History Case Studies

How do you make learning history dull, boring, monotonous and tedious? Teach broad survey classes with lots of multiple choice questions!!!

Sound familiar? Yup – that’s how most of us learned history and how most history courses are taught now, sadly.

Not this class! The article, “A Better Way to Teach History,” by Christine Gross-Loh outlines a college history course modeled on the Harvard Business School pedagogy of teaching through case studies. Professor David Moss gives students the arguments on both sides of a controversy. Students read, discuss, argue and make a decision. Only then does he tell students what actually happened. This method uses critical thinking, primary source analysis, decision making skills and communication skills.

Traditional history teaching values facts over skills, something that has long been debated. I fall strongly on the side of teaching skills over content. Even back in the early 1990s, pre-internet, I taught students that it was the process of finding information and analyzing it that was important. I gave only open book assessments – rarely, if ever, did I give “tests.” Today, it’s even more useless to memorize tons of facts. It’s not possible. It is possible to teach students to find information. Do students need a minimal amount of historical content in order to analyze? Of course. But that can be learned in the process of analyzing and doesn’t require excessive rote memorization.

Multiple choice tests definitely favor facts over process. As the article states, there is little context to facts in a multiple choice test. This article promotes the use of narrative over fact – one I wholly support. Narrative gives context, reason, rational, instead of random, disconnected facts. “…the narrative provides context and a more effective way to learn and remember.”

Love this quote:

The argument I make all the time is, it’s like if I were to ask someone to assemble a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle without the box-top picture of it. You could of course eventually put it together but the effort to match shapes and colors on each piece would be monumental, and you’d likely give up quite quickly. Such is what happens to many kids in school

 

Influencing Young Minds

I read other blogs because they make me think. Also because most bloggers are really good writers and they can often put into words what I am thinking but haven’t expressed – or don’t feel I can express because I’m not a teacher. Blogging allows a conversation when it’s not possible to have a real life conversation.

One of my favorite bloggers is a former high school teacher. He has left the world of K12 for the hallowed halls of higher education. I hope his philosophy can benefit many new teachers going into the world. Instead of directly impacting students, he can benefit more students by teaching new teachers to question the current state of education.

Snippets in today’s post were perfect reminders of why he is an excellent teacher – and why the current public school system drove him away.

Standardized tests are silly and do not account for real teaching. I am referring to the complex work of mentoring young people as they grow up in an infinitely complex, unsafe universe. Story is a better way to represent that work than test scores.

Seriously, how wonderfully insightful is this? Truly, does it matter if a student can remember the street some character in a book lived on, what year a battle occurred, or what equation you need to find the area of a parallelogram? Yes – a professor of literature, history or math might need these pieces of information at their fingertips, but not the majority of us. Do we need to be exposed to many types of information, ways of thinking and problem solving? Yes. Do we need to memorize all this stuff. No way.

A more important piece of a teacher’s job seems to be just what Sam says: mentoring people to grow into healthy adults. He was a creative teacher that did not rely on tests, extraordinary amounts of outside work or reciting facts. He asked students to think, apply knowledge to other situations, consolidate information and use their own experience. But he got a ton of flack for it. Personally, I am grateful my kid had a chance to be in his class. I know she got more out of that class — he made her think, he challenged her — than she did from those “advanced” classes that were crammed full of content.

I particularly like this quote:

First, I think teachers should not pretend to be transmitters of ultimate truths. Our truths might not work for somebody else.

Agreed. This respects diversity of thought, of opinion, of belief. Let’s encourage students to develop a belief system of their own instead of forcing them to swallow someone else’s. This does not mean students don’t work with content – it means truly there is too much content in the world to know it all. Learn to work well with smaller amounts so you are better equipped to work with it all.

How can teachers empathize with students and help them adapt to their circumstances with the understanding that realities are diverse, dissimilar, and require nuance to navigate? Throw out the tests. Most tests assume an arbitrary truth and then impose that truth at the expense of questioning.

