Sunday, July 4, 2010

For There, I Think, Am I

Happy 234th Birthday, America. Isn't it interesting that this date, so pivotal to our nation's history, is buried in the middle of the season wherein children will never deliberately learn about its significance? They will witness explosions, marching bands, and parading politicians, to be sure; but without deliberate parental intervention, this date of all American dates will have to wait until school resumes to be explored. It's a time-out-of-joint problem in the sequential teaching of history that happens constantly.

In November 1989 I watched the destruction of the Berlin Wall in my AP US History class. My teacher, Kathy Keane, was good enough to interrupt her unit (maybe the Compromise of 1820?) to explore what was probably the most hopeful geopolitical moment my American generation had seen since the 1980 Miracle on Ice. We had no experience of the turbulence and divisiveness of the Vietnam 1960's. I was about as old as my son is now when Nixon resigned. We lived through OPEC gas station lines, and the Exxon Valdez, the Iran hostage crisis and the Iran-Contra scandal, and "The Day After" but before the Internet.

Poor Mrs. Keane couldn't possibly help us understand the full meaning of the Wall coming down; in fact, we would barely, by June of our senior year--days from graduation, already committed to university or job or military--scratch the surface of why it went up in the first place. We would come close, finishing WWII and the atomic attack on Japan, to understanding why the Cold War would start. Ultimately, though, we were ill-prepared to understand the world as it was shaping around us, or why exactly it all changed the way it did eleven years later on 9/11. And we had a 20-year head start on today's high school seniors. How irrelevant will our approach be for my son and his high school class of 2025?

Something's gotta give. Will teachers stop teaching pre-Colombian America? Will they start with the Declaration of Independence? Skip the War of 1812, Andrew Jackson, the Lincoln-Douglas debates? Will they split US history into 2 required years? When will the Civil War no longer serve as the half-way point to the present?

Here's the point: we should be teaching it backwards. As long as we teach history past to present, we are also teaching, implicitly, that our present outcome is the right, proper, and intended outcome of the founding of our country. If the implied question in any history course is, "How did we get here?" then how we arrange the answer, including our starting and middle points, suggests that all these events were leading us to this point. The problem with this approach is, there is always another antecedent. Another "Well, why did that happen?" And the answer is relevant.

Still, we will almost never reach the most important and immediate antecedent to our students: today. Wouldn't history become immediately more relevant to them if we asked them how their history happened, and how they came to occupy their present situation? Rather than selecting an arbitrary point in the distant past vetted for its proper patriotic and political significance, why not focus on those events which tie each individual history to those of their classmates, and examine those events which appear common to all?

In investigating their own origins, they will learn not only the processes by which history is unearthed, examined, analyzed, and written, but also the significance of local, regional, national and global events that directly impact the lives of their families. As my 5 year-old daughter will ask a series of "Why?" questions until she finds a proximate "Because" that satisfies her, questions of historical cause and effect can be explored in reverse by middle- and high school students, as they find the answers relevant to their own lives. They need not wait until they have sat through several hundred years and two (or three) full semesters of prelude to locate themselves in the story. The story will, as it should, begin with them.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Canon Fodder

Why do we spend four years of high school English class reading and discussing mostly fiction, poetry, and drama? To prepare us for the rigors of real-life book club? Reading fiction is a wonderful pursuit. But few people actually do it in their professional lives. Too few do it in their free time. Is there a chance they don't like it because it was forced on them too early, too much? I don't have that data. I do have a few responses from friends:

Literature is art. Good literature can teach a great deal about the human condition. -- Bryan

True enough, although I think the "human condition" response is a conditioned one.

In sixth grade I hated math and I asked my father "what's the point?" I remember very specifically he said "it teaches you how to think." He was right. And literature teaches you empathy. Equally important, if not more so. -- Susan

Not to mention, it also teaches you to read. :)

I recently read Cormac McCarthy's The Road, which would likely qualify as a human condition teacher. His stylized writing and post-apocalyptic setting contained familiar "human vs. ____" elements, and included Pandora's hope-in-the-face-of-titanic-desperation moral (or curse). We are certainly meant to empathize with the suffering father, who must continually justify his decisions both to survive and to raise a child in such a world. These, though, are less elements of the human condition as they are of McCarthy's condition. As they are constructed of his experiences and perceptions of the world, they are at best a derivative lesson.

If the primary curriculum element of literature are empathy for the human condition, we could take them to Port-Au-Prince, or New Orleans, or the Gulf Coast, to wherever people suffer, and ask, "How can we help?" Would not such a scenario also force them to think? To problem-solve, prioritize, address logistical issues, sort, organize, communicate, and a host of other skills?

If, as Susan's father asserted, sixth-grade math can teach us how to think, at what point does higher-level math overtake thinking as the desired outcome? Can nothing teach "thinking" quite like trigonometry? How often are adults tasked with solving trigonometric functions (or even calculating a hypotenuse)? Yes, this is the familiar "When am I ever going to need to use this?" question. Or maybe it's the "Is this going to be on the test?" question, writ large.

Is it efficient to teach children to extract a valuable skill surreptitiously from an irrelevant one?

These aren't new questions. Why is the canon the canon? is asked by every student who suffers through it. I'm wondering if we teach around the goals, rather than toward them. And I'll be back with more questions.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Paradigm Thrift

I'm seeing a lot of #ISTE and #edtech tweets this week. For all the wonderfulness the edtech revolution seems to be bringing to learning, I'm betting it will take several years before the majority of mid-career teachers actually teach in a new paradigm, if they ever do. Rather, I see a lot of new tools in old paradigms.

That's actually just fine with me. I'm all for tech. The role of teacher as dispensary of critical information has -- for the most part -- passed and all, but I see the need for a different paradigm shift. It's not about the toys. It's about the game.

From my perspective, I believe we are still taking our desired end product, molding it into a limited set of variants, and forcing students through one of the variant sieves. We are all aflutter about the technology, but the approach is largely the same. I want to know if we can remake a school by the following paradigm: trust the student as learner. The key to that trust? The student's own passion.

The next several posts will pose questions related to that idea -- that a student's passion is the single greatest indicator of her best career track and therefore, her ideal course of study. I have no data - yet. But with passion (to be defined) as the frame, can we custom-build an individualized curriculum that still meets standards and creates capable democratic citizens?