Visitations and guest lectures

One of the challenges of working as a professional educator is keeping current with ideas about curriculum, both in terms of content, style, and matching the needs of students.  Over the last several weeks, I have had the opportunity to both contribute to these conversations as a presenter and benefit greatly from my role as an observer and participant.

In mid-September, SUNY-Cortland Professor Gigi Peterson was kind enough to give me time in two of her classes and social studies teacher workshops.  Pr. Peterson and I met in January at the American Historical Association meeting in New Orleans when I sought out her post presentation entitled “A Class Apart?” Latinos in the Secondary Social Studies Curriculum.  Gigi asked several important questions including:

  1. How are Latinos included in social studies curricular guides and textbooks at the secondary level?
  2. How can their diversity and histories be re-framed as a vital part of the US past and its transnational dimensions?
  3. Secondary-level teachers face politicized, commercialized, and shifting state education expectations.  College history instructors work with students whose perceptions are shaped by these systems, which often promote interpretations of the US past that are at odds with current scholarship.  How can both of these groups incorporate Latino history into their teaching so as to promote critical rethinking of interpretations, and understanding of current issues? (questions taken from Pr. Peterson’s description of her presentation available at http://aha.confex.com/aha/2013/webprogram/Paper11619.html )

Pr. Peterson and I talked about our respective institutions and students, the nature of social studies educator preparation in New York versus Massachusetts, English Language Learners in the classroom, and more.  Over the spring semester and summer we planned on maintaining contact and eventually I was invited to speak on the issue of “Western ‘Exploration’ and Expansion:  Revisiting Pre- and Early US History and Building Historical Thinking Skills.”

For my two presentations the intended audience was M.A. students in history, local social studies teachers, professors, and a class of pre-practicum history education students.  I sent ahead some readings, (eg, Pekka Hämäläinen, “The Rise and Fall of Plains Indian Horse Cultures,” Journal of American History 90, December 2003; preface to Daniel Richter’s America’s Ancient Pasts; the prologue to Colin Calloway’s One Vast Winter Count), and agreed on an earlier assigned piece from Juliana Barr, “Beyond the ‘Atlantic World’: Early American History as Viewed from the West,” OAH Magazine of History 25:1, 2011.   Then I borrowed heavily from a couple of folks to give an organizational framework to my conversation.

I started by paraphrasing Laura Westhoff’s remarks in the July 2013 OAH Magazine of History, in which she suggested that a “perfect storm” of three fronts – intellectual, technology, and policy – created changes in history education.  I asked the students to identify what they believed Westhoff meant by intellectual, technology, and policy – with some prompting and conversation, we put the words “Standards,” “Internet,” and “historical thinking” on the board.  So, I asked, what standards? US history standards, curriculum frameworks of individual states, Common Core State standards, etc.  We explored why the Internet and what/why historical thinking?

While the importance of the former seemed obvious – the sheer amount of information that could be disseminated had grown tremendously in the last fifteen years, the latter was arguably more complicated.  Historical thinking can create an argument, it can be a form of deliberation, sometimes moral or ethical, it should be related to stories of the past.  In historical thinking, historians and their students might spend more time and energy wrestling with the information than focusing on “learning” information.

In exploring themes like the American West and exploration, I pointed out that while we want to accumulate knowledge and information, at times this can be at the expense of getting students to think for themselves about history and its significance.  As David Voelker and Anthony Armstrong, argue in the same OAH Magazine of History as Laura Westhoff, designing a question driven U.S. history course can help develop students’ abilities to think critically.  Can we then develop historical thinking through inquiry planning? What types of inquiry should be deliberated and who gets included in both the design of the question and as the subject of the inquiry?

On those two days, I was attempting to discuss exploration and the American West and what those concepts mean in the context of American history – in other words, where does the American West fit as a place, a time, etc?  At the same time, I tried to get students to address concepts of historical thinking and gain a better understanding as to the origins of their understandings of the American West.  To that end, we took a moment to draw ‘the west’ –  students in both classes were asked to fill in a blank box with images or a scene that captured, for them, the American West.  This idea is directly adapted from chapter five of Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.  While I was less concerned with questions of gender in the students’ drawings, I shared Wineburg’s interest in what commonalities would students utilize to represent the time period/place, etc.  It is an exercise I have done with my history education students for several years.

