Through the Education Standards Looking Glass

05/20/2012

Detail of Lewis Carroll memorial window This i...

Detail of Lewis Carroll memorial window This is the bottom central pane of the memorial window – see [284591] (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I know I shouldn’t be surprised. I know I should be used to it by now.
But it still gets to me when I see how duplicitous, disingenuous, distrustful and distant our government and education leaders are.

So much so that they are dangerous.

Education in the state of New York is under the control of a Board of Regents. They run the Department of Education and oversee every school district in the state. They set the rules for graduation and all the other rules governing how schooling is done in the state.

They also license barbers. They should stick to that and give up all the rest. Here’s why.

As early as 1995, the New York Board of Regents called for higher standards of education and stricter requirements for graduation from high school. Then they raised the standards.

This is from a report of the Public Policy Institute, a business group:

“In April of 1996, the state Board of Regents acted unanimously to set new standards that will require students in New York State to pass Regents exams in order to receive a high-school diploma. These exams, which formerly were required only of students going for the optional Regents Diploma, are the centerpiece of New York’s effort to upgrade educational outcomes.”

Regents Exams are content specific tests unique to New York. They were not new when I was alternately attending and dropping out of high schools in the late 1960s.

Then in 2011, the Regents announced they were raising standards again, making the tests more rigorous to show how important education is in NY and to show how well prepared NY students are for college and unstable career paths

All well and good, you say. High expectations and high standards are important. I agree.

The NY Regents are about to take another vote on setting high standards for NY students, only this time they’re likely to vote to get rid of the Global History Regents Exam because, get ready for this, because too few students pass it.

They want to make the test optional, perhaps replace it with an extra math or science test.

Here is the August, 2010 Global History Regents. Do you think students should know the answers to most of these questions?

Do the Regents try to figure out why students don’t pass the test? Do the Regents try  improving social studies education so that students are better prepared for the test? Do they try developing resources to help students understand the importance of having a grasp of history?

No, the Regents go about the process of raising standards by lowering them.

`That’s the reason they’re called lessons,’ the Gryphon remarked: `because they lessen from day to day.’

– Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, Chapter IX  (that’s nine, NY Regents).

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My One Great Lesson This Year

12/26/2010
The first 13 colonies...
Image by anna_bencze via Flickr

This has not been my most successful year as a teacher.

Even so, I had one great lesson.

My 7th grade social studies class was learning about the British and Dutch colonies that eventually became the first thirteen American states.

To begin my lesson I made a grid of nine possible tasks my student could do in the next two weeks.

I assigned each task a separate spot in the classroom and asked students to stand in the spot of the task that most appealed to them.

I immediately noticed that my group of six girls who always wanted to work together did not all choose the same task. Interesting.

I looked around the room and noticed that three of the tasks did not have a single student interested in it.  They all seemed like good tasks to me, but it has been a long time since I’ve been a 12-year-old.

What would have happened had I assigned one of those unpopular choices as the assignment for everyone? Or if, thinking I was offering differentiation, I had given my class a choice of those three unpopulated tasks

I shudder at the thought, especially since I’ve been guilty of both approaches more often than not.

Here are the six tasks students chose:

Create a 3-dimensional map of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam;

Write and enact a conversation between as many colonists as are in the group;

Write and produce a newscast as if television news covered the colonies;

Make broadsides or brochures aimed at convincing people to relocate to the colonies;

Create a map of one or more of the colonies showing some aspect of the colonies not usually seen on maps of them;

Write a letter or deliver an oral report to King George III about life, development and events in one or more of the colonies.

Gezicht op Nieuw Amsterdam by Johannes Vingboo...
Image via Wikipedia

Each group was about evenly divided between boys and girls and each had students from different levels of prior performance. The students had self-selected more heterogeneous groups than I could have created.

I told the students to get to work and they did.

Each group immediately sat down and started to plan the execution of their task. As I wandered the room I heard the students discuss approaches, talk about what kind of map they should make, divide their tasks into parts, discuss which students were better suited for different parts of the task.

