April Garcez’s U.S. History class was about to begin a unit on “The Progressive Era,” and these 11th-graders were about to be assigned presentations on figures like W.E. Bois, Ida B. Wells, Upton Sinclair and others who helped shape American history in fundamental ways. But when Ms. Garcez watched the recent presidential inauguration, she quickly decided to rewrite her next class plan to take advantage of what she considered a valuable learning opportunity. “We had to address the fact that it was momentous to have the first Black, South-Asian Vice President woman and Amanda Gorman as a speaker,” she said. “We had to stop the history lesson as it was.”
It would turn out to be a day of insight and lively discussion, worthy of the pivot on the day’s schedule. This class already had a built-in mechanism when it came to discussing present-day moments through a historical lens, in the form of “current events” assignments. To begin the class, Ms. Garcez gave everyone a few minutes to give their first impressions of the inauguration as a whole, and the topics brought up in the President’s speech. Ashlynn Hurley ’22 noticed themes regarding the pandemic and racial justice were front-and-center. Next, Ms. Garcez offered opportunities to critique the speech as well, asking the students to mention the ideas they had hoped to hear more about. Caitlin Dopudja ‘22 said that the President could have been a little more reassuring about COVID relief and Hannah Sherman ’22 felt the speech could have specifically mentioned ways of “overcoming the political divide.”
But this was a conversation between a group of young women in Los Angeles, and the inaugural poet, Amanda Gorman, was who people wanted to talk about most. Ms. Gorman isn’t much older than these students—and is also an L.A. resident—and she struck a chord deep inside this group. The class’s observations of her went beyond mere artistic admiration—her very presence at such an esteemed stage left many students reflective about their own senses of potential. Both inside and outside class, the students had a lot to say about her.
“The poem [The Hill We Climb] by Amanda Gorman was extremely inspirational and impactful,” said Destiny Inzunza ’22. “Her poem, along with her story of growth and success, has made me feel that I can contribute to something larger than myself.”
Le Ahn Metzger ’22 shared a similar feeling, “Amanda Gorman's poem at the presidential inauguration gave me hope in our generation...her hope reminded me that not all is lost, and that things can and will get better with time and hard work.” Le Ahn continued, “Seeing her success definitely opens up my mind to other career paths that I may have ignored because I thought they were too unrealistic to make a living out of.”
During class time, Ms. Garcez played a short PBS profile of Gorman. The piece indicated how issues of racial and gender equity are ever-present in her work but it also chronicled aspects of her biographical journey too, including living with a speech disorder. And finally, Ms. Garcez played Ms. Gorman’s performance at the inauguration, although it seemed unlikely that anyone in the class had missed it. Someone with a speech disorder choosing to become a poet and a public speaker was impressive enough, but achieving the high honor of becoming the first national youth poet laureate and the youngest poet to perform at a Presidential inauguration deeply impressed everyone. Charlotte Potter ’22 felt it was hard to overstate the poet’s grace and tenacity, suggesting, “Amanda Gorman is a name that I believe will live on for years after her passing. ”
Ms. Garcez approached another moment to pivot in her class that day. She had initially planned to administer a quiz, but the inauguration conversation was still going strong. The students could take the quiz on Monday. She asked the class to vote. It meant Monday would be extra busy, but would the students prefer to delay the quiz until then? With only a single exception, the class voted to continue to stay the course with this current events discussion.
Charlotte mentioned that they had just discussed this same Gorman poem in her English class and she was pleased to be looking at it from a more historical perspective. The poem “really incorporated the American dream,” she says. “You can be anything you want, you can come from any background, and you can still make it to greatness.” Although Ms. Garcez hadn’t orchestrated these discussions between other teachers beforehand, she strongly encouraged these cross-disciplinary references. Avalon said she had gotten unexpectedly emotional and praised Ms. Gorman’s “rhetorical devices.” And Catherine liked the “repetition” and “word choices, remarking that “the sound of her words...her reading...it is kind of like a heartbeat.”
For the last minutes of class, Ms. Garcez assigned students into groups in preparation for their “progressive reformer” presentations. She gave the initial instructions on how to approach these towering figures, to humanize them and put them in context. What was their early life and what obstacles did they overcome? What influenced that person to become involved in reform? What were their long lasting contributions to U.S. history? Suddenly the resources, the video and conversation about Amanda Gorman didn’t seem out of place at all, but rather a primer and a masterclass in understanding living history. Soon, students would take on an assignment in which they would profile a figure from the long past, but this engaged discussion among students had already created a snapshot of history in the making.