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Channeling Zinn

news2_USALocal history teacher brings the Zinn Education Project to the classroom

The wall behind Jeff Matlock’s desk is covered with photographs and paintings of his heroes from American history: Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Abraham Lincoln, and Jane Adams among them. There is a photograph of women marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in 1913 with a sign that reads, “I wish Ma could vote!” And, as if to encapsulate Matlock’s “nothing is black and white” view on history, he also has two contrasting photographs beside one another: one of a group protesting World War I with signs that say “Don’t send our boys to die in a useless war,” and the other, a shot of U.S. soldiers wading ashore at Omaha Beach on D-Day. “There are two sides to every story,” he says simply.

Squeezed in beside these notable figures from history is the one who instilled this all-inclusive attitude in him, and perhaps his favorite hero of them all: late historian, author and activist Howard Zinn.

Matlock was a history buff from an early age. He hardly had to study for tests and could spout off historical dates without fail. But it wasn’t until he picked up a copy of Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” as a teenager that history became more than dates and places for him. “I felt like my world totally opened up into something I’d never thought of before,” he remembers. “I never saw history as being something that could be less than concrete. I thought ‘these are facts, this is the way it is.’ But what Zinn taught me was that nothing is absolute.”

Now an eighth grade U.S. History teacher at Scotts Valley Middle School, where he’s been teaching for 18 years, Matlock finds endless opportunities to incorporate Zinn into the lesson plans. This will be easier for him to do next school year thanks to the Zinn Education Project (a joint effort of nonprofits Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change), which has awarded him with a full classroom set of “A People’s History” and other Zinn teaching materials. Matlock was one of 20 teachers from across the country to win The Zinn Education Project’s “Teaching Outside the Textbook” essay contest.

“It wasn’t hard to write,” he says with a shrug. “I wrote about how Howard Zinn has affected my teaching and therefore my classrooms throughout the years.”

His examples of this are numerous. One lesson comes at the beginning of the school year, when he has the class review the story of Christopher Columbus. Half of the class reads about it in the textbook (“They know the story, they’ve been told a thousand times,” he says), and the other half reads from Zinn. Afterward, they make a list contrasting the stories and discuss which is the truth. It leads seamlessly into the over-arching, Zinn-infused theme in Matlock’s teaching: “It usually takes a few minutes but eventually someone will say, ‘They’re both right,’” he says. “[The kids realize that] they are both telling the same story but they’re leaving things out. That there are no absolutes in history.”

As with their similar discussions of the Seneca Falls Convention, the Revolutionary War, and the Mexican-American War, hearing the alternate story is quite an eye-opener. “They respond the way I did when I was in high school—I was shocked,” says Matlock. “Why didn’t I know this? Who is leaving this out, and why is this person being silenced?”

Matlocks finds the wealth of primary stories in “A People’s History”—letters, speeches, and other firsthand accounts Zinn includes—to be invaluable additions to the bland state-approved textbook. “The approved list of textbooks consists of books that are so wiped clean by the Left and the Right so as not to offend anybody, that it’s just a lot of pictures, a lot of color, a lot of bold face, and hardly any meat,” he says.

Although he has only just returned from a two-week trip to the East Coast with 96 of his students, Matlock is already pining to start renovating his lesson plans using “A People’s History” and the other Zinn Education Project materials. There’s only one catch.

“Zinn isn’t on the STAR test, so I do have to focus on what the textbook is saying and be aware of what questions they’ll be asked,” says Matlock. The Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) exams are annual evaluations of what students are learning in California classrooms—in the minds of many teachers, making it more about “teaching to the test” than teaching toward understanding. The test does not affect a student’s grades, class placement, or college application; the results are strictly used for determining a school’s statewide rank (and, thus, their level of funding). Scotts Valley Middle School already has a “bare bones” budget due to the small district size, says Matlock. But, according to 2009 STAR test results, the school’s eighth graders did very well on the history portion, with the largest group of them (39 percent) receiving “Advanced” marks.

Still, for Matlock—a man, like Zinn, who believes that history is never simply told—the trick remains how to fit it all into one school year. And now that they’re fully equipped with Zinn materials, the eighth-graders at Scotts Valley Middle School will find their curriculum more full than ever.

