Advice to seniors

I wrote these words originally for the class of 2015 but I think & hope, two years later, that the advice still stands. My school’s latest batch of seniors threw their hats in the air tonight. In their honor, I’ll share these thoughts again here. I hope it’s not too preachy, hokey, or obvious. But these are things I think young people should know.

Advice to Seniors
May, 2015

Know this: you are not supposed to have everything—possibly, you are not supposed to have anything—figured out. Knowing the questions is much more important than knowing the answers. There is more wisdom in asking than in answering. Embrace the unknown. Embrace confusion. Cultivate an enthusiasm for question marks. Be open to, and excited by, the unexpected.

Learn to improvise.

Frequent taco trucks.

Eat watermelon in the summer, as much of it as you can.

Develop a taste for Indian food, and, wherever you live, know which Indian restaurants you like the best and why.

Prepare meals for and with your friends.

Unless you are in love or in deep conversation with a friend and it’s already almost sunrise, there is never a good reason to stay up all night.  Work—schoolwork or otherwise—is not a good enough reason: one or two all-nighters, total, is the most you should experience in life, for the sake of school or work.

Practice forgiveness.  Forgive everyone, including yourself.  The strength of your character depends upon your ability to forgive.

Seek out the people that inspire you.  Surround yourself with them.

Listen to people you disagree with.  Work to understand what they really think, and why.  Assume they may be right.

Try to know everyone.

Make friends with people who do not look, talk, think, or act like you.  You need each other in your lives.

Smile at strangers.

When you see them on the street, look homeless people in the eye.

Do not be afraid to say hello.

Talk to old people.  Listen to old people.  Ask them questions.  Not just your grandparents, either.

Ask kids questions.  Listen to their answers.

Do not be afraid of your own singing voice.  Never tell anyone, “I can’t sing,” unless it is also true that you can’t talk.  You do not need to be professional and are not expected to be.  Sing in the car or with friends or in the shower or while you worship, or sing to an infant.  Always sing on New Year’s.  Know at least the first verse and chorus of “Auld Lang Syne” by heart.

Read good books.

Listen to good music.

(How do you know if music is good? If you like it! If it makes you smile, or move, or think, or laugh, or sing; if it makes you feel good, or feel whatever it is that you need to feel. If it in any way at any moment makes things around you or in you somehow better than they already are.)

Never interrupt a conversation for the sake of your cell phone.  If there is a live human being sitting or standing in front of or next to you, keep your phone in your pocket.  In fact: if you are standing in line alone, also keep your phone in your pocket.  Learn how to be alone, comfortably, with nothing but your thoughts.

If you are in school, take classes that have nothing to do with your major.

Ignore people who say your major is silly or useless or who make fun of you for changing your major every semester.

Ignore people who say your dreams are silly or useless or impossible. Ignore people who say your dreams are financially unsound.

No matter how you rationalize it, a love for or preoccupation with money is immoral.  Do not let questions of money dictate your decision making—especially in choosing a major or a career.

Around graduation season, lots of people will speak clichés to you: “Be yourself.”  “Follow your dreams.”  Etc.  As an English teacher, I should tell you to avoid clichés.  But listen to these clichés, and take them seriously.  Even if the speakers who spout them don’t seem themselves to live them, be just dumb and gullible enough to believe these lines yourself (you can make your dreams come true! etc!); believe the clichés and your life will reward this gullibility infinitely.

Also, by the way: dreams do not come true unless you are willing to work tirelessly toward them. Wanting something badly is not enough.

When you go outside at night, look for the moon.  When it is especially beautiful, tell someone else to look, too.

Drive with your windows down.

Live, when possible, with your windows open.  That’s not a metaphor; I mean, actually open the windows in your home.

Find a way to spend part of every day outside.

When possible, feel sand in your toes.  Once in a while, feel mud and dirt in your toes.

Always vote, even in the littlest local elections.

Never vote “straight party.”  Vote for issues and individuals, not for parties.  Vote Republican and Democrat, depending on who is running.  Do not assume they are all the same. Vote with your own brain and heart, not with someone else’s.

Do not strap any label onto yourself.  You are more complicated than that.

Do not strap any label onto any other person.

Watch every episode of Freaks and Geeks at least once, in order.

Read Walt Whitman, especially “Song of Myself.”

Take deep breaths.

Make your own choices.

Do not join any club that dictates what kind of footwear you can wear.

Do not join any club that dictates who you can and can’t talk to.

Do not join any club that tells you what to think.

Men: do not join any club that encourages a debasement of women—unless you are willing actively to change that culture from the inside.

Women: do not define yourself according to a man’s desires.  Do not compromise yourself for anyone else’s expectations.

Men and women: do not attend parties where all the men drink beer and all the women drink liquor.

Like yourself.

Remember who you were when you were seventeen.  Every few years, ask yourself: would the seventeen-year-old me like the current me?  If the answer is yes, keep up the good work.  If the answer is maybe, or if the answer is no, take some time to re-bridge the gap between these two selves.

Thank your parents.

Forgive your parents.

Write postcards and letters.  You will forget the texts and emails you have sent and received, but you will remember the cards and letters.  It will make someone’s day to find your handwriting in his or her mailbox, amidst all the anonymous junk.

Always stop your car for boiled peanuts and for kids’ lemonade stands.

Sometime in the next two weeks, get a piece of paper.  Make a list of all the positive traits you associate with the word “youth.”  Determine how you can continue to embody these traits, no matter how old you may get.

Care about your hometown.  Care about all the places you have lived.

Make time, some time, to go to minor league baseball games, whether or not you really even watch the game.

Understand history.  Never stop learning about history.

Don’t settle for history that is clichéd or uncomplicated.

Follow your own dream, not somebody else’s.  No matter how much you love them, and vice versa, nobody else can dictate the shape of your dream.

Be sure you have exactly zero enemies.  Your life is not so complex and dramatic that it needs or justifies anything you could seriously call “enemies.”

Drink lots of water.

Always drink your water straight from the tap.  The water bottle industry represents the greatest scam your lifetime has witnessed.  Don’t give in.

Don’t listen when people tell you high school or college represents the best years of your life.  Make the most of these years.  But make them a beginning, not an end.  Create a life that goes uphill, not down.

Don’t listen when people tell you you are the future.  You are the present.  That’s more important.

Don’t listen when people tell you you are about to enter the real world.  You are already in the real world.  And you’re doing good so far.

Actively work to keep your oldest friends in your life.

At the end of the day, go to sleep, knowing you’ve done the best you can for today.  Let the rest go, and start over fresh tomorrow.

Be courageous enough to hold your ground and stick to your guns.

Be courageous enough to change your mind.