I asked each group if they had any questions but none did.

They didn’t need me.

Their excitement was palpable.

When the bell rang to end the period they kept on talking. I had to throw them out of the room.

Every day for the next two weeks, as soon as the students arrived in class they went to work in their groups. I’d walk around observing and being available for questions or instructions.

They didn’t need me.

At the end of the first week I asked each group to give me a brief oral report on their progress. All were making strong progress.

The map group was making a resource map. The persuasive writing group had decided to make a broadside AND a modern-style real estate brochure.
Scripts were being written and revised. Rehearsals were starting.

They didn’t need me.

In the second week I saw the 3-D model group folding brown packing paper as if they were doing origami. I wandered over and in response to my quizzical look one girl explained they were creating the ships for the harbor.  Then a boy asked me if I knew that Wall Street was called Wall Street because the Dutch had built a wall on that location as the boundary between the settlement and the natives. I smiled broadly as I walked to the next equally busy group.

They didn’t need me.

Midway through the second week four of the groups presented me with a joint letter explaining why they needed one more week to prepare their projects and presentations.

Granted.

Throughout the three weeks there were a variety of visitors to the room. All of them saw me wandering around fairly aimlessly watching and listening as the groups worked. Worked hard. Worked almost constantly.

They didn’t need me.

In the fourth week the students used Flip cameras to make videos of the newscast, the conversation, the oral report to King George III, and of the groups explaining their map, brochures and 3-D map.

They knew I had the Flips so they decided on their own how to do their presentations.

All the projects showed tremendous effort even if some of them showed less than tremendous execution.

The students clearly demonstrated they had learned a lot about the colonies and, in reflections they wrote afterwards they said they had learned about cooperation, about process, about how when they realized one approach was not working they were able to switch their work to a new one because they had discussed various approaches at the beginning.

They deeply appreciated that I had not steered them, that I let them choose their own assignments and decide on their own what they should include and how to accomplish them.

They didn’t need me.

Some of the projects proved to be more difficult than expected, usually because the students over-reached and weren’t totally up to the task.

These kids are very high achievers who are not used to failing. Some of them were a little dejected by their less-than-perfect work until one very sharp boy said that he was thrilled with his project no matter how bad it was because he finally felt challenged by a school assignment.

I was going to say something like that but, again, they didn’t need me.

I needed them, though.

I needed them so I could learn to let go, to get out of the way and to trust my students to work on their own.

I needed them to show me that students know how they learn best even if they can’t put it into words-

I needed them so I could realize that even an old teacher can learn new tricks.

I needed them to help me discover that if you just point kids in the right direction you might be surprised at how far they travel on their own.

Most of all, I needed them to let me have one great lesson this year.

I needed that most of all.

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Revising History

10/06/2010
Studio portrait of the surviving Six Nations w...
Image via Wikipedia

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...

Image via Wikipedia

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

Image via Wikipedia

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 ...
Image via Wikipedia

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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Re-inventing My Social Studies Teaching: Hail Freedonia!

09/18/2010
Mitchell Map - A map of the British and French...
Image via Wikipedia

I’ve decided to do something different.

No, not that.

I’m still going to be teaching where and what I am doing presently. I’m just going to do one thing different.

It is a big thing, though.

Last spring I took training in designing project-based learning units. They’re really cool for studying things like marine biology, algebra and techno-stuff (an all-encompassing category of “things despised by Luddites.).

I spent a lot of the summer trying to think of how to apply the project-based approach to social studies. I had a lot of ideas, none of which really captivated or excited me.

If they don’t excite me they’re not going to excite 7th grade boys and girls.

My new plan excites me.

I’m going to ask my students to invent a country.

In New York, 7th grade American history starts in what will eventually become the Americas a couple of hundred years before Europeans arrive bearing trinkets and syphilis.

Eventually colonists arrived and, as time passed, they invented a country.

Inventing a country is a much bigger process than telling a nutty king that he’s been abusive and you’re not going to take it anymore, then proving it even though he has the world’s most powerful navy and a large and well-trained army on his side.

