We Need a Better Social Studies Curriculum in NY

Dear Readers,

As you may or may not know, the NY State Department of Ed recently released a draft proposal of a new 9-12 Social Studies curriculum.  While there is some stuff in it that pushes Social Studies in a positive new direction, overall, I found the document quite troubling as a teacher, citizen, and historian.  You can read my full explanation here. Along with Andy Snyder, a fellow National Board Certified Social Studies Teacher of fifteen years at School of the Future, we have decided to organize strong feedback and potential resistance to the state by creating the group Insightful Social Studies.  Below, you’ll see our statement of purpose and organization.  We hope you’ll agree and join us, and you can read the growing number of voices expressing their concerns on our blog.

If you share my concerns, you can find the proposed draft, fill out the state’s feedback survey (due Friday night), and sign our petition.  After doing that, we would love to add your voice to the Insightful Social Studies blog (you can send me your piece).  And of course, please forward this email widely. Maybe together we can transform a stumbling block into a stepping stone.

In Solidarity,

Steve

Our long term goal as teachers is to better help students learn to make sense of our shared situations in our society via meaningful social studies instruction that focuses on powerful and relevant questions, deep consideration of crucial issues, and authentic civic engagement.

Our current struggle is to spark an effective resistance to the laundry list approach to social studies standards provided by the current draft NYS Social Studies Framework and thereby to build greater support for meaningful social studies.

Our strategy is to mount a small public education campaign that gathers support to begin again on social studies standards in NY state – either via radical revision of the framework, the Regents rejecting the proposed framework, or through the construction of a parallel teacher-led Social Studies standards framework.  We are looking to form a group of teachers and allies who will develop, adopt and hold themselves accountable to an alternative framework should the state fail to improve the current framework.

We want to see three main things in any adopted curricular framework:

  1. The framework should emphasize questions, not answers.
  2. The framework should emphasize transformative depth rather than useless breadth.
  3. The framework should provide the freedom for schools and teachers to choose from a menu of paths and emphases to best serve their students.
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On the New NY Social Studies Framework

The New York Board of Regents recently released a draft of a new 9-12 Social Studies Framework and will accept feedback on it through March 8.  The new framework reflects two significant shifts.  Whereas the old framework was essentially a series of topics, the new framework focuses on Key Ideas and Understandings, as well as adding the Common Core Literacy Standards and what the State calls “Social Studies Practices,” which reflect the key skills in our discipline.

On the Framework’s opening page, there are a list of objectives that I found refreshing and of which I am very supportive. According to the Framework, the purpose of Social Studies “is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”  Towards that end, the Framework claims to allow “Students to develop an understanding of concepts and key ideas driven by case studies, analysis of primary and secondary source documents, and an examination of patterns of events in history,” and teachers “to have increased decision‐making power about how to teach and illustrate conceptual understandings and key ideas to promote student understanding.”  On those three points rests the entirety of the work I do with curriculum, teachers, and students.   Count me in!

A little of the substance that follows this promising introduction does take steps forward towards indicating what students should be able to do in high school social studies courses.  Both the Common Core standards, which I’ve written about elsewhere, and the conception and inclusion of the Social Studies Practices, are significant advancements from previous State guidelines which only focused on content knowledge.

However, the extended list of 59 Key Ideas and the multitude of Understandings serve to completely undermine those efforts.  I have three main concerns, as well as suggestions to address these concerns.

First, a certain interpretation of history is established through the “Key Ideas” which is meant to be transferred to students, as opposed to a series of questions being posted to lead to the inquiry necessary to demonstrate most of the Common Core standards such as argument, (Writing 1), comparing texts with different views (Reading 9), and all the Practices.  This static approach to historical content assumes we know what matters about the past and simply need to transfer it to students, rather than acknowledging that social studies is a contested field of knowledge, in which interpretations of the past are continually questioned and reevaluated.

Second, in grades 9-11, there is no consideration of why this history matters today. As a result, the Framework includes no way for students to achieve the stated goal of Social Studies to “help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”

To address these past two concerns, the Framework should be shifted from answers to questions that would demand actual inquiry, thinking, rigor, and decision making.  For example, the current Framework demands that eleventh graders know that “The success of the revolution challenged Americans to establish a system of government that would provide for stability, while beginning to fulfill the promise of the ideals outlined in the Declaration of Independence.” This assumes the Constitution provided stability, an idea the Civil War challenges; that it was a step on the road to certain ideals, despite its protection of slavery and the slave trade; and fails to look at the Constitution in the present day.  Instead of starting with the answer, it would be better if  we started with questions: “To what extent did the Constitution succeed in fulfilling its stated goals in the Preamble?  To what extent did the Constitution fulfill the promises of the Declaration of Independence?  How well does it still work today?  How might it change to work better?”  The Gilder Lehrman Foundation has a much longer list of similarly provocative and essential questions for US History that might serve as a model.