Be courageous enough to change directions.

Find time for naps on sunny days.

Contribute something positive to the planet. Make your time here have meaning and significance that goes beyond yourself.

Listen to your gut.

Be your own hero.

Be humble.

Make it happen.

Go Jags.


A Legacy Unsung: The Ethel Harper Story, Part Two

I promised to deliver Part Two of my Ethel Harper story last week but for a few days got derailed. Mostly I found myself wanting to dig deeper into Harper’s story than I already had, and my research and writing kept growing. I’m grateful to the staff of the Morristown and Morris Township Library for some last minute, long-distance help in going through Ethel Harper’s papers; with their help I was able to access some pages of Harper’s autobiography which I hadn’t thought to copy on my own trip to the archive a few years ago.

Ethel Ernestine Harper was a remarkable woman in every respect, and her story certainly needs to be told. It’s a story full of surprising turns, from Sun Ra to Broadway to Aunt Jemima, from pancakes and publicity stunts to social work and racial uplift. The Jemima connection—which this post explores at some length—is a fascinating and complicated one: late in life, Harper took great pride in her identification as Jemima, even as she worked with passion as an activist and advocate for issues of civil rights. In this and in other aspects of her career, the details of Ethel Harper’s experience defied expectation and over-simple classification.

If you missed Part One—which explores her Birmingham years, her Sun Ra connection, and her “Singing Schoolteacher” debut—you can read it here.  

Here, now, is Part Two.


After her Apollo debut, Ethel Harper moved from one stage to the next. She joined a traveling revue, Connie’s Hot Chocolates of ’37, performing in a vocal harmony trio, the Melody Maids; it was in this group that she discovered a passion for harmony singing, and over the next few years Ethel Harper assembled, trained, and performed in a series of vocal trios. She appeared, too, in a string of Broadway productions, beginning with 1939’s Hot Mikado—a swing reworking of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, starring dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and an all-black cast. Later that year came Swingin’ the Dream, a similarly jazzed Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was an ambitious project with a remarkable cast: Benny Goodman wrote and directed the music; Lionel Hampton performed in the band; actress Butterfly McQueen starred as Puck; Louis Armstrong played the part of Bottom. It must have been, one historian writes, “one of the most fascinating bombs of all time”—the play was trounced by critics (it was, several said, more “nightmare” than dream) and it closed within two weeks of its opening.

Harper took the ups and downs of the stage life in stride. She continued to perform as a soloist, in harmony groups, and in lavish ensemble stage shows (the New York census in those days listed her as “singer—night club and theatre”). In 1942 came another big production, Harlem Cavalcade, an old-school vaudeville showcase produced by Ed Sullivan and one of the grand elders of Broadway’s jazz world, the composer Noble Sissle. That show introduced Harper’s most successful vocal group, the Four Ginger Snaps, who for the next five years toured the country, performed onstage and over the airwaves, entertained U. S. servicemen at dozens of benefit shows, and waxed a handful of records for the Victor label. When the group disbanded in 1947, Harper decided to seek a lifestyle more stable, if less glamorous: she put in the closet her wardrobe of high-fashion stage costumes and gowns and took a job as a waitress, singing for diners at the end of her weekend shifts and hiring a vocal coach, in the meantime, to help keep her voice in shape—just in case some other shot at the spotlight came her way.

Ethel Harper Melody Girls
The Melody Trio. Ethel Harper is on the left.
Ginger Snaps
The Four Ginger Snaps. Ethel Harper is on the right, in the back.


It was sheer chance that Ethel Harper found her way to Italy. One afternoon in 1954, she ran into an agent, Sam Gordon, walking down Broadway, “and out of a blue sky he asked me if I wanted to go to Europe.” Harper said yes, and two weeks later she was on the S. S. Homeland, bound for Italy, the female lead in the Negro Follies, a musical troupe of twenty-five singers and dancers. For two years she performed overseas, first with the Follies company, and then as her own solo act.

All along, for all her successes, one nagging thought dogged her: she knew she’d abandoned the classroom—and, she was sure, her true calling—for a path she deep down thought superficial and selfish. Harper had a passion for the theatre, and surely her voice could bring people joy; but her connection with children, she thought, was a gift straight from God, and she knew she’d cast that gift aside, abandoned the path the world had laid out for her. She could have returned to Birmingham to teach, but she’d fallen in love with New York, and she didn’t have the credentials to teach in New York schools. Still, every job she took out of the classroom—whether waiting tables or going on tour—brought back a familiar wave of anxiety. “I suppose it might be classified an attack of conscience,” she wrote: “I was fully aware of the fact that I should have remained in the teaching profession.”

It would take some time, but eventually she’d return to her original path. Midway through her memoir she interrupts the flow of chronology with this parenthetical aside: “I pledge my future,” she promises, “to the youth of today, because in their hands lies the heart of tomorrow’s world. I am deeply proud of the fact,” she adds, “that I did not stray too far from my chartered course; that of serving the youth.”


Harper arrived back in the U. S. with no clear plan for the future. But, once again, a chance encounter opened up a new and utterly unexpected chapter of her career.

She’d only been back in New York for two days when she ran into an old friend and mentor from the Hot Chocolates days, Edith Wilson, who was passing through town en route to an engagement. Wilson was a seasoned veteran of the stage, a blues and vaudeville singer and actress, a recording artist and radio star; she’d cut her first record, with Johnny Dunn’s Original Jazz Hounds, in 1921, she’d toured much of the globe and sung in Broadway revues and road shows. She was “one of the girls,” Harper wrote, “who went to Europe along with Josephine Baker and made quite a name of herself in the theatre, but decided after many years in the show business to cast her lot with the Quaker Oats Company.” Now Wilson was playing the role she’d keep for nearly two decades, a role she thought was perfect, too, for Harper.

That role was Aunt Jemima.

For decades, Quaker Oats had hired black women to play the part of Jemima, the popular pancake box mascot: in 1893 Nancy Green, a former slave, had made her debut in the role at the World’s Columbian Expedition in Chicago. Green and her successors traveled the country, making and selling pancakes, singing old spirituals and the latest vaudeville tunes, and speaking to children and housewives; they dressed in the mythic garb of the plantation “mammy”—red-and-white checked hoopskirt, apron, and headrag—and announced their arrival, wherever they went, with Jemima’s trademark catchphrase: “I’s in town, honey!”

When she ran into Ethel Harper in New York, Wilson was en route to a Jemima promotion in Norwalk, Connecticut, and she convinced Harper to come along. Wilson had been one of the company’s most successful Jemimas, and she’d mentioned to job to Harper more than once before: as an educator and an entertainer, she’d said, Harper was ideally suited to the work. On previous occasions, Harper hadn’t paid much attention to Wilson’s pitch: but now, she wrote, “I was out of a job. This time I listened with an interested ear.”