Betsy Ross Flag Painted on a Barn

Image by myoldpostcards via Flickr

Okay, that’s a big process, but they had to beat that same Army again 35 years later and in-between they developed a government and a rule book to run it by, unified – more or less – 13 independent colonies, had elections, and started exploring the rest of the continent.

They had to create maps, flags, and a national story.

time to proselytize

Image by 7-how-7 via Flickr

My students will have to do all that in the year-long process of creating their country. And to make it more interesting, they will not each invent their own country. No, that is too easy.

Instead, they will have to work in groups of five or six to invent a country. That will involve negotiation, compromise, deal making and, without doubt, conflict.

And every time one of those things happens will be a teachable moment about the forming of this country.

They’ll have to write a Constitution, provide for succession of leadership, and all the rest as I keep asking questions and contributing situations that will arise more-or-less on the same schedule as they did in this country.

I think this could be a lot of fun, something most 7th graders think social studies can’t possibly be.

So now I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me tonight and tomorrow.

I’ve got to come up with the groups of students I want to work together.

And I’ve got to figure out how to start a civil war.

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The Lessons of Independence

07/03/2010
National Bureau of Standards preserving the Un...
Image via Wikipedia

Independence Day always brings out the history teacher in me.

Don’t worry; it’s safe.

Schools are closed so I can do the pure stuff instead of social studies

Not that there’s anything wrong with social studies,

Today I heard the Declaration of Independence read on the radio.

I’ve read the Declaration of Independence many times and I will read it many more times, but there is something special about hearing it read.

Back in the day, hearing the Declaration read is how most people learned of its content.

Most of the time, when people read it to themselves, they rarely get deep into the meat of it.

For example, when was the last time you read beyond “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Heady stuff, that, but not the meat and potatoes.

Not like:

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

Many think that the next sentence has particular meaning these contentious days.

“Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”

Detail of King George III (in coronation robes).

Image via Wikipediahe forms to which they are accustomed.”

The next 18 paragraphs all start with the word “he”.

Pop Quiz (my students hate when I do this): who is this ‘he’?

Okay, there were plenty of complaints and they’re all laid out. Now what?

“We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.” [Italics added]

Free and Independent States.

That means a nation called Delaware and one called Georgia.

Another nation calling itself South Carolina and it borders on the nation of North Carolina.

There were to also be Independent States, aka sovereign nations, called New Hampshire, New Jersey and New York, Massachusetts and Maryland, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Virginia.

I know. It is hard to think of tiny Rhode Island as a sovereign nation, but Monaco, Tuvalu and Nauru all seem to do okay even if no one can find them on a map or recognize their flag.

And we’re not even going to mention that other tiny powerhouse, Vatican City.

When you think about those 13 colonies these days we hardly ever realize that in 1776 almost no one was thinking, much less talking, about anything called the United States.

The only reference to anything of the sort, “…the Representatives of the united States of America…” is not the same as ‘…Representatives of the United States of America….’

The lower case ‘u’ was not a typo, it was a deliberate reference to 13 separate colony/countries that just happened to be working together for this one task: taking on the most powerful nation in the world at that time.

That we are a country today and celebrating the 234th anniversary of that treasonous declaration is a doubly unlikely.

That the rebellious colonialists were successful against the forces of the King was unexpected even by them.

But the bigger victory is that despite sharp disagreements about philosophy, despite competing economic interests and despite religious differences, those 13 now independent sovereign states were able to come together.

Philadelphia - Old City: Independence Hall - T...
Image by wallyg via Flickr

They argued long and hard, but in the end they figured out how to compromise and come together as United States for the greater good of all the citizens they represented.

That, not the pursuit of happiness, is the lesson we need to focus on today and in the future.

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Chaos and Injury, What a Year

06/26/2010
Pelham Bay Park (IRT Pelham Line) by David Sha...
Image via Wikipedia

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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Pushing Beyond Their Limits

05/20/2010
Six Flag Great Adventure from high up
Image by xmascarol via Flickr

I’ve got a great 6th grade social studies class.