Third, and most importantly, there are too many ideas and understanding to do well in the given courses, and every single one of them is mandated.  It takes time to help “Students to develop an understanding of concepts and key ideas driven by case studies, analysis of primary and secondary source documents.”  It takes about six weeks for my students to come to the required understandings of the Constitution, while simultaneous developing core skills and practices.  However, the Key Idea of the Constitution is only one of fourteen.  I would need at least 84 weeks to do this curriculum justice, but I only have 40.  The senior year curriculum is even more daunting, with ten Key Ideas for Government, and fifteen for Economics, while each of these classes are only semester (20 week) courses.  Rather than removing understandings from the list however, I would rather see a model that, as the Framework claims it wants to do, explicitly empowers districts and teachers to make choices.  I would suggest the State consider the International Baccalaureate model.  In that curriculum, there are a small number of prescribed subjects that take up about a third of the course, in combination with a longer menu of options for the rest of the course.  The IB History Exam models how students could be assessed. The IB exam provides a large number of questions and students must choose to answer a few questions on a number of different subjects..

It is my hope that the State hears similar feedback from teachers across the state, and that these changes are implemented before the new curriculum takes effect.  I hope those who agree with my critiques will take the time to share their input in the coming weeks.

If you share my concerns, you can find the proposed draft, fill out the state’s feedback survey (due Friday night), sign a petition, and read more critiques of the curriculum here. Maybe together we can transform a stumbling block into a stepping stone.

Semester 1 Reflection: Looking for an Argument

One of the many unique features of my new school, Harvest Collegiate, is that our humanities courses are one-semester theme-based courses that, for the most part, are electives.  This means I completely wrapped up courses last month, and started a new term with a new course and students a couple weeks ago.

Last semester, I taught two courses.  I wrote about my Build Your Own Civilization class a few weeks ago.  My other class, which I co-taught with a brilliant and promising novice co-teacher, was Looking for an Argument, and it might be the best class I’ve ever taught, and undoubtedly yielded the most student growth I have seen.

The class was created by Avram Barlowe and Herb Mack of Urban Academy, and you can buy a book about it here.  At Harvest, Looking for an Argument gives a government credit, and all 9th graders take it during the year.  The structure is relatively simple.  Each week focuses on a different controversial issue.  Ours’ ranged from the NYC Soda Tax to the presidential election to Stop and Frisk.  The week starts with two teachers debating the issue. The students choose who has which side, establishing that the class is not about being right, but rather about constructing the best possible argument.  Students then join in to debate and discuss the issue for the rest of the period, all the while taking notes.  Each week ends with the students writing a timed argumentative essay on the topic.  In between, student read from a packet on the topic, composed of a variety of news and blog articles, as well as critiquing students notes, highlighting, and essays from the pervious week.  And that’s it.

Part of the genius of the course is its simplicity.  While provocative topics keep the students engaged week to week, students are practicing only four core academic skills — note-taking, reading with annotation, self-reflection, and timed argumentative writing — over and over again.  While students do gain a tremendous amount of knowledge about the world through a variety of topics, that knowledge is never assessed; it’s all about the skills.

My class was tremendously successful in improving these skills.  Harvest has a Common Core aligned six-point writing rubric we use in all classes.  A 1 on the rubric corresponds to a middle school level performance, a 3 on the rubric means a student has met the Common Core standards for 9-10 grades and a 5 means the students has met the Common Core standards for 11-12 grades. Each point is then roughly one year of growth.  We focused on measuring students’ improvement in Perspective (developing claims and counterclaims) and Evidence (supporting those claims with a variety of the strongest possible evidence).

In my class, students averaged a gain of .82 in Perspective, and 1.25 in evidence.  In other words, students averaged a full year gain in skills from only a semester.  At the start of the class, 5 students were meeting the 9-10 Common Core standard in Perspective, and none were in Evidence.  By the end of the one semester class 9th grade class, 16 of 26 students were meeting or exceeded the standard in Perspective,

Dealing with "History Myths" in the Classroom

A few months ago, Larry Ferlazzo asked me to respond to a question he got for his weekly teacher advice column at Education Week.  Although I have tried to say no to most non-Harvest education commitments this year, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to answer the question, “What history myths are being perpetuated by textbooks that you attempt to break down/challenge in your classroom? How do you do that?”