Wilson outlined Jemima’s duties for Harper, took her shopping, bought her some clothes, and finally introduced her to the Quaker management. Harper watched Wilson in the role, and then she auditioned herself. She got the job.

But, Harper wrote, “There was one aspect which had me in a quandary—the Aunt Jemima costume. First, I had quite an investment in glamourous costumes; and second, I had some inhibitions about wearing a bandana on my head, which gave me quite a bit of uneasiness. This was due to the general attitude of my race toward the character of Aunt Jemima.” By the time Harper took the role, the Jemima character had been blasted by civil rights groups for the stereotypes it helped entrench in the popular imagination. Jemima’s history as an icon had been marked by a host of plantation-era clichés, by cartoonish dialect (“Here’s a Temptilatin’ Lunch Chilluns Love,” a typical ad proclaimed), and by plenty of romanticized Old South nostalgia; the character, critics complained, was demeaning, degrading, and essentially unredeemable.

Harper, meanwhile, was a woman who would come to take pride in both her work as Jemima and her work for civil rights. In the 1960s and ‘70s she’d defend Quaker Oats and Jemima against their detractors: the Quaker Jemima, she contended, transcended the clichés (in large part, indeed, thanks to Edith Wilson’s and her own performances). Living Jemimas like Harper addressed service organizations and civic clubs and raised many thousands of charity dollars. They did good work, Harper believed, and they could be played with dignity. Harper herself was glamourous, intelligent, and strong-willed, a woman of regal bearing; it’s impossible to imagine her “Jemima” as inarticulate and subservient.

Harper took the job clear-eyed about its challenges. “With the initial excitement over,” she wrote, “and my contract signed, I had to now get down to the business of conditioning my thoughts and my heart to give to this job the necessary dignity and interpretation of which I first could be proud— and, hopefully—those members of my race who had qualms about anyone who played this character could also be proud. This was not easy but, thank God, I was able to do just this with His help.”

Exactly how Harper pulled this off would “clearly be depicted,” she wrote, “in the following chapter” of her memoir. But there’s one problem: that next chapter is missing. I’ve seen only one copy of the book, the copy housed in the archive of the Morristown library, and its pages jump from 85 to 90, with all but two brief paragraphs of the promised chapter omitted. Whether all copies of the book lack these pages, or whether it’s a sad glitch in the one copy I’ve seen, I don’t know. But for now this intriguing and important piece of Harper’s story—and of Aunt Jemima’s—is lost.


Luckily the later pages of Harper’s book do include some descriptions of her day-to-day work as Jemima. “Aunt Jemima’s activities,” Harper explained, “centered around the following: singing, appearing on radio and television, in-person appearances in schools, homes for the aged and mentally retarded, working various county fairs, and serving on their panels of judges, for various competitions.” As Jemima, Harper worked with the Lions, Kiwanis, and Rotary clubs and other civic organizations. She spoke to school children about nutrition and manners. And everywhere she went, she did what she’d always done, albeit now as Jemima: she sang. (On some occasions, she performed duets with a white actor who portrayed another grocery aisle icon, the Quaker Oats man.) For the illustrators who depicted Aunt Jemima on boxes of pancake mix, in advertisements, and elsewhere, Harper served as model. To children—who had seen her face on their breakfast tables, at the supermarket, in magazines, and on TV—Harper (whose real name, of course, the children never knew) was a full-fledged celebrity. They wrote her letters, and Harper—who still considered her rapport with children her greatest, most important gift—took pride in writing each child back by hand. She’d include a glossy photo signed, with love: “Aunt Jemima.”

Harper kept a strenuous schedule as Jemima. A few times a year she appeared at large-scale promotional events lasting up to six days, events designed to showcase a range of products by Quaker and other companies. Every time she was a star. On the first day of these promotions, she wrote, “Aunt Jemima would reign supreme. The day was declared Pancake Day and much excitement ensued.” Jemima’s arrival in a new town was hyped in advance, and locals took part in a contest to guess her precise means of transportation to their community. Jemima’s entrances were dramatic affairs, and her mode of arrival was different each time: she might come in a helicopter or riding a fire engine, might arrive by sea plane, by train, or by motor scooter. “The weirdest of all,” she wrote, “was being sealed in a cardboard box and carted by American Express. After arrival,” wherever she went, “there was a huge parade during which Aunt Jemima was welcomed by the Mayor and presented with the key to the city.”


An aside: searching the internet for more about Harper, I came across a fascinating blog post—written, years later, by one of the children who’d seen her perform, all those years ago.

Randy Bowles was a third-grader in Yakima, Washington, when Ethel Harper paid a visit to his all-white elementary school. The experience made a lasting impression on him, and in 2015—more than half a century later—he described the encounter in a detailed, illuminating, and heartfelt essay. He remembered that Harper—whose real name he learned much later—appeared as a celebrity, larger than life: a “remarkable woman” who took the schoolhouse stage “to thunderous applause” and “had us in the palm of her hand in no time, with her sweet, gentle, wise ways…. Obviously,” he’d later come to understand, “Aunt Jemima’s character was based on the racist stereotype of the docile, always-smiling ‘mammy.’ However, I didn’t see that at the time. I was only eight. What I perceived was an amazing human being.”

The complexity and contradiction of the Jemima legacy—and of Ethel Harper herself—was something Bowles only discovered as an adult. “Although Ms. Harper was a college graduate who had been a school teacher as well as a singer and entertainer, and had appeared on the Broadway stage, she was not dressed as a professional person for our visit. She was dressed as a plantation cook, wearing a red scarf and white apron. I recall she talked about eating a good breakfast, about always being good students, about displaying good manners, and minding our parents. I believe she sang a song or two.” After the performance, children were allowed to speak to Harper’s Jemima; and “I remember very clearly, how she gave me a big hug. I was so happy. I truly felt like she loved me—a little boy whom she had never before cast eyes on.” Bowles never got over it.

Just what, Randy Bowles later wondered, was the purpose behind Aunt Jemima’s visit to Yakima? “Was it an assembly meant to help us learn about nutrition? Was it intended to show us a ‘real black person’?” Whatever it was, what stuck with him always was an awe for this woman, an awe that all the contradictions only made more powerful. “I wish Ethel Ernestine Harper were alive today,” his essay concludes, “so I could thank her for bringing her message of love to Yakima, all the way back in 1957. It was a sincere message I took to heart. But I’m very sorry she had to appear as a mammy. I guess, had she been dressed like our principal, or like our teacher, there would have been no assembly.”


