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Archive for the ‘Curriculum’ Category

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I’ve discovered the hydroponics of continuous learning; audible.com.  Whether trudging my way through the traffic of a daily two-hour round trip commute, or cutting the grass of my significant other’s half-acre backyard of Pennsylvania farmland, I’m learning.  Good readers and good books combine to infect the otherwise barren moments of my life with information. Though I know all about “quiet time” and the regenerative benefits of meditative contemplation, I’m hooked on this lifeline of constant education.  Audio books are academic crack for nerds. 

Since August, I’ve “read” the first volume of Shelby Foote’s Narrative of the Civil War, Andrew Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail, Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life and all 57 hours of WIlliam Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.  There is no way the to carve out that sort of time in a 21st century lifestyle without audio books.  But as a result of this immersion in history and nonfiction, my views on education haven’t been changed, but rather reinforced in ways I never expected.

For example, William Shirer’s description of the Anchluss and the Sudenten Crisis of 1938 takes about four hours to read even though those events may amount to nothing more than two slides in a teacher’s PowerPoint and a five minute synopsis in an average social studies class. Perhaps there may be homework assignment, an essay on appeasement or even a more elaborate two day role-play project and debate.  Yet how can we claim that we’ve even scratched the surface of this era in history?

Those who defend the primacy of content in history education are shielding an hypocrisy.  The average survey course may be nothing more than a drive-by snapshot of history.  Sort of like a music lesson that teaches students to play the flute by telling them to blow in it on one end and move their fingers along the top. 

Isn’t it amazing that the more we immerse ourselves in history, the less certain we become of any one explanation of it?  The more we learn, the more suspicious we get of simple declarative statements that distill the vast expanse of the human experience into a blue vocabulary word surrounded by a simple sentence.

One way to prove the above is to spell out the way in which William Shirer takes a tire iron to Nevlille Chamberlain in Rise and Fall by describing the way in which a nascent mutiny against Hitler led by General Beck and Franz Halder needed only the slightest gesture of resistance on the part of Britain and France with regard to Czechoslovakia in 1938.  Add to that an analysis of the build-up of the British military between Anchluss and the invasion of Poland to defend Chamberlain’s appeasement.  Or one of Melvyn Bragg’s “In Our Time” podcast episodes from the BBC in which one of his guests describes the first public opinion surveys that showed Chamberlain couldn’t possibly have led the recalcitrant British into another world war in 1938.  Better yet, listen to Margaret Anderson’s spring semester 2007 installment of Berkeley’s History 5 class in which she categorically organizes the many factors at work in Sudeten crisis.

History teachers who are themselves students of history know the foundational belief of their discipline is that there is never one answer to any history question.  Yet they are trapped in state-mandated curricula, enforced by standardized testing based in perfect opposition to this belief.  “Appeasement before World War II was caused by ….”

If you’re the type of person that believes that significant events and eras in history can be crushed into a multiple choice answer shorter than the average 140 character Tweet, you might want to stay away from the academic crack of continuous learning, it will change your mind forever.

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For over a year, social studies teachers at my school have been struggling with a new US History curriculum.  Having wrestling the Content/Skills octopod of unsolvable  arguments to the ground, we cobbled together an authentic assessment that would drive the main focus of the course, “doing history” rather than “learning history”.  We defined the skills of an historian, wrote rubrics for each and built into the curriculum a portfolio in which students would reflect upon their performance throughout the year.  It’s hoped that course work will assume a different character when students have to reflect on their own performance, identify what needs improvement and establish a process through which they can improve.

The problem (isn’t there always at least one?), was how to explain this task to them.  Asking them to reflect on their work after it’s graded rather than stuffing it into a backback or saving it for June’s ritual burning is hard enough. How are they going to understand what is expected of them if it involves several waves of reflections, rubrics and evidence?

The attempted solution is this video.  All it takes is PowerPoint, Snagit, Audacity, Camstasia and a script that you write.  Will it work?  We’ll see….

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Is it a copyright violation to copy your own work?

I’m currently slogging through an online course that prepares me to teach online. Although I’ve done this stuff before, it is fascinating how many issues and considerations cross between the face-to-face and online classroom. Below is a response I posted to one of our class discussions about online group work.

Is online group work worth it?

That’s a loaded question because it goes beyond online teaching, and F2F for that matter as well.

Half of the Social Studies teachers at my school are in their first two years of teaching. Each has told me the biggest surprise they’ve experienced at the start of their career in education is the workload. They say this despite having been specifically training for teaching. This either speaks to the tremendous incompetence of schools like Boston College, Eastern University, Rutgers and Gettysburg College, or it demonstrates the extensiveness of a teacher’s responsibilities. What they all must learn is what we all know, experienced teachers constantly engage in a work triage, regulating how much time they devote to planning, grading, teaching and reflecting. We all know our students would be better writers if we doubled the amount of time we spent grading their essays, but there is no way we could manage that. We all know that if we planned unit fully implementing Grant Wiggins’s UbD, our curriculum would be improved, but we couldn’t grade anything if we did that. So we borrow time from Peter to pay off Paul’s obligations, and in the end hope the sum totals up to be worthwhile for our students.

