Ms. Curtis & Mr. Schumann's Foundations of World History

This page serves as an open letter to all my students and their parent(s) or guardian(s).  The purpose of this letter is for you to get to know me better.  I will share with you the reasons why I became a teacher, my personal beliefs about the purposes of public education, and how those beliefs inform my day-to-day teaching practice.  I apologize in advance for the length of this letter, but as my students know, I have a lot to say. 
So here goes.

Why I Teach
Before I became a teacher I was an attorney for five years.  People often ask me why I quit practicing law to become a teacher.  “I was tired of the lawyer jokes,” I respond.  This approach usually derails the conversation so I am not forced to rationalize my decision in any real and meaningful way.   

But when I am being completely honest with myself, I have always wanted to be a teacher.  Some people are born into poverty.  Others are born into the mafia.  I was born into teaching.  Both my parents are teachers.  Many of my aunts, uncles, and cousins are teachers.  After graduating college, I chose to go to law school instead of into teaching as a last act of childhood rebellion.  

Seven years later, I took the first step toward recovery—admission.  When I told my wife and my parents I wanted to become a teacher, their response surprised me, “We know.  What took you so long?”  The discovery of my latent passion for teaching was caused in part by my experience as an attorney.  For five years, I had a unique law practice.  I advised various K-12 public school districts and was the criminal prosecutor for a small town.  Most people don’t see the connection between the two areas of my practice.  At first, I didn’t either.  Then one day my two separate worlds collided.  

It was a rainy April day.  In the morning, I attended a student discipline hearing at a local high.  This hearing was no different from the dozens of similar hearings I had done in the past.  The district had expelled a high school student for possessing drugs at school.  As the attorney for the school district I had only one job, advocate zealously for the student’s expulsion to ensure the safety of the school.  I knew the hearing officer would probably affirm the expulsion which meant that this child's education in public school was, in all likelihood, coming to an end.  

After the hearing, I drove across town in time for the start of criminal court.  I arrived to a crate full of files and a courtroom crammed with defendants.  One of the many cases on the docket that afternoon involved a young man charged with possession of marijuana.  His rap sheet was two pages long, never a good sign.  He wanted to plead guilty to take advantage of my plea offer.  To complete this process, he had to fill out a form.  After asking his name and age, the third question on the form read: “I went through the ____ grade.”  The young man scribbled 9th in handwriting that was barely legible.  The rest of the form explained his constitutional rights.  I watched as his eyes glazed over the sea of small print on the page.  I had learned from experience that I needed to explain these rights in a way he would understand.  In other words, in two minutes I need to teach him everything he failed to learn about constitutional rights in high school because he had dropped out.  After we finished, I immediately reflected on the similarities between the two young men I had encountered that day.  Was the expelled student’s fate as a career criminal already predetermined?

I find it ironic the two primary functions of local and state governments are to educate people when they are children and to lock them up when they are adults.  Too often our society’s preoccupation with the latter function hinders our efforts to solve the former one.  As Linda Darling Hammond noted in her article “Restoring Our Schools”, we spend $30,000 per year keeping people in jail, instead of spending $10,000 ensuring adequate education for these same people.  The experience I described above was not unique.  Most of the criminal defendants I encountered had dropped out of high school and were functionally illiterate.  As a society we are literally working against our own self interests by not investing more in primary and secondary education.  Instead of getting at the root of the problem, we continue to remove the weed hoping it won’t regrow.  As an attorney, I was powerless to solve this problem.  I believe teaching is the only way to truly get at the root of this issue.  Maybe I am being overly idealistic but I believe I can influence students to value their education and to make better decisions then the two young men in my story.  This is the reason I became a teacher.  

The Purposes of Public Eduction

This brings me to my next question: What are the purposes of public education and who decides those purposes?  As an aspiring teacher of government, I will start with the easy answer.  In a democracy, the people ultimately decide the purposes of public education.  In Washington State, the people, acting through their elected representatives, have passed a law declaring those purposes.  RCW 28A.150.210 states: “The goal of the basic education act for the schools of the state of Washington . . . shall be to provide students with the opportunity to become responsible and respectful global citizens, to contribute to their economic well-being and that of their families and communities, to explore and understand different perspectives, and to enjoy productive and satisfying lives.” 