I wrote my response a few months ago, which is now up on Education Week:

When I became a teacher a decade ago, I entered the classroom equipped with James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me in one hand and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States in the other. I was convinced that the largest problem with history education was the absence of certain stories or perspectives from our textbooks. I saw myself as a myth-buster, ready to challenge students’ preconceived notions of Columbus as hero or John Brown as insane terrorist.

The longer I teach though, the more I realize these are not the most destructive myths that textbooks perpetuate. Rather, the most destructive myth is that “history is simple.” In an effort to be comprehensible, textbooks too often take complex causations and individuals and turn then into neatly identifiable causes and caricatures.

Little did I know when writing the piece that it would come out on the heels of a much-discussed piece by Stanford History Education professor Sam Wineburg in the AFT magazine read by most as a takedown of Zinn.    Wineburg’s article should be mandatory reading for history teachers, despite its problems.  To summarize, Wineburg critiques People’s History on two main accounts.  First, it cherry picks primary source evidence to support the views Zinn holds.  Second, like textbooks, it “relies almost entirely on secondary sources, with no archival research to thicken its narrative… [and] is naked of footnotes, thwarting inquisitive readers who seek to retrace the author’s interpretative steps.”  Both these claims are correct and speak to the larger problem of simplifying history I wrote about.

However, despite Zinn’s historiographical limitations, I do not share Wineburg’s conclusions.  Zinn is extremely useful exactly because it a secondary source with clear limitations.  By telling history with a clear and biased perspective (unlike textbooks which try to hide their perspective), it provides teachers with a tremendous tool to teach students how all secondary sources are not unbiased factual accounts, but rather interpretations created by human beings that need to be read critically.  When used with textbooks, other secondary sources, and primary sources, A People’s History helps students to do the historical thinking Wineburg so values.  It does all that as well as providing a necessary dissenting voice to engage many students who don’t view history as theirs, as NYU professor Robert Cohen showed in his response to Wineburg. 

Side note: Charles Blow’s column in yesterday’s New York Times makes the same points about Rosa Parks that I did in the Education Week piece.

 

Semester 1 Reflection: Build Your Own Civilization

Among the many unique features of my new school, Harvest Collegiate, is that our humanities courses are one-semester theme-based courses that, for the most part, are electives.  This means I completely wrapped up courses last week, and start a new term with a new course and students next week.

This past semester, I taught two courses.  The first, Looking for an Argument, was probably the best I ever taught.  The structure was creating by Avram Barlowe and Herb Mack of Urban Academy, and you can read more about it here, and buy it here.  I hope to write more on that soon. My second class was an interdisciplinary English and Global history course which I dubbed Build Your Own Civilization.  The global focused on ancient and golden aged civilizations, while the English focused on post-apocalyptic or “kids on a deserted island” scenarios.  In addition, the first 30 minutes of every class was devoted to independent reading of books of the students’ choice.  I owe a huge debt of gratitude to what I’ve learned about independent reading to East Side Community High School’s very well established program, my former colleagues Steve and Chris at Bronx Lab, and my department mate Kiran, who generously gave me all her independent reading materials.

I want to start with my students’ reflections.  I borrowed heavily from Paul Blogush’s evaluation, and was quite please with the info I got.

First, I asked my students to choose one words to describe myself, and one word to describe the class.  Here are the results:

I’m not sure I could be happier about helpful and challenging being the most common words to describe me, and am quite pleased they found the course interesting.  The one student who described me as “awesome” but the course as “less awesome” actually points towards my feelings about the class. Continue reading Semester 1 Reflection: Build Your Own Civilization

New York Global History Curriculum Revision

New York is currently accepting feedback on proposed revisions to its Global History curriculum.  More information is here.  Below is my submission:

How does your school or district currently organize the two-year Global History and Geography course?

Thematically

If your school uses a chronological framework, where do you end the first unit of study?

N/A

Which of the three options presented to the Board of Regents do you prefer? (Please understand that the new courses will be based on the new frameworks and the Common Core, and the specific content may differ from what is currently taught regardless of how the courses are organized and where the two year course is divided.)  