The end results shaped our discussion for the remainder of the period, so I didn’t get to my other exercises – students were to draw explorers or exploration and students were to write a 50 word saga about an event in the history of the American West.  That latter idea is borrowed from Daniel Pink’s Whole New Mind (he in turn borrowed the idea from a contest hosted by the United Kingdom paper The Daily Telegraph).  My purpose was to get students thinking about their own understanding of the past (in this case exploration of the American West and expansion in the American West).  Once we had the main ideas up from images and discussion, it was clear that almost every student had chosen an image from the nineteenth century.

At this point, I referred back to the readings and pointed out that we had a problem.  What is West?  Several students volunteered that West is about ones perspective and so quickly grasped that defining the region itself was a challenge.  I pointed out that in the twenty-first century we face the same types of challenges – I teach in western Massachusetts which to residents of the capitol in Boston is seen as “then end of the earth” yet there I was on a Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning working as a guest instructor some four hours west of my home base in a place that wouldn’t seem like the west to my wife who grew up in North Dakota.  Then I utilized images of different aspects of the American West as they would have appeared to native people and we proceeded apace to explore what the West and exploration/trade etc. meant to the continent’s first human beings.  Ultimately, I was also making a case for the importance of telling these, to borrow from Daniel Richter, layered pasts.  When we “layered” the New York state curriculum standards on we found we had another challenge – a lot of what I was talking about fit only into United States History and Government, Unit One, Standard I, A and B – geography.  This fact was not lost on me prior to my visit to SUNY-Cortland, but it revealed one of the problems Pr. Peterson and I share – how do you convince young teachers that exploring content at the fringe of the “standards” is worthwhile?  As it turns out, a lot of what I was discussing in these classes was reinforced by two experiences I had in early October.

This past week I returned to  the classes at SUNY-Cortland, this time as a guest, listening to a number of ideas presented by Hofstra University Professor Alan Singer.  Pr. Singer is currently a professor of secondary education and director of social studies education at Hofstra and worked for years a New York City high school social studies teacher.  Singer also is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.  Recent posts include “If Massachusetts was a Country”  and a piece about common core lesson planning in New York.  Pr. Singer is passionate, high energy, and all that we might hope a teacher of history/social studies to be, including interesting!  Students in his high school classes and the teacher-scholars with whom he collaborates to improve social studies education should count themselves lucky.

Among other topics, Pr. Singer discussed good, bad, and ugly uses of the Common Core state standards, using examples surrounding critical analysis of the Emancipation Proclamation.  Singer expressed concerns that in the ugly format, the future of education looked somewhat bleak – will Common Core, APPR, PARCC all combine to create a system whereby outside agencies (some making a fair amount of money) give us the curriculum to teach, then design the test for the kids, then test the teachers on how well they taught the kids?  Singer’s important point was that teachers must separate the Common Core from the tests for students and the evaluation systems established for teachers.

What was good about the Common Core, argued Singer, was that it encourages teachers to be conscious decision-makers and systematic planners.  In addition, adoption of the Common Core could be utilized by teachers as leverage to improve common planning time.  Teachers need to be able to strategize together in order to most effectively integrate these standards.  He pointed out several examples of coordination at certain high schools in his immediate region near Hofstra where teachers worked at combining disciplines where possible.  Always, Singer returned to the theme of teachers as conscious decision-makers and systematic planners – for our students to learn, he passionately explained, you need to organize around a question or a problem and then you have to design the lesson or unit in such a way as to give the students the opportunity to answer the question or solve the problem!  Systematic planning allows for Common Core standards and state curriculum guidelines to be used, multiple entry points for student consideration to be developed, and summary questions explored that allow students to integrate ideas from a single day or earlier classes.  Always, the teacher should reflect on their own good, bad, and ugly, developing strategies for improvement.

In a separate discussion Tuesday evening, October 1, Pr. Singer utilized political cartoons from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century rotating on a powerpoint slideshow behind him to illustrate the dangers of lobbying powers as they relate to the future of education.  Passionately critiquing Pearson in particular, but also Education Testing Service and the College Board, Singer used Eisenhower’s warning about the dangers of the military industrial complex to explain why we should be equally concerned with the combination of politics, financial markets, and education policy.  When Pearson, a British multinational conglomerate expresses their efforts at influencing American education as reform, Singer suggest that their actions, combined with those of the Gates Foundation, the National Governor’s Council and others is about guaranteeing money and profits while influencing education policy.  Pearson controls 60% of the market for education products and by July 2014 will take over teacher education evaluation in New York State.

