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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Setting High Expectation For Them and Me

09/12/2010
High Hopes
Image by This is Awkward via Flickr

I like quotations.

One of my favorites is Robert Browning’s “a man’s reach must exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for.”

Talk about setting high expectations!

High expectations are important. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard teachers look at something and say, “my kids can’t do that.”

I just said it about something I was looking at in my lesson planning.

Then I realized that of course my students can’t do that, I haven’t taught them how to yet.

Sometimes teachers forget that we don’t have to teach what the students already know and can do but we do have to teach them what they can’t do. We have to expect them to be able to learn it.

If we don’t, they won’t.

My son is a voracious reader who got a perfect score on his 4th grade state ELA test. He wants to grow up to be an English professor.

His 7th grade English teacher told us that he has much deeper understanding of the assigned readings than the other students in the class and showed it every day in class discussions in which, she said, he sounded more like a high school student than a 7th grader.

But she could not give him the A he otherwise so richly deserved because he did not do his homework.

She wasn’t teaching English. She was teaching compliance.

Then there was his 8th grade honors English teacher who gave the class the homework assignment of making a list of the characters in a play they were reading. No, not character analyses. Not character sketches. Not a chart of the inter-relationships among characters.

Just a list of their names.

My son refused to do the homework because, as he wrote in a note to his teacher, it was inane and insulting to honors English students who were well aware that there is a list of a play’s characters right in the front of the script.

His ELA grades kept going down because of low or misguided teacher expectations, not because he was any less interested in ELA and not because he was any less capable of reading with insight and writing with clarity.

My son did struggle with math. He never got a grade above a D in any aspect of math.

Mathematics homework
Image via Wikipedia

But his 6th grade math teacher had clear, explicit and very high expectations for the class and she taught students how to meet them.

He got an A.

More than that, he began to understand that he was not bad at math, that he should not expect for it to be too difficult for him.

Students need to know their teachers believe in them.

They need their teachers to set clear, specific, high goals and make them explicit.

Then they need their teachers to teach them how to meet those goals.

My students can learn how to meet them.

Your students can learn how to meet them.

Now it is up to us to learn how to set them.

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The Left Hand Doesn’t Know…

09/03/2010

I’d laugh if it weren’t so frustrating.

I’d cry if I thought it would do any good.

I spent today like I’ve spent every day this week, at school on my own time setting up my classroom.

I’m setting the network of five laptops and three desktop computers that will be available in my classroom and I test them to make sure they can access the internet. It was a good thing because several were having connectivity issues.

The homepage for NYC Department of Education computers is the NYCDOE homepage.

As I launch each computer’s browser that is where I am taken and each time there is an item on the homepage about helping two NYC schools try to win $500,000 through the Kohl’s Cares program.

The item tells me that the voting deadline was today, Friday, September 3, 2010, and a link to the contest is provided.

Being the caring guy that I am, I click the link to do my part to help these two NYC high schools win the prize.

Here I am all ready to vote and…

The site is blocked.

Yes, the NYCDOE Web Sense filter blocks access to the contest promoted on the NYCDOE’s homepage.

It is insulting that the NYCDOE doesn’t trust teachers and administrators enough to allow them unfettered access to the internet, that they don’t trust me to keep my password secret to only I can use the administrator account visit websites verboten for students.

I’m not talking porn here. Not even soft porn.

Here’s where it gets really ridiculous.

The Kohl’s site was blocked because “social networking” sites like Facebook and Kohl’s Cares are not allowed. But I can go to Twitter.

The category “games” is blocked, keeping my students away from hundreds of sites with really good games with high education value, but I have no problem entering contests like the ones at MyRecipes.com or HGTV even when using a student account.

So I can’t help two schools win $500,000 but I can try to win myself $5,000 or some tools.

The NYCDOE runs a really good help desk for employees having computer hardware or software issues. The folks there are efficient and know what they’re doing, which immediately distinguishes them from many divisions of the NYCDOE.

I wasn’t sure this was under their domain but I called the help desk to point out the silliness of promoting something on the homepage and then blocking it on the network.

The fellow on the other end of the line listened and asked me to hold on while he checked it for himself. When the same thing happened to him he gave me a web address on which I could fill out a form asking that the site be unblocked.

Despite having plenty more to do to set up my classroom for the first day of school next week I tried to go to that website. A couple of minutes filling out a form would not set me back much.

I entered the address carefully.

I tried again, this time with a slight change.

I gave up.

Sorry East Side Community High School. Sorry Brooklyn Tech.

I tried to help but found myself bucking the inconsistency, inanity and inefficiency that is the NYCDOE.

But boy am I excited about the new school year!

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