Category Archives: Teaching

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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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! – introduces the reader to Pr. Hangen’s work – specific example of how Pr. Hangen uses the blog to map out how assignments function in her class – 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 – Using blogs in the classroom from U. of Michigan – example – U of Michigan, “Mind the Science Gap” blog of Higher Education article on blogging in the classroom

lessons from a first time course blogger blogging in academic research

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Here is the place…

John A. Matthews and David T. Herbert, Geography, A Very Short Introduction Oxford University Press, 2008.

Readers may be aware that I have long had an interest in maps, cartography, and geography. Some folks may also know that I minored in geography while completing my Ph.D. In history at the University of Nebraska. These days I spend a significant amount of time on geography in history survey courses, my methods of teaching history course, and various upper division elective offerings including Native American history. In almost all of my graduate readings courses, I will assign a book that has a significant (if not 100%) focus on geography.

Like many of the texts published for this series, the work of Matthews and Herbert functions as a quick introduction to the discipline, including an examination of presumptions, its historical roots, and the variety of fields of focus. The authors immediately point out the difference between the modern study of geography and the “over-simplified” understanding expressed by many people. Geography is much more than descriptions of space and place; the physical and human side of geography are equally important and create bridges between the natural and human worlds.

In surprisingly quick order, the authors are able to give readers a real sense of core geography concepts as well as a more nuanced argument about the future of the discipline.  For example, we are introduced early to struggles over depicting space on a flat surface (the three dimensional planet on a map). The authors also introduce us to the importance of both place an environment in serious geography coursework, research, etc.

The text is replete with illustrations and diagrams that help make sense of theories, ideas, and even the history of geography.  Matthews and Herbert argue that there are five main phases to the study of geography thus far, ranging from exploring and mapping the world to the emergence of divergent interests like integrated, physical, and human geography.  This use of illustrations and diagrams continues, embracing both theoretical ideas (as revealed in the “future of geography” in the final chapter) and little insights into exercises or practices that might be explained and modeled in the classroom.

Much of the academic language is kept to a minimum, so laypeople can get a sense of the discipline without feeling too overwhelmed.  I believe the sheer breadth and depth of additional disciplines that can and do influence geography may be surprising to some readers.  When explaining the nature of physical geography, readers quickly grasp that professionals no something of earth systems, geo-archaeology, climatology, soil studies and more, just to name a few.

While in general the authors strive to choose practical examples from around the globe to illustrate their explanations, if there is a weakness of the text it is a heavy reliance on cases from the United Kingdom.  Therefore, some readers may not see all that the authors do when examining photographs of a rural landscape in Wales or gentrification on Elder Street in a London neighborhood.  This is not to suggest that the authors don’t explain the points they are making with these particular picture choices – they do, and now I know that a Welsh rural tradition is to have a hendre (home farm) as well as a hafod (summer dwelling).

There are a few other minor quibbles, (e.g., discussion of how tobacco barns in the American mid-West are cultural markers? mid-West??  I suppose non-residents might interpret Kentucky as mid-West but…), but over all Matthews and Herbert have offered another quality book to the “very short introduction” series as well as offering their view on the future of geography and the belief that the field of study should renew “focus on the core concepts and methods” while still pulling more ideas and theories from outside the discipline – it’s a model they call the “integrated-development scenario.”

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Pushing discussion

As the lead historian for a Teaching American History grant in its last year, I thought I would add a few comments throughout 2013-2014 about the program in general and this specific grant project.  Memorializing Promise and Conflict is the theme for this project which began in the fall of 2010 by taking history/social studies teachers (and others from a variety of specialties) on a journey through recent American history, 1950-the 2000s.  When the Teaching American History grant program was sponsored over a decade ago by the late Senator Robert Byrd, the goal was to raise student achievement by improving teachers’ knowledge, understandings, and appreciation of American history.  Could knowledge be sufficient for raising student achievement?  Not necessarily, argues long time social studies educator and University of Michigan professor of American history Bob Bain.

