realm of… Dr.Seuss.

Improbably, in the dead of summer, I found myself in Marina Del Rey purchasing a copy of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.


That night was to be another unveiling, Rowling’s last Harry Potter book, and Barnes & Noble was abuzz.  The sales clerk looked a bit sidelong at me as I slid the book across the counter.  I expected to hear some smart Alec response along the lines of really early gift shopping?!

But instead, she proceeded to tell me how her favorite tale hands-down was Horton Hears a Who.  (Another text with great connections to the boxes, I’ve just realized.)  I smiled and insisted I needed this one.  I wasn’t sure, but I had a feeling that they didn’t have a copy of it at the University’s library.

Fast forward a year and half, and across the country, to Michigan.  Well, once I’d finished reading the story to my students, they were out of their seats trying to identify the philosophy in it.  They saw Aristotle’s beast, with Whoville as a polity.  They explored the Whos as a people.  They connected the Grinch to Hobbes, as he was never really out of the community.  And, in a moment of sublime, one student linked the outsider to the homeless we’d seen in Detroit on a recent trip to St. Anne’s.

There have been many memories so far this year.  One can never prioritize them, but there is a fourth grade girl that’s just amazing me.  I’ll call her S. here.  The thing about S. is that she’s totally into this stuff, so much so that she goes home and writes poems about it.  And she’s got a great theoretical mind.  One of the most powerful examples to date came when we studied the early philosophers and their notions that there could be many successful ways in which to rule effectively.  I’m mostly referring to Arsitotle’s idea of the Good King, Aristocracy, or Democracy.  After contrasting each with its negative, S. just kind of blurted out, “Why not mix them?”

Yeah.  That’s what I’m talking about.

My other favorite S. moment to date came when she raised her hand and asked, “What do you think James Madison would think of this, if he were here?”

I smiled, then added, “I think he is.”

As the class cracked up, she inquired, “What, his ghost is here, like, sitting next to me or something?”

Waiting for the giggles to subside, I explained, “Not his ghost, his spirit.”

It was the perfect plant for my already envisioned denouement.  On the last day of Civics, I intend to conclude with the end of James Madison’s life.  It is said that upon his deathbed, Madison’s last words indicated that his passing was “nothing more than a change of mind.”

TOMORROW: Conclusions and Questions   notes-2

My Serial of Boxes (Pt. 1 of 3)

After a year to digest Will’s colors and boxes, I felt ready to use them with my class.

It wasn’t without apprehension.  Although I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and re-envisioning the National Academy (primarily through writing and this site), I want to approach mastery before revealing ideas.  I think that’s only natural with one’s classroom.  All good teachers admit their limitations, yet we don’t like to be wrong a whole lot, and that’s when working with facts.  Here I was, deciding to dive into theory.  And it looked like a glass of water down on the sidewalk from five-stories high.

The first decision I made was to re-prioritize.  I teach in a Montessori school, and, for those unfamiliar, text books aren’t the standard operating procedure.  I use one for science and another for my 7th/8th Algebra I students; and that’s it.  However, I was pleasantly surprised by the middle school We the People curriculum when offered a sample at the 2007 National Academy, and had gone on to use my class set in 07-08.

The mistake I made, though, was to teach from the text.  As a result, what had been always been riveting knowledge for me, and nothing short of revelatory in LA, was too stiff and rigid for my 4th-8th graders.  On top of that, even when I used a science book, it was ancillary.  Here, my passion for Civics was being suppressed by the need to cover every square inch of the print.  There was none of the feeling I’d experienced at the National Academy.  I mean, we moved, but there were way too many stumbles.

This year, I returned to my style and my strength.  I’m a storyteller, so that’s what We the People would be: a story.  No longer did I feel this self-imposed pressure to follow the curriculum verbatim and wait until Unit 3 to mention the Constitution.  In fact, I began with the Constitution.  After all, a plot needs its protagonist, right?

My second overarching concern was the boxes themselves.  For a long time in LA, as I worked to connect them to various philosophers and the readings, the meanings of each had confused me.  And here I was, considering imparting them to an even younger group than the year prior!  However, I did remember the moment in which the boxes had finally made sense; it was when Will suggested that they could move.

Armed with my point of access, as well as the open-mindedness my students had always shown, I took the leap.

It was after covering the philosophers that I pulled out a rainbow of dry erase markers.  Sure, the kids had seen them before.  I’m something of an artist, and Montessori encourages an attractive classroom; so I frequently embellish lectures and even corners of the white board.  But here, something was different.  The teacher was explaining that the colors would hold meaning.  A noticeable discomfort rippled through the group, and an inner giddiness began to flutter.  It’s not that I’m sadistic; rather, some of the greatest lessons arise from a wee bit of revolution.  The moment seemed pregnant with such possibility.  When I asked them to pull out their own colored pencils and match them with the corresponding markers, the hook was set.  Over the next several days, I watched my students rise and breech the waters of complacency to flutter through the otherworld sensation of air.

They were flying, and I couldn’t believe it.  Suddenly, theory wasn’t a cup below; we were together at sea-level, and some of the kids were actually taking leaps to defy gravity.

NEXT THURSDAY: Further Adventures with Long-Dead Philosophers.  Or Are They..?

