Thursday, August 14, 2014

Understanding in the Social Studies Classroom

Over the past few months, for the first time, I read Grant Wiggins' book Understanding by Design.

Reading about understanding, obviously, is quite different than writing about it. What does it mean to teach for understanding in the social studies classroom?

I start with an assumption that social studies and history are two different entities, a point I've blogged about. One of the implications of this difference, I think, is that we must always go out of our way to keep an eye on the present day when teaching.

We are not teaching the past for the sake of teaching the past. In fact, I am not even sure we are teaching the past. What, then, are we doing?

My position is that we are using events from the present and past to help students think more deeply about society and the human condition.

As we pursue this goal, the past will occupy much of our time. After all, what alternative do we have? A course focused solely on the day to day news would quite quickly suffer from a lack of context and depth.

We need to start with some big questions: What does it mean to understand society more deeply? How does history help us do this? What does it mean to understand an event? or a person?

Many of us and the curriculum docs that underpin our courses assert that understanding is a major goal. Are we serious when we say this? If we are, we need to consider carefully what we mean and how we can assess whether we are achieving our stated goal.

Social studies teachers will often say they teach topics, such as the French Rev, WWI, or the Cold war. Whether intentional or not, when used in this context, these topics are discussed as if they exist as tangible objects or processes, as if they can be taught the same way you might tell a person about the plot of a tv show or book or how you might show a person how to change a tire or patch drywall.

When a teacher says he teaches World War I, what does that even mean?

We do not teach topics. We teach ideas.

Ok, we teach ideas...

Isn't that just another way of saying we teach facts, true information about past people and events? If that's all we do, can't a book do that much better, or at least similarly well? What do you, the teacher do, that a book cannot?

(As always, more to come...)

Friday, August 8, 2014

Where does the act of teaching begin?

Some brief notes/ideas from my reading of How Students Learn. (ongoing)

Students come to class with preconceptions about how the world works.

This is a huge idea that all teachers must consider.

I am examining this idea from the perspective of a social studies/history teacher.

This idea is likely the most fundamental idea that enables one to teach. You must start by recognizing that each learner is NOT a blank slate. Rather, learners bring a variety of existing ideas into the classroom, wherever that may be. Teachers must decide what to do with these existing ideas, especially since many of them are likely not aligned with the objectives of their teachers, especially given that many disciplinary ideas are not obvious and are, in fact, counterintuitive.

As history teachers, we need to spend a considerable amount of time getting students to expose their existing ideas about how the world works. In our classes we must craft situations that allow our students to reveal their ideas about how the past works, how the discipline of history works, and, more generally, the structures and elements of the social world that students currently inhabit.

So, in sum, the act of teaching must begin by discovering what ideas student already possess about the topics and questions you are exploring. If you do not take this step seriously, there is small chance that meaningful learning will occur.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Comparing historians and poets

What do historians and poets have in common?
Both create.
Historians create accounts of past events and people. To do this, they must make choices about what from the past is worth writing about and take a close look at sources from the past. From there, they construct and refine evidence based arguments about the past.

What does a poet create? A poet creates meaning using language. Though a poet is not tied to evidence and remains of the past the way an historian is, the two create meaning using language.
For our purposes, by focusing on this similarity, we can note a number of useful points about the discipline of history.

For example, historians work with sources. Sources from the past come in a variety of forms. How an historian approaches a source often requires a sensitivity to language and human behavior, both areas that overlap with the work of a poet.

In addition, historians interpret evidence and construct arguments about the past, which then must be interpreted by readers. In this way, there is common ground regarding how a reader approaches a poem and an historical account. Both must be interpreted. Both contain vareid meanings, including revealing much about the author.

Both have to make choices about topic and language use.
What am I going to write about?
How am I going to write about my topic?

Both have readers who make judgements about their creations.

Why is judgement necessary?
The choice to write is purposeful. But, obviously, people write for a variety of reasons. As a careful reader, you need to consider an author’s purpose and factor that into how you interpret a text. Readers sometimes just start reading a text without considering the circumstances surrounding its creation.

Think about the way a person reads a restaurant's menu or an instruction manual. If you approach a poem or an historical account this way, you are going to only derive one superficial layer of meaning, missing many others.

Think of an onion and its many layers. Often the most important layers of a historical account or a poem are beneath the surface, not stated but implied.

Because the author of a poem or an historical account has made so many choices about how they write, readers must consider these choices when forming a judgement about what they have read. The meaning conveyed in a text is not just what’s written on the page.

Historians and those who study literature or poetry are quite aware of this. And you are going to need to practice to learn how to detect this, to derive unstated yet defensible meaning from a text.

Historians and poets tell us something by what they choose to write about and, more specifically, how they write. They also tell us something by what they choose not to write about. Authors also reveal assumptions. Usually you have to infer these from the text. This is called subtext.

In the end, a focus on subtext, in a variety of forms unites historians and the creator of poetry, as well as other forms of literature.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

I remember...

