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.”

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