As teachers and students return to the classroom this fall, a number of Facing History teachers are hitting the books themselves. One of them is Daniel Warner, a history teacher in Memphis, Tennessee and recipient of the prestigious James Madison Graduate Fellowship for advanced study in constitutional history and government. In this interview, we discuss his path as an educator, how Facing History has shaped his approach to civic education, and how he uses primary sources to design transformative learning experiences.
KS: What initially inspired you to become a history teacher and how long have you been teaching at East High School?
DW: I’ve been at East now for 6 years. I started in 2013 as a resident through the Memphis Teacher Residency. I didn’t think about becoming a teacher until about October of my senior year of college. I graduated from Belmont University with a Religion and the Arts degree and a Spanish minor, not History. But looking back, I can see that there was a foundation being laid for engaging in educational structures and engaging in the classroom.
In classes like Christian Ethics and Poverty & Justice, we were examining issues like racism and poverty through a structural lens as well as through the lens of texts like the Sermon on the Mount. I think one of the great privileges of the university is to sit and consider the needs of the world around you and ask “where does your deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger?”—Frederick Buechner’s definition of vocation. I had considered ministry and other routes and people started to ask me if I’d ever thought about being a teacher.
Being in settings where I was practicing my responsibility as a Christian to self, others, and world, I realized there is a need for people to invest in overlooked and underresourced communities. I was really influenced by community development advocate John Perkins and started to see the role of being a teacher as potentially one of the most powerful community development roles. I also began to see it as a way to be proximate to some of the most vulnerable people in our country, as well as some of the most creative and resilient people in our country. The vision of teaching that has most sustained me is this idea of a mutual exchange between student and teacher, community and school, neighbor and neighbor.
KS: When did you begin engaging with Facing History’s resources and how has it informed your practice of teaching?
DW: I discovered Facing History during that residency year with my mentor teacher. He was a Facing History teacher already and taught the Holocaust and Human Behavior class. I was helping teach that class and he had been to so many Facing History trainings that he let me go in his place and begin to learn how Facing History builds a case study experience. I think that’s had the biggest impact on my teaching. The individual and society, we and they, membership and belonging, thinking about how we define people outside of our universe of obligation. Those kinds of terms are empowering to students, especially in the current American political landscape.
Facing History has a Reconstruction Era and the Fragility of Democracy unit specifically based in American history at the end of the Civil War. It concerns the experiment in multiracial democracy that, for a time, seemed to take off but within five years, there was waning interest in realizing its aims, including supporting any kind of black equality under the law. Though that unit is meant to be taught primarily in middle school classrooms, I love getting to use the Facing History approach that emphasizes identity, membership, and obligation for lessons on complex topics in my high school U.S. History classroom.
The last thing I really appreciate about Facing History are the trainings. They don’t just give the teachers the primary sources. Facing History really makes sure that you have a grasp of the overarching narrative as you are curating primary sources for your students to engage with.
KS: I understand that you will use this $24,000 fellowship to pursue a master’s degree in Political Science at the University of Memphis where you hope to hone your abilities in constitutional interpretation. What inspired you to apply for the James Madison Graduate Fellowship?
DW: I was thinking through what I would like to know more about and found myself extremely interested in constitutional interpretation and Supreme Court decisions. It’s just not something that was included in my educational experience. I knew generally what the role of the Supreme Court was but I didn’t know much about any cases or decisions beyond Brown or Roe. I didn’t know the level of complexity involved in the court’s deliberations on very fundamental issues related to our democracy. And I think that I also applied for the fellowship because there’s a huge gap between being able to pass your PRAXIS exam as a history teacher and truly knowing your content. The teachers I admired the most are ones who have this excellent command of the material. And they are able to guide students through the questions because they’ve asked the questions themselves. In light of all of this, I decided that it was time to learn from experts in the field.
I was at the National Council for History Education and I just stumbled upon the James Madison Memorial Foundation table and they told me about the fellowship. After seeing it, it took me a year to decide that I actually should apply because as I became more interested in court decisions, I became interested in law school and constitutional law. But I just love the classroom and seeing kids process very complex realities about what it means to be American in a time when these questions are so important. One of the great things about the fellowship is that it allows me to stay in the classroom so class will be at night and [it] covers about 95% of the costs at the University of Memphis so that is the greatest blessing.
KS: Why do you feel that it is vital to deliver civic education to high school students using primary-source documents?
DW: Primary sources are incredibly important in the history classroom because it allows you as the teacher to allow students to investigate. You’re teaching a skill that students will then take with them as they watch the news, as they read an article online. They’re going through primary sources and deciding what is important here, what is the perspective or point of view of the writer, and what would have influenced their point of view given the historical context. These abilities are the mark of a skilled reader and one of the competencies we hope to have developed by the end of university. I think primary sources are really important for taking your own bias out of the situation as the educator, especially when you have a room where people may disagree with each other extensively. And yet, people think primary sources will eliminate bias in the classroom, but this is not so if the person who is teaching only knows one side of the story. That’s an area where I really want to grow. The more my classroom becomes a socioeconomically and ethnically diverse place, there’s a real need for well cultivated and well curated primary sources that challenge students to evaluate competing historical perspectives.
KS: For teachers eager to deliver civic education more effectively, what resources or approaches can you recommend?
DW: High school students have limited attention spans so you must be able to get to the heart of a topic quickly. A book I would really recommend is Controversy in the Classroom by Diana E. Hess. She talks about discourse in the social studies classroom as a means of fulfilling the democratic vision of public education. We talk about education in ways that are often so economically centered that we’ve lost a lot of the questions about what it means to be a good citizen in the United States. What are our rights and what are our responsibilities to others in this country? Hess says, “don’t shy away from the hard questions” and that you actually want to cultivate a contained, healthy sense of controversy in your classroom. And something like a Facing History classroom contract can be very helpful for entering into those conversations. People are afraid to change their minds when presented with facts that contradict their current perspective. The high school history classroom is the place to practice that.
KS: Is there anything else that we haven’t touched upon that you think would be good for our audience to know?
DW: The last thing I would emphasize is the need for teachers to model what it is to be a learner. I lead different professional development offerings for history teachers and believe it or not, history teachers don’t know everything about history. We’re all learning. I think that exemplifying humility and a passion for learning is the secret to engaging students in a topic like history that can be considered boring.
Students see high school as about relationships, about who they’re around and what their reputation is. I think that especially with today’s teenagers, you really need to show the relational, human side of you. They’re dying for someone to model humility, ask forgiveness, and show that you don’t always get it right because they want to know that they can do that, too. And too often, when we as teachers refuse to admit that we’re wrong, we teach kids that they can’t do the same. I love that, as teachers, we get to model what it means to be human in the classroom.
Facing History and Ourselves invites educators to use our Common Core-aligned Primary Source Collection to breathe life into important historical moments in the classroom.