How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

History teacher Daniel Warner works to make the past come alive in his Memphis classroom.

Historic documents and mementos line the walls of his U.S. History classroom at East High School to remind his students that what happened yesterday matters today.

One poster reads “What does it mean to be American?” and Warner zeroes in on two African Americans from the 19th and 20th centuries to address that question with his students.

Booker T. Washington believed improving and educating oneself — at the expense of political action — was the right path. W.E.B. DuBois disagreed. He believed political action was at the heart of what would improve the lives of African Americans.

Warner said the two ideologies are “extraordinarily applicable to the questions that still face my students today.”

He also teaches an Advanced Placement history course at East High, an iconic Midtown school that’s undergoing major changes to revamp its image and recruit more students.

Chalkbeat spoke with Warner, 26, about why he became a teacher, how he keeps the attention of his students, and how he brings historical characters to life.  (The questions and answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.).

Why did you become a teacher?

I hadn’t considered teaching until my senior year of college. In October of that year, I heard about the Memphis Teacher Residency and knew that’s what I wanted to give the next few years of my life to. I became a teacher more for cultivating learners and thinkers than for the essay grading and lesson planning. But I have come to enjoy the job in its entirety. And I have really developed a love for American history and the questions it asks.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?  

I love teaching on the dispute between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois because I find it to be extraordinarily applicable to the questions that still face my students and our city today.

Though the NAACP, the organization DuBois helped found, had a strong presence throughout the 20th century in Memphis, Washington’s ideas seem, in my experience, to have had a more lasting impact on the politics of black Memphians. There is a long history of black conservatism (a la Booker T. Washington) in this part of the country, a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality — that no matter your situation, you can overcome, and you have no one to blame but yourself for the choices you make. 

"Each year, students walk away empowered to connect their stories with the ones of those who have gone before them. History class becomes worth their time."

That perspective, held by many of my students, has taught me much about resilience and perseverance. I hope I caused them to question, why we must also work to make the systems and structures fair and equitable, and why it is good and right to demand that of our representatives. There’s always a heated back and forth in the final debate in which half the class represents DuBois’ perspective and half the class represents Washington’s perspective. 

I spend a full week on this mini-unit. I start with the terrifying context of the Jim Crow South, the political violence during and after Reconstruction (e.g. the massacre that happened here in Memphis in 1866), and the disenfranchisement of African American voters. We read some of Washington’s Atlanta Exposition Address in which he forgoes challenging segregation as he looks for employment opportunities for black workers in the New South. We then read excerpts of DuBois’ Talented Tenth speech and Souls of Black Folk in which he addresses Washington’s ideas. At the end of the week, we have a rigorous classroom debate in which students have to quote from the primary sources to defend their positions.

Each year, students walk away empowered to connect their stories with the ones of those who have gone before them. History class becomes worth their time.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?

We have a clear set of expectations in my classroom. I tell my students at the beginning of the year, “When I talk, you listen, and when you talk, I’ll listen.” I think that sets a tone of respect for one another that is foundational to a good learning environment.

I also try to use humor to keep the energy up and keep the mood light when appropriate. The teacher has to keep it upbeat when it’s the third day in a row on the issues of 19th-century farmers.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?

I try to ask students what kinds of things they like. For example, I have a student right now who every teacher is having a hard time reaching. He’s not a bad kid at all, just real quiet and doesn’t do any of his work. I walked over to him the other day and noticed he was trying to learn Japanese on his laptop. I don’t know how I’m going to do it yet, but my goal is to tie in what we’re learning to the Japanese culture that fascinates him. Figuring out how to engage each unique child is a huge part of why I find education to be a compelling profession. And oftentimes I find that if I show a student I am interested in him and his hobbies, he will show an interest in class.

I also take my students seriously. When a student comes in crying about their cell phone being taken away or takes the risk of sharing their perspective in class, I never want to make them feel they are out of place for feeling what they feel or thinking what they think. I heard James Baldwin say that Malcolm X  was so adored by his followers and stirred them to action because he made them “feel as though they truly exist.” Looking someone in the eyes and listening is one of the quintessential human acts. I try to take a swing at that as often as possible. Teenagers appreciate it.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I am reading a lot! Let’s see:

  • We Were Eight Years in Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates;
  • One Nation, Under God, Kevin Kruse (examining the ways libertarianism got wrapped up in the package deal of what it now means to be evangelical Christian in response to the New Deal);
  • Just finished Cannery Row by John Steinbeck (fantastic characters in a short novella);
  • Stamped from the Beginning, Ibram Kendi;
  • A collection of essays by Wendell Berry called What Are People For?;
  • Brother To A Dragonfly, Will Campbell (absolutely loving this one right now; Will Campbell is one of the most fascinating Southern Christians ever)
  • Awaiting the King, James K.A. Smith.