Knowledge, in the hands of teachers, is a part of the equation, but effective instructors also need to figure out methods for getting students to understand a little bit more about an historical era, while also learning how to help their students focus attention on historical arguments, problems, the use of evidence, etc.  The grants have, over the years, afforded teachers the chance to expand their knowledge base.  Our program, over the past three years, has also attempted to get teachers thinking differently about how they engage with information.  In each year of Memorializing Promise and Conflict grant, the organizers have moved the study of American history backwards in time at least fifty years – last year, participants focused on 1850-1900 with special attention paid to the American Civil War and Reconstruction era.

For the improving knowledge portion of our program, this particular grant combined book discussions with content and methodology workshops and travel to historic sites.  Over the last year, participants traveled to Boston examining the city of African American citizens and construction conducted in the Civil War and Gilded Age era, as well as visits to the Springfield Armory and Civil War battlefields in Virginia and Pennsylvania.  We had workshops on visual culture of the nineteenth century and writing book reviews, as well as a fantastic seminar from Ohio’s “Creative Learning Factory” (Molly Uline-Olmstead).  In addition we read a wide array of books (novels and history monographs) that grappled with topics ranging from reconsiderations of the Chinese Exclusion Act to changes in how Americans faced death.

The readings, the travel, and the workshops certainly extended teachers’ knowledge of the time period under question and our pre/post assessments indicate this fact clearly.  As to improving the student achievement, I would suggest the jury is still out on the Teaching American History grant program as a whole and certainly is a question for our group too.  I confess to not having an understanding as to how we might guarantee increased student achievement in history as student achievement and knowledge is at least two steps removed from our programs.  I am hoping to use these pages and reflections on the experience this year in an attempt to establish some methodology for determining that possibility.

In year four, Memorializing Promise and Conflict examines the years 1750-1850ish in American history.  Central to our intent, we hope to continue asking questions about how Americans remember the past – the good, the bad, and the ugly.  We have tried to plan a year that explores how Americans create memorials to both promising change and, at times devastating conflict.  As in past years, we will combine workshops with travel and book discussion in our efforts to, in the words of Bob Bain, extend, support, and challenge our teaching of this era in American history.

In the early going this year, participants have journeyed to the Noble Cooley drum factory in nearby Granville, MA and learned about the nature of manufacturing in a rural environment, met with the aforementioned Bob Bain to workshop history as literacy, and we have started our first examination of a discreet topic in the reading of  Ronald Walters, American Reformers, 1815-1860, the revised edition.  This coming Tuesday, participants will focus on the era of nineteenth century American reform, partially to help set the stage for our trip to Eastern State Penitentiary (itself a product of this era of reform).  We’ll be discussing Walter’s work in general but also with the aid of some of these questions:

  • Describe how this text presents its information.  Does Walters’ structure help emphasize key points?
  • What problems does Walters believe existed in earlier discussions of histories of American reform?
  • How might authors’ differing points of view on reform be evaluated?
  • As is the case with many books of this nature, Walters is providing synthesis more than primary source analysis.  Why are such works necessary and helpful for students of history?
  • Why does Walters believe that some reformers were ambivalent about politics?  What claims or evidence does Walters include to support this assertion?
  • Describe some of the reasons identified by Walters which explain the diverse outburst of reform energy in the nineteenth century.
  • Cite specific textual evidence that support the main points of Walters’ analysis.
  • American reformers seemed to believe that individuals could “fix” the United States.  Was this belief “radical?” Why or why not?
  • Was the United States, as some reformers believed, “ailing?” Why or why not?
  • Identify some of the major transformations in antebellum society as described by Walters.
  • Where (geographically) were most efforts to reform and improve society taking place?
  • What role did women play in these efforts and what did women accomplish in the way of changing society?

After our discussion on Tuesday, I’ll add a postscript to see how we’re moving towards our goals of improving teachers’ knowledge and the possibility of increasing student achievement as a corollary.

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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 )

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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The Common Core and you…

John Kendall, Understanding Common Core State Standards. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2011.

