Monthly Archives: October 2014

Effective teaching

Five Big Ideas for Effective Teaching: Connecting Mind, Brain, and Education Research to Classroom Practice. Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers. Teachers College Press, 2013.

Years ago while still teaching at a school in Los Angeles, a colleague of mine championed any professional development opportunities to make connections between neurological research and understanding how students learn.  Many of the articles she encouraged me to read did, in fact, open my eyes to thinking more broadly about how my students might better acquire new knowledge.

Like my former colleague, authors Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers clearly see connections between the brain and learning.  This may seem like an obvious statement yet, as the authors successfully argue, there is a need to explain kinship between the brain, its functions, research, and teaching.  In addition, such connections need to be presented to pre-service and professional teachers in convincing and clear presentations. In many ways, Wilson and Conyers succeed on this front.  The big ideas are discussed in detail in separate chapters organized around questions intended to help focus readers and including sections that provide emphasis on a variety of key points.  In addition, the text includes chapters on the challenges and opportunities of education in the 21st century, myth busting as an educator, and the forward nature of continuous learning.  The five big ideas focus on the nature of neural plasticity (flexibility of the brain in terms of learning), recognizing human potential, understanding the nature of intelligence, how body movement can link to learning, and understanding concepts of metacognition.

A particularly important idea to embrace in successful teaching is to not have a fixed mindset about human potential or the nature of intelligence.  Modeling a “growth” mindset is important to show students how everyone can continue learning, including teachers.  Such modeling can be seen in teachers who demonstrate high standards, nurture students, focus on ideas like mastery, use formative assessment, and emphasize development of thinking skills among other ideas.  This third “big idea” for teaching is an essential component of successful teaching.  The teacher whose mindset remains fixed cannot bend or grow with their class.  If the teacher won’t advance their own mind, why should the student?

A weaker aspect of the text are the “Perspectives on” dialogues that create conversations between fictional teachers in order to explain conflicting attitudes toward the big ideas (this is particularly true in the body-brain chapter).  This method, while common in a number of texts about education, rings false.  Perhaps reshaping these conversations as dialogue between real teachers presented with the concepts explained in the chapter might be more powerful.  In addition, by using real people, the nature of debate and disagreement about teaching and learning could be viewed more clearly.  I found the “from teachers to teachers” more helpful.  These vignettes provide real case studies of how teachers are using some of the discussed strategies in practical, meaningful ways.  I’m also not convinced by some defense of the Common Core standards that appear in the text (pp. 135, 143).

Overall however, the text provides some useful links and suggestions for how to improve teaching.  To this end, I found the section covering the idea of metacognition, or, “thinking about thinking” particularly fascinating.  When assigning complex tasks to students (eg, interpreting documents or writing an essay), metacognition demands that students consider how they go about these tasks and in what order (pp. 117-119).  Each step becomes possible to complete, building toward the end goal and allows students to assess their progress along the way, seeing how and where they might improve.  Such approaches allow teachers and students alike to see where structured support or perhaps research might aid learning.  Finally, metacognition should work successfully in enhancing both student peer appraisal and teacher-directed suggestions and evaluation.

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Filed under Research, Teaching

Re-organizing the paper

Readers will note that I’ve been working on shaping up a conference paper I delivered last January at the American Society for Church History conference for submission to journals.  (See the abstract here.) The writing group with whom I am working this semester has been extremely helpful in keeping my ear to the ground for making adjustments to my piece.  Below is a current proposed “re-organization” model for the paper.  We’ll see how closely I hold to it in these final weeks prior to submission.

Outline draft, Nicholas Aieta, “Listen to Your Father’s above”

1. Purpose of paper
2. Intro to missionaries under discussion – Merrill, Allis (more background here?)
3. Geographic/topographic discussion of Nebraska (human and physical)
A. White historical
B. Physical nature of plains
C. Native inhabitants – Pawnees, Otoe-missouria (extend sourcing here? Difficult given limited quality secondary source accounts on these tribes)
4. Introduction of white-native interactions
A. Traders
B. Gov’t sources (agents, military, treaties, etc)
C. Missionaries – connection with work of gov’t
5. Moses and Eliza Merrill
A. Personal background
B. First Nebraska arrival
C. Work among Otoe-Missouria
6. Samuel and Emmeline Allis
A. Personal background – should be extended?
B. Interactions with Merrill family
C. Work among Pawnees
7. Historians’ debates regarding the work of missionaries (move?)
A. Tinker
B. Fisher
C. Rollings (some comparisons with Osages and work done by Merrill and Allis – move?)
8. Regard for natives held by Merrill and Allis
A. Does this contradict or reinforce historians’ debates about missionary work?
B. Conclusion regarding this study and work of Merrill and Allis (Tinker & Axtell discussed)

Self-Assessment – paper needs significant revision and tightening; if purpose is to use the Merrill and Allis missionary work as an example that fits within larger conversation about historians’ analysis of missionaries among natives, then the purpose section needs reworking; current section 7 should be elevated to earlier in the paper? Background on Nebraska and the native people in general might be lifted or restructured? Make connections between Coleman’s call for more individual missionary studies and what I am proposing here more obvious? Tie the observations about Merrill and Allis to historians like Tinker, Rollings, Fisher,  etc.

