My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Monday, September 5, 2022

September 5, 2022: APUSH Studying: Mrs. Frankel

[I’m not the only one gearing up for a new school year at the moment—so are my 11th and 10th grade (!!!) sons. That includes my 11th grader taking AP US History, a complicated and controversial and very AmericanStudies high school class. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of APUSH contexts—share your responses and your thoughts on all things high school US history for a crowd-sourced weekend post sure to make the honor roll!]

On a small moment that reveals two layers to what makes a great history teacher.

I was fortunate enough to have a number of phenomenal teachers during my four years at Charlottesville High School, including Proal Heartwell and all those I wrote about in this tribute post. To some degree I’ve written about those teachers in particular not just because they were all great (although yes for sure), but also because I have had individualized enough experiences with them (both during high school and in some cases afterward) that I really got to know them well on a more personal level. That wasn’t the case with my AP US History teacher in 11th grade, Mrs. Frankel (I don’t even remember her first name and haven’t been able to find it online). But I have nothing but the fondest memories for that class and year, and would connect them to one seemingly small but very telling moment: interesting the July 1905 Niagara Falls convention that launched The Niagara Movement, Mrs. Frankel said “Niagara Falls” dramatically and then paused…waiting for someone (indeed for me specifically, she noted once I delivered) to add, “Slowly I turned…step by step…”

Again, a small moment, and a deeply silly one at that (I’m quite sure it was the only time, then or since, that I’ve had any occasion to quote The Three Stooges in any class). But the silliness itself is one of the two things I want to use this moment to highlight about what made both Mrs. Frankel’s teaching and her class so successful. APUSH is one of those classes that has a reputation for being extremely challenging—that was true back in the early 1990s, and it’s even truer today, as my son has heard horror stories about the workload and late nights and so on. To some degree those characteristics are likely inevitable, and it certainly was one of my most difficult high school classes and I imagine will be the same for my son. But one of my most defining beliefs as a teacher is that the tone of a class can go a long way toward making the dynamic less challenging and more welcoming, even (perhaps especially) if the workload and expectations remain the same. Even though I only remember this one moment specifically, I have a very clear sense that Mrs. Frankel created precisely such a warm and welcoming tone overall, and it made a huge difference in my experience of APUSH (and perhaps my deepening interest in all things AmericanStudying).

On that last note, I would also argue that this seemingly small moment reveals an important truth about not just teaching overall, but history education in particular. APUSH has long been (and to at least a degree I’m sure remains) a class that can be far too easily associated with the most mundane form of history education, the kind that’s about learning and memorizing and regurgitating a large collection of facts and figures, details and dates. The Niagara conference is an example: remembering the July 1905 dates, remembering the group of individuals (including W.E.B. Du Bois and William Monroe Trotter) who took part, remembering the facts about the subsequent Niagara Movement conferences held elsewhere, and so on. I’m sure we learned those things in APUSH, and that I remembered them well enough for the assessments in that class and the end of year AP Exam alike. But that’s not what history is, and it’s not what makes history classes memorable and successful. For that, we need the human side, the stories, the significance, and, yes, the silliness. My APUSH had plenty of all of those, and while they might not have showed up on the exam, they and their excellent teacher have stuck with me long after that standardized test has faded.

Next APUSH context tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Contexts or stories for APUSH or high school history you’d share? Great teachers you’d highlight?

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