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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!

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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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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Teleuth kai Olethros

Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. New York: Basic Books, 2010.

Snyder’s Bloodlands was brought to my attention in the context of discussing Fred Anderson and Drew Cayton’s The Dominion of War in late June 2014.  Pr. Cayton mentioned Snyder’s approach at describing the violence beset on a region in eastern Europe termed “bloodlands.”  For Snyder, this region extends from central Poland to western Russia, through Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic States. 

Bloodlands-2010

In the text, Snyder seeks to lift the veil on the sort of mass violence visited upon the region by both National Socialism (German Nazis) and Stalinism (Soviet Union).  Snyder emphasizes, with strong prose and devastating  precision, the methods by which the Nazis and Soviets murdered at least 14 million people between 1933 and 1945.  Bloodlands is solely focused on the fate of civilians or soldiers whose treatment resulted in their deaths.  This is an account about deaths OFF the battlefields, despite the fact that half of the soldiers who died in the Second World War were killed in the same region!

From the preface onward, Bloodlands is both unrelenting and fascinating.  As someone who has long taught that the horrors visited upon European populations by the Nazis were also experienced by the Soviets, I was “glad” to see confirmation of my past lessons.  Yet the text is as frightening as it is fascinating.  Snyder explains that the killing in the region took on five separate forms – forced starvation through state policy, executions of “enemies of the state,” executions of the educated elite (as Germans and Soviets killed approximately 200,000 Polish citizens between 1939 and 1941), executions of a variety of civilians, and depopulation that took millions of lives as the Nazis cleared their eastern frontier of people and industrial centers.

Each one of these five policies reveals a horrific side of humanity.  That five million Soviets starved, largely because of Stalin’s requisitions policies, is bad enough.  That many individuals, particularly in Ukraine, were denied food and then called unpatriotic for daring to starve in front of witnesses reveals a horror that is hard to fathom.  The simplistic quota-meeting efficiency of NKVD execution squads is mind boggling – two officers to hold a victim while a third placed a pistol at the base of the skull.  Four such teams alone killed 20,761 people on the outskirts of Moscow in 1937 and 1938 (83).  These executions came after troika judges might hear as many as sixty cases per hour, confirming the orders to kill at the behest of the state.  The fate of thousands of murdered Polish officers in the Katyn Forest after the outbreak of World War Two was hidden by the Soviets as well as their allies.  Ironically, the Nazis, who engaged in similar activities, attempted to reveal this mass execution to the world (a story seen in films like Engima, historical works, and historical fiction such as the Bernie Gunther series by Philip Kerr).  Forced starvation of civilians in cities like Leningrad, the executions of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Belarus or Warsaw, the elimination of the Polish state and Jews in both Nazi and Soviet held territories – the list continues.

Somehow, despite all of these appalling details, Snyder’s text is eminently readable and “easy” to follow with the notable exception of the eleventh chapter.  In a text that makes links between all aspects of these policies that result in mass death, the post-World War Two coda on Stalin’s anti-semitism and eventual death doesn’t quite fit.  I suspect that Snyder includes the section as a method of demonstrating how the “bloodlands” policies encountered resistance in the late 1940s and early 1950s.  I would characterize this piece as working better as a separate article perhaps?  Despite this very small misstep, Snyder’s Bloodlands is essential reading for students and professors of the twentieth-century.

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The Mini Saga exercise

Several years ago I chose to assign Daniel Pink’s  A Whole New Mind, Why Right-Brainer’s Will Rule the Future to my budding secondary history/social studies instructors.  Pink’s thoughts on slightly different ways to think about the world are not necessarily “new” nor unfamiliar to some of my students.  In addition, the ideas are not, strictly speaking, related to education, yet I found the text generated the most consistent discussion in class (for good or ill).  A close second, in terms of sparking conversation, remains John Arnold’s good History: A Very Short Introduction, particularly when pushing students to think more expansively about history in general.

Whole New Mind offered some intriguing exercises that I found helpful in getting students to think about teaching and education from slightly different angles.  Pink divided the text into section on themes like empathy, symphony, play, and story among others.  Each section included a “portfolio” section that made suggestions for the reader to continue exploring the theme either through the internet or on ones own.

In “story” I fell for the mini saga exercise described in the portfolio.  A London newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, had run a contest a number of years ago asking writers to submit tales in 50 words – no more, no less.  I’ve adapted this exercise for the classroom, giving students ten minutes or so to develop a 50 word mini saga on a particular historical topic, biographical portrait, or concept. Most students choose a person or event – in addition, they find the exercise both challenging and entertaining, particularly as each class begins to chew on words a bit, frantically counts words, edits, curses a bit, etc.  I participate as well, typically choosing an event or person I know well, and attempting to capture the essence of the story or person in that small amount of words.