Let's start with an 'I remember' task.

Pick a moment from your recent past. Think about that moment.

What do you remember? Write it down. Notice how the author wrote how she remembered picking up a handful of sand. She proceeded to describe the sand as 'smooth' and 'like hourglass sand'.

Words are your tools. They are going to give you the ability to describe your memories.

For many of you, it will take a bit of effort to say more than 'I picked up some sand'. Not because you can't go further, but because you are not used to being asked to be more descriptive, especially in a social studies class.

Historians not only work with the memories of others, but they also must make choices about how they are going to make connections and how they are going to describe these connections.

What does it tell us that the author is thinking about picking up sand and throwing it in the face of a boy she does not know?

Monday, August 4, 2014

Memory and Our First Text, a poem

Where do we begin? I think where and, more importantly, how we begin this course is key.

In many ways, you should pay attention less to what I say and more to what I do. To what extent are my words and actions aligned?

I have chosen to begin this course with a poem. I stumbled on this poem over the summer when I was actively searching for poems that explored the idea of memory.

Associating history with memory appears to be a natural starting point.

As a group, some of us have better memories than others.

All of us, I am sure, can acknowledge the limits of our memories, as well as the power of memories.

When was the last time you stared at a photograph, wishing you could enter it, even if just for a moment.

The past is an idea. It is no longer, yet it shapes who we are, in ways that we are aware and, often, unaware.

As much as we might hope, our memories are incomplete and often inaccurate.

But if it is a loved one we are remembering or a cherished moment we are reflecting on, we hang on them.

Do we recognize that as we change so do our memories?

Memories are not like photos, fixed and unchanging.

They are more real and frequently less reliable.

The poem we have looked at was composed by a Ms. January O'Neil.  

I wonder when the thoughts in this poem first appeared in her mind. And where and when did she first compose this poem? Did she hand write it? Or type it? How many drafts did she complete before it took its current form?

Though we do not know the author, she is revealing herself to us through this poem. She may also be revealing details about the time period and society she is part of.

I picked a poem, such as this one, because I want us to think about the act of remembering, as well as the act of writing.

So much of what we do in this class is going to revolve around memory and the written word.

(The author reading her poem.)

Sunday, August 3, 2014

An overview of my Western Civ Course

Hello and welcome to Western Civilization. The purpose of this segment is to consider the following questions: What are some of the differences b/t social studies and history? And how will these differences impact how we approach this course?

I suspect that many of you consider social studies and history as synonymous terms. That is, if you asked 50 people what do you study in social studies class, many will say, the past.

And if you asked another 50 people what do you study in history class, the vast majority would give the same answer, the past.

In this class, we are going to make a distinction b/t social studies and history.

While simplistic, let’s define history as the study of the past.

What, then, is social studies? I propose that social studies is a discipline that is interested in people.

Notice that we are not saying people in the past. Or even people in the present. Social studies is concerned with humanity.

To study humanity, we are going to use concepts of the social sciences, such as psychology, economics, anthropology, and sociology.

The textbook for this course is titled Modern World History. And, in many ways, the authors of this text do not present content in a way that is in harmony with the social studies.

That is ok, as long as we do not treat the textbook as the course.

Your schedule says that this is a Western Civilization course.

Many of you who have siblings who are currently attending college or who have graduated will discover that often this course, Western Civ, is offered in two parts, Western Civ I and II.

If you ask people who have taken Western Civ what topics are studied, a variety of topics will be listed, including the Greeks, Romans, the Catholic Church, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and even World Wars I and II.

This course is more in line with Western Civ II, focusing on the last 5 or 6 hundred years in European history.

If we allow it to, there is a ton of information in this time span that can easily overwhelm all of us.

Though, I propose that by treating this course as a social studies class, as opposed to a history survey course, we can guard against superficially covering a ton of content. Content that will likely disappear from your mind soon after you are tested.

If you surveyed the same people we mentioned earlier, asking them what students typically DO in history or social studies classes, you will likely get a list that includes the following: taking notes, watching videos, multiple choice questions, projects, maps, discussions, and textbook questions.

There is nothing inherently wrong with many of these items, yet we need to be careful that we have a clear purpose for doing ANY of them.

If the overarching purpose of this course is to study humanity, then we need to always frame what we are doing with that in mind.

In this class, you will not study content simply to learn the information you are going to be tested on.

You will examine the world around you to help generate questions. Questions that you will then use as you study the content of the course.

You will examine theories of knowledge. When we say we know something, what does that actually mean? How certain are we in the knowledge we currently possess? And how can we ever know about the past?

You will learn how to analyze arguments and construct and defend your own arguments about the social world.

You will work on developing and refining your communication skills, honing both spoken and written forms of expression.   

You will learn and apply a variety of conceptual tools used by social scientists.

As this course progresses, it is hoped that you will come to appreciate how complex reality is.

Nevertheless, the complexity of the social world is something you have been grappling with since birth. In fact, a class that embraces this complexity is likely to be much more engaging than one that does not.