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Furst’s “Spies like us”

Alan Furst, Midnight in Europe, 2014.

Alan Furst’s latest period spy novel, Midnight in Europe, caught my eye quite by accident while I was at my local library in early October.  I had not remembered that Furst had published a new book in his long-lived World War Two era “series” last June, so when I saw the cover I thought “well, that looks like a Furst,” and sure enough, it was.

As I’ve mentioned before, a colleague introduced me to Furst and I immediately was taken in by the characters, environs, and the era.  As a student and instructor of history, I’ve long been fascinated by compelling and successful novels that help illustrate a period in time.  Alan Furst creates, not unlike John le Carre, vivid worlds of espionage, secrets, failed trust, and lovers.

Midnight in Europe is no exception as we meet Catalan refugee Cristian Ferrar, international attorney and Parisian resident, along with former arms dealer Max de Lyon, and a host of other characters, some new, some familiar.  Furst populates his novels with people and locations who “overlap” one another, so in Midnight we re-visit Brasserie Heininger and spend time with Count Polanyi, a Hungarian diplomat.  It’s rather like re-visiting a comfortable neighborhood, even in cases when Furst is laying the base for some very tense story-telling.

While Midnight did not impress me the same way in which earlier novels like Night Soldiers or The World at Night did it still allows one to envision pre-World War Two Europe in all its romanticism and tension.  Ferrar’s trips into Nazi Germany, his planning for the future as his homeland (Spain) falls to the fascist Francisco Franco (who is these days, is still dead), and the introduction of the United States more fully into the story line are all intriguing.

Part of what Furst has done successfully over the years is give readers insight into the lives of those at the fringes of the “typical” World War Two narrative. So in Midnight we meet a Catalan, Spanish citizens fighting off fascism, a Russian Jew who has lived all over the continent, Greeks, Hungarians, and more.  These individuals are all facing the coming changes in mid 1930s Europe and, in some instances saying their farewells – it can be touching how Furst portrays these tough men (laborers, criminals, dockyard workers, etc.) acknowledging that their homes are about to explode and many may never see one another again.  One could do worse when trying to unravel interwar politics than to pick up books such as Midnight.

postscript – I’ve also been reminded that the BBC produced a version of Furst’s Spies of Warsaw starring David Tennant as the lead.  Seems as though I need to check out Hulu+ and give the series a whirl.

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Filed under Fiction, Teaching and Learning History

Life of the “connected educator?”

October is apparently “Connected Educator Month” so it seems appropriate to add to our Westfield State blog on technology by briefly discussing the use of blogs in academia. Inspired by Worcester State history professor Tona Hangen, I returned to using blogs as a writing platform to discuss my thoughts on books, teaching history, my role as a union representative, and the odd “popular culture” thought or two.  I had experimented with blog use in my high school classrooms while teaching in Los Angeles, and then used a similar setup when I first arrived at Westfield State for my US History survey courses and my American Colonial history class.

I found the tools worked to mixed degree of success due to an existing online platform used at Westfield State. I migrated most of the assignments to that location, providing a digital home for my classes and the basic platform of what became some online course. At any rate, Pr. Hangen’s blog (links below and mentioned on previous blogposts) is an exemplar of academic blogging. The site expertly combines her teaching, research, and public outreach interests. I have used her academic blogging as a framework for my own. Below the links to Pr. Hangen’s material, you’ll see a few other links to materials from other sources on the nature of blogging in the classroom and academia in general. Happy experimenting!

http://www.tonahangen.com/blog/ – introduces the reader to Pr. Hangen’s work

http://www.tonahangen.com/2014/04/chunking-the-chapter/ – specific example of how Pr. Hangen uses the blog to map out how assignments function in her class

http://www.tonahangen.com/projects/digitalworcester/ – a favorite of mine as I went to undergraduate school in Worcester; here Pr. Hangen has helped her students create a digital history project that gets them thinking about the history of the personal and preserves the heritage of an urban, industrial New England region

http://www.lsa.umich.edu/UMICH/sweetland/Home/Instructors/Teaching%20Resources/UsingBlogsintheClassroom.pdf – Using blogs in the classroom from U. of Michigan

http://www.mindthesciencegap.org/style-guide/good-practice-guide-for-writing-science-blog-posts/ – example – U of Michigan, “Mind the Science Gap” blog

http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/integrating-evaluatingmanaging-blogging-in-the-classroom/22626Chronicle of Higher Education article on blogging in the classroom

http://cac.ophony.org/2009/06/12/lessons-from-a-first-time-course-blogger/

lessons from a first time course blogger

http://socialtheoryapplied.com/2013/05/07/using-blogging-in-academic-research/Using blogging in academic research

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Filed under Teaching, Teaching and Learning History, Writing