Ethel Harper finally settled in Morristown, New Jersey, where she became a leading contributor to civic life. She retired from the stage but drew from her lifetime of experience to affect change in a multitude of arenas. “As long as God has given me a voice,” she wrote in 1970, “I’ll use it to make a better world.”

Whoever Aunt Jemima might have been, Ethel Harper was a powerful personality, dignified, forward-thinking, and creative, opinionated and articulate. As Aunt Jemima, she’d preached a gospel of good nutrition, and the subject remained one of her concerns; she continued to present lectures on nutrition to groups of all ages. But in her retirement from performance she took on a number of responsibilities and concerns. She chaired the education committee of the local NAACP branch and the civil rights committee of the local League of Women Voters. For more than a decade she served as a field director to the Girl Scouts, the first black woman to serve locally in such a role. She re-entered the classroom at last—not as Jemima but as Ethel Harper, herself—teaching in public and parochial schools and in adult education programs. She developed and for a decade taught the county’s first curriculum in black history. And she coupled her service to the youth with an equal drive to serve the elderly: at sixty-nine, she became director of entertainment and outreach for Morris County senior citizens, and she served on the state’s advisory commission on aging. She delivered for Meals on Wheels and volunteered at area hospitals, and she conceived and moderated a topical talk radio show, “Youth Speaks Out; Age Speaks Out; Are You Listening?”

A few months before she died, she chartered out her achievements on a pie chart, the sections of her life arranged chronologically into slices spanning the years 1903 to 1978: “The Pie of My Life,” she called it, and it’s clear she took pride in each section. The final slice she labeled “Open for what lies ahead,” and in the space inside it she wrote just this: “Plan for future: Return to theatre as a monologist.”

Ethel Harper died in 1979. She left behind no spouse and no children of her own. She didn’t live to launch that theatrical return, but her legacy—particularly in the Morris County she’d made her home—was large. Newspapers around the country carried her obituary, all of them emphasizing in their headlines her career as Aunt Jemima. Most of the stories referenced also her work on Broadway and with the Ginger Snaps. None made mention of her role in Sun Ra’s career, and outside a reference to the Girl Scouts, few papers beyond New Jersey acknowledged her wide-ranging civic, social, and educational work.

Ethel Harper, meanwhile, had left behind a few characteristic parting instructions. “My final request,” she’d written in her will, “is that no one shall be overly burdened in my behalf.” Then, too, there was this: “I wish to be remembered for whatever good I have done; for whatever service I have rendered along the way.”


Ethel Harper Pie
“The Pie of My Life,” 1978


Notes & Further Reading:

All quotes from Ethel Harper, unless otherwise indicated, come from her self-published memoir, published in 1970 and housed among the Ethel Ernestine Harper Papers at the North Jersey History and Genealogy Center at the Morristown and Morris Township Library in Morristown, New Jersey. Click here to see the finding aid, which includes its own brief bio of Harper. 

For a more detailed overview of the Ginger Snaps, click here.

 Click here to read Randy Bowles’s full post on Ethel Harper’s visit to Yakima, Washington.

Much has been written about Aunt Jemima’s complicated legacy. Michele Norris, in 2010’s The Grace of Silence, addresses her own grandmother’s career as a traveling Jemima (and Birmingham readers, by the way, will take special interest also in this book’s look into some of our city’s forgotten history). For more on Jemima, check out the definitive Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima, by M. M. Manring (1998).

Ethel Harper Obit
Obituary, The Washington Post, April 1979.

The “Singing School Marm” & Sun Ra: The Ethel Harper Story, Part One

Ethel Harper described a certain “bulldog tenacity” as her most distinguishing feature. She was independent, resilient, energetic and strong-willed, and she knew how to get things done. But she was also a bottomless well of generosity, full always of compassion and charity—for children and the elderly, especially. She was elegant and refined, full of grace, poise, and glamor. She had several careers, all successful—was an educator, an entertainer, and a civic leader—and her impact was broad, most notably in her adopted home of Morris County, New Jersey.

I went to Morris County a few years ago to learn more of Harper’s story. Her personal papers are housed in the North Jersey History and Genealogy Center, in the lowest level of the beautiful, old Morristown library. The papers include news clippings, speeches, original poetry, and an autobiography, self-published in 1970. I went there hoping to fill in some gaps in my research on the Birmingham, Alabama jazz story. Harper’s career started in Birmingham, and she was one of the few women to emerge from the fertile scene there. Indeed, if she’s remembered at all today, it’s likely for this curious footnote: her first band, Ethel Harper’s Rhythm Boys, included in its lineup a young player named Sonny Blount. Blount would emerge as the band’s star musician, eventually replacing Harper as the group’s leader; soon after that he’d move to Chicago and become Sun Ra—one of the most iconoclastic, inventive, and utterly unclassifiable figures in the history of jazz.

But Harper’s own history is interesting and illuminating in its own right. After Birmingham she’d perform on Broadway and in Europe, and she’d tour, broadcast, and record with a popular vocal group, the Ginger Snaps. In her later years, in Morristown, she’d become a tireless and respected champion of numerous social causes, a voice for both the youth and the aged, an advocate for education, black history, civil rights, and the arts. When she died in 1979, newspapers around the country (among them the New York Times and Washington Post) remembered her in their headlines for one of her longest running—and ultimately most controversial—roles: as Quaker Oats’ “Aunt Jemima,” a character she portrayed in live appearances through much of the 1950s. It was a character steeped in stereotype, but Harper had sought to bring the job a dignity and grace, even a kind of authority. In the 1960s Jemima was increasingly denounced as an icon of American racism, but Ethel Harper, a vocal proponent of civil rights, took a staunch pride all her life for her work in the role.

Last week, for International Women’s Day, the internet was full of images, quotes, and stories of inspiring women, some famous and others not. I found myself thinking of Ethel Harper, a unique and complex figure whose story has been all but forgotten but very much deserves to be told. This week on this blog I’ll try to tell some part of that story, as I understand it.

Here’s part one: on Birmingham, Sun Ra, and (as Ethel Harper was for a while called) the singing “Bama School Marm.”


Ethel Harper was born in Alabama’s Black Belt in 1903. At the age of nine she was orphaned and came to Birmingham from Selma to live with an adult brother and his wife. Her autobiography describes her anticipation for the “big city with the bright lights and big crowds,” a city that weighed in her imagination with a thrilling and terrible kind of mythological power: she’d been told the train as it pulled into town would pass right over the giant Sloss Furnace, and the idea of it haunted her. “I thought that to get into Birmingham,” she wrote, “one had to cross the fiery furnace on the train; if the furnace was open and the passengers could see the fire, all would be destroyed”—the train itself melted along with the iron, the passengers consumed in molten steel and flame.