Kendall, a former Latin instructor who has worked as a long time researcher for Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning (McRel), has written this slim pamphlet describing the history, purpose, and possible critiques of the common core state standards movement in United States Education.  Kendall’s employer, founded in 1966, describes their purpose as research and technical assistance for schools, districts, and state departments of education.  Kendall and other staffers are supposed to provide consulting work on a variety of matters, but chiefly on issues that impact student learning and assessment of student learning.

Over the past two semesters, I have been integrating discussion of the common core state standards into my “History Teacher” and “Methods of Teaching History” courses.  These classes are both required of all history education majors at my college, Westfield State University.  The purpose of the classes is slightly different – the former is a one credit seminar intended to introduce history majors to standards of teaching history and social science material, as well as dive into general study of history as a subject, and presentation style in teaching.  The latter is the last course many majors take prior to student teaching and as such is important for practicing the implementation of the standards in lesson planning and in learning how to critically assess fellow teachers.  The common core state standards will be fully adopted in most Massachusetts schools by academic year 2014-2015, so I knew I needed to increase my students’ exposure to the material.

Kendall’s book, assigned to all students across these two courses for now (but eventually only to be in place in “History Teacher”), serves as a clear introduction to the common core in context.  Kendall clearly and concisely explains what the standards will look like, concerns about their implementation, and advice on how to prepare for the transition.  While some of his arguments read a bit like a “pep squad leader,” Kendall generally offers measured commentary on why the common core could benefit students and communities alike, along with a suggested general improvement in education throughout the United States.  I am not completely convinced that the common core is either necessary or an absolute positive, but I believe assigning the text to my students was the right move, and this week’s conversation about the reading seemed to prove me correct on that front.

In Methods, we began the class with an overview of our plan for the day and then watched a short, upbeat video clip explaining why the common core is necessary.  I had used this clip in “The History Teacher” last term, as well as in a roundtable discussion about standards and their impact on secondary social studies held last spring at the New England Historical Association meeting.  The video, (and others like it), present arguments about why the common core standards have value in improving education on a national level.  To my eyes, the clips do not make the common core as appealing as John Kendall does in his text.  Instead, the videos present the sort of unfounded conclusions one might expect when trying to explain something as complicated as unifying 50 states in the teaching of literacy and mathematics.  Somewhat empty platitudes about students in St. Louis not being as prepared for the “real world” as those in Singapore abound.  Students in the Methods course agreed with my interpretation, wondering why such a simplistic presentation would be deemed worthy.

For his part, Kendall is more effective than the films, though, as I noted above, I’m still not fully convinced. Claims of “too many standards from each discipline” (6) were not as fully proven out by the conclusion of the book as one might have liked.  The idea that because American children tend to move at about a rate of 30% over a 2-3 year period, therefore we need to make it easier for kids by having commonality state to state, is a somewhat hollow argument in my opinion.  Further, there is the typical discussion of small mobility – the kid who comes up the hall from one class to another or moves from one school within a community to another – what if they are no getting the same educational opportunities?  While this is a reasonable question, Kendall’s suggestion that the common core would help the situation because teachers across a district would all teach the same thing strikes me as a bit naive.  Teachers are not going to become instantly better because the common core exists – is it really so terrible that a teacher might have to come up with their own idea on how to best teach irregular verbs?  Should they be dependent on a network of common core lessons? (8)

Kendall’s benefits and concerns section (chapter 3) discusses how common core standards will make it easier to share lesson ideas across the nation, increasing collegiality, and ultimately leading to a better sense of professionalism.  Again, I’m not fully convinced that teachers cannot currently achieve these types of goals, particularly in history/social studies.  Another benefit, according to Kendall, is that students will not be put in the position of learning the same information repetitively or that common core makes it easier to “create efficient personalized learning environments by expanding the number of students who would share in and benefit from their development” (33).  I am not a fan of economies of scale when it comes to education – it is not impossible to create personalized learning environments in a single classroom for example, and any  teacher who takes their profession seriously should see the value of such an approach.

