Louder than a Bomb


Over the summer I interned at Teach For America. In the corner of the office was a resource shelf with all kinds of books and videos for Teachers and Staff to check out. After walking by the shelf dozens of times I noticed one title in particular – “Louder Than A Bomb.”  I asked to borrow the film and didn’t know I’d picked up the best documentary I’ve seen in a while. Louder Than A Bomb is the world’s largest youth slam poetry contest held every year in Chicago. The “Louder Than A Bomb” documentary follows the stories of four Chicago-area school’s High School poetry teams as they figure out how to work together and ultimately share their stories during the competition. Poetry serves as an outlet for these students to capture their emotions and work through some very complex issues they face every day.

This documentary is an excellent resource for teachers to use in a high school English classroom. By introducing the concept of slam poetry and demonstrating how emotional and “real” these poems can be, the film sets an excellent example for a poetry / journaling piece of the curriculum. One could follow up a showing of the film by challenging students to write their own slam poetry and the class could host its own Louder Than A Bomb competition. For most students, the idea of sharing their own poetry with the rest of the class sounds terrifying. By giving students a chance to try and capture their emotions and develop their voice pushes students outside their comfort zone. For students that are struggling with stressful or traumatic events in their lives, a simple opportunity to share their story is the start to handling the difficulties they face.

Another facet of the poetry lesson can require students to craft a poem together. By sharing their stories and working as a group, students have the opportunity to work on cooperation and teamwork skills. For students that struggle to get started, teachers could provide a general topic or key words to get the creative process started. These starter concepts could focus around the core values of peace education, or one of the 7 pillars of peace building education

Of the core pillars of peace education, this documentary best relates to community building and reframing history non-violently. While I would not start the semester off by asking students to share personal poetry with the class, the exercise mentioned above is a great way for students to take that next step with their classmates and use this platform as a way to share a part of them that they may have never felt comfortable sharing before. The simple act of asking students to share their story may be just the kind of opportunity students have been waiting for. Also asking students to work as a team helps build cohesion as a group and develop ties amongst students in the class.

The more challenging pillar that Louder Than A Bomb integrates into the classroom is the ability to reframe personal history. By giving students an opportunity to share a chosen trauma or part of their up bringing, poetry can help students cope with their past and harness the lessons they’ve learned. By writing your own poetry students gain control over their story, which may be the first time they’ve felt control over an issue.

Lessons like this may go beyond the scope of a typical classroom session and the kind of support teachers can provide students. For students who don’t feel comfortable sharing their own stories, the teacher could provide instances in history that students could write a poem about that defines the event from a peaceful perspective. The stories and poems within this documentary are inspiring and challenging. Poetry is an underutilized medium for students today, and this type of lesson introduces the power of poetry in a modern way. But don’t take my word for it, just listen to their stories:

The Faces of the Library of Congress


The Library of Congress is an institution of which many are aware, but I suspect few people stop to consider the physical buildings which house our many ideas on democracy and the world.  The Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress was built in the last decade of the nineteenth century and serves as the site of the elegantly formal reading room.  The architecture of the building is fascinating, as there are scenes from antiquity to American history carved around the building.

All 33 Ethnological Heads before Installation:  http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/90714630/

Individual Heads from DCMemorials.com: http://www.dcmemorials.com/index_indiv0000195.htm

Caffin, Charles Henry, Handbook of the Library of Congress. Boston:  Curtis & Cameron, 1906: p. 12-18, GoogleBooks – http://books.google.com/books?id=elh2-oHNVrMC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

For the purposes of peace pedagogy, we need only look to arches around the lower level windows in the building.  Atop each arch, visitors can see 33 faces staring back at them.  These “ethnological heads” were included in the architecture at a time when many European countries were becoming global imperial powers and just before the onset of the Spanish-American War.  In just a few years, the scientific racism of eugenics would gain international popularity as institutions of higher education sought to classify the differing peoples across the globe.

This is a difficult topic that is often ignored or faintly touched upon in secondary education.  It is difficult to bring up topics of race in many classrooms, because there is an inherent conversation of class, power, and privilege.  For varying reasons, many students are afraid to describe their perceptions of the world around them today.

This resource can be used in many levels of education, depending on how far a facilitator wishes to go.  My vision is to use it in a secondary setting, allowing students to discuss differing interpretations of the presence of these heads before having them evaluate the presence of them as positive, negative, or other.