As a new student at Industrial High School, Harper joined the school’s Dramatic Club; a performance with that group at the the upscale Jefferson Theatre downtown inspired in her the desire to spend her life on stage. In her earliest career, she’d balance her passion for the stage with an equal passion for the classroom: at the age of seventeen she graduated from the the State Teachers College in Montgomery (now Alabama State University), and she landed her first job at an elementary school in North Port, Alabama. Her salary there was $62.50 a month—“a small fortune”—and she picked up some extra income offering private music lessons on the side. North Port Elementary had a faculty of seven, and the teachers shared a range of duties. Harper took charge of the choir, “my first big adventure in the music field.”

Soon, though, she was back in Birmingham at Industrial High, the state’s largest high school for blacks and her own alma mater. There she organized the Girls’ Minstrel, an annual musical and theatrical showcase, one of the most popular events of the school year (there was a Boys’ Minstrel, too, and competition was high between the genders). At the behest of the superintendent of schools and to much local acclaim, she coordinated a thousand girls in an elaborate, costumed, and choreographed military drill at Birmingham’s Legion Field. Meanwhile, she pursued her own opportunities to perform.

Her memoir picks up the story: “Permission was given me by the principal of the high school to form an orchestra with some of the boys from the band department.” Ethel Harper’s Rhythm Boys “made quite a name for themselves, playing for social affairs through the state.” Harper fronted the group, acting as singer and emcee, and the band was a hit. It was the era of the fierce if friendly “jazz battle,” with local groups competing onstage for the acclaim of their fans, and Harper and her boys held their own, besting such popular Birmingham bands as Fred Averytt’s Society Troubadours, another collective of Industrial students. In the summers, Harper took the band on the road. “Miss Ethel Harper,” the Chicago Defender reported, “popular teacher of the Industrial high school, left Monday in a special chartered Greyhoud bus,” accompanied by “her newly organized rhythm boys orchestra whose ages range from fourteen to sixteen years…. Miss Harper,” the paper went on, “is to be commended. This is her second trip to New York. She worked last summer in a night club in Chicago.”

After a while, though, the school intervened. “It was with regret,” Harper later wrote, “that finally the Board of Education felt I must relinquish this activity because it was too strenuous along with my teaching chores. The boys in the orchestra remained together and some of them went on to become top musicians and today are members of some of our leading name bands.”

One of those Rhythm Boys who remained was the pianist and arranger Sonny Blount—Sun Ra—who was already distinguishing himself as one of the city’s most creative and promising musicians. As he would later tell it, the real reason Harper left was a bit more sensational than Harper herself let on: the school’s leadership simply wasn’t comfortable with a female teacher—young and glamorous, dressed in an evening gown and crooning sweet love songs—fronting a stage loaded full with her own male students.

“Well,” Sun Ra explained to brothers Peter and John Hinds for Sun Ra Research, “everybody talked about fifteen or sixteen fellows being up there under a woman. They talked about her because she was a schoolteacher … and it was a big scandal.” Harper herself was “very dignified,” Sun Ra said—nothing ever but pure professionalism—but “a lot of people were jealous of her.” The gossip mill churned, and “the fellows in the band got worried.” The upshot was that Sonny Blount found himself fronting his first band.

“Everybody was talking about her, so some kind of way, they voted to give me the band,” Sun Ra said. “And the next thing I know I saw my name out there—and I didn’t ask for it, they just said I was the person that should be the leader of a band.” He never wanted the job, he’d always insist; it was just part of a larger, transcendent design. “So my destiny in music was determined by other people—not me.”

“Change seems to be part of my destiny,” Ethel Harper wrote of the incident, echoing Sun Ra at least on that point—that a greater force was at work. The moment would mark the beginning of Sun Ra’s career as a bandleader, but it also marked the real beginnings of Ethel Harper’s own professional career. Her break with the Rhythm Boys—and with Industrial High School and Birmingham—presented more an opportunity than a setback.

Her ambitions anyway lay elsewhere.


In 1936, after twelve years in the classroom, Ethel Harper left Birmingham for New York. She took with her two students, Albert Phillips and William Keyes, both dancers. “I had made a promise to the boys’ parents,” she wrote, “to try and get them started in their chosen field of dancing.” She planned to spend the summer performing where she could, getting all three of them gigs; in the fall she’s continue her own education in the graduate program at Columbia University.

Again, though, destiny intervened.

Harper was beautiful, talented, and charismatic, and the local black press quickly took notice of her arrival in town. The New York Age announced matter-of-factly that “Miss Harper, who divides her time between teaching high school and leading a band, will try her hand at night club entertaining while in New York.” Her first week there she performed at the local Poosepahtuck Club, and a few days later the Age reported this gossipy tidbit (with a slight geographic inaccuracy): “Just because Ethel Harper … a singing chick from Montgomery, Alabama has come to town, Fats Savage, whom you remember if you’ve ever sipped a cocktail at the Poosepahtuck, went and rigged himself out in a brand new linen suit.”

How Fats and his suit came out went unrecorded, but Ethel Harper appeared several more times that summer in the papers. She performed next at the Apollo Theater’s Amateur Hour, and she won: her rendition of “Without a Word of Warning” earned her a weeklong engagement at the theater, where she was billed “The Singing School Teacher from Alabama.”

Her background in the classroom made her something of a novelty—and good copy for the press. “Bama School ‘Marm’ Wins Amatuer Hour,” reported the New York Amsterdam News: “Miss Harper teaches English in Industrial High School, but in her leisure she dances and sings torch songs for the fun of it and within the walls of her own home.” “The piece de resistance of the night,” the New York Age reported of the Apollo show, “was the big timey singing of Miss Ethel Harper, a reformed school teacher from Alabama.” That paper, though, qualified its praise: Harper may have been good, but talent guaranteed little in the big time. “If she’s smart,” the paper concluded, “she’ll stick to her pedagogy as the existence of singers is for [the] most part precarious…. That night club songstress can sing but so do oodles of other people whom I know. No she isn’t likely to set the world on fire.”

That warning notwithstanding, the Apollo gig boded for Harper a greater financial success than any classroom might offer. For a week’s performances she netted $125; and “by comparison with my teaching salary of seventy-five dollars per month, one can readily see how I could be lured away from the world’s most honored profession”—even though, she was quick to add, all her life, “my love for children exceeded my love for the theatre.”

Ethel Harper called off her plans with Columbia. There were still bigger stages waiting.

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Later this week on this blog—the Ethel Harper Story, Part Two: Broadway; Shakespeare in swing; Aunt Jemima; a civic life; more.

