Why I'm in Washington - let me tell you.

At the end of my last blog post, I hinted that something different was coming up for me in this second month of summer.  It wasn’t until people started messaging me on Instagram and Facebook once I actually arrived in Washington, D.C. that I realized I hadn’t done a good job clarifying what that something was – my bad!  While the simple explanation might be that I’m taking a summer course as a part of my fellowship, there’s actually a lot more to the program than that, and to me it’s more that’s worth sharing.

A little over a year ago, two weeks before I graduated from Vanderbilt, I changed my entire life plan.  I withdrew from a teaching contract, stopped looking for apartments in Tennessee, enrolled full-time in Western Kentucky University’s history master’s program, and signed a graduate assistantship contract. That part was pretty straightforward.  What I didn’t tell as many people about was the piece that made it all possible - that I also signed a lot of papers and sent them off to Virginia to accept my position as a 2017 James Madison Fellow.

As a Fellow, I receive financial support to complete my master’s degree in American history.  However, I also become part of a thirty-year-plus legacy of American history teachers who have this recognition in common, and have the opportunity to live in Washington, D.C. for a month of coursework, class trips, and exploring.  That month is this month – the second month of summer between my two years of graduate coursework before I begin teaching.  For three more weeks, I am living at Georgetown University, immersed in what was described to us on day one as less of a course and more of a “constitutional boot camp.”  So far, it’s proven to be just that – the lectures dive deep into the roots of American constitutionalism, the structure of government, and political theory we’re familiar with today.

The James Madison Memorial Fellowship Foundation was established in 1986 as an independent agency of the Executive Branch of the federal government.  The Foundation, through online resources and advocacy, does quite a bit to support American history education in our country.  But their primary program is the James Madison Fellowship, which strives to create teachers of American history who relay the historical narrative of our country to their students from a constitutional lens.  This can look like a lot of things, but I have always defined it as teaching the value of the American Constitution throughout the scope and sequence of American history, rather than teaching it only in relation to the Revolutionary War and the founding of our nation. 

So that’s the what, but here’s the why: if you’ve turned on the news lately, you know that our country is a bit out-of-sorts lately.  (Honestly, if you study American history, our country’s been out-of-sorts for a lot longer than that, but that’s a whole other blog post.)  There’s a lot of opinions, voices, and directions flying around, and when it comes to politics and government, so many of those relate back to how we understand the Constitution as the principle instructional document for our government.  What we’re studying this month is incredibly relevant to the entire means by which we function and interact as a society – especially because all 48 people in this program are or will be teaching this same information in our country’s school system.  How we do that – how we explain to students the principles our government was founded on and how they as individuals can continue to shape the narrative that rests on them today -  has never been more important.  

There’s a lot of fun conversations that come out of that, and a lot of really neat pieces to the program designed to speak into that sphere.  We went on a three-hour tour of Arlington National Cemetery last Wednesday, with a former historian of the cemetery and past National Teacher of the Year as our guide.  We’ve had question-and-answer sessions with both a former U.S. Secretary of Education and the Chief Justice of our Supreme Court, John Roberts – all of which served as a great reminder that the lives, voices, and stories of individuals are what this world is built by.  We took a trip on Friday to Monticello and Montpelier, favorites of mine, which have both recently added exhibits about the lives of enslaved persons who worked on each plantation and were owned by Jefferson and Madison – serving as an awesome example to me as a teacher on how to handle complexities in history that can’t be ignored, but are often difficult to cover well in curriculum.

Be in the business of outcomes.
— Jon Peede, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities

On our first official day here, the speaker at our welcome lunch said these words.  He was talking about the way we approach student learning, which I can 100% get behind, but it also struck me a different way.  One thing I’ve been intentionally trying not to do while I’m here is put pressure on myself to enjoy the experience every second of every long day of lecture, every six hours of the bus ride, every night that the dorm mattress springs stab me in the stomach.  I did that when I studied abroad in Argentina and learned the hard way that it doesn’t work.  It’s okay to be overwhelmed by the material, it’s okay to miss home, it’s okay to want to stay in your room and rest instead of dashing out into the city at every chance. 

What I want to get out of this trip isn’t a perfect memory of every moment.  What I want is a better understanding of my content, a better perspective from which to teach my students the important concepts of our country, and friendships with people who are doing the same thing in other states and stages of life.  These crazy wonderful opportunities are always a good chance for me to remind myself what’s true: God goes before all of it for me, which means that I have and am enough.  I don’t need to do more or be more to do well and be well.  He takes care of that for me when I lean on Him to go and be where He opens the door.

And this is an incredible, wonderful month, but that’s all it is: walking through a door God opened and being, breathing, and learning where He told me to go.  It certainly wasn’t on my own effort that I got here; it was a whole lot of grace and guidance over the past five years through the people, places and programs God’s put in my life.  And that means that even when my phone unexpectedly breaks in the middle of the first week, even when I don’t feel as confident in the content as I’d like to, and especially when I feel like this is too hard – I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.

Thanks for all the sweet messages since I’ve been here and before I left.  I’m grateful for everyone who reads, and I can promise there will be more stories coming soon!