Category Archives: Research

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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Abstract for ASCH paper re-write

Today’s post is an exercise engaged with the writing process I am following this semester based on a campus writing group and Wendy Laura Belcher’s workbook on creating journal articles.  Submission of the full-length version of this paper is one of my projects for the semester.  Below is a draft of an abstract based on this paper (originally presented at the American Society for Church History conference in January 2014) .  Writing and revising the abstract was an exercise for this week.  What I am posting is abstract 8.0, and I’m  certain it needs some additional revision but hopefully readers can get the gist of the paper from this piece.

“‘Listen to the words of your Father above.’ Ministering the Natives of Nebraska in the early 19th Century”

Christian missionary efforts among Native Americans have both a long history and historiography.  Christian priests, ministers, and missionaries have attempted to convert native people in North America to Christianity for centuries and during the last 50 years or so, historians have increasingly attempted to understand the relationship between such missionary efforts and their impact on native life.  Nearly fifty years ago, Robert Berkhofer demonstrated that missionaries had a tremendous impact on native life and culture, arguably because the main goal of missionaries was to alter that very life and culture.  Thirty years later, pastor and historian George Tinker took this view to an extremely harsh interpretation, stating that missionaries were nothing less than partners in “cultural genocide.”

For native people as a whole, one must wonder, what was the appeal of Christianity or American civilization at all?  How might access to this new faith and/or new products enhance people’s lives in any way? Would, as historian Willard Rollings describes, “individualism” hold a torch of progress aloft for Native Americans and how might one define “progress” in the first place?  In the last thirty-five years, historians Michael Coleman, James Ronda, and James Axtell have all called for fresh examinations of mission history – the former encouraging critical case studies of individual missions and missionary societies.  The latter two, along with Tinker, see missions as culturally revolutionary and seek to focus attention on native responses to such intrusions.  This study seeks to ask questions  about the experience of specific missionaries in the period of the Early Republic and whether these particular missionary experiences fit the model of “cultural genocide” as enunciated by Tinker.

Around 1819 at Fort Atkinson, one of the first Christian sermons was delivered in what would become the territory, and later state of Nebraska. By the 1830s, missionaries such as Baptist Moses Merrill, and Presbyterian Samuel Allis were preaching their message among the Otoe-Missourias, Omahas, and Pawnees. In preparation for his journey, Merrill spoke of his desire to have the Lord’s help in preparing for service, “among these benighted Indians. May we be the honored instruments of turning many from darkness to light.”

Allis arrived in Bellevue after the Merrill family did in 1834 and then moved farther west and served as missionary to the Pawnees until 1845.  After 1845, Allis built and briefly ran a boarding school for natives before returning to the Bellevue area in 1851.  Also in the 1830s, the Belgian Catholic priest Father Pierre-Jean De Smet conducted services and baptisms in the area, chiefly among fur traders, those of French descent, and certain natives who had taken on the Catholic faith.

Men like Merrill, Allis, and De Smet thrust themselves into largely ‘foreign’ environments within the boundaries of property owned by the United States but contested by various native people.  These frontier missions were both probes into native space and extensions of white American culture that differed from trading posts and military encampments.  The missions, and those who ran them, sought to both build relations with native people and, in most instances, challenged and changed native culture. To that end, Allis went so far as to suggest that missionaries who committed to marrying into native tribes would have greater success.  Despite this somewhat ‘radical’ thought, Allis also subscribed to at least one traditional approach. Conversion for natives was more likely to be successful once people like the Pawnees shed aspects of their lifestyles and came to mimic white farmers.

Other missionaries believed that conversion had to come first in order to lead natives to civilization.  Ultimately, disagreements over conversion efforts (style, sect, speed, etc.) led to debates and discussion as to the purpose and intent of white men such as Allis living among the Pawnees and other native people.  In many ways, debates between some of the Christian missionaries and other Americans were more lively than any discussion between native people and missionaries in general.

This is not to suggest that there was not some level of respect for native culture. Allis in particular was an admirer of the Pawnees and their ways of life, even suggesting that native people like the Pawnees had a lot more positive to be said about them then the white settlers who displaced them. Allis pointed out after two winters and one summer among the Pawnees that he had learned aspects of their language and culture in his time living among these native people, but also much about their character as fellow human beings.