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Fake News In The Classroom: One Teacher’s Experience

A few weeks ago I asked teacher friends on Facebook how they might approach the topic of “fake news” in their classrooms. A lot of friends responded, teachers and non-teachers alike, and I cobbled together their ideas into a last-minute lesson plan. The following post is mostly for teachers, or for those with an interest in how we navigate the so-called “post-truth” world—and how we teach it. It’s a long post. But I encourage teachers to use whatever is helpful here, and I welcome feedback (not just from teachers) on how to most effectively and impartially navigate this territory.

This isn’t written out as a conventional lesson plan, but here’s my sequence of activities, handouts, etc., with reflections along the way on how it all went for me.

A troubling note: in some ways this lesson is already outdated. When I introduced this lesson, most of my students had not heard the term “fake news”; within a week, our president elect labeled CNN “fake news” in a press conference, and since then his administration has frequently thrown that phrase at reputable, fact-based news outlets. Since I put this lesson together, the conversation about fake news has already shifted and is still evolving. In the meantime, it’s only more and more important that students be given tools for sifting through facts, bias, and outright fakery. So this—with the help of many friends and resources—is my first stab at that.


Back in August, in the first week of our first semester this year, my class started with icebreakers. After that, the first substantive thing we did was watch a TED Talk: Eli Pariser’s discussion of “filter bubbles.” This is a great video to watch with students, and I was surprised by how surprised they all were at this concept. I showed them The Wall Street Journal’s Red Feed, Blue Feed experiment, and we discussed the ways in which our interactions with current events is curated (by algorithms!) to fit our apparent biases. We also looked at how different headlines promoted different interpretations of the same news story, and considered how our online experience of the news can work to distort our perception of events and reinforce our biases.

I was upfront about the the objectives of this lesson. I told students I wanted them to:

+ be informed consumers of media—to be on the lookout for implicit bias and manipulation

 + seek out differences of opinion than their own—to expose themselves to, and truly listen to, the opinions of those they might disagree with

+ first assemble the facts, then form their own opinions—to think for themselves, rather than just internalize and parrot the opinions fed to them by their feeds (or by their parents or friends or their news source of choice)

That was the first week of our first semester.


I didn’t decide to tackle “fake news” until the night before our second semester started. I don’t think about school very much over the holidays. But suddenly I thought it would be very timely—and would give perfect symmetry to our year—if we started Semester Two with a new round of icebreakers, and then with a new look at how we receive our news. Instead of talking about news bias, filter bubbles, and manipulative headlines, this time we’d talk about the “news” that isn’t even based in fact.

I had no idea how to teach this. And I’d run out of icebreakers. So the night before school started back I asked Facebook for icebreaker tips, and I got a million of them. The next night I asked for help in teaching fake news:


I went to bed and woke up very, very early. And, with the help of my friends, I put together a lesson that worked remarkably well. This, adapted from my notes that morning, is what we did:

1. Intro:

I remind students of the conversation that started the year, about filter bubbles. I remind them of why we talked about that to begin with (to make ourselves better informed, to seek out a diversity of opinions, to form our own opinions for ourselves). But, I say, one thing we didn’t talk about was this: how do you even know the news is real? We can argue about the interpretation of facts, but how can we be sure we’re discussing facts to begin with?

Since we talked in August (I said), the subject of fake news has become an increasingly important, and much-discussed, topic.

So: here are five headlines from the last few months. Which ones, if any, do you think are reporting facts?

2. Pope Headlines:

I put five Pope-related headlines on the projector. I tell students that all five circulated the internet widely sometime in the last year (which is true). I hand out notecards. I tell them to identify which headline, if any, is factually true. It might be zero. It can’t be all five—they contradict each other—but it could conceivably be as many as three. Then, on their notecards, they have to briefly explain how they made their decisions.

Here are the headlines:

A. Pope Francis Endorses Bernie Sanders for President
Sources: National

B. Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement
Source: WTOE 5 News

C. Pope Benedict XVI Forbids Catholics From Voting for Hillary!
Source: Tell Me Now

D. Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Hillary Clinton for President, Releases Statement
Source: KYPO 6 News

E. The Pope Says Spreading Fake News is Like a Fetish for Poop

I take up the notecards (and they’re fascinating—this lesson is already going better than I expected). After looking through the cards I tell students the results, but don’t tell them the answer: only one (out of 20) students got it exactly right. Only one of the headlines reported a fact; and only one student correctly identified the real story without also being duped by other fake ones. I tell them, too, that the most common answer was guessed by 11 students—but was wrong.

I tell them to hold that thought, that we’ll get back to the answer.

3. Chart: Fake News Outperforms the Real

Then I show them this chart.

BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman calculated which news stories—that is, fact-based news stories—received the most engagements on Facebook in the months leading up to the presidential election: which stories received the most clicks, likes, and shares. He did the same for “fake” news stories, reports whose most basic details were objectively false. Looking at the top twenty stories from both categories, he compared which got shared more, the real stories or the fake ones. Look at the chart for yourself. But, in summary: as the election approached, the top 20 fake stories were shared more and more—until, finally, the top 20 fake stories received more Facebook engagements than the top 20 real news stories.

There are, by the way, some issues with this chart, and I indicated my questions and concerns to my students, too. Most of the fake stories showed a pro-Trump bias, while many of the real stories, though reporting facts, carried an obvious anti-Trump bias of their own. The difference was that while some of the “real” stories were clearly slanted—with inflammatory headlines or an overall liberal voice, the sorts of biases we’d discussed last semester—the “fake” stories reported outright lies as truth. I again encourage my students to seek out unbiased reporting—or at least to know how to critically recognize bias—but I suggest there’s a difference between bias and outright untruth. While I may have minor reservations about Silverman’s methodology, his findings are certainly reason enough for concern, indicating the widespread presence of fake news in our culture.

4. Pizzagate

Then we talk about “Pizzagate.” Only one of my students had heard of this. So I give quick background and show this video. There are probably better clips than this, but any reporting on the Pizzagate gunman will get the point across: that motivated by an unfounded news story, a gunman walked into a pizzeria to wreak his vengeance. Fortunately no one was hurt, but students immediately recognize that fake news can have real world consequences. I add that a pizza restaurant in Texas has also suffered harassment for its alleged, utterly unfounded involvement in the Pizzagate scandal.

5. How False News Can Spread

Then I show this video. It’s not so much about what we’ve come to call “fake news” (Pizzagate, etc.), but about how even well-intentioned news sources can get the news wrong.

6. The Pope, Part Two

Now, back to the Pope. (We went pretty quickly through all these items, so it’s only been about 15 minutes since the Pope teaser.) The answer, of course, is that only item E is correct: “The Pope Says Spreading Fake News is Like a Fetish for Poop.” Again, only one person guessed this and only this answer. About three people guessed this answer at all, but the others also guessed a false headline was real.