This statement I find sums up the problem with standardized testing in a nutshell. There is no room for critical thinking or creativity in these tests. There is only room for spitting back material. What do we value more?

Way back a hundred years ago when I was teaching, I told my students (7/8th graders) flat out that I didn’t want them memorizing dates. I never used tests. All assessment was done using projects, often of their own choosing. Projects had to show an understanding of the issues and how it applied. It wasn’t a spitting back of dates. This was in the years before the rise of standardized tests and in an “open” school that left teachers a ton of flexibility. It was awesome….

I hope Sam’s current work in higher education teaching teachers allows him to plant this seed of thought in all these young people going into education. Maybe that’s how we start moving in this direction.

PD

In my work, I talk about professional development quite a bit. I do training with staff at my job, but a huge part of my work (and that of my colleagues) is teaching teachers.

In our experience, the PD for teachers when it comes to technology is lacking. Seriously lacking. Except for a few high flying exceptions at any school, it is more common to find teachers that aren’t getting the support they need to use the 1:1 technology they’re given (or had forced upon them). Many have trouble with the basics – turning it on, etc. This means they are not even close to using the tools in a real productive way — there’s little in terms of teaching pedagogy, classroom management, 21st century skills and how to move up the Bloom’s taxonomy ladder with the tools.

I was recently asked for some input on PD for a district. It may seem presumptuous of me to give any input, and I suppose it is. However, we benefit from seeing this tech PD from a broad perspective. I know the kinds of questions I’m asked, I know how often we get them.

Please note, I am in no way being critical of the teachers asking these questions. Just because I gravitate to tech tools very naturally and it comes really easily to me, I know it’s not that way for everyone – nor should it be. Nor should every teacher be expected to be a master of this. Some of the best teachers my kids have had have been basically luddites. It’s all about the attitude and pedagogy.

Anyway, here is are my thoughts about what a successful tech PD plan should look like:

  • embedded: there is a instructional technology person — not a network person — in the schools and accessible. It’s not a special thing.
  • frequent: happens as needed as well scheduled
  • leveled: lets the rabbits go quickly and the snails move at their comfort level
  • modeled: administrators embrace the tool, show excellent digital citizenship and use the tools when communicating with students, teachers and parents
  • paradigm shifting: includes more than just the hardware/software. It’s a mindset, and it takes time
  • flexible: it is responsive to changing tools and changing needs
  • student focused: both in terms of why districts do this – meets kids where they are, uses tools they know outside school. AND allows students to be part of the process. Embrace these kids. Let them be part of the solution, create student tech teams.
  • 4 Cs: it’s not really about the tool. It’s about empowering us to communicate, to create, collaborate and to think critically about our world. The iPads (whatever) are just a way to get there.

Broken Child

I have to reblog this. It breaks my heart. It hits so close to home.

This is by one of my favorite bloggers. I have tremendous respect for her honesty, her approach to life, her love for children and her love for books. I have tremendous respect for her teaching. She had the courage to completely change how she structured her class. She empowers students in a way not seen frequently.

This is a post about one of her children. I wish I could tell her that no, her child is not broken. Her child is lovely, wonderful, creative, caring. It’s not her child who is broken — it’s the school system. It is hard to tell a teacher that the school system is broken, but she knows it. She changed who she is in the classroom to address the very issues she’s seeing now in her child.

As one of the commenters said,  a world where kindergartners, first graders, etc., are expected to sit still is unnatural. Some kids thrive in it, but certainly not all. We crush the spirit of those who don’t fit that expectation. Why is that the value? Why do kindergartners need to read? Why is it that the only valuable learning occurs at a desk?

I saw this happen in my house. I was stubborn — too stubborn — and thought if my child only tried harder, if she only cared. I watched her spirit get crushed. I watched her frustration. I watched her self-esteem plummet. I watched her level of anxiety increase to the point of being incapacitating. All this for similar reasons — she couldn’t focus no matter how hard she tried. If I could do it all over, there are so many, many things I would do differently.