We’re so good at triage, we even use it to manage the amount of emotional investment will make in any one student. How many of us have gauged the possibility of success before really going after those disaffected students that blow off any attempt to connect with them?

So on one level the question is right up our alley, we always measure this stuff. On the other hand, we have no way to measure an accurate response because we have a failed metric. How can we measure the amount of work we have to invest in online group work? We are just learning technical details of choosing and creating the environments for that work and we have to write out the step by step directions used by the students to navigate what we have created. Our work load, which includes learning about the various options open to us to make the best choice as well as actually using it, will be necessarily extensive. But I’m inclined to think that work is front-loaded. I can’t see how a teacher in their third year of a course they have written would say that the work they put into creating collaborative assignments was not worth it.

In a much more vital sense, the work has to be worth it because the students’ need for this experience is so great. How often have you heard your F2F colleagues express their fears that online teaching will sap students’ ability to work with others? After all, they admonish us, these kids spend too much time online anyway, they’ll never learn how to deal with others face to face. Do these teachers realize that these kids will work in this environment as adults? Yes they spend a lot of time online, but no one is teaching them how to successfully collaborate in that environment. My guess is that none of these nay-sayers would feel comfortable locking these kids in a room by themselves and then letting them out into the world confident that they can work together because they have been locked in a room together. Students coming out of that room would have been without adult supervision or guidance and my guess is their behavior would reflect it. That is exactly what is happening online today. Unless some adults get the kids into a nurturing online environment that guides them through the habits of practice and basics of polite, interpersonal communication and cooperation, we’re doomed.

If we don’t do this, no one will. If we let the kids teach themselves how to interact online, we’ll spend our retirement more angry and bitter that our current critics, complaining about the degradation of civil behavior in our society.

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I’m more than fortunate to be at the James Madison Seminar in Teaching American History at Princeton University. In the second of a three year program, several teachers from my school and many others from northern New Jersey schools enjoy the Hogwarts ambiance of Princeton and immerse ourselves in the thick content of our discipline. This history teacher’s geektopia is made possible by a federal grant designed to “raise student achievement by improving teachers’ knowledge and understanding of and appreciation for traditional U.S. history.” The James Madison Seminar’s program seems well-tuned to meet the goals of “traditional”, through a foot-and-a-half high stack of readings, and an assembly of wicked-smart professors providing mornings of lecture and afternoons of discussion.

Last year’s emphasis on the early American republic focused on Constitutional history, yet was also leavened by a cultural emphasis on period music and architecture, complete with a visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and colonial mansions along the Schuylkill river. This year we are digging through antebellum politics, the system of slavery and the philosophic foundations of the secession crisis. Was the Constitution a pro-slavery document, or did the founders (as Lincoln insisted) mark the institution for eventual extinction with an anti-slavery Constitution? Were Republicans returning to the original intent of the Constitution in 1860 or were they revolutionaries that brought on the Civil War? Sifting through each of the nine opinions written by justices in the Dred Scott case and dissecting South Carolina’s Declaration of Causes against Lincoln’s first inaugural is not for the timid. It’s not easy to wrap one’s mind around the idea that there is a logical argument to be made for the spreading of slavery into the west in an effort to end slavery. (Look at the dates of state abolition of slavery in the north and you will find that the states with the lowest percentage of slaves ended slavery first. The math is simple, the less slaves in a state, the easier it was to end slavery so it makes sense to diffuse slaves across the continent by allowing slavery in the west).

The participants in this program assiduously complete the readings and are focused in the lectures and discussions, exploding the content knowledge behind the instruction provided to thousands of students. Yet, as good as this sounds, the James Madison Seminar was not approved to continue on the grant beyond our class’s final session next year. Although the directors seem bewildered that such a well-respected program was discontinued, I would bet that they were not approved because of the word “lecture”. If they threw words like “collaboration” and “emergent technologies” on their grant application they would have made it. We were told that the Department of Education would want to test our students to assess the success of this program. Translated, this means, “we are going to give your students multiple choice questions to see if they know and have appreciation for traditional U.S. history.” Do you catch just a hint of personality disorder in this? The DOE doesn’t want lecture because that old school rote memorization is out of vogue, but they will test based on just the type of knowledge lecture promotes.

I’m fairly certain that most students would be ill-served if they were expected to process history at this content level. Some could perhaps handle the factual retention necessary, but the complexity of relationships and amorphous, gray areas between one idea and the next are quite beyond their ability. This content knowledge improves our teaching by reinforcing the foundation of our curriculum design, but we should not simply project that content onto our students. In fact, we should use our expanded content knowledge to better judge what to cut. The reading comprehension skills built by comparing South Carolina’s Declaration of Causes and Lincoln’s First Inaugural will serve our students better than the memorization of the British Acts of Parliament preceding the Revolution.

James Madison’s demise is indeed unfortunate, but not for obvious reasons.

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