Revising History

Studio portrait of the surviving Six Nations w...
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I keep waiting for someone to tell me why an 11-year-old should be interested in the economic system of ancient Rome.

Or why a 13-year-old should care about the War of 1812.

How much do you know about the War of 1812?

Has that held you back at all?

Me neither, and I’m a history teacher.

We teach history in the wrong direction. We start with the past and work forward.

We need to turn around.

We start off teaching social studies well.

In kindergarten we teach about the thing immediately around the child, the family and the classroom.

This is one of the kindergarten rooms on the f...

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In first grade kids learn about the neighborhood and in second the larger community.

In third grade kids learn about the various countries in the modern world.

Then it stops making sense.

In 4th grade NY students learn all about NY, from the earliest Iroquois days forward. Fifth grade that expands to the early explorers of Canada, Mexico and the rest of the North American land mass.

Sixth grade starts with studies of three countries in the eastern hemisphere, usually only Asian countries are included because the next unit is on ancient Egypt and the rest of the year is spent in ancient Rome, Mesopotamia and more, ending up somewhere around the Renaissance.

The seventh and 8th grade curriculum, my current assignment, is American history.

In 7th we start with the native civilizations before Europeans arrive and are supposed to get through the Civil War.

American Civil War

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Eighth grade is supposed to start with Reconstruction and end somewhere around 1976.

Here’s one idea. 7thgrade American history should start in 2010 and work backwards to try to unravel how we got into our current miasma. By the end of 8th grade we should have worked our way back to Columbus’ “discovery.”

But even that isn’t optimal. I object to teaching history as a linear series of events whichever way we run through time.

History is not about time or events; it is about ideas and how people deal with conflicting ones.

Ideas excite people, even 8th grade inner-city students. Ideas have meaning to them that dates, names and events do not.

Opening (inverted) and closing question marks ...
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I don’t want to follow a curriculum map.

I want to explore with my students as they discover the themes and ideas that make their life what it is and try to figure out how those patterns can be changed so their lives improve.

I want to help them make their world make sense.

Maybe then I’ll understand mine.

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Chaos and Injury, What a Year

Pelham Bay Park (IRT Pelham Line) by David Sha...
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My school year started with injury and chaos and it is ending the same way, only this time I’m not the one who is injured.

On our last full day of the year my school schedules a Field Day at a very large park a short subway ride away.

The ride over was uneventful, just what you want a subway ride to be, especially when you’re shepherding a large group of students.

The injury occurred on the basketball court. Somehow one of our 7th grade boys fell hard and hit his head on the asphalt. A large lump formed immediately. Ice was applied and an ambulance called.

At last report he was resting after having had convulsions.

The chaos comes from every teacher in my academy having to switch classrooms before next year starts. This is not typical even though it will be my fifth move in the four years I’ve worked at this school.

I am envious of those teachers who simply lock up at the end of the year and walk away leaving the room only requiring minimum effort to get the room ready for September’s students.

Not only have I had to move rooms every year I’ve taught, I’ve had to learn a new curriculum or two.

Next year I’ll be teaching 8th grade social studies again, but I’ll also be teaching the 7th grade for the first time. I’ll be teaching general and special education classes. My principal wants me to develop a technology-based literacy-heavy approach to the curriculum.

I’m happy about all that.

The 7th grade class will be this year’s 6th graders who I enjoy so much. The 8th grade class, this year’s 7th graders, is generally considered a class to avoid if you can.

I can’t, and I’m agonizing over how to approach them.

I’m being advised to be very strict, to set clear procedures with high standards of behavior and enforce them rigorously. This includes making them line-up silently before entering the class and behaving with maximum comportment once inside.

I am not a very strict person. I’m very relaxed in an energetic, intense way. I am far more inclined to tell students what I expect and help them try to grow to reach those expectations.

I’ve got to admit that this approach has not worked well for me and, as the saying goes, doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome leads to insanity. I’m afraid it will also result in diminished learning opportunities for those students who already have large educational deficits.

So strict it will be. I have all summer to practice my teacher stare, to learn how to project my voice better while learning that new curriculum and figuring out how to use technology to teach my students.