Thematic Approach

I have taught Global for a number of years at all grade levels in New York City.  I taught the conventional 9th-10th grade Global sequence.  The past four years, I taught one semester Global review courses for seniors still needing the exam.  One year, for a variety of complicated reasons, I taught the entire two-year sequence to 11th graders.  Regardless of those situation, one thing remained common: to satisfy the state curriculum and prepare my students for the Regents exam (where my students’ pass rates have, on average, exceeded the city average by 20 points, culminating with a 100% pass rate last year amongst my seniors who already failed the exam 4-6 times), my students learned a huge amount of shallow and superficial knowledge about way too many topics.  My challenge, then, was to arrange the curriculum in some way that allowed for my students to gain greater understandings about the world and how it works despite the massive pressure for coverage.  To do this, I arranged my curriculum thematically, as it was the only way to work in the higher level thinking skills necessary for college, career, and most importantly, citizenship.

For example, I typically started with a unit on Geography centered around the question, “Is Geography Destiny?”  This unit took us from the Neolithic Revolution to River Valley Civilizations to the Green Revolution, with stops to look at Terrace Farming in China and South America, the West African Gold-Salt Trade, the Irish Potato Famine, and the Columbian Exchange.  Students learned the content they needed, but more importantly, they practiced making connections and judgements which allowed them to apply the lessons learned to the increasing geographic challenges our world faces, and deeply engage with questions of geographic determinism.  As we learned the surface level information, students also read excerpts from Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel to better understand how geographical advantages thousands of years ago still affect lives today.  This unit anticipated the shifts demanded by the Common Core for students to engage with complex texts and rich academic vocabulary at rigorous levels of thought.

Many argue that a certain continuity is lost without a linear progression through history. While this argument carries significant weight in an American History course, which is a number of concurrent stories, the vast majority of Global History denies any such ordering.  The world was simply not particularly connected for most of Global History, with regional developments rarely extending to different parts of the world.  I see an argument for a chronological approach for the past two hundred years, but before that it only serves to confuse students trying to sort insanely large amounts of information.

To satisfy the demands of the Common Core, the Global Regents curriculum would best be arranged thematically.  With that said, it is exponentially more important that the curriculum be streamlined to emphasize more depth of knowledge, even at the expense of some content.  If students are to be reading complex informational texts at the 9-10 level, they will need time to learn how to do so, and this is truly impossible if one teaches everything currently in the state curriculum.  Rather than the state making what, in the end, would have to be largely arbitrary decisions about what to keep and what to eliminate, I would like to propose the curriculum be based on a menu of options within each theme.  Much as English teachers can choose from a range of outstanding, engaging, and enriching literature, schools should have the same freedom to do so with history. This would allow for teachers to privilege higher level thinking, reading rich informational texts, and to teach students the reading and research skills demanded by the Common Core.   The Regents Exam in Global History could easily allow for this by eliminating the multiple choice section, and adding a second Thematic Essay.

Do you currently or have you taught the Global History and Geography?

Yes

How many years have you taught Global History and Geography?

6-10 years

We're Huge in Japan

I’ve been told this article is about how American teachers teach 9/11, in comparison with how students learn about Hiroshima & Nagasaki in Japan. I’m just pretty pumped that the very first class at Harvest Collegiate High School showed up half-way around the world.

On teaching thoughtfulness

I’m doing a lot of thinking about how I can focus more on my students’ thinking this year, as opposed to just their products. The book Making Thinking Visible is giving me many ways to try to do this.  Grant Wiggin’s recent post on teaching “thoughtfulness” captures why this is so important far better than I ever could.  I want to quote the entire article here, but these two points had me wanting to scream in acclamation:

So, none of this is original thought, as I said above in reminding us of Plato’s Cave. Tyler’s thought, too, is an old thought: Kant, Whitehead, and Dewey all said as much. That’s what makes me think about it all. The wonder here, the true food for thought, is not that teachers everywhere and from time immemorial cover content. The thought-provoking issue here is that most educators agree with these thinkers – but then fail to see that when their work deviates from what they assented to.

and

More knowledge, more content mastery is thus NOT the antidote to a lack of thought, in either teachers or students. That’s what differentiates me from many reformers. I don’t think most so-called good schools are particularly good; I don’t think “bad” schools should strive to be “good” suburban schools because most of those schools are intellectual stultifying.

Reading the whole piece will make you a better human being.