While I agree with these four purposes of public education, I prefer an even simpler explanation.  I think public education serves two purposes—one focused on developing the student as an individual and the other addressing more broadly society’s interest in developing educated citizens. 

The Engine of Personal Development

Nelson Mandela writes in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom: “Education is the great engine of personal development.  It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that the child of farmworkers can become the president of a great nation.”  I agree with Mandela generally about education’s function, but I would articulate the specific purpose of public education in slightly different terms.   I believe the first purpose of public education is to provide children an equal opportunity for individual success and personal development through the attainment of commonly valued knowledge and skills.   As Justice Warren astutely noted in Brown v. Board of Education: “In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.”  Educational opportunity is the key to individual success, which in our society is represented by the attainment of the American Dream.  

Thomas Jefferson originally made the connection between public education and the ideology of the American Dream stating: “Education creates a ruling aristocracy constrained by temperance and wisdom; when education is public and universal, it is an aristocracy to which all can belong.  At its best, the American dream of a free and equal society governed by judicious citizens has been this dream of an aristocracy of everyone.”  This theory of public education advanced by Jefferson assumes that when education is open to all people regardless of their economic or social status, everyone has an equal opportunity to achieve the American Dream.  This theory has one glaring flaw.  It is based on the false premise that every child’s education is equal.  In reality, every school is different, every teacher is different, and every child is different.  More importantly, our society often perpetuates inequalities based on our differences in class, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and abilities.  

Although there may be no way to reach the ultimate aspirational goal of truly equal education, the worst thing we can do as a society is to stop trying to build an equal playing field.  As a teacher, I will continually advocate and work towards creating a more equitable classroom, a more equitable school, a more equitable district, and a more equitable education system.  I believe this is my moral responsibility as a teacher operating under the first goal of the public school system.

Fighting off Idiocy 

I believe the second purpose of public education is to train children for citizenship in our democracy.  The health and wellbeing of a democracy is tied directly to the existence of an informed and caring body of citizens.  My professor, Walter Parker, explains this second purpose using two words that originated in Ancient Greece, but that have different meanings today.  In Ancient Greece, a person who was selfish and inattentive to public concerns was called an idiot.  The Greeks believed that a society could not thrive until the individuals within it accepted their roles as active and knowledgable public persons, a stage in life the Greeks referred to as puberty.  So one central role of public schools today is to combat idiocy by helping young self-centered people “enter the social consciousness of puberty.”   

Children are not born understanding democratic principles of equality, justice, liberty, empathy, and respect for differing points of view.  These are values of a civil society that must be taught anew to each generation of children.  Children must also learn to think critically, to evaluate the credibility of sources, to form their own opinions about public issues and to respectfully express those opinions in the marketplace of our pluralistic society.  Public schools can potentially offer children an ideal setting for honing these skills.  Structured debate and deliberation of ideas is most effective in diverse settings where multiple perspectives are represented.  One would assume that the “public” nature of public schools would ensure the presence of  people with different beliefs, values, languages, races, genders, classes, religions, sexual orientations, and abilities.  Unfortunately, district and state policies are increasingly leading to resegregation and the diminishment of opportunities for these valuable interactions.      

My Teaching Philosophy

Now that I have identified what I believe to be the two paramount purposes of public education and some of the inherent obstacles to achieving them, I need to explain how my teaching practices facilitate student's achievement of these goals.  With respect to the first goal, I believe in best way to unlock students' potential as learners is through lessons that teach social studies content deeply, while simultaneous developing valuable skills and civic awareness.  Consequently, I teach using four classic social studies methods: (1) inquiry (students revise hypotheses on a question resulting in a claim supported by evidence); (2) concept formation (students form and apply important social studies concepts); (3) deliberation (students study and discuss a controversial issue); and (4) seminar (students read and discuss a powerful text).  

At the same time, I believe that every child that walks through my door brings with them a unique set of skills for learning.  Consequently, I strive whenever possible to differentiate my instruction so that it is tailored to the unique needs of each student.  The first step in this process is really getting to know each of my students in depth (Tomlinson & McTighe, 2006).  With over 130 new faces each year this can be quite a challenge.  So, I use a number of different strategies accomplish this objective.  First, I have students complete a background survey at the beginning of the course.  Second, I ask students to create a one-page snapshot autobiography illustrating four critical events in their life.  Finally, I encourage students to communicate with me about their needs through the comment box on this website.  

