Howard Zinn Was Not My Uncle, But I’d Be Proud to Be Related to Him

February 4, 2010

The accumulation of small, optimistic acts produces quality in our culture and in your life. Our culture resonates in tense times to individual acts of grace. • Jennifer James

I am a relentless optimist. That’s what some of my high school students called me when my pretty-much-perpetual smile greeted even those who had not done their work or those whose teenage grumpiness armored them daily. Optimism and hope are inextricably entwined. The optimist in me hopes that things will be better and knows that pessimism will not likely help them to become so.

In The Passionate Teacher, Robert L. Fried (1995) says that “the stance we take in our homes and classrooms, our school and community, grows from the core values and beliefs we develop, articulate, test our, and commit ourselves to put into practice in spite of the obstacles that modern life and society place in our path.” When you’re a student, it is tempting to think of yourself as a kind of neutral element in the classroom, there to receive what is given, responsible only for your presence and for doing the work that’s assigned and for participating while you are there. But you have a far greater responsibility. Your actions can either help a teacher stay motivated and enthusiastic despite the ongoing realities of the job or they can add to the demotivation that even the most relentless optimist can descend into.

You matter more than you know. Your caring about your work matters. Your caring about your classmates matters. Your small acts of generosity and understanding matter. Your eagerness to learn matters. Sometimes it is just one student who can make a difference in sustaining a teacher’s optimism and keeping hope alive.

Howard Zinn died recently. Perhaps he is related to my husband’s family. I do not know, and although it would be easy to claim him, I do not. This activist and author—one of my favorites is A People’s History of the United States (1980)—wrote many things that resonate with me, including these lines from “The Optimism of Uncertainty” (2004):

An optimist isn’t necessarily a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

There are many teacher-optimists. We have to be. Teaching is not an easy job even though it might appear to be from the outside. Most of us who teach do this work because we believe that we can make a difference in the world not just by sharing the specific subjects we are hired to teach, but by nurturing the joys of creative learning and mindful thinking throughout life. Every student who sees that being a learner is about so much more than simply passing a class inspires us to keep going.

What classroom choices are you making that help keep optimism and hope alive?

Focusing our attention—daily and hourly—not on what is wrong, but on what we love and value, allows us to participate in the birth of a better future, ushered in by the choices we make each and every day.
• Carol Pearson

I will act as if what I do makes a difference.
• William James

Almost anything you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.
• Mahatma Gandhi



  1. I’d like to believe that the classroom choices I make to keep optimism and hope alive are:
    – acting as if I make a difference (stolen from William James in the above quote)
    – actively and purposely looking for learning and learning opportunities in everything I do and encounter
    – modeling ‘humanness’ to students and others around me

  2. Use all the colors!

  3. In class assignment:
    Slogan on a cut out T-shirt


  4. In class assignment: T-Shirt “Discover Pursue Soar”

  5. Each day offers the chance for a new start.

  6. My class slogan was “A work in Progress” and I put it on a construction cone.

  7. I believe teaching is all about relationships. It doesn’t matter the type of curriculum you use if there is trust, understanding, and acceptance in a classroom there will be learning. Students don’t remember what you teach them but they remember how you treat them. How we relate to our students will determine the amount of learning that will occur and if they will continue to be learners throughout their lives.

    My slogo – The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.

    • As I reflect on my entire experience in the MAT program, I simply cannot focus solely on my experience in my spring placement. I have to examine my entire experience in the MAT program, as well as all my experiences in all my placements. I had a few “disasters” that caused me a great deal of stress this past year. I had to rewrite a majority of my winter work sample, I threw my neck out so bad that I could barely sit for more than 10 minutes at a time, I realized two weeks before the end of the fall term I hadn’t written half of the essays that were due in Dr. Zinn’s class, I forgot to show up to my spring placement one day, and my Action Research Project almost didn’t work out. These were stressful situations, but not the end of the world. Although I benefited tremendously from the actual work I did for my classes, my experience in the MAT program was also enriched through my contacts with fellow students.
      When I first came into the MAT program I was unsure of myself and my abilities, as an educator. I knew that I wanted to teach, but didn’t know if I would have a passion for it. Today, I am sure I made the right decision. My passion for teaching is now one of the most powerful parts of my identity. I have learned more from my students about what type of person I truly am. My students have shown me that I have the capability to enrich and enhance their lives, as much as they can enrich and enhance mine.
      I have written many reflective essays, over the last year. Some of them made me sad while some of them brought me joy. The reflective essays I have written are journal of a year long journey of growth and introspective thought. I cannot sum up my experience in one essay, but instead can reflect on the changes I have gone through for good or ill.
      My confidence has grown exponentially. This confidence is not egotistical in nature; it is a confidence in my ability to communicate with students. I have spoken to students one-on-one about situations that have caused me to be concerned about them and caused me to be proud of them, as well. At times, I know I have been unsuccessful in creating a positive classroom environment; however in general I believe I have succeeded in creating a classroom environment that is conducive to learning. Even though some students seemed indifferent to my presence many others have told me I am one of the greatest teachers they ever had. My experience in the classroom this year has taught me that I want to continue to grow as a teacher.
      When I first came into the MAT program, I didn’t realize how powerful the statement “being student centered” really was. Through my placements and the guidance of my CT’s, I learned what values inside of me are the most important to pass onto my students. I also learned from my CT’s what caring about each student on an individual basis looks like and how it is done. By incorporating the knowledge my CT’s passed onto me, I was then able to find the ability in myself to be student centered.
      This past year has taught me that I am a teacher who cares. I have learned I can accomplish anything I set my mind to. I have learned I would go to any length to ensure my students receive the best education possible from me. This past year has taught me there is so much more diversity in the world than what I saw before. I have learned my students depend on me and look to me for guidance. This past year has taught me that if I remain focused on the needs of my students and never put my own above theirs, I will be a successful educator.

  8. One of our greatest joys as faculty is watching students develop into teachers. In fact, you’ve inspired me and I will be doing my own reflecting about this!! It’s a delight to have gotten to know you this year. W-OZ

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