Allis and Merrill can be described as both sympathetic to their native neighbors and conversion targets, and still judging from their own world view.  My reading of the experience of these two particular missionaries in Nebraska does not reveal a concerted effort at “cultural genocide” as Tinker might conclude.  To successfully judge the Pawnees, Otoe-Missourias, and New England missionaries by their own standards, as should be done according to James Axtell, is difficult because we are examining a clash of two societies.  This study focuses on the perspective of Allis and Merrill – the views of Otoe-Missourias and Pawnees living near the missionaries are only presented through the lens of their American neighbors.  Here is where Tinker has a point – Allis and Merrill may have been well-intentioned, but their actions still, in the end, could be viewed as causing harm and perhaps, due to conversion efforts and cultural interchange, limit our ability to achieve Axtell’s vision of interpreting native society by its own standards.

I would like to thank a number of people who have aided this project – panel chair Lindford F., panelists Joshua R., Brian F., and the audience at the ASCH session who all provided valuable resources and feedback to the original paper; writing group members Chalet S., Brian C., Cindy G., and Stephanie G. who all pointed out that the “lede” was buried!  Thanks to writing group members Hillary S. and Joe C. as well for help with another matter on the native imagery project!

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Sabbatical research continued

For the second time in one week I was fortunate to spend several hours at the New-York Historical Society working in the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library.  On this visit I was chiefly concerned with utilizing a digital camera to document a number of the images I had discovered on the previous Tuesday.  I had enough time to take over 170 pictures, while also working my way through four books and three additional boxes of archival material before the doors closed.

While most of the pictures covered images from the Bella C. Landauer collection, I was also able to snap a few from the Gosman family papers.  These two collections offered me a broad spectrum of materials that presented a variety of views of Native Americans from the 1840s through the early 1940s.  Landauer was chiefly concerned with the advertising world and as a result, the bulk of images I’ll be analyzing from her group included pamphlets and broadsides related to so-called Indian patent medicines.  The Gosman collection, as I mentioned the other day, was a completely unexpected piece.

The Gosman family’s papers reach back to the eighteenth century but the contributions from a teenaged Richard Gosman are thus far the only pertinent pieces.  Gosman was heavily influenced by publications like Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly.  Below, a comparison between an actual Leslie’s publication and a cover for Gosman should give readers a sense of what I am seeing when working with the material.








Gosman clearly consumed and understood the manner in which these papers operated as well as their intended audience.  Much of his written text as well as the general content for his versions of the press contain stories that mirror the style one would see in the time period in question.  Gosman’s pieces were brought to my attention largely because of the large number of Native Americans included throughout his newspapers.  Gosman’s images reflect a general nineteenth century American sensibility about what Native Americans “should” look like.  Despite the fact that the young boy grew up in a state with a strong Native American presence, (the Iroquois Confederacy), Gosman only seemed to envision natives as ensconced in fringed leggings, eagle feather headdresses, and, typically, involved in conflict with white Americans.  If indeed Gosman had seen Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show at Madison Square Garden (as is implied in one edition), it is no wonder that his understanding of Native Americans would prove so limited.  Another comparison is apt so I’ll include another sample from a Leslie publication (one aimed at younger boys and girls) and a piece from Gosman.







There is much more to be done with Gosman’s pieces and I have a number of examples to more thoroughly analyze.  I’m also convinced that if similar collections to Gosman can be discovered, there will be value in pursuing a separate project that explores how children and young people co-opt elements of the adult world in creative ways.  Between Gosman and the Landauer collection though, I believe I have extended the possibilities of the study.  The day before I returned to the archives, I determined that a database would prove necessary in terms of keeping track of the types of images, region of origin, purported Native American tribes represented, scenes depicted, media, etc.  I’m hopeful that building a catalog of the examples I find will allow myself and other researchers to more thoroughly understand the choices made by individuals in representing native people as well perhaps shed some light on why this problem continues.

Although I will explore Landauer in more detail separately, a few brief words and an example of this collection is worth remark.  The bulk of the collection I examined focused on medicine companies from the late nineteenth-century, many of which were located in the northeastern United States, yet that laid claim to close connections with Native American medicines and “spiritual” solutions to physical ailments.  In particular, the Kickapoo Medicine Company of New Haven, CT took great liberties with the history of the Kickapoos in general, presenting an invented “sagwa” liquid as a cure all for many an ailment.  In large, lavishly illustrated pamphlets, the company presented the “history” of the Kickapoos and the arguments for why their medicines were of great benefit to the general public.  A cursory level of research on my part reveals zero connection between the founders of this company and the Kickapoos themselves.  Like Gosman, the founders of the company chose to illustrate native life on their own terms.  While I’m not surprised by my initial findings, I am curious to see where the pursuit of additional ephemera takes me.



*Gosman and Landauer Collection images from the NY-Historical Society


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