(As a fascinating aside: 11 students out of 20 guessed that this was the real headline: “Pope Francis Endorses Bernie Sanders for President.” On the whole, students in this class are fairly conservative; several voted in November for the first time, and voted for Trump. But a few wrote as explanation for the Bernie headline—“It just seems like the most believable/plausible headline.”

Those who accurately guessed the “poop” headline, incidentally, all said something along these lines, in explaining their choice: “You just don’t make that up.” Some who rejected the poop story as false offered essentially the same explanation as grounds for disbelief: “That one’s just too bizarre to be real.”)

For kicks, I share with them multiple headlines from the poop quote, to show how different writers will emphasize different elements of a story, even if all are reporting the same facts. So, a few related headlines:

Pope Francis compares fake news consumption to eating feces | The Guardian, Newsweek

Pope Francis compares consuming fake news to eating excrement | Sydney [Australia] Morning Herald

Pope Francis says spreading fake news is a sin | New York Post

Pope Francis compares media focus on scandals to fecal fetish | USA Today

Pope Francis: People Who Report Fake News Are Like Those Who Eat Poop | The Christian Post

Pope Francis: Fake news is like getting sexually aroused by faeces | The Independent

Why the Pope Compares Fake News to Sh*t; Its Readers to Sh*t Eaters | Daily Beast

Did Pope Francis Liken the Spread of Fake News to Taking Pleasure in Poop? | US News and World Report

I also share the Pope’s actual quote, so they can choose for themselves the best way to report the story: “I believe that the media should be very clear, very transparent, and not fall prey—without offence, please—to the sickness of coprophilia, which is always wanting to communicate scandal, to communicate ugly things, even though they may be true,” he said. “And since people have a tendency towards the sickness of coprophagia, it can do great harm.”

The victim of many fake news stories, it’s no surprise the Pope would speak out against it—even if his analogy is pretty bizarre.

One other important point about all this: for each of the original headlines, as indicated above, I indicated one or more source. A few of my students were savvy enough to take those source names into consideration in determining what was real—but those students still got the answer wrong. Some said they chose the Bernie headline not just because he seemed the most Pope-friendly candidate, but because the sources listed—National—“sound legit.” “Those sources sound familiar,” someone wrote. And this, we discuss, brings up an essential point in vetting your sources: National Report sounds real, but is somebody’s blog, made to look like a news source. You have heard of USA Today; but is not Fake news sites will do their best to appear legitimate, so you’ve got to be sure you don’t let their names fool you.

Other students, meanwhile, said that these sources—WTOE 5 News and KYPO 6 News—sounded like legitimate news sites. Again, this allows us to discuss vetting our sources: the fakers are deliberately, and easily, making up local news stations that will sound real but aren’t. You have to dig beneath the surface to find out whether you can trust it—but a random “local” news network you’ve never heard of should invite suspicion.

Lastly, I’ll admit to one deliberate sneaky trick. Many reputable news sources reported the Pope/poop story, but I sourced a more marginal site ( that I figured none of my students had heard of (neither had I), and whose very name I thought might invite mistrust. Again, a couple of savvy students—who fell for, because it sounded legit—wrote that they rejected the poop story because sounded illegitimate. This quick activity, then, offered several good opportunities to discuss the challenges of deciding what sources we can trust—what pitfalls to avoid, and how to confirm a source is reporting real news.

7. BBC quiz:

Then students take this quiz—and briefly discuss the results. I mention how absolutely I failed this quiz. (This quiz, I tell students, is another good reminder of the pervasiveness of fake news online—but it’s only so useful or telling in itself, since the headlines are totally out of context here. As we’ve already discussed plenty by now in this and last semester’s lesson, you have to go beneath the headlines and examine broader contexts. Still, this or similar online quizzes (there are several) can at least reinforce the simple truth that there’s a lot of fake news out there, and that it’s up to you to be wary.)

8. Survey

Finally, students take a survey (real-vs-fake-news-survey), about their own online habits. Please note, the survey comes from the New York Times’ “The Learning Network” blog, almost verbatim. I reworded or cut a few questions to fit my classroom. You can find the original text—and many other useful resources—here.

This was a lot for a single period, but we did manage to do it all. I had to be much more careful than usual to move the class at a quick pace, but I think the variety of activities and the quick pace made it more interesting—and still allowed for pretty eye-opening conversations along the way.


A Few Days Later…

Later that week, I came in with an embarrassing confession. It was embarrassing for me, first, to admit to my students that I’d shared a cheesy, fluffy, celebrity-gossipy, feel-good article at all online in the first place, something I almost never do (I actually avoid sharing articles in Facebook in general, though I do read plenty). But it was doubly embarrassing to have shared a cheesy, fluffy, totally fake story, at that—and the very same week that I was teaching my students about how to recognize fake news.

It’s a really common fake news trope, too: Celebrity Has Nice Things To Say About Random Small Town. I’d even corrected somebody on Facebook for posting a similar fake story about Birmingham about a year ago. But recent weeks had battered at my defenses and senses, and I saw this innocuous but nice article about Bill Murray (who I like) and the town of Millbrook, Alabama (where I’ve often been), and it was the first positive story in my Facebook newsfeed in days, and so I re-posted it. Because Lord knows Alabama needs more positive stories.

On rereading it, it’s absurd. The story, in short, is this: that Bill Murray was driving a rental car through Alabama, and it broke down on the interstate outside of Millbrook (I know—I cannot explain how I fell for this). And so a local took him to a mechanic and while they waited took him out “to the finest dining spot in Millbrook—some place called Joe Mama’s,” where he got a burger. “Great freakin’ burger too.” And so Bill Murray had all these wonderful things to say about the good, salt-of-the-earth types—real people, not Hollywood fakes—who lived in Millbrook. And the best part: they didn’t even recognize him! (Because, one imagines, in Millbrook, Alabama, no one has ever seen Ghostbusters.)

And here’s the thing, and I told students this, too, when I confessed to them my Facebook sin: while I was reading it I thought to myself, why didn’t they take him to the Millbrook Smokehouse? But I went ahead and believed it anyway, and hit share.

Within five minutes a friend had commented that the story was fake, that indeed the exact story had been published, word for word, about multiple celebrities in multiple small towns.