I explain to students that “writing small” is a massive challenge, yet a good exercise in which to engage as it will help them in their own classrooms.  If you can’t break down events, I argue, into small, consumable bits, you cannot effectively reach students and string together a lesson that will make sense and create connections across the class period.  In addition, it’s a great academic workout for students who struggle with longer essays and can serve as a substitute assessment for students who are acquiring both social and academic English language skills.  While the purpose, ultimately, is to craft a great piece with good syntax, sometimes, getting students who won’t (or can’t) string together three paragraphs, to write even these small 50 word stories is enough to get a sense as to understanding and retention.

I’m way over 50 words in my explanation, so I’ll close with one of my essays from an earlier semester – see if you can figure out what historical story I’m telling!

The people before them were unlike their nation yet perhaps they could be useful?  In addition, they appeared so weak as to not be a threat of any kind.  Striking up a conversation, such as it was, could not be too dangerous?  In this second year, all people must share.

Final note – if you’re hoping to get students to have fun while learning a few habits of grammar (including picking on my 50 word mini saga for its lack of pronoun specifics) check out Weird Al’s Word Crimes:

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Dominion and liberty, NEH 2014, day 2

Andrew Cayton was our guest for much of day two and while he was largely speaking about concepts introduced in he and co-author Fred Anderson’s book The Dominion of War, Cayton was also present to lend his expertise on early America. I first met Dr. Cayton fourteen years ago when he was the commentator for a panel on which I was speaking about early frontier communities. I remembered being impressed by his thoughts at the time and over the years followed up on his work and how is examination of frontier Ohio and Indiana could be applied to my own research on Nebraska. Somehow, I missed Dominion of War, but more on that point later.

In preparing for the day, I took a look at a recommended Peter Silver book Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America. Silver’s book is about horor and fear and how it can change entire societies as well as the politics of these places. He focuses on British North America between the 1750s and 1780s and introduces an interesting theory as to how the concept of “white people” may have helped ease some cross Euronational tensions, creating a more unified colonial opposition to native land ownership and rights. Silver’s opening section focuses on conflicts between leaders of Pennsylvania and squatters (settlers living on the frontier, often on land they did not own or that was to be preserved for natives, or both). These conflicts were often set aside as native warfare became a common threat after the 1750s.  Silver includes a fascinating story about Moravians working with Inuits and how the latter traveled to Pennsylvania briefly and then felt grief when war struck in 1755; he also features the tale of Tom Quick, discussing how fear creates prudence and a spirit of enterprise (sick though it may be in terms of turning in scalp bounties) when living among natives.  Silver concludes with the postwar that wasn’t: “a generation that was constantly haunted by war, and shaped by the moments of fear it provided, had remade Americans’ beliefs in toleration, in the desirability of overcoming inter group prejudice, and in the democratic sovereignty of the people.” (301)

Pr. Cayton’s plan was to examine the Origins of the Empire of Liberty, 1763-1783, taking a closer look at the American revolution and expansion. By tracing how British victory in the French and Indian war, a conflict provoked by expansionism, resulted in arguments over land and power in North America, Cayton discussed the continuity of expansion that led to revolution and to the establishment of an empire defined by republican polities, racial exclusion, and commercial agriculture.

Empire in the 18th century meant a big, extended, and powerful nation.  Pr. Cayton argued that generally, people want to feel secure and that is what they seek from the relationship with empire.  As an individual, you are willing to provide tribute to the center so that you might be then left alone.  In the case of 18th century North America, perhaps you supply a certain amount of manpower for the militia or feeding the populace, etc.  When Great Britain appeared to no longer supply what is needed (security) and loses its legitimacy, North America was in the latter half of the 18th century; revolution resulted in a change of polity, but the basic problem of expanding territory and providing security was exactly the same as were felt in the 1750s.

So how did Americans begin to take or manage the Ohio Valley region and get what they wanted in terms of wealth development?  The land itself played a role, including the mountains and drainage basins.  The people on that land played a big role as well, both native people and other Europeans, who may or may not have challenged the new governments’ attempts to take control.  In a way the English had been successful because of numbers, but also the nature of fur trade and alliances with Iroquois made a big influence as well with native people like the Iroquois providing a key source of stability and market through the 18th century.  By the time of the American Revolution, the North American colonies had become the general store for the Caribbean and this relationship in turn attracted a huge number of people to the regions like the Carolinas and mid Atlantic region.

After French control was wrested by the British, there were continued problems.  The British interrupted the flow of trade goods in and out of the Great Lakes region and this changed the nature of empire and the rules which caused native leader Pontiac to “rebel.”  The British General Amherst tried to change the native-empire relationship through cutting off trade of arms and altering the fur trade.  Increasingly, empires became about “likeness” with violence and war acting key to these transformations – six decades of war, 1740s through 1810s over who is going to control this region west of Appalachians.  Because no one, the French, the British, the Native population, the Spanish, nor the Americans, could provide security, there was no peace in the region – here, Cayton, made reference to a Second World War era book, Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder, particularly because Snyder is describing what happens when there is no security and literally almost everyone’s life is at risk. I am currently reading Bloodlands and it is truly chilling – I can see the link Cayton was making very clearly.