First, I would have students analyze the picture of all the faces without much introductory context.  Students should be encouraged to note the similarities and differences between the faces, then asked to guess the purpose of these heads and where they might be located.

Next, each students should take an individual face and research the title to it, which is the generic race to which the head is supposed to belong.  This can take as much time as you like and can culminate in whatever type of sharing fits your group of students.

After students have an understanding that the ethnological heads represent 33 distinct races scientist once believed existed on the planet, they should be asked to judge if these faces should be included on the Library of Congress or not.

Their opinions will more than likely fall into two categories.  First, the inclusion of such a diverse population on the exterior of the building is a positive good for it recognizes the contributions of the entire human race to the wealth of knowledge included in the Library of Congress.  At the other end of the spectrum is the idea that such ethnological representations and heads indicate a scientific racism that focuses on the differences between people in an attempt to create a hierarchy to protect global social stratification.

Questions to consider asking students of opinions anywhere on the spectrum may include:

  • What might it mean that the faces are all the same size?
  • Does it matter that European countries were busy taking over other lands?
  • What might these heads represent in the 1890s, while much of the nation, including Washington, DC was segregated?
  • Are these accurate representations of these races, or exaggerated caricatures?

As the purpose of Social Studies curriculum across the nation is to gain a better understanding of why we as societies (local to global) are the way we are, these particular questions and themes could fit anywhere in a high school curriculum.  World History focuses on the contributions of many cultures represented by these sculptures.  The Thomas Jefferson building itself is a text to be read in American History – and especially in a DC History class.  They are much too rich a source to be ignored.

There is no wrong way to read this architecture.  Quite literally, they are etched in stone for everyone to make of them what they will.  For students, they may represent a safe venue to explore topics of race and diversity within their own communities.  To ask them if the presence of ethnological heads on a building of national significance is appropriate or not allows students to consider these questions on both a national and international scale as well

As with many of the sources I have presented this course, I believe this resource helps with reframing history and engaging multiple intelligences.

A close look at the faces reveals a fairly comprehensive ancestry of our global society.  Included in this is several ethnicities categorized as “Middle Eastern” by today’s standards.  I believe it is important to point out, in the presence of much ignorance and misguided opinions in today’s political world, that such peoples have been contributing to world cultures since recorded history began.  These contributions were recognized by scholars across the world for centuries before our current one.  It seems much ignorance and racism in the world today comes from a cultural amnesia in the wake of modern political events.

The visual aspect of analyzing the heads allows for engaging students with Gardner’s spatial intelligence.  Naturalist students may focus on the idea of how the built environment of these heads relates to the world outside the library, while interpersonal students may interpret how this resource either encourages or discourages interaction within a global society.

The fact that there is not completely right or wrong way to read this architectural feature may foster an acceptance of multiple perspectives and help students understand conflicting views are acceptable both between people and within themselves.  This would help nurture emotional intelligence in all students as well.

Several other pillars of peace education could be worked into a discussion of the Library of Congress Ethnological Heads, but I feel to discuss them would be in excess in a blog post.  When I found out about them, my mind ran wild trying to figure out how to bring such a fascinating resource into my classroom.  This is one idea I had, but I am more than open to further ideas.  This is just too good a source for a history teacher with an academic interest in race to pass up!

Peace Learner Commitments

The above podcast was recorded on Wednesday, November 14th 2012 during the Peace Pedagogy (EDU-596) course I facilitate each year at American University.  As a final assignment for the class I asked each student to develop what I called a “Peace Learner Commitment.”  A Peace Learner Commitment is:

“…a pledge to yourself, and shared with our community, to achieve a goal that seeks to build and foster peaceable learning environments.  This environment can be built in the classroom, your community, among your peers, with your family, in the work place, or for yourself.  The choice is yours.

“The key is for an element of this course that resonated with you – skill, content, activity, attitude, technique, perspective, etc. – to bear fruit outside of the (tiny) classroom we shared this semester.”

In the podcast each student shares what their commitment is.  And listening to this podcast, I can honestly say that it has been a privilege spending an entire semester with this outstanding, kind, and inspirational group of learners. The 14 students all came to the course for different reasons, with different needs, and from different professional and academic backgrounds.  Given the diversity of the learning goals and needs, as the professor for the course I really had to give deep thought to what kinds of assignments were going to actually be useful to the class.