I wish I could just say to this blogger to follow her heart. Do what you need to do to honor your child. That’s what’s important – not what the expectations are of society, or of school.

 

She’s got my eyes, you know.

Blue mixed with gray depending  on the weather.   She’s got my long legs, arms for miles, and a laugh that comes from her heart.  Her hands look like my grandfather’s who gave her her name.  And those feet of hers are just like mine, growing too fast for her shoes to keep up.

She’s got her daddy’s sense of humor, always ready to make you smile.  And also his artistic eye, declaring one day she will be an artist.  She will paint the sky with every color she knows.

But she doesn’t have my skills of sitting still.  Of staying quiet.  Of focusing in.

She doesn’t smile easy or understand when others are kidding.  Friendships are sometimes hard to find.

Some would say she is a broken child.  Some would say she is a broken child.

We come up with fixes to help…

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Treatise on Audio Books

One of my all time favorite bloggers, Pernille Ripp, wrote about audio books, a pet topic for me: “Why Audio Books in the Classroom?” (Read this, but read all of her blog. It’s wonderful.)

I cannot believe I haven’t written about audio books before. They have been a huge part of my family’s life for the last 10 years, and is what started me on the path to working in education technology.

boxcarIt all started on a car trip. The kids were little (probably 8 & 5 years old) and antsy. We stopped at a bookstore. I spotted a CD of The Boxcar Children. Aha! Perfect for a car trip. The kids were hooked, and our adventure with audio books began.

My daughter has never liked to read – with her eyes. She was not a natural reader, she has never liked to read. It has always been a struggle. However – as Ms Ripp describes her student doing, my daughter INHALED audio books. We couldn’t keep up – it involved many trips to the library and finding affordable books on CD (and yes, even on cassette!) The arrival of the iPod and downloadable audio books was a game changer.

Yet, we still struggled to get school to accept audio books as books. My daughter’s 4th grade teacher flat out told us they didn’t count. Well, I flat out lied about it on those stupid reading logs we were supposed to do. (This teacher wouldn’t let kids read graphic novels either, but that’s another post.)

Thank goodness for the 5th grade teacher who not only accepted, but encouraged the audio books! Turns out her daughter is legally blind and consumes audio books at an amazing rate. At that point, the audio books were written into the 504, and although we have had to keep fighting for acceptance, we had documentation in our court. My daughter now gets all her college books in an audio version and it’s not an issue.

I get why people struggled to accept audio books as legitimate, but it’s time to change. The skills of listening to a text are just as necessary as reading with your eyes. Just as the world is moving quickly to more visual literacy (meaning learning to “read” images, data visualizations, etc.,) we also need to teach audio skills. We get information in so many ways now that we cannot limit it to reading with our eyes.

It is always expected that my daughter has a print book in front of her while she listens. She can’t do that. She needs to have her fingers busy. While listening, she often does a puzzle, knits or plays sudoku. It’s how she listens deeply. We’ve learned that this is how she learns best — not the way school thinks she should learn. I think the visual decoding is really difficult and distracting for her.

Sometimes, my son does listen to a book with the print book in front of him, if he’s doing heavy reading for school. He takes notes, marks the text. It’s how he learns. For him, using both audio and visual works.

One of my recent work projects  was producing a digital curriculum. We fought hard to have all the text narrated by professional actors. And guess what — it is probably the biggest selling point of the digital product. When we did early testing, I had the opportunity to test it with all levels of readers. Even the “high” readers – those reading far above grade level – loved the audio. It isn’t just for “special ed” (I HATE that term) or kids with LDs.

Give them a shot — while I love reading the Harry Potter series, I also love listening to Jim Dale read it to me. And how about celebrity bios? Nothing funnier than listening to Ellen DeGeneris reading you her book, or nothing more enjoyable than listening to Rob Lowe read his. Seriously. Try it.