The edTPA (Teacher Performance Assessment) is a classic example of what Singer describes as the problem with efforts at “reform” that are truly efforts at controlling exams, assessments, and evaluations.  This program was created by Stanford University but with investment money from Pearson.  The program was then “sold” back to Pearson who in turn has sold the product to states, including New York, for implementation.  Pearson will therefore be making money in New York from statewide administered tests at the elementary and secondary school levels, from the testing for licensure candidates seeking to become teachers, and from the evaluation systems used to assess teachers and their performance.  In short, argued Singer, a corporation will be making money on all steps of the educational ladder in a movement that he describes as decidedly anti-union and anti-government.  This passion can be followed on Singer’s various Huffington post articles and in his activism with present and past students.  I’ll be watching closely as Pearson continues to develop its connections to Massachusetts education “reform.”

Finally, on Friday in part due to my role as lead historian for the Teaching American History Grant project entitled “Memorializing Promise and Conflict,” I was fortunate to have a front row seat for a workshop conducted by University of Michigan professor and former Cleveland high school teacher Bob Bain.  I first encountered Pr. Bain a number of years ago at a few national conferences speaking on connecting the Common Core to social studies work (he also introduced his then nascent steps into the Big History Project which is a subject worthy of an entirely separate commentary, especially in light of its sponsors).  In addition to Bain’s call to embrace elements of the common core (check out some of his arguments expressed on these slides), he insists clearly that one cannot proceed with history/social studies instruction without considering and grappling with literacy.  In other words, history teaching is literacy teaching.

To raise student achievement by improving teachers’ knowledge, understandings and appreciation of American history was one goal of Teaching American History grants, but Bain made a compelling case that this stated goal from over a decade ago was not enough.  The goal, Bain explained clearly, was not sufficient for raising student achievement.  Bain sought, through a variety of workshops, his own teaching, and work in other TAH grants, to make certain that students understood a little bit more than when they started a course or unit and that they had a good time learning in the process.

The main strategy employed was to focus student attention on the argument, problems, evidence, etc. in order to excite their interest.  Bain referenced John Dewey here, pointing out that all knowledge was once a problem, a question, a puzzle, or a curiosity.  And yet, argued Bain, we as teachers tend to not give the students the problem or the question, but rather we give them the answer and then have them work out ways or methods to reach that set answer – this strategy can result in boredom.  Problems, argued Bain, are our friends because they make us think, and historiography and history is all about problems.  Constantly, we should be asking our students (and ourselves) how our problem or the grappling with a problem supports, extends, or challenges the way we think.  If you’re a teacher, you’re asking those questions about how you teach history and approach learning in general.

A specific example of Bain’s problematizing approach can be found in history/social studies classrooms exploring the question of why people choose to move to Detroit.  The kids in question are living in Detroit and might be wondering the same thing in this present day – Bain suggests that by exploring the question in different time periods in American history, the students become actively engaged in reading evidence, using evidence and are trained in how to support, extend, or challenge the way they think.  By giving the students more cognitive tools, anything that helps them think, the students can improve their ability to read, manipulate language, write, etc.  Perhaps, argued Bain, by exploring the historical problem of “why do people choose to move to Detroit?” students might create reasons to move there today in the twenty-first century!  The notion is not dissimilar to Singer’s approach to organizing a unit or lesson around a problem.

Teaching history is filled with unique and often hidden problems and through historical thinking and literacy practices, teachers can help create cognitive tools that will serve their student well in the history/social studies room and in society.  We can’t, pointed out Bain, see our own thinking let alone that of our students, but if we start working on issues of how habits of mind are developed and training our students on developing these cognitive tools we can not only deal with the problems we face as teachers of history, but also better understand the problems are students face as students of history.

In sum, Singer and Bain, and I hope to some degree, my own strategies, seek to make the subject matter.  By asking our students to “think aloud” and demonstrate their thought processes through problem solving or “picturing the American West” we can start the process of exploring a “standard” from a place of inquiry.  We want to make all thinking visible and hopefully when students see this in action, they can engage with historical and political problems in ways that not only engage our students, but gives them the power and evidence to reassert or challenge their assumptions and preconceptions about history and it impact on our lives.

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