Stand Up and Speak Out


After reviewing my own reflections for our Peace Learner Agreements I decided that this program anti-discrimination and bullying program known as Stand Up Speak Out (SUSOSH) that I was involved with is something that I am proud of. It deserves recognition, and I believe that it should be implemented in other schools in communities across the country. It is relevant to peace education because of the long-term goals related to the seven pillars: community building, exploring approaches to peace, re-framing history, and transforming conflict non-violently, and lastly building life skills.

[Taken from the Minneapolis South High School website:] http://south.mpls.k12.mn.us/activities_s-z Stand Up Speak Out South High (SUSOSH) is a student driven peer education event at South High School in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Led by a core group of students on the SUSOSH Leadership Committee and staff advisors, SUSOSH trains over one hundred students in the art of peer education regarding homophobia, sexism, racism, and disability awareness. For two days, these peer leaders facilitate workshops for the entire student body of South High School in hopes of raising awareness and igniting change in the community. SUSOSH participants are committed to social justice at an unprecedented level at South High School.

SUSOSH, started as an initiative by the Gay Straight Alliance, Student Government, National Honor Society and Corinth Matera a dedicated, and well-respected teacher at South High. Based on student and teachers noticing an increase in vulgar and offensive language being used in the hallways of Minneapolis South High the conversation began of how we could transform our school environment to be more accepting and respectful of all people.

I think that this initiative can be implemented in many different learning environments but it is best done in middle and high schools where students and teachers can work together to create a comprehensive and effective social justice action plan to engage students of various backgrounds and grade levels. That way it is structured and can lead the way for transformational change and peace throughout an entire school or institution, not simply in one class or one group of students. As far as how to incorporate this into a class, I think that the need has to be there and a drive from students as well a support from faculty and staff members. Otherwise, there won’t be positive response from students if they don’t see positive leadership from their peers.

One year later, after local teen suicides related to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender bullying, South High was recognized for its anti-bullying measures related to SUSOSH. http://www.shsoutherner.net/news/2010/11/09/south-students-respond-to-recent-suicides/

After exploring this concept of Standing Up and Speaking Out I discovered a similar program on the edutopia site http://www.edutopia.org/blog/social-justice-lessons-activities-resources-rebecca-alber aimed at teachers to help better develop social and emotional learning through social justice lesson plans and resources.

How can this program be implemented in other schools? Who is responsible for doing this? How can we spread the word?

T.I. Meets Alexander Hamilton


Content and Context

Music is a versatile tool. In my classroom, there is almost always some sort of music, either from the radio, students singing, or as a part of the lesson plan. I often offer little explanation for why the songs are played, but more often than not, they are on topic. One of my favorite albums for such a topic is nothing but folk music campaign songs for every president. Music is best used when it is the focus of the lesson.

Many of my most effective lessons involve musical analysis. A friend of mine gave me a lesson plan where students analyze rap lyrics to determine humanist beliefs of the Renaissance in the lyrics. Apparently, Nas is a humanist. I also have a lesson where students analyze protest songs of the 1960s and 1970s before composing and performing their own.

For a resource I propose two music videos. The first is rapper T.I. singing “No Matter What.” The song discusses all that he has overcome, with the refrain, “Still I stand, no matter what.” This song is not unique in its message of perseverance and can absolutely be substituted by any other song you may know of with the same message.




The second video is “Alexander Hamilton” by Lin Manuel Miranda. Among history nerds such as myself, this is quite the video. The composer is currently composing a concept album on the life of Alexander Hamilton – someone who he sees as an 18th Century Tupac. Alexander Hamilton was born in poverty and lived quite the tumultuous life before finally being assassinated by Aaron Burr.



I would use these two sources in a high school history, English, or humanities class. Students should be mature enough to understand and appropriately discuss not only the themes and the lyrics themselves. The lesson or activity should be about 45 minutes long.

Activity, Objectives, and Goals

1) Students should watch the video for “No Matter What” and discuss the general message of the song. You may wish to do a brief bit of research on the biography of Atlanta rapper T.I. before facilitating this discussion. Some question prompts might be:

– What is the message to the chorus of the song?
– What are some issues T.I. has overcome or still struggles with today?
– How do you think he has been able to sustain a successful career as a rap artist despite his checkered past?

