For the first time in three years, I’m teaching a history class this semester! While I enjoy the Civics, Government, Econ, and English I teach the rest of the time, history will always feel most like home. I’m trying something that might be a little crazy: a 100% open inquiry course, where what we learn is entirely based on students’ questions stemming from current events and issues.
This is very much tied into my thinking of the C3 Social Studies Framework, so I’m trying to blog pretty regularly about the course at C3teachers.org. The first piece on the class is up now:
After a year of lauding hosanna’s towards the C3, during the past month my relationship with the framework fundamentally changed; I started to actually put it into an action. And while my first thought at all times was still, “wow, this is brilliant,” as I spent more time thinking and planning about my teaching for the second semester, the more present thought was more often, “wow, this is going to be hard.”
For the rest of the school year, I’m hoping to use this space to share thoughts on my continued relationship with the C3 as I try to implement it in one global classroom. In this first post in the series, I want to give some context for my work. While every school is unique, mine is especially so in many ways and it is important for readers to realize early on that I have rare freedom and flexibility. In subsequent posts, I’ll discuss the challenges I encounter, how I try to deal with them, and share my inevitable failures and hopeful triumphs.
Facing History and Ourselves – probably my favorite PD organization – did a nice little piece on the English class I’m teaching on their website today:
The course started with a six-week unit called “You and I” that examined the notion of identity, exploring questions like Who am I? How am I perceived by others? How do both of these perceptions impact my choices? Next up was a six-week unit called “Us and Them,” which looked at issues of difference and incorporated Facing History resources on membership and society. In this unit, the students explored the history of the Weimar Republic as a way to set the stage for reading All Quiet on the Western Front. The course will end this spring with a unit called “The Meaning of Life.” It may be a lofty title for a seven-week unit, but it gets right to the heart of what the students consider – that meaning in life often comes from interacting with others, that each of us has causes and people that are of life and death importance to us, and that other perspectives can offer guidance for our own lives.
While the focus of the piece is Common Core, I think the key is that it captures how great classes that focus on students as people can also serve the demands of the Common Core:
The backbone of the course is a solid syllabus of readings and assignments that have the students writing and reading personal narratives from multiple perspectives, researching, constructing effective arguments, and critically analyzing complex texts across a range of types and disciplines. As a result, the students are meeting the Common Core State Standards through a deep investigation of nonfiction, fiction, and essential questions about human nature.
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.
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,
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
- 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?
- How can I better focus on students’ thinking as opposed to the products of that thinking?
- How will I shift from not just developing teachers, but developing teacher-leaders for the future of our school?