unedited thoughts on our culture of violence. (on the anniversary of Sandy Hook, but sadly evergreen)

As a teacher, I wrestle with the fact that my place of work – an American grade school, ostensibly a place for nurturing and shaping the minds of young people – has become a focal point for the kind of violence that would likely be called a crime against humanity, an atrocity, a war crime, if anyone had bothered to declare a war.  I’ve reflected on it, and decided that if a shooter walked into my classroom, I am resigned to die if I can in any way save the students in my care.  How messed up is it that nearly two decades after Columbine a teacher in “the greatest country on Earth” has to mentally prep that way before a day of work?

I have a pretty vivid memory of writing the following piece during my lunch break as a preschool teacher, as news of the Sandy Hook shooting (five years ago today) spilled out.  Sadly, it stands unedited and evergreen today.   

when i see the four-year-olds at the preschool where i teach playing with a batman action figure or looking at a spider-man book and talking about how they kill bad guys, i feel really uncomfortable.  even when i correct them and tell them that spider-man and batman don’t kill people, it feels pretty lame.  i’m splitting hairs here, because it’s still a whole culture that from a very early age glorifies violence, desensitizing us to the real effects.  it makes me even more squeamish, because i know i was exactly like them at that age.


i guess that should give me hope that they won’t grow up completely complicit and complacent in our violent society – but i feel like i am also a minority.  americans – and american men especially – are not meant to be sensitive and reflective.  we are not made to turn the other cheek, unless it’s to wind up for the next punch.  we are not meant to be peace-loving,


so then i try to pinpoint the pivotal moments in my own evolution, the moments and influences and realizations that turned me.  i want to say it was 9-11, but i remember getting shouted down by my teacher and classmates that day when i said that i hoped the US would respond thoughtfully and reasonably to the attacks – that we might reflect on how our own violence and aggression in pursuit of our self-interest had lead us to this juncture.  i was told that sometimes we were confronted with a situation that left us with no alternative – we had no choice, we just had to kick some ass and show the world we were tough.


or self-destructive.


so already, at 9-11, there was something in me primed.  i know watching the war in iraq fanned those flames of outrage in me.  and i think, it’s burned more intensely in me as i’ve grown older.


there’s a part of me that wants to read the ultraviolent films of tarantino as a burlesque commentary of the rest of our society.  with all the blood and shocking cartoonishness of that violence, i want to think that he is asking his audience to be disturbed.  because we are so used to seeing characters on screen shot or blown up.  it has become a casual violence, and we think nothing of seeing the hero take a bullet in the leg and keep on running.  this is absurd, whereas tarantino’s absurd violence jars us as if the blood spurting out of his bullet wounds was actually splashing us in our faces.  but maybe that’s just wishful thinking.  maybe it’s just simple exploitation, and not an effort to truly disturb us – to ask us to really reflect on what we so unthinkingly consume in our pop culture junk food diet.


i’ve been reading a three volume history of the third reich.  the nazis cared a lot about culture and propaganda.  they called politics the art of shaping a formless mass into a people whose culture and values were focused around a singular set of societal goals, the same way an artist arranges raw materials into a finished statement.  and one of their aims was to restructure german society toward aggression, to constrain the very possibilities of action, so that conflict and struggle seemed to be the only reasonable framework through which to view the world.  coexistence and peace were not even alternatives, because they would literally never occur to people, any more than a light bulb or an automobile would occur to people a thousand years ago.  and they attempted this shift on so many fronts, right down to the language they used in press releases, speeches, and news articles – everything was a struggle overcome, a brutal challenge, a triumph of will. in that case it was deliberately conceived, deigned from the top. our situation seems to be a case of social one-up-manship, where we’re all trying to bluster our way to cool detachment in the face of the the truly alarming world we find ourselves living in.


i know that one reason i became a teacher is because i want to provide young people with a vocabulary that includes other words, like communicate, cooperate, compromise, coexist.


all those supposedly weak words we are taught to cringe at, at least subconsciously.


someone has to use those dirty words.  and it doesn’t take superpowers.

Write a Poem in Ancient Mayan

Here’s an idea to get your social studies students going — have them write a poem using the glyphic script of the ancient Maya. 

Background on the language can be found with this free Openendedsocialstudies lesson plan, The Written Language of the Ancient Maya.  Then, your students can use this dictionary to write a short poem in the Maya script, using at least a dozen glyphs. 

Have students share their poems with the class and reflect — does composing in Mayan effect the experience of writing and reading?

Chocolate beverages were popular among the ancient Mayas, who used special recipients to serve it. They often consumed it cold, hot, or spiced with chili, annatto, or vanilla. The inscription on this vessel records its function for drinking a specific type of cacao, and the name and place of residence of its owner, Tzakal u K’ahk’ Hutal Ek’, lord of Acanceh.

Find more free lessons on the Maya at Openendsocialstudies.org.  

There are also plenty of free lessons featuring other peoples from world history.

Conquest or Westward Expansion?: Native Americans and the Stories We Tell

Continue reading “Conquest or Westward Expansion?: Native Americans and the Stories We Tell”

Who made your smartphone? Globalization, raw materials, and slave labor from Potosi to Silicon Valley

Globalization is nothing new – the indigenous peoples slaving away in the Potosi mines 500 years ago could tell you all about it, while Europeans cracked the whip in order to buy Asian-made goods at affordable prices. Add in the fact that the mines were supplied with food and coca by African slaves laboring away in the low lands, and you have a template for the modern integrated global economy – exploitation, unequal rewards, and all. Continue reading “Who made your smartphone? Globalization, raw materials, and slave labor from Potosi to Silicon Valley”

Empathy in Action Bingo: A Different Kind of Social Studies

Continue reading “Empathy in Action Bingo: A Different Kind of Social Studies”

Now More Than Ever: Lesson Plans on the Basics of Islam and the Modern Middle East

Some of these girls are refugees from Syria and Iraq.  Now, through the mercy and compassion of others, they are safe, fortunate enough to attend school in Bahrain.  But there are many more just like them still hoping to escape the conflict and war that continues unabated in their homeland. 

If only the United States – self-proclaimed greatest nation on Earth  – could hold itself to the same standard as Bahrain.

The President of the United States – acting from fear, ignorance, and prejudice, in defiance of the America’s best virtues, of tolerance, inclusion, and mercy – has unilaterally decided that Islam is the enemy.

Educators, do your part! Teach the next generation of American students that Islam is not the enemy. The enemy is extremism, whether it comes from Aleppo or Washington.
Find time in your class for one of these lessons on the history, beliefs, culture, and humane values of Islam.

Continue reading “Now More Than Ever: Lesson Plans on the Basics of Islam and the Modern Middle East”

New Mini-Documentary: What Happens in a Mosque?

Our new Open Ended Social Studies video has gone live.  Use it in your classroom to supplement your lessons on Islam.  Kick start a conversation about salat and the Five Pillars.  Answer the question: What happens in a mosque?


Continue reading “New Mini-Documentary: What Happens in a Mosque?”

The Basics of Islam

Continue reading “The Basics of Islam”

Five Pillars to Hold Myself Up: What do Muslims Believe?

What are the basic teachings of Islam, and what does it mean to be a Muslim? Continue reading “Five Pillars to Hold Myself Up: What do Muslims Believe?”

Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam

Who was Muhammad, and how did the Arab world of the seventh century shape his teachings? Continue reading “Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam”