Monday, December 30, 2013

Controversial Issues in Government Class: Abortion

For obvious reasons, abortion is a topic that many people struggle to discuss dispassionately. When teachers express reservations about discussing abortion in the classroom, I am not surprised. I suspect it is because they imagine a heated debate occurring, one that devolves quickly into finger pointing and accusations of immorality. If approached in the wrong way, this could happen. In fact, there are probably a half  dozen other topics that can similarly backfire. To avoid this nightmare scenario, planning and timing are essential.
In 10 years teaching government, I have learned that facilitating a discussion requires a considerable amount of planning. Just because students are sharing opinions does not mean they are discussing. For a topic such as abortion, a teacher should avoid having students just share their opinions.  
To productively incorporate this topic into your lessons, a solid foundation needs to be established. In my opinion, the topic of abortion should be introduced at a point in the course when students have some background knowledge about the Constitution. Once they do, however, this topic is an excellent one to use as a case study, giving you the opportunity to highlight many of the core themes of an American Government course, such as federalism, judicial interpretation, implied powers, a right to privacy, the supremacy clause, and checks and balances.
Are there less controversial topics that have similar connections? Yes, but there is no reason to avoid this topic if you approach it carefully. More importantly, as government teachers, we ought to model and cultivate in our students the knowledge and skills necessary to discuss controversial topics without having the exchange erupt in a free for fall.
In the beginning of my course, I talk to students about words that are mentioned and words that are not mentioned in the US Constitution. Students are not surprised to learn that abortion is not included in the document, but, at the same time, they are puzzled by the fact that there is an important court case on this topic, Roe vs. Wade. How can the Supreme Court rule on a topic that is not even mentioned in the Constitution?
From day 1, I begin to create an interest in current events, the Constitution, and the federal courts by probing students’ current knowledge and curiosity. I also ask students if they think the word privacy is mentioned in the Constitution. Students are surprised to learn that it is not. From this point forward, I make sure that my students have ready access to pocket Constitutions, and they enjoy checking to see which words are included and excluded from the text. As the course progresses, students will begin to approach the Constitution with more sophistication, moving beyond just checking to see if words are mentioned or not.     
When you teach the federal courts, Roe vs. Wade is an opinion that students can read. The opinion, as opposed to a summary of it, illustrates many of the nuances associated with judicial interpretation. It also shows how judges place a case into a broader historical context as they craft legal arguments.
I have used Edmodo, an excellent online discussion platform, to provide students with a place to ask questions to me or their classmates about the parts of the text that they are struggling with. I typically assign much of the majority opinion, and I also assign the dissent. By reading these texts, students begin to appreciate how an opinion is crafted and how justices rely on previous cases to buttress their arguments.   
Once students have explored this topic in more depth, they will have a context for understanding the dynamic nature of checks and balances and federalism. Undoubtedly, as the semester progresses, you and your students will find current events illustrating how states have pushed back against Roe vs. Wade.

My contribution to this longer post.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

History Ed Blog Circle: A monthly feature

January’s Topic: Teaching students a list of facts about the past vs. teaching them to think historically

Interested in contributing a 750-1200 word blog post that discusses this theme?

What I imagine is a group of history teachers who will, on a monthly basis, tackle a question or theme. After this month, we can create a method for submitting and choosing topics to write about. As we read each other’s posts, we can further discuss and elaborate so that we can support and learn from each other. I will post your response, or a link to your response, on my blog. Please share this with anyone you think may be interested in contributing.   

This month's post is due by  Friday, January 31.

Please let me know if you are interested by leaving a comment below or by messaging me on Twitter: @joetabhistory.

Friday, December 27, 2013

We do not teach 'the past'

Building on the ideas discussed in my last two blog posts….

An historical account or interpretation is an attempt to answer certain questions about the past. Questioning is at the heart of historical studies, yet in so many classes students do not ask questions, or the questions they do ask are discarded quickly. If you make no other change to your teaching, start framing your units and lessons around big questions. Stanford historical education group provides an excellent example of this approach.

Students do not walk into our classes thinking about historical evidence and accounts of the past. Instead, they think that history class is about the past. And your job, as their history teacher, is to teach them about the past. Questions probing the nature of the construction of historical knowledge are often non existent. It is our job, as thoughtful instructors, to shine a light on this process in developmentally appropriate ways. 

Students need to be taught that the past and historical accounts of the past, while connected, are different.

An account of the past may be based on one or more sources. Though just having more sources doesn’t guarantee a quality historical account. The fewer sources an account is based on, the more skepticism we ought to bring to the conclusions embedded in that account.  

Since all sources contain certain biases, all historical accounts are colored with multiple biases as well. The biases of individual sources, it must be noted, interact with each other. Like a cook creating a meal, individual ingredients, in this case sources, are combined to create something new, an account of the past. The account itself assumes characteristics that may or may not be contained in any one of its parts.    

The work of an historian, as opposed to a propagandist or a writer of fiction, is to create historical accounts that answer questions about the past using credible (Note: credible does not mean unbiased) sources and methods.

Imagine two historians making claims about James Madison. Some questions, such as those about his birth, schools attended, and employment history, are not likely to differ much from historian to historian. When historians provide competing answers to these kinds of questions, the sources used may be at the root of any discrepancies.  

Other questions, however, such as the impact certain people or events had on Madison or vice versa, are much more debatable. Two historians working with the same sources may differ considerably in the judgments they make about the significance and meaning of the sources. This is where historians’ critical and creative faculties are entangled in ways that students rarely appreciate.   

It is necessary to teach students that though all historical sources are biased, all historical accounts are not equal.

Some historical accounts are better than others based not only on the quantity and quality of the sources used but also on how the sources are used. It is essential to scrutinize the inferences and conclusions that historians make. Are the sources underpinning an account credible, and do they truly support the historical arguments made?      

If our students only look at sources in isolation, even if they are rigorously examining them for bias, we are only skimming the surface of the discipline and of the thinking performed by historians.

We must teach our students to deconstruct historical accounts. And we must also put students in positions to construct historical accounts of their own.

A teacher who views his role as ‘simply teaching students the truth about the past’ is ignoring a tremendous opportunity to push students to hone a number of valuable critical and creative thinking skills.

Where to begin?

Starting with examples and discussions that focus on the nature of remembering seem like a good place to begin. Students need to be shown that the ‘truth about the past’ is anything but simple. Even for events that they participated in, the act of remembering what happened is inherently fragmented and incomplete. Don’t just tell students this, prove it to them. Help students to see that historians rarely have witnessed the events or met the people they are writing about, complicating matters exponentially.      


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

More on Bias

Student: “This source is biased. It’s really not a useful source. We need to find a better one.”  

Students and, likely, some teachers, as well, often misunderstand the concept of bias. As history teachers, it is important that we recognize that all accounts of the past are colored with bias.

The student quoted above, if taken literally, seems to be suggesting that some sources contain bias and others do not. If we can find some unbiased sources, this line of reasoning goes, then surely we can learn what really happened in the past.

Studying the past, however, is much more complicated. (By the way, I think we signal a simplistic epistemology when we use multiple choice questions, even ‘good’ (?) ones, to assess students’ understanding of the past.)

Lang makes the point that teachers perpetuate this view by asking students IF a source is biased. More appropriately, teachers ought to be asking students to find the biases in a source. Once biases are detected, the real work begins. Students need to be challenged to consider the significance of the biases, to account for them when making judgments about the author, the source, and, ultimately, the historical question that is being studied.    

In my previous post, I said that I enjoyed listening to the home announcers broadcast Phillies games because of their biases. The national broadcasters, whom I avoided, weren’t unbiased. They had different biases.

If, over time, it became apparent to me that the home announcers were allowing their biases to cause them to distort how they were describing the events on the baseball diamond, then, as a baseball fan who cared about accuracy, I would likely find new announcers.

Bias may lead to distortions, but this is not automatically the case. The claims contained in a source need to be judged against the evidence they rely on in order for the impact of bias to be evaluated.