Questions for the 2012-2013 School Year

Each of the past two years, I wrote a bunch of goals and reflected on them every two months in this space.  I often found that as the year went on, I didn’t really care about the goals and reflected on them just because I said I would. I’m taking a different approach this year and writing myself a series of reflective questions I will return to every couple months.  This will be my own personal inquiry project.

  1. How will I need to change the stance towards students and pedagogical practices I’ve developed the past years teaching upper classmen to be successful in teaching freshmen?
  2. How can I better focus on students’ thinking as opposed to the products of that thinking?
  3. How will I shift from not just developing teachers, but developing teacher-leaders for the future of our school?

Hopes and Fears for the 2012-13 School Year

I think this may be my favorite piece to write each year, but I can’t imagine I will ever be less able to capture my hopes and fears in words than I can now.  Not since my first year teaching, and maybe not even then, have I started a year with such overwhelming feelings of excitement, apprehension, nervousness, anticipation, and helplessness.

Harvest is Now Real

Eight months ago I sat down for coffee with Kate and Atash, the principal and social worker of what was then “The Harvest School,” something that only existed in their dreams and on some paper.  That evening, I became the first teacher to join the planning team.  Paul, our science teacher, joined a few days later.

For eight months, the hopes and dreams have gotten bigger and bigger.  Our team of dreamers has expanded slowly as more teachers joined, and we began to share dreams with our future students and their families.  Tomorrow morning, when 120 or so 9th graders walk in, Harvest Collegiate High School will be real.

Eight months ago the school was a newly-approved proposal.  Tomorrow, our students will walk into a fully conceived institution.  To the best of my knowledge, we are ready in every which way a school can be (with the exception that a lot of supplies still haven’t arrived).  I have worked with amazing teams in the past, but none like this.  I have no doubt we have the strongest ninth grade teaching team in the city.  I am proud that we are not only ready for year one, but have also made all major decisions and have concrete plans for each year until we reach our full capacity in the 2015-16 school year.  Our curricular and assessment structures, where I have done the most work, are set.  Ninth grade courses are designed to help students take the first step towards the graduation Capstone Projects student will complete in their senior year.   My greatest hope is that we have great plans we think we do.  My biggest fear is that we won’t find the right balance between evolving as the school changes and staying true to our mission and vision.

Teaching

I’m only teaching two courses this semester: a section of Looking for an Argument, a brilliant government/current events class we’re stealing from Urban Academy, and Build Your Own Civilization, an integrated history and English class that combines the study of ancient civilizations with post-apocalyptic literature where teenagers, for better and worse, create new civilizations.  I am hopeful that I can bring every lesson I’ve learned teaching the past nine years to these courses, so that I am just as successful as I’ve been the past two years.  I am fearful that I will not adjust quickly enough to teaching 9th graders for the first time since ’04-’05.

Teacher-Leadership

In addition, I’m excited and ready to return to holding formal teacher-leader roles in my school. As “Assessment and Organization Guru,” I’m coordinating the school’s assessment structures and ensuring our program matches our big picture curricular goals under the title. I’m also coordinating our January Term, our relationship with the Coalition of Essential Schools and New York’s Consortium for Performance Assessment, mentoring a second year teacher, serving as Tech Guy (for one year only) and, if elected, our Union Chapter Leader. I will serve on our Vision & Strategic Planning Committee and co-chair our Progress Monitoring team.  My hope is that the I’ve learned much from many around me and previous mistakes to effectively fill these positions.  My fear is that with so much to do (and everyone in the new school has this much to do), I will do too much myself and not allow others to grow and develop as teacher leaders.

Other Education Stuff

The past couple years I have done much out of school as a teacher-leader, and have been able to make things like writing, running professional development, working on Union committees, co-founding the NYC Social Studies Critical Friends Group, and serving on a reader advisory board for Gotham Schools, a priority.  All these things will have to go on the back burner for now.  I hope I can still prioritize some of these things, especially my CFG and on the DOE/UFT task force to create new assessments for teacher evaluation, while maintaining at least casual relationships with the rest.  My fear is that I will have to give much of it up with the added commitments to my new school.

Writing

Last but not least, I am excited and hopeful for how much I will have to write this year.  I hope it will help bring more people into our excitement at Harvest, and provide lessons and examples for others to take.  I am fearful I won’t have much time to do it, and if I do, that I won’t be able to find the proper balance between the honest reflection and critique I have been able to do in the past with the responsibilities I have for protecting and developing Harvest’s public image.

Previous Hopes and Fears