Thematic US History: Part III – Build the Context

“I want to learn more about the experience of Native Americans and how Manifest Destiny and the Removal Act affected them?”

“I wonder what smaller, less studied events happened that led to major events ie the Civil War”

“How is Manifest Destiny a reflection of human desire?”

“Why did Washington’s vision of an undivided nation die so quickly?”

“Why are/were there only two powerful parties?”

“What effect did Reconstruction have on the civil rights movement?”

“I wonder how American art and literature changed from the Civil War era to the Industrialized era?”

“I wonder about the pursuit of equality (gender, race, etc) over time.”

“I wonder what was happening here in Baltimore during the Gilded Age.”

These are some of the responses from my students when I asked them what they wanted to learn more about now that we are halfway through our chronological overview of US history.

Although we are teaching a thematic US history course this year, we decided to begin with a chronological overview. We chose to use Paul Boyer’s American History: A Very Short Introduction for the first unit of the course. In nine classes, we will have taken the kids from the colonial era to present day. The book is small, with nine chapters that are fifteen pages long each. We are having the students identify key themes and events from each chapter, and we are crafting a timeline that will anchor the rest of the course.

Students have recognized the significance of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Spanish-American War, both of which they feel have been absent from their previous courses in American History. They are beginning to identify topics they want to investigate further when we dive more deeply into our themes. But they are also able to see the change and continuity over time. In four more class periods we will be chronologically at the present.

Then, we will begin our first theme – American Immigration. Students are identifying times, episodes and laws they want to investigate when we get there in about a week and a half.

While I am committed to inquiry and to thematic teaching, I think the time we are taking to build a basic chronology will make thematic teaching and learning even more powerful.


24/7 World

Disclaimer: I do not know the answer. I cannot predict how this will play out. I only know that it is important to think about.

When I was in school thirty some years ago, I did my homework, more like endured my homework, because believed it would lead me to a life of work where I would go to work and then after the work day ended be free to do whatever I wanted. My evenings and weekends would be my own. The fact that I ended up teaching, which has never been a 9-5 job is a little ironic. I entered this profession fulling expecting to work after hours.

What I have come to notice is that I am not alone in this. Sure, there have always been people who kept long hours, but now that seems to be the norm. On vacation this summer with family, the beach house was humming with Internet connected devices at all hours, Some of it was social, but a lot of it was work. More than half of the adults did work during the week. Nobody saw it as odd or troubling. There was some lamenting, but generally it was pretty well accepted. So, do our students know that they are enduring our homework as training for the expectations of the working world?

Lately, there seems to be more and more discussion about reducing homework load. The evidence that homework does not markedly improve achievement seems compelling. Kids should have some down time so that they are refreshed. We do not want them to burn out. They should enjoy school and want to learn. All of that is really important but I wonder what happens when they get to the “real world”?

Will the working world follow the trends in education? Will employers realize that family time and down time are more important than 20% time? Will our students demand changes of the system that is overly demanding? Or will they comply and look back fondly to the less complicated, more humane school days? I wonder about these things. But enough for now. After a morning Twitter chat and some professional reading, I am done for now.

It is time for me to get ready to go watch my children play soccer, without my phone on. Excuse any typos – I do not want to be late.

The Passenger Seat

At the start of my Modern World class today I began by explaining the plan for the day. I was not standing at the board. A student raised his hand and asked me where in the room I would generally be standing, since to him that seemed like the back of the room and he sat so he was facing the front. I answered by telling him that I would not stay in one place and that I might be anywhere in the room. I see this exchange as a part of the larger issue. What is the role of the teacher in an inquiry-driven classroom?

Several years ago, I had moved into what I thought was student-centered learning. I prepared a learning task for students, and they did it. They complained that I was not teaching them. In reality, I was not reaching them. They thought they were teaching themselves, which was largely true, but that was not the problem. What I failed to do was to stay present in the learning, so that I could provide feedback, challenge them, assess them, support them. I stepped back from my traditional role, but I did not take on a new one.

I took a step back and inserted my voice more often in the classroom. I managed to strike a balance that we were all comfortable with. I was sometimes the voice of authority and other times a bystander. I would walk around and check in with groups. Then I would sit and wait for students to finish so we could all have a discussion. It worked reasonably well, although I had a hard time keeping off of email and Facebook while my students were working.

So, now we are at the start of a new year and I am committed as my goal to create an inquiry-driven student-centered classroom. I want to go beyond inquiry lessons and units to the point where inquiry is our SOP. To make this work in the way I intend, I need to take on a different role than I have in the past. First, I need to be present, for all seventy minutes of class. Second, I have to spend my time and energy listening and assessing. If I am going to hold students accountable for the work they do in questioning, researching, analyzing, comparing, and synthesizing, I need to provide them with feedback as they are working. Third, I need to engage each student in dialogue and conversation about ideas, questions, insights. So much important work goes on in the classroom, that I cannot wait until after class to begin to assess student learning. Formative assessment needs to be ongoing.

The workload is shifting. I am not spending hours on lesson plans, but I am spending time reading and reflecting. I need to use my time outside of class to provide written feedback and think about the progress of individuals and the class as a whole. I already do that. It is the time in class where I really need to be mindful this year. I cannot be driving the bus, but I should not be in the back of the bus, just along for the ride, paying no attention to where we are going. I am thinking I need to ride shotgun or navigate from the passenger seat once class starts. My job is to stay awake, pay attention, help navigate around obstacles, and sometimes just keep my mouth shut. Knowing when to chime in and when to pipe down will always be a challenge. In my mind, that is the art of teaching.