I told my students all this in shame. So how, I asked, can you know if a story is fake? Then I did, with my students, what I should have done myself before I shared the story: I cut and pasted a quote from the article into a Google search, just to see what we could find—and, voilà:

“Hugh Jackman Said This About Windsor, Colorado Residents”

… and Adam Sandler about Billings, Montana

… and Bill Murray about Rochester, New York

… and Blake Shelton about New Albany, Indiana

… and Bill Murray about Toowoomba, Australia…

Exact same story, every time, just different celebrities and towns—and different restaurants, so locals will read it and believe (there is a Joe Mama’s in Millbrook, though I still doubt it’s finer than the Smokehouse). Our simple Google search also revealed multiple sites that identified this or that story as a hoax. This, I might add, is the same way I catch my students for plagiarism—a simple test that has caught more students through the years than I care to number. But I hadn’t taken the five easy seconds necessary to investigate this story before I hit “share.”

I told my students, attempting to regain a little pride, that I could have deleted my original post. But, as I’d seen modeled by other friends online, I posted an update and apology instead, and edited my original post to confess my mistake. Only after 24 hours, did I take down my original post.

It’s a stupid thing, but I thought it important to share with my kids: that—as a smart, informed consumer of media, and as someone who’s teaching students this week(!!) how to avoid fake news—even I was duped, that I temporarily abandoned my own standards for navigating the truth, simply because I wanted to spread some positive vibes. I told them how embarrassed I was, but I also explained my reasons for not deleting the post altogether. Sometimes we still might screw up. When we do, we have to own it.

Other fake news stories might help sway how we vote—or might send a lunatic into a pizza parlor with a gun. Thankfully my fake news story had no serious real world consequences: it was a silly, innocuous celebrity fluff piece that happened to be fake. But there are consequences for accepting lies, however innocuous they might be, as facts. We become uncritical in our thinking—in fact, we are not thinking at all—and we contribute to a culture where reality and facts no longer matter. And that’s scary.

A Few Days After That…

Later that week, in his first press conference since the election, the president elect publicly refused to acknowledge CNN, saying the network was “fake news.”

Since then, with repeated iteration of that claim, it’s become increasingly fashionable—from the White House on down—to label as “fake” any news source with which you disagree. So the fake news phenomenon has just become more complicated—for students, teachers, and any other citizens—than it already was.

Wrapping Up: A Resource foe Students

After I tell my Bill Murray story and acknowledge the president’s adoption of the “fake news” label, I present students with this handout: “Ten Questions for Fake News,” by the News Literacy Project. I recommend the handout to other teachers—it takes just a few minutes to go over, and there’s some good advice on it.

One Last Handout

Remember the survey that ended our first day’s lesson? One series of questions was this:

How much more careful are you with online sources when you are doing work for school than when you are simply surfing the web for fun? How do you decide what is a reliable source for your schoolwork? Do you use similar methods outside of school?

Universally—not at all surprisingly—students said that they are much more careful checking the reliability of sources for schoolwork than for sources they might engage outside of school. The most common explanation—again, not surprisingly: “In school, it’s for a grade.”

But a couple of students wrote, in effect, this: “Teachers show us how to choose reliable sources for schoolwork, but not for the news.” One student said: “We have a handout about how to choose scholarly sources for school, but we don’t have a handout for this.”

For me, this was one of the most profound discoveries of this lesson. I already suspected this: that we hammer home to students how to choose reliable sources when they research poetry or history, but we don’t have the same conversations about how to engage the immediate, day-to-day world around us. But this student’s comment, in all its helplessness—“We don’t have a handout for this!”—really made this failing sink in. And so I made a simple handout: what-do-you-know-about-these-news-sources.

All it is is a list of news media—online, in print, on TV or on the radio. There’s white space, so students can take a few notes on the different sources named; I won’t require students take notes on this, but I hope some of them will. Clearly, it’s far from exhaustive—I only name a few news magazines and news sites—but it’s a start. I wanted the size of the list to be manageable, and we could debate just what to include; if you teach this, you can tweak the list.

I passed out the handout and asked: what do you know about these sources? Which of these would you trust? Which would you not trust? Which would you trust, but with a grain of salt—or with the expectation of bias? When I introduced this in class, we only had a few minutes to discuss. One student said, “I wouldn’t use BuzzFeed for real news. It just doesn’t make sense to me to get important news from the same site where I take stupid quizzes like ‘Which Harry Potter Character Are You?’” I said I thought that was good logic and asked: What do you think is the purpose of a site like BuzzFeed? The consensus was “entertainment” and “to get more clicks.” That seemed like a good start to the conversation. Then the bell rang.

We haven’t had a chance to come back to this handout, but I plan to give it a quick second look with students next week, since most admitted to knowing nothing about most of these sources. I’ll give my own best, most objective descriptions of the sources and their reputations. The students will have to take it from there.

Postscript: Final Thoughts 

1. I already see, by the end of this lesson, my students throwing up their hands in despair and resigning themselves to this possible conclusion: there’s no way to know the truth anymore! You simply can’t trust the media! “This is scary,” a lot of them say, and some—to whom all this is new territory—look either helpless or hopeless. This, though, is the most important part of this lesson, and it needs to be reiterated more than once: that it’s increasingly hard to know the truth, but it’s more important than ever to seek it out. Giving up on the facts is simply not an option. You have to be vigilant and diligent, but you have to do it. We are neither helpless nor hopeless. It may be hard work and scary, but we have no choice but to do the work of being informed and committing ourselves to truth.

2. Here’s a topic for another conversation, but I’ll bring it up briefly here. The Trump era presents challenges for educators as well as journalists. As a public high school teacher, I’ve never discussed my own politics with students, even when we’ve discussed current events—which we’ve done a good deal over the years. I take this seriously.

I would love to hear from fellow teachers (in the comments below, via email, or in person): how you deal with the challenge of teacher neutrality in the new world of Trump? What if, in its first weekend in office, an administration lies about the size of its inaugural crowd? What if a president claims, without evidence, that nearly three million illegal votes were cast in the last election? What if a president suggests that real news organizations are “fake”? Putting aside (for the moment) every other concern that comes with this administration: how do you objectively discuss current events with your students, when the president makes wildly unbiased claims—and actually, actively lies? What happens when it’s perceived as partisan to simply point out a fact?

Are other teachers struggling with this? Where do you stand on these questions?

What do you do?


P.S. Thanks to multiple friends who shared their suggestions on Facebook; as I mentioned above, this lesson is entirely a pastiche of others’ ideas and work. Kate Harris—who has herself created outstanding, relevant lessons (like this!) for the New York Times—pointed me to the Digital Resource Center and the NYT‘s Learning Network. Heather Fann suggested the Pope activity, which was enormously successful and provoked great conversation. And William Davis quickly kindly pointed out my Bill Murray mistake. Many other friends contributed other ideas and questions and sent me resources I’m still culling through. So thank you, thank you, thank you to all. Let’s keep the conversation going.