As we might guess, and Pr. Cayton confirms, the American war for independence is catastrophic for native people.  Native people are the losers along with some loyalists.  During the American Revolution itself, Washington seized the opportunity to order attacks into Iroquois territory and other native peoples’ lands.  The Sullivan campaign assails Iroquois power and creates a kind of pattern in behavior followed by the American government in the years following.

Andrew Cayton and Peter Onuf discussed the concept of a “blueprint for expansion:” the constitutional origins of the empire of liberty examined how empire grew out of colonial experience and in response to native resistance.  By 1787, American leaders had constructed a new form of empire, drafting the Constitution and the passage of the NW ordinance (the document which outlines how all newly settled territories might become equal members of the American federation).  For Pr. Onuf, statehood and union are about both liberty development and union.  In Cayton’s vision of the frontier republic conflicts are replete between congress and squatters, Federalist authority and the burgeoning state of Ohio, national government authority versus local interests, etc.  It was extremely contentious in the following periods: 1807-1812, 1812-1819, and 1819-1824.  The dominant points of view were:

  1. Squatters and Jeffersonian republicans emphasizing local sovereignty
  2. Federalist seeking to bring regularity to a disordered society

But did federalists detest the American west?  Did they truly see it as an “open, dynamic, democratic, egalitarian frontier?  When one constructs analysis of the conflicts between these two above points of view, Pr. Cayton argues that both were inappropriate for the type of society growing in Ohio – “Neither absolute power nor absolute liberty could effectively govern Ohio.”
Yet, we wonder – isn’t Ohio out west? Why were Americans being kept from it?  Were these natives of the Ohio valley the civilizing project with which the new American government wanted to engage?  At this point, our discussion included references to Edmund Burke and his notion of morality becoming universal and superior.  We included a reference to the stadial theory of Scottish enlightenment discussing conjectural history as well – this theory begins classically with examining hunting and gathering societies, shifts to agricultural and perhaps eventually a commercial people, etc.  In other words this theory is about the teleological nature of history as one that is progressive and constantly moving forward.

This philosophical point pushed us towards some interesting questions – as we know from examining plays and government documents alike written texts when read out loud are sometimes interpreted differently – even when Americans believe they can draw on a “firm” constitutional heritage in order to create a government made on fundamental principles, the meanings can be somewhat confused.  In the aftermath of the revolution, Americans faced the same problems that the British had stared down.  Why was North America different from England though?  Did its residents share in that Burkean notion of universal morality?  If yes, or no, what is making a civilization then?  Is it allegiance to the Constitution or is it print culture, or is it something else entirely?

Our final element for day two was a close discussion with Pr. Peter Onuf regarding his book Jefferson’s Empire: the Language of American Nationhood.  The discussion of this groundbreaking series of essays, opened with a dialogue focused on how historians related to the theme of the institute as well as on experience and challenge of producing innovative and important scholarship.  As it was a free flowing conversation, subject to interpretation by all types in a variety of ways, I’ll close by referencing a few of the questions and observations that we raised in reference to Jefferson’s understanding of empire.

  • Jefferson and Native people – An important question is that Jefferson did not take the Marietta, OH mounds seriously, insisting that there must be another explanation for their presence.  If so, how could Jefferson conceive of Native people being part of the empire?
  • Additional questions on what Jefferson takes “seriously” or not – eg, sending Africans to Haiti  in order to keep them out of the US? Is this for real? How would you pay for it? When would they do this move? Why would others agree?
  • Why was Jefferson concerned about the possibilities of violence among freed slaves? Why does he use this notion of slaves as captives in war?
  • Are natural rights meaningless unless in a civic context?
  • One of Jefferson’s great projects was the reforming of the laws in Virginia and yet these were arguably failures despite the interest in examining them.  Could Jefferson believe that he was successfully creating union through language?  Must the polity be same? – perhaps there was a need for or at least the illusion of equality?
  • Two exclusions we discussed – one, defining the community of the people (enslaved people not included and neither are the “savages” ); two, the “ward” republic concept (perhaps evolving out of a concern that local govt doesn’t exist in VA?) leads Jefferson to talk about the individual domestic household as another exclusion
  • Jefferson emphasized that love can help create the strength of nation; Is there a paradoxical problem about federalism and regional differences that love cannot solve?
  • Federalists might call what the United States was becoming simply an empire rather than add the liberty notion at the end; could it be an empire of reason?
  • What do lines in geography and polity do? Do they cooperate with one another to a degree? The Missouri line is a different one from those drawn during the NW ordinance and the crisis reveals the “restrictionist” views as Jefferson sees them
  • One thing predicated within NW ordinance is property rights – this creates a problem because one could potentially be both human and property at the same time  Is law constituted in legislatures as well as bars and on the corners, etc?

Apologies on the long delay of these summative comments.  More to come as the summer wanes.

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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 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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