When our students detect bias, which is not always easy to do, we must encourage them to see bias detection as part of a larger set of intellectual moves performed by an historian. Yes, historians do search for bias. But they do more than that. They consider the meaning of the bias, thinking about how it not only reveals the author but also the author’s surroundings in space and time.        

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Source Work and Bias

This week I read two essays that I highly recommend to all history teachers. The first was by Keith Barton. He discusses common misconceptions among teachers about the use of primary sources in the classroom. The other piece by Sean Lang asks the following question: What is bias?
Rather than try in a single blog post to tackle many of the important ideas contained in these two pieces, I’ll discuss each piece in a series of blog posts.

Before exploring Lang's text, let's think a little bit about the concept of bias.

I grew up in Philadelphia and was an avid Phillies and Eagles fan. Like many local fans, I always enjoyed listening to Phillies and Eagles games broadcast by our home announcers, Harry Kalas and Merrill Reese. In fact, when games were nationally televised, I would turn down the tv audio and turn on the radio, so that I could hear the home announcers while watching the television broadcast. Unfortunately, the radio feed was always slightly ahead of the video. 

Why did who called the game matter?

It mattered to me because I wanted to experience the bias of these announcers. That's not to say that they didn't accurately describe the game. But variables such as inflection, word choice, and emotions were all clearly aligned with my personal sympathies. There could be no doubt that these announcers were performing their jobs while simultaneously rooting for the home team. And I liked that.

One of Lang's core ideas is that bias is ubiquitous. It's not something that some sources contain and others lack.

When we talk about bias, we are talking about how an individual’s account contains evidence of that person’s views, values, and assumptions. In other words, his or her perspective or worldview.

Bias doesn't ruin a source. It is the marrow within a source, containing meaning about the time period, as well as the creator of the source.  

What is bias? Bias is a person’s preference or tendency in one direction over another. Our biases come from a variety of sources and, in many instances, we are not wholly aware of them.

A simple rule applies to bias: If a source is man made, it contains bias, evidence of the creator's perspective. His unique imprint is left on the source.

A history teacher who tries to teach an unbiased view of the past is trying to do the impossible.

More to come....

 Link---> etymology of the word bias


Thursday, December 19, 2013

What is reflective teaching? And how does blogging contribute to reflective teaching?

Each time I click on one of your blog posts, I am reminded that blogging while teaching provides an excellent opportunity for teachers to learn from each other.

I tend to blog when I have a lot of free time, such as during the summer or over spring break. This past summer I blogged regularly. Once the school year began, my blogging time diminished.

I want to start writing each day for the rest of the school year. Like everyone, I am sure I am not alone in finding little time to do much more than grade, lesson plan, and spend some time with the family. Squeezing in blogging can be done. Numerous people I follow on Twitter have regularly remarked that though blogging while teaching does require a decent amount of effort and commitment, the benefits of doing so are immense.

What’s so significant about school year blogging?

School year blogging, as opposed to summer blogging, is powerful because the time spent blogging can be used to discuss classroom decisions that are being made almost in real time. This experience can’t be replicated in the summer. You can also discuss and share various snippets of student work. And, maybe most importantly, you can also subject your ideas to the scrutiny of others, giving you a chance to think more deeply about your day to day choices.

Teachers who blog are invaluable because they make visible the often invisible act of reflection. Obviously, many teachers who do not blog are just as reflective, but those who do manage to blog are modeling reflective teaching.

What’s the core difference between a reflective teacher and an unreflective teacher?

An unreflective teacher acts, but his actions aren’t necessarily rooted in careful thinking. And, just as importantly, after they act, they do not go back and reflect on what happened and what didn’t happen.

Reflective teachers spend a considerable amount of energy and time thinking about what they are going to do in the classroom, as well as a considerable amount of time thinking about what happened after they taught.

This weekend I stumbled on Chris Crouch’s excellent blog, where he models what a reflective teacher does on a regular basis. Be sure to check out his blog!