I’m also taking additional training in social studies content, on how to use my interactive white board to teach social studies and on grant writing.

So that’s how I’m spending my summer “off.”

Oh, I do get to take a trip. My wife and I are going to spend a week in Santa Fe.

For that week I’m going to try to forget about students, forget about curriculum, forget about planning and forget about gathering materials and resources,

Why doesn’t anyone believe me when I say that?

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Where Am I Headed?


I’m about to end my fifth year of teaching.

When I started teaching I was told that the first year would be the hardest and it would take three years to start getting a handle on the job and after five years I would be hitting my stride in the classroom.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way for me.

For sure, my first year was the hardest. The principal at that pre-K to fifth grade school changed my job four times in that year. I have a background in journalism and other forms of writing and was hired to be a push-in writing teacher for one 4th grade and one 5th grade self-contained special education class. That was the third job I got to do that year and for only three months at that. I started as a 4th grade SPED classroom teacher, switched to fifth grade under very difficult circumstances at Columbus Day and stayed in that position until Thanksgiving when I finally started to do the job I was hired to do.

In March I took over a fifth grade class of emotionally disabled students. In my first day in that class the one girl took off her clothes and said she had been sexually molested in the room’s closet by one of the male students in the class. The room did not have a closet and the accuse boy was nearly catatonic. June couldn’t come fast enough and it was only through the support of colleagues and a magnificent mentor (thank you again Oksana Kulynych) who got me involved in the region’s Teaching American History program.

My colleagues in that school were very surprised to see me return in September. I did and was now a push-in math teacher in a fifth grade MR class and the push-in science teacher in a second grade. I managed to stay in those positions all year, somehow incurring the wrath of my principal along the way. At the end of that year I changed schools, as did about 75% of the other teachers there.

I became a sixth grade common branch special education classroom teacher at a middle school. I got hired a week before school started and had to learn the curriculum for ELA, social studies and math very quickly. The next year, my fourth I had the same job. In that year I finally was able to stay with a curriculum long enough to begin to feel comfortable with it. At the end of the year I felt like I was finally starting to be a good teacher.

All this time I was almost continually being trained to be an American history teacher. I participated in every available opportunity to learn more about the subject and how to teach it, but it seemed that the more training I got the further away from actually teaching American history I got.

This year, my fifth, my job changed again. I spent this year as a full-time Read 180 teacher. About three weeks ago my principal told me that because of shifts in the school’s population I would not have a full program of Read 180 and would have to teach something else. Science or social studies, did I have a preference? I said I could do either as long as I could do them the way I was trained, that being hands-on and multisensory. He said absolutely and it would probably be 7th and 8th grade social studies. That means American history. I was thrilled.

Today I got my program for next year.

I’ve got some Read 180 and social studies, but its 6th and 7th grade, not 7th and 8th.

Sixth grade social studies is an orphan, disconnected from what comes before and what follows. In 4th grade students study New York history and in fifth the students learn about Native Americans, the European explorers and the start of European settlement. Sixth grade starts with geography and moves on to ancient Egypt and Rome, followed by modern Asia – usually Japan or China –before winding up with a usually rushed look at Africa. In 7th grade they study American history from Jamestown until the Civil War.

Not only do I get to teach three totally unrelated curricula, I don’t even get my own classroom in which to do it. I will have a tiny Read 180 room totally inadequate for the demands of the program, and I will share a classroom with an ELA teacher.

I am not happy about what looks like it will be a difficult year. More than that, I’m unhappy that in my sixth year of teaching I will have my 11th different curriculum to learn, move classrooms for the ninth time, and still not feel like I’m becoming a better teacher.

I am happy that my principal thinks highly of me but I wish he didn’t think I could do anything. I don’t want to spend the rest of my career plugging holes. I want to learn one curriculum deeply instead of a dozen across their surfaces. I want to work with colleagues teaching the same subject in the same grade instead of not being able to attend the meetings because I’m the one with the oddly patched together schedule. As much as I treasure my PLN on twitter I’d also like to have one in my school.

I hadn’t planned on job-hunting this year, but I think I need to start.

Damn it.

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