A point I supported that Kendall raises about the common core concept is that with such a system it could become easier to redesign schooling around the concepts and standards rather than focusing on hours in a seat or maintaining a particular grade level.  Kendall cites an example from Colorado in which the the students are grouped by competency rather than age or grade level.  Learning, in other words, becomes more important AND students who might learn one subject at one level but another at a lower or higher level, can be more easily accommodated in a system where standards play the guiding role (33-36).

Another complaint I have about Kendall’s approach is the “straw men” that are set up and knocked down in the last section of chapter 3 – Kendall offers a “concern about the common core” and just as swiftly dismisses the critique, ultimately concluding that “the Common Core offers more opportunity for improvement than the system we have now, and we appear to be determined to get it as right as we can this time” (40).  In this argument, apparently the system we have now is not that great (see chart from chapter 1 discussing this idea by clicking here and scrolling down a bit), so we might as well go with this particular change.  Americans have been reforming public education for over two centuries now and I am certain that other reformers (Horace Mann, Bronson Alcott, John Dewey, E. D. Hirsch, etc) all believed that we were seeking to “get it right.”

Finally as districts prepare for the common core in states where it will be adopted, a few additional questions.  Adopting these standards cannot take place in a vacuum so schools need access to training and time to make links across what Kendall calls “crosswalks” between the literacy standards and content areas.  This could be particularly challenging in history/social studies as it is a discipline without a detailed common core approach.  The general ideas are there, but it is obvious that science and history/social studies are not the priorities of this reform.  Students in Methods will grapple with this point in more detail as they begin to design lessons that incorporate these standards – what resources will be expended teaching the current crop of teachers to do the same?  Also, Kendall points out several times that the common core standards will make it easier for districts across a wide swathe of public school districts to institute change, regardless of budgetary issues or per pupil expenditure records.  Standards, argues Kendall and others, will help ease the learning gaps between wealthy school districts and impoverished ones.  How?  I am unclear, but this question along with who stands to benefit from these adoptions (companies producing training on how to make the transition?) and why these standards are supported by many governors across the nation who never attended public school, remain unanswered.  We’ll see what my students have to say on this matter in both classes as they grapple with the common core.

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Basics on a faith…

Gerald O’Collins, Catholicism, A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

O’Collins is an English Jesuit priest employed at St. Mary’s University College in London. His contribution to the very short introduction series is intended for a wide readership who want to learn more about the Catholic Church. O’Collins asks questions about the origins of the church, how it has changed over the 2000 years or so of its existence, and what pressing challenges face the church in the current century.

There is a lot to like in this text, especially in terms of the fast pace and the intent of the book, though I tended to enjoy chapters three and on more completely. The first two chapters, in which O’Collins traces the history of Catholicism from about the year 30 through 2008, can be problematic. While much is revealed, there is a tendency towards “lists” as the author identifies quite a few personalities and trends of reform. To be fair, we are discussing 2000 years of development in under 150 pages, so there are going to be a few weak style moments here and there. This was more of an issue in the third chapter, as the worldwide expansion of the church was described wit new monastic orders, a variety of important popes, and the Reformation period and all it entailed.

Extremely useful as a shorthand reference guide to the actions of the Church, the various councils (particularly Trent and Vatican I and II), the book also gives readers a quick overview of the sacraments, appropriate for affiliates and non-affiliates alike. The fifth chapter gives readers a nice sense of moral teaching as it relates to Catholicism, including a second reference (after being brought up in an earlier chapter), to Rerum Novarum, the vitally important encyclical of Leo XIII, released in 1891. This particular encyclical has been cited time and time again as an important document for emphasizing social justice and redeeming humans from oppressive situations.

In his final chapter O’Collins asks some vital questions about the future of Catholicism as a faith and a church. Along with these questions, he has some critical remarks – it is probably his willingness to do so that endears me to him. Full disclosure however, O’Collins is a Jesuit and I am a graduate of a Jesuit college, so I have an affection for their logic and willingness to ask tough questions. I am interested to find out what O’Collins thinks of the new pope, particularly in light of some of the issues raised throughout this very short introduction. Whether you are a Church member or an individual seeking knowledge about Catholicism in general, the book should prove useful.


Filed under Religion, Teaching, Teaching and Learning History