2) Explain to students the next video is about a similar figure, but one that might look and dress a lot differently than T.I. As they are watching, students should listen for issues Alexander Hamilton had to overcome in his lifetime. You may need to read up on Alexander Hamilton as well, but every word of the song is true. Some question prompts you may wish to use are:

– What were some of the obstacles to success that Alexander Hamilton faced?
– Do you think he had a lot of friends and admirers?
– Why is Hamilton on our $10 bill?
– Where was Hamilton born? Do you think he was viewed as an “outsider”?
– What was the key to Hamilton’s success?
– If you could ask Hamilton one question, what would it be?
– How did Hamilton die? Is that important?

Hopefully, student will want to investigate Hamilton further, or, perhaps they will want to know more about Aaron Burr. In order to get Lin Manuel Miranda’s take on Alexander Hamilton, you may wish to read this New York Times article.

3) As a concluding activity, there are any number of options. Students could complete a Venn Diagram comparing T.I. and Hamilton. They could compose a conversation between the two. They could write about what they most admire in both figures. In my school, I know there would be students who would want to write and perform their own songs. I would encourage them to do so, but after researching another historical figure. This is where student choice is essential. Let them go where their interests are, but provide enough parameters so you have something to grade.

The most important objective is to get students thinking about historical figures as real people with real issues and real stories.

So, what about peace education?

The three pillars of peace education supported by these sources are Reframing History, Nurturing Emotional Intelligence, and Engaging Multiple Learning Styles. For visual and auditory learners, the information from these songs is presented in a way that is much less dry than the typical history textbook. If you provide copies of the lyrics for both songs, prompt students to internalize the message, and allow for student performance, you have essentially hit at least five of Gardner’s 8 intelligences. There is something in this particular format for almost every learning style.

In presenting Alexander Hamilton as “the embodiment of hip-hop,” history is re-framed to be about people more like our contemporaries – and maybe in an educational context the students can understand. More importantly, though, T.I. and Alexander Hamilton are both individuals who succeeded or failed based on the power of their words and ideas. Both men have flaws, and in Hamilton’s case they were fatal, but the power of their words are undeniable.

The third pillar of peace education this activity may offer is nurturing emotional intelligence. So much of emotional acumen is recognizing emotions and their causes. If students can view historical figures as actual people, they can be encouraged to identify with these figures through common struggles. Perhaps they may even be inspired to persevere through great obstacle and become great themselves.

Could Lincoln Be Elected Today?



This website was brought to my attention through a publication for members of the National Council for the Social Studies.  In an attempt to promote responsible rhetoric, FlackCheck.org fights hyperbole in political advertisements by analyzing the criticism candidates give one another – often through mischaracterization.

During any election season we are constantly bombarded with political advertisements.  Students come often enter the classroom with little understanding of the actual candidates and issues.  Instead, they remember the inflammatory rhetoric in these advertisements or some overly simplistic version of the truth.

In an effort to reframe history to better understand today, flackcheck.org has produced a series of attack ads that help answer the question, “Could Lincoln be Elected Today?”  I have used similar resources in U.S. History classes from fifth to twelfth grade.


Each of these advertisements treats the volatile election of 1864 as a modern election, complete with Super PAC funded advertisements for the two main candidates.  The Civil War raged as Lincoln ran against a former general who promised a swift end to the war, even if it meant losing the Southern states.  Politics in the era were not gentlemanly or more civilized than today.  The methods of delivering the message – and the language employed – were of a different era, but the desire to win at any cost has been a part of American politics from as early as 1824 with the “Corrupt Bargain.”

I plan to use these attack advertisements in the coming weeks as students study the Civil War at the same time as the 2012 Presidential election.  We have already analyzed political advertisements in the twentieth century via the website LivingroomCandidate.org, and students are paying closer attention to this election’s advertisements.  My plan is to have students fact check the Lincoln advertisements in order to develop their research and critical thinking skills.

One goal of utilizing this resource is to reframe history in such a way that students understand the past is complicated.  Lincoln was not guaranteed a second term and the nation would be vastly different if he had been defeated by George McClellan.  The election was contentious, and many people looked to McClellan to bring peace.  The war certainly would have ended, but we know the absence of war does not necessarily mean peace.  These advertisements can help students understand the divided nature of the country, even among those on the side of the Union.  This can help students understand Lincoln as something more than a man carved in marble.

The other pillar of peace education implicit in this resource is community building.  By analyzing attack ads from another century, students are far enough removed from the era so they can look more closely at the political tactics in the advertisements.  In doing so, students learn the skills necessary to evaluate political advertisements for the 2012 election.  The use of this resource takes the contentiousness away from a political discussion, which can help build community among a heterogeneous group of students.