How the Hobbes Stole Christmas

Looking for a way to make Thomas Hobbes more to your students than life as “nasty, brutish, and short”?  Today, I shared with my 4th-6th graders Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

You’ve no doubt seen the Chuck Jones animated version, but I’m going to visit the original text.  As the story goes, the Grinch grinds out both his years and teeth, high up in a mountain cave.  He hates Christmas, for “No one knows quite the reason,” but most likely it is because “his heart was two sizes too small.”

The people down below are the Whos, and they love to celebrate and they love to sing.  Which drives the Grinch bonkers.  He’s got to stop it, so he plots to destroy their holiday with a “WONDERFUL, AWFUL IDEA!”  He’s going to take out Christmas and ruin everyone’s life.  He’s going to splatter his wicked heart across the canvas of Whoville and blacken their light.

In devious succession, we see just how abhorrent the Grinch can be.  He goes so far as to steal from little Cindy-Lou Who and pilfers so much that even the crumbs left behind are too small for Who mouses.

Then there’s the moment in which the Grinch waits for the terror.  He listens for the peal of agony his black dawn will raze.  And if we look closely enough at his gnarled face, we see that the Grinch is one of them; but he’s been twisted so far that he has become a What.  A What living in a state of nature, as Aristotle’s beast; a What anticipating fire and brimstone’s consumption of Whoville.

Here’s where the multi-dimensional Hobbes comes in.  Because when one makes the deep connection (never underestimate Seuss’s genius) that Grinch is part of their people, and he’s on the outside, then we can see this so clearly as Red Box stuff.  (For extra benefit, the book’s only color is, indeed, red…leading me to believe that Will just may have a time machine hidden somewhere, dreamed up by one of his many federalist friends.)

This tale is about a people and someone on the outside, yet still within the covenant.  He’s a monster needing to discover his Whoness in order to have any chance of ever stepping back into the community.

Of course, in the end, he does just that.  But through a lesson we all could learn, he’s not pulled in; he has to make that choice.  The people do not hunt him down, because they are better than that.  They are beyond the reproach of materialism, above vengeance, and they come together to sing.

[Personal aside: The song.  The song we should have sung after 9/11.  The reminder of Who we are.  The recollection and affirmation that we are Whos, not Whats.  My heart feels the wounds of Abu Ghraib and knows that a crucial moment was lost in leadership too unlearned to know anything but “going cowboy”.  I don’t wish to diminish 9/11 or suggest that a mass-murderer should be accepted into our people, but I now ache every time I reread this story.]

The Whos sing, and the Grinch’s heart grows.  Triumphantly (not heroically, mind you), he rides down from the mountain, returning not only the town’s gifts to the Whos, but his self as well.

The philosopher tells us that anyone on the outside is still part of the people, and that his disenfrachisement is in part a failure of the whole.  With the poetry of our Hobbesian Preamble, We ideally strive for a more perfect union, welcoming the Whats.

And the book’s glorious final page shows the Grinch himself has conquered the anger that set him out.  Seated next to Cindy Lou Who, he carves the roast, which could very well be the darkness from his soul.  For, contrary to what the Eagles might’ve sung in “Hotel California”, you can stab it with a steely knife, and you just can kill the beast.

Happy Holidays, Folks.

A Paradigm: Six Words for the National Academy

You might remember a New York Times contest to craft a six word motto for the United States. We turned the powerhouse of Academy thinking at the question. Laura suggested a phrase you might recognize…


I think that phrase resonated as a result of her work at Monpelier’s NEH Landmark institute. Keith reviewed his notes from the Academy and provided a whole list of possibilities! This year’s National Academy wrestled a rigorous three weeks but still found time to toy with the idea of what six words would be the best represent their three weeks of scholarship in Los Angeles.

It’s something like the re-writing project…

What six words would you propose for the National Academy if you wanted to communicate as much of IT as possible with only THIS fragment?

National Academy 2008: Is it Over?

The Rangeview building is nearly quiet this afternoon. It isn’t that the exchange students all went to the beach today but that this year’s National Academy has run out of time.

The machines still hum but the electricity of rigorous academic work is missing. From a discussion of constitutional citizenship befitting an intelligent people to an afternoon of panel presentations, our Friday was heavy with hard work and world-making ideas.

This is the Academy that forever has the story of the L.A. quake during a lecture and 100 different strategies for propping a door open. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten so many ice cream sandwiches in three weeks time!

As the group made their way to the exit this morning, we all wondered about Infanta’s super early super shuttle. It looks like she made it. There was an emergency mission to reunite Zeke with his toiletries at LAX. There might be room here for a joke about his short-shorts but I’ll let it pass. Todd had just one more moment of frustration when the van driver couldn’t find his reservation but it was no problem for Mir. He took the opportunity to have one more cigarette.

But there’s too much that’s happened here to simply walk away. What will you do with it all?

Politicolor is a space to talk through it. The 2007 crew has used Politicolor to share their work during the Academy and express their appreciation. And, remembering time with new friends or out of this world experiences is exactly how Politicolor got its start.

What do you want to remember? Alumni, don’t hesitate to join the conversation by telling us how the Academy has “haunted” you this past school year. This crew from 2008 might need your help to find solid ground as they return to school. If anyone would like to share their work from the Academy (either the writing project or the panel presentation), e-mail me and let’s share it.

So, one more afternoon of crafting questions to continue the conversation….

What thoughts did you have as the National Academy drew to a close?

How is the work of the Academy threatening to reverberate through your teaching and thinking?

What are you most proud of when you review your writing assignment or panel presentation?

Did a colleague’s presentation provoke a new degree of clarity or spark a new curiosity?