 

Theater as 21st Century Skills

Love this post, “Four Reasons Theater Should be a Core Subject in Schools” by Madison McAllister about why theater should be a required subject in school. I’d go a little deeper than the author as to my reasons why.

Yes, it’s good a good outlet for emotions. Yes, it’s builds great people skills.

Theater also teaches the basics of 21st Skills: Creativity, Collaboration, Communication and Critical Thinking.

21st Century Skills

At its most basic level, theater hits all these skills.  Whether onstage or offstage, theater builds useful life skills.

Onstage: actors have to create a character. They think critically about the character they are playing and find a away to communicate the character and the story to the audience. In order to do this, they must collaborate with others – whether this is another actor, a director, lighting person, stage manager, whatever.

Offstage: directors, set designers, stagehands all have to use these four skill sets as well.

Critical Thinking

The first step of any production is to read the script and think about the characters. What is their intent? What is their backstory? Why do they say the lines? How do they say the lines? How are they feeling? Actors often create backstories for their characters that require them to dig much deeper than the script presented.

What else do you need to know about the setting? How do you analyze the location? What time period is it set in and how does that impact the characters? The sets? Costumes?

Creativity

Theater is inherently creative -and perhaps that’s why people are uncomfortable with it in schools. Each actor creates a different interpretation of a character, and how do you grade that? (Maybe you DON’T!!!) How do you assess it if it isn’t  a number?

Actors, designers, directors all create the production from their imagination. How do different costume choices impact the show? How do you create emotion? How do you design a set to give the appropriate feeling?

Collaboration

Theater is never done by yourself. Even a one-person show requires more people. Actors collaborate with other actors, with directors, designers, stage managers and backstage staff. Talk about a deadline – the show opens! You have an audience. You have to work with the team in order to get the show to open.

Once the show opens, there is another collaboration – this time with the audience. The presence of an audience changes a show and it’s crucial to collaborate with that audience -not to alienate.

Communication

It’s all about communication! From the basics of communicating a story to an audience to delving deep into a character, theater is communication at its best.

From start to finish, many forms of communication are essential. Written: script, programs, marketing. Visual: set, costume design. Oral: delivering lines, giving/receiving direction. It’s all there!

But I don’t DO Theater!

I know, not every kid wants to be on stage. But guess what – not every kid wants to be a biologist, a mathematician, a historian. Yet, all those subjects are required. Why should theater not be there? You can deal with any of these content areas through theater. We all have to be in classes that are out of our comfort zone.

 

“Fear and Anxiety in Learning”

Wow – to think that grading might be interfering with  learning rather than encouraging it! What a concept!

A thoughtful post, “When Grading Harms Student Learning” by Andrew Miller, points out the aspects of grade grubbing that not only disrupt learning for learning’s sake, but are downright harmful.

We see this in kids with various learning disabilities, or kids who learn experientially, or who are creative. When we rely on teacher imposed/created evaluations, we really learn more about that teacher than about what the student learned. Of course we need some sort of assessment. But why does it have to be like always trying to keep your head above water instead of a positive environment? Students study to  avoid losing points — not to learn.

Zeros do not reflect student learning. They reflect compliance.

How does it encourage learning when students are always in the hole in terms of points? Can they ever pull themselves out of a bad situation? Students who perhaps have a learning disability, who had to work the night before a test, who might have test anxiety, etc., may not get great grades on a test. How does that motivate them to do better next time? I think it does exactly the opposite – many students would see this as a detriment. Why try?

I constantly go back to the story about a student who wrote a fantastic skit based on concepts learned in a history class. The teacher talked about how fantastic the skit was: it demonstrated complete understanding of the concept, the students were able to communicate the concept and apply it to another situation. It was worth a whole TEN points! The next day, the students had a 60 point multiple choice test. Huh. I know which thing I think shows more understanding, yet that was worth 1/6 of the multiple choice test.