“We might get behind, but I have to decide what my role is,” says Matlock. “Is my role to make sure they do well on the test, or is my role to make sure they are thinking critically, developing their minds and appreciating history?

“I just have to give them as many sides of the story as I can,” he continues. “You can never have enough, and the story will never be complete—but that doesn’t mean you don’t try to complete it.”

Comments (5)Add Comment
...
written by TJ, July 02, 2010
Mr. Wejamn,

Nothing about what I said should lead you to believe that I haven't had extensive experience researching and writing history with a direct concentration on the use and interpretation of primary sources. In fact, the main difference between you and I is that I am educated in the field of History and qualified to criticize Mr. Zinn's methods because I have actually studied historiography. You may be surprised to know that there are many very liberal professors at UCSC, the center of the evil liberal universe according to the conservative media, who originally pointed me to the folly of Mr. Zinn's writing. Honestly, I don't want to read a history text written by Rush Limbaugh and I don't want to read one by Howard Zinn. Both of them have a very clear agenda and I honestly resent walking away from a book entitled A People's History of the United States and feeling like the United States had wronged the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor. I almost completed and sent my apology letter to the grave of Hirohito before I came to my senses...

What you fail to realize is that dissent is good and that traditional History classes have failed to value the contribution of all Americans equally. Truly, there are more stories to be told. Yet, that Howard Zinn has told some of these stories doesn't make his scholarship good. Indeed, historians of all persuasions have criticized Mr. Zinn for his revisionist 70's socialist scribbling and his stifling reliance on class conflict as a convenient trope. Fortunately, for the current historical community, scholars have more sophisticated analyses that don't rely on social conflict as the prime mover of historical events.

Yes, John, you can embrace a more socially just view of history without relying on tropes like the "social control theory" rife in Mr. Zinn's writing and you'd be better off for it. I'd recommend some books for you that were written using more current interpretative techniques but I'm afraid they would be lost on you. In the meantime, you can read Rush Limbaugh's A Rich Person's History of the World so you can feel more comfortable living on the poles of current intellectual thought. Until then, have fun reading your "pop" History.
Zinn is well-reseached
written by John Wejamn, July 01, 2010
"Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence." J. Adams. The above comment by TJ and Fraud Watch surprise me since both claim to have a degree in History. To claim that Zinn is the "exact polar opposite" of the history textbooks shows ignorance and a lack of educated research. It sounds as if the above commentaries are from people who simply scan articles and books and pretend to make intelligent conversation that only comes across as pretentious babble. I wonder if either has read Zinn's book. Perhaps they simply did a quick Google search and copied/pasted their comments from websites here. It is clear that Zinn's research was meticulous and updated yearly.(check his extensive bibliography). In his book, he cites historians that have more mainstream views than his own, yet the above comments call Zinn a "hack". His book is based on those annoying facts that one can find quite inconvenient when writing history textbooks for students. I applaud Mr. Matlock for not only teaching what is required by the State of California, but also going beyond what is required with Zinn's book and a plethora of primary sources. It seems the State's intention is to produce students who simply know basic facts. Mr. Matlock's intentions are to produce students who question and engage in history, something lacking in our country today. Do us all a favor Fraud Watch and TJ: Stay home and continue your armchair approach to history; however, never get into the occupation of teaching.
Howard Zinn Is a Hack
written by TJ, June 30, 2010
Reading Howard Zinn's "history" is the best proof that history can be poorly written and even more poorly researched. Indeed, I have a degree from UCSC in History and even I think this man is a hack. People of America, there are plenty of left-leaning "people's" historians out there that are far more accurate and even handed than Howard Zinn. People spend all day complaining about the whitewashed histories we all grew up on and then embrace the exact polar opposite that is just as poorly researched. Sounds like the teacher above got through school by just reading textbooks and now he's passing this lack of scholarship on to his students...Try using some real sources!
Lots of adults should read Zinn's book
written by Martin, June 30, 2010
Really glad to hear there is someone teaching that the MSM version of History is basically a wrong or at least incomplete.
Howard Zinn
written by Fraud Watch, June 30, 2010
Yes, reading Zinn's version of events has also taught me that History can be less than accurate. I have a degree in History from UCSC and even I think this man is a poor historian.

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