To prepare students for citizenship in our democracy, the second purpose of public education, I believe in establishing a democratic classroom.  According to Steven Wolk, the underlying principles of democratic classroom are "choice, discourse, social responsibility, community, critical inquiry, authentic learning, and teaching relevant and creative curriculum" (Wolk 2003).  I believe the existance of these elements in the classroom lead not only to deeper and more meaningful learning, but also to increased tolerance, respectful academic dialogue, civic engagement, and moral accountability, all characteristics of the model citizens the public education system is designed to produce.  

In a democratic classroom, classroom management is "central to the curriculum and the classroom experience" (Wolk 2003).  In other words, students should have a voice in how their classroom is managed (Pass, 2007).  Consequently, I believe in allowing my class to create and vote on classroom norms (Pass, 2007).  These norms form a classroom constitution which we all agree to follow in order to create a supportive and high functioning learning environment.    

Being a student in a democratic class demands a number of things.  First, each student in the community is  responsible for each others success or failure. To achieve mutual success we must always remember to share our ideas with others and to put in good effort to move the group forward.  The second demand of students in a democratic classroom is simple: we all must follow the rules we have mutually agreed to.  While I, as teacher, retain final authority for enforcing these rules (in addition to the rules of the school), I expect students to enforce these rules against one another, since I am not omnipotent.   

Another important feature of a democratic classroom is healthy discourse and debate (Wolk 2003).  As Justice Brennan so eloquently stated: "The classroom is peculiarly the 'marketplace of ideas.'  The Nation's future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to that robust exchange of ideas which discovers truth 'out of a multitude of tongues, [rather] than through any kind of authoritative selection....'"  In all of my classes, we debate important and oftentimes controversial issues.  Therefore, respecting others opinions, namely their right to have them, is an unassailable expectation in my class.     
Finally, in a democratic classroom the construction of knowledge is prized over the memorization of it (Wolk, 2003).  Learning is seen as a transaction that takes place between all of the participants: teacher to student, student to teacher, and student to student.  One invaluable method for constructing knowledge is by asking questions.  I know it is cliche, but in my class there really is no such thing as a dumb question.  

I believe my most effective weapon in maintaining "classroom management" is good engaging curriculum.  When I am deciding what I should teach, I ask myself three questions.  First, is the content authentic?  I describe authentic content as having a deeper meaning or broader application than simply trivia (i.e., unimportant details such as dates, battles, etc.).  Second, is the content relevant?  To me, relevant content has have some identifiable connection either to the students' lives or the world more generally today.  Third, is the content culturally responsive?  Culturally responsive content takes into consideration the diversity that exists in the student's identities and their learning styles (Culturally Responsive Teaching). 
I know that despite my best efforts, some students will undoubtedly struggle in my class.  I equate my approach to dealing with a struggling student like being a good detective.  A bad detective will try to solve a case by drawing conclusions based upon only the first couple of clues he finds.  However, as anyone who has watched Law & Order can attest to, the detective’s initial suspect never ends up being the killer.  Likewise, a bad teacher may try to explain a student’s struggles by relying, at first blush, on the simplest and easiest explanations (e.g., the student is not working hard enough, the student is just not good at the subject).  By contrast, good detectives rigorously chase down all the leads or clues, even those that are the most complex or time-consuming, before offering a solution to the case.  I believe good teachers do the same thing.  By searching for clues and getting closer to my students’ failure, I often learn the causes of that failure are often extremely complex and deeply rooted in deficiencies in my own instruction, and not a failure of the student.  


The structural challenges facing public education in America in the 21st century are daunting.  They include shrinking school budgets, dwindling diversity, and entrenched economic and social inequity.  The consequence of educational failure—crowded prisons full of illiterate dropouts—is the status quo.  These challenges are constantly working to undermine the two primary objectives of public education, personal development and citizenship training.  Despite these obstacles, I am still optimistic about the future because I am a member of the most powerful force for change—teaching.  

I hope this letter has given you some insight into my personal beliefs about teaching.  I look forward to getting to know each of you better, whether you are a student or parent/guardian of a student.  As always, don't hesitate to talk to me if something is on your mind.  

Have a great day and Go Totems,

Jason Schumann