They’re bright, chatty, funny, ambitious, and thoroughly indoctrinated into the hunt for grades.

It’s really sad to see, all these very sharp kids more concerned with getting the right answer and scoring 100 on tests than actually learning and making connections.

It is as if we’ve taught them to just regurgitate information instead of constructing knowledge.

I do what I can to fight that tendency.

I’m not big on tests, but a couple of months ago I started giving this class weekly assessments of some kind.

I’ve told these kids that everything in life, every moment, is a test and I’ve reinforced that occasionally by announcing the assessment after it has occurred.

Today I realized that I could not give them their weekly assessment tomorrow because they would be away on the 6th grade end-of-year trip, so I started class today with the announcement that I had good and bad news for them.

I gave them the bad news first: “There’s no room on the bus so I won’t be able to go to Great Adventures with you tomorrow.”

The students were stunned and upset. Then I reminded them that I had good news, too.

“Because you’ll be on your trip tomorrow I can’t give you your weekly assessment then…,”

Cheers!

“…so Ill have to do it today,”

Shock!

Some were angry, some very worried, and one girl looked like she was going to cry.

Even S, as close to a dream student as I’m even likely to see, reacted like I had betrayed her.

We’ve been studying the Renaissance the past two weeks or so and we’ve talked about how it contrasted with the Medieval era, how culture flourished and new styles of art, music, eating and fashion had emerged.

The past two days we’ve been starting to look at the age of exploration, discussing why people explore and looking at maps of the known world in the last quarter of the 15th Century.

Europe in 1470

Image via Wikipedia

My assessment today had one question.

What was it about the last half of the 15th Century and first half of the 16th that led to the massive amount of exploration by Europeans in that time? What else was going on that led to an explosion of voyages on sea and land in search of riches, spices, and the fabled Northwest Passage to Asia?

I was looking for my students to think about the Renaissance and how it really was a rebirth of culture. We had discussed how that rebirth was possible because of the relative peace of that era.

I wanted them to realize that the same peace that fostered the curiosity and creativity of the Renaissance also fostered curiosity about the earth and its limits.

As I walked around the room I realized that no one was giving me the type of answer I was expecting.

Many students were telling me why people explored and the rest were describing conditions of war, poverty and pestilence common in Medieval times.

I restated the question in different words.

No change in their answers. Even the one or two who realized this was the Renaissance time-period did not make the connection.

I stopped the assessment.

I explained that almost everyone was heading off in the wrong direction, that I knew they knew what was actually going on in the 1490s and beyond, but that they were giving me details of an earlier time.

Only now do I realize they were telling me why people have emigrated in the past century, something many of them have done.

In the middle of the class I knew that they had not made the intellectual leap I thought they would.

Most of the kids were angry that I had stopped them from continuing to write their answers, even after I told them they were going off in the wrong direction. After all, they had worked hard putting their ideas on paper.

The more accomplished students in the class were angry because I had asked them such a complex question.

I told them that I thought they could make the intellectual leap I was asking them to, but perhaps I was asking too much. I reminded them that after a few years teaching intellectually challenged students, I was still learning how to teach and assess intellectually gifted ones.

Then I told them that if they get every question right every time, they’re not being challenged enough; that they would not know what they were capable of until they failed at something because they had over-reached or had been over-challenged.

I explained that I assess them constantly and already knew that they got what was different about the Renaissance, that they understood many of the reasons men and women go off into the unknown.

“I know what you know,” I said,  “Now I want to discover what you’re doing with what you know.”

They thought for a while.

They looked at each other.

They looked at the floor.

They looked at me.

Finally one tiny girl spoke up.

“I remember at the beginning of the year you told us you would be very different from any other teacher we’ve had.”

I smiled at the memory.

“You really weren’t kidding, were you?”

“And I’m going to be your social studies teacher again next year!”

Smiles all around.

I think it was my proudest moment in my teaching career.

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