Archive for the ‘US History Curriculum’ Category

I just had one of those transcendent teaching experiences when the walk out of the classroom fired up and ready to slay the dragon of ignorance.

Invited to sit in on a US History class’s debate on the effectiveness of Brown v. Board, I listened to a student read off statistics from a crumpled piece of notebook paper. His monotone went from number to number, from percentage to totals, graduation rates to dropout rates. After about three minutes of this, the teacher stepped in and asked him to summarize his argument. It took continued questioning and cajoling, but he was finally maneuvered into saying that he was supporting his team’s argument that Brown v. Board was a failure because the dropout rate of African-Americans was greater than whites. Before letting the other team respond, the teacher asked the source of these statistics and when they were gathered. Another student pumped his fist in the air declaring “US Census” as if the unimpeachability of their evidence sealed the entire debate. The fact that the statistics came from 2000 was barely noticed by students on either side.

The debate reeled around for the next ten minutes and covered every possible permutation of causes for this disparity that could possibly be imagined. Both sides argued about child care, teen pregnancy, the different regard in which different communities held education. They argued over the legal requirements for high school and how long a student was required by law to go to school. It bounced around at least a dozen different topics by the time the teacher stepped in and brought an end to the madness. The last student allowed to speak was arguing that in some communities you don’t have to become a businessman, while in others, you do. I swear, I’m not making this up.

Apparently a student had simply offered some statistics, and his opponents and then his team took a field trip through a teeming mass of other arguments, none of which was directly related to the question at hand.

To bring them back on the reservation, the teacher asked the student to summarize his argument in one sentence. With some fumbling, he said that his statistics showed that African-Americans are dropping out of school and therefore Brown isn’t working. Once again, the teacher asked, “in what year?” The answer, 2000, meant nothing.

At that very moment an angel of thought came down from heaven and gave me this analogy. I asked the class to consider this statement, “I weigh 200 pounds, my diet doesn’t work.” Immediately they did the same thing to my statement. “Maybe you can’t lose weight.” “Maybe you are cheating on the diet”. “Maybe you are genetically predetermined to be obese.” “My uncle had tried every diet there is and he still hasn’t lost weight.”

We had to stop them again.

Realizing this needed spoon feeding, I asked them to reconsider my conclusion. “I’ve just said that my diet doesn’t work because I weigh 200 pounds, but how do you really know if my diet is working?”. I was tempted to put my head through the window when one student said, “Because we don’t know what diet it is you’re talking about.”

Through the grace of a kind Providence, another student finally noted that they needed to know how much I weighed before the diet.


A moment of silence hung in the air as the gears turned in their heads. Finally, they got it. They could not conclude about the effectiveness of the Brown decision if they only considered what happened after the decision. They had to compare the statistics of before and after.

Yes there are still many problems with this. What counts as “dropping out”? How can you compare statistics from different states? How reliable is the evidence gathered from the south before Brown?

The point is this: instead of having a lesson on the Trail of Tears, why don’t we have a lesson that illustrates this feature of the use of statistics in argument? Ok, I know, sacrilege. How about this…Why don’t we teach this rather than have the student separate FDR’s New Deal agencies into a Relief, Recovery and Reform chart? Yes, blasphemy.

But if you were hiring someone, would you rather they have that skill or that content? If you were concerned about a literate democratic public, would you rather have a voter who knows that statistics have to be viewed this way or someone who forgot that New Deal worksheet they did in high school?

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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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Napoleon thought that the port at Antwerp was “a pistol aimed at the head” of England.  Likewise, the information revolution is also a pistol, aimed at the core content of the high school survey course in US History.

While waiting for the start of a NJ DOE presentation on the High School redesign project, I’ve been enjoying the early morning silence of Kean University’s student center.  Having learned to steer clear of the Route 78 beast by commuting early, I’m using the extra time to wrestle with my school’s US History I content survey results.  Social Studies teachers poured over lists of names, dates, events, people and laws, and ranked them on a 1 to 5 scale, weighing their importance to the curriculum.  Ultimately, we’re going to have a “must understand ” content list for students and a “may include” content list for teachers.  So I’m averaging the top two categories, organizing the items in categories and themes and compiling lists for every unit in the course.  And, not expectedly, realizing how much I’ve forgotten in the process.

Perhaps is the deterioration of a middle-aged mind, but right there in the middle of the lists, I came to a horrible realization.  I can’t remember a name!

I taught AP US History for years, and remember fondly the lesson that traced the first steps of the independence movement in the colonies because it started with a story.  Lifting A.J. Langguth’s first chapter from his book, “Patriots”, I described the Superior Court of Massachusetts in Boston and the first test of a British law allowing customs officials to search and seize colonial property without a warrant.  Langguth framed his explanation of the Writs of Assistance with the perspective of a young lawyer, John Adams, a spectator at the trial.  Do the “Writs of Assistance” belong in the US History curriculum?    How about the lawyer, who argued the case for the colonists?  He made a passionate defense of liberty and said that a man should be safe in the “castle” of his home.  Without a warrant and a reasonable suspicion of a crime, royal soldiers could not search homes and warehouses of law-abiding colonists.  It’s a great way to start a discussion of the foundation of the independence movement.  But wait…I can’t remember the name of the lawyer!

What the heck?  What was his name?

I know he was overweight, but the only obese colonist I can remember at the moment is Henry Knox, who  was busy selling books at the time of the trial, yet to rise to fame dragging captured British cannons from Fort Ticonderoga to the continental army at Boston.

But there’s hope. I’m in a university student center, the ghost-like “wireless network found” floated on the screen when I logged in.  My ignorance should only last a second.  Opening FireFox, throwing “Writ of Assistance wiki” in to the search box and clicking twice should only take about five seconds.

Curses!  Kean only allows people with accounts to use their wireless.

My ignorance will last as long as my beleaguered brain decays and as long as I am “disconnected”.

Here the point.  Once we get beyond the 1840 railroad internet infrastructure to get to “all access, everywhere, all the time” remembering such facts won’t be important.  Most of the people who are fine democratic citizens and contribute much to our society are ignorant of the facts we insist students remember in high school.  The information revolution proves that process obsolete.

Note to former students reading thus stuff – go ahead and laugh at me.  Live it up.

Meanwhile, I’ll wait for that delicious “ah-ha” moment, when I get reconnected to the cloud and reacquainted with a name.

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