Wednesday, November 22, 2017

#MSSRA- "Make Social Studies Relevant Again"

Over the past few weeks, I've been given cause to really think about the state of social studies education, and it's overall place in nationwide curriculum.  I've taught now for 13 years, and I remember starting out and struggling to find a teaching job.  My resume was strong, but I just couldn't find a job.  I also remember being told that this struggle might be the best thing to happen to me in the long run, that it might convince me to move on from this field and find something where my work might be valued.  But I stuck it out, and secured a job in the same school I find myself now.  And I am glad I did.  I wouldn't trade the experiences I've had teaching my students for anything.  But as the years have gone on, I've come to see that there might be a little truth in the advice I received all those years ago.  Although I know that teaching history is vitally important, and I have been blessed by amazing kids who have always made me feel appreciated, the overall view of the importance of history education has diminished to an alarming level.  At a time when history education has never been needed more, it has never mattered less.  And this reality should scare everyone.

I recently had the chance to hear Eric Foner, the noted historian, speak about teaching.  He explained that he had taught for over 50 years, and in that time had seen many changes in the field, most notably in the foci of history, from emphasis on political history to social history to a new age of history in which more focus is given to minorities.  But, Foner argued, what had always stayed true, through 50 years, was the centrality of history in education.  All of that has changed.  In a recent #sunchat discussion on Twitter, teachers shared our current frustrations and blessings.  I expressed my frustration over the lack of value shown to social studies, and heard back from several teachers who had the same frustration.  One teacher explained how her corporation listed social studies as a "special"; others shared how the requirements for students varied, some as few as two years of classes.  How has this happened?  How has social studies become the convenient thing to cut?  How has history education become so devalued?  As it turns out, it is a complex question with a fairly simple answer.

The harsh reality of education is that, not only has social studies education become devalued, our students have as well.  There- I said it.  Education has become a numbers game.  Our schools are testing centers and our students are simply statistics, bubbles on a scantron.  The moment we allowed standardized tests to become the epicenter of education is the moment we devalued our students.  And before I'm written off as just another teacher complaining about tests, think about it, step into a school and find out just how much instructional time is taken away by testing.  These are days teachers don't get back, and sacrifices have to be made.  One of those sacrifices- social studies education.  Social Studies is not a widely tested subject, therefore, in the current paradigm of education, it is of less value, and therefore open to cuts.  The focus is on language arts, math, and science.  Now don't get me wrong- we need people skilled in all three areas, and ready to fill those jobs.  But what are we losing by devaluing history education?

Social studies classrooms are the places where students not only learn about the events of the past, but analyze them, examine them with a critical eye, and discuss them.  These classrooms are where we study the successes and failures of the past, and learn from both.  This is where students have the chance to grow in their ability to engage in a civil discourse, and learn to reason with an informed mind.  I can't guarantee that every student in a social studies classroom is going to leave our walls and pursue a career in history.  But I can guarantee that they will leave a well-taught and organized social studies classroom with skills crucial to being a citizen and a person.  And as the great educator, Lester Laminack said, "We're not here to raise a score.  We're here to raise a human."

So, what do we do?  First, encourage professional organizations within our states to increase their advocacy.  Legislators may not fully understand the effects of testing on subjects like social studies, but they need to know.  Second, let your own voice be heard.  Tune into the work of groups like NCSS and Gilder-Lehrman, and seize upon their passion and resources to "Make Social Studies Relevant Again." But more than anything, continue to be a passionate advocate for social studies.  Continue to put the kids first, and allow your passion for them and the content shine!  Be a positive voice, and continue to fight the good fight.  Our students and our country need you!

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Encouraging Growth by Encouraging Conversations

Recently we culminated that yearly tradition that is parent/teacher conferences.  I've always loved these conferences, as our conversations with parents are a great time to share the praise that can be found in every student, and the opportunities we each have to grow.  This year, however, I heard, more than ever before, from multiple parents about the conversations that they were having at home, conversations that originated in our croom and were now making their way to dinner tables, car rides, and evening chill time.  To me this is one of the truest signs of learning and is part of the solution to a national problem- our increasing inability to engage in productive conversations about our history and the issues facing the nation right now.  And it has me thinking about how to increase the frequency of these conversations.

The conversational divide in our country is one that even the blindest among us can see.  Of the many problems plaguing our country, this one stands out as both a root cause and a solution.  It's ironic to a degree, with so many talking about "what this country was founded on", that one of the truest, most base founding principles is the one perhaps most lacking right now.  This country was, in so many ways, founded on the conversation.  Few of our Founders and Framers agreed on everything, if anything, and yet this country came to be.  Imperfect for sure, but one capable of growth, an "experiment" that most would argue has gone demonstrably well.  Why- because our Founders talked, certainly with those who agreed with them, but more importantly, with those who didn't.  That is how compromise is made.  That is how understanding is reached.  That is how growth happens.  Today we have evolved into a country in which the popular maxim is "Don't talk about politics at Thanksgiving" or something of the like.  That maxim has to go; we need, so desperately, to talk more, listen more, grow more.  So it warms my heart to hear parents talk about how the discussions we have in class are coming home and continuing.

This brings up, of course, the need for us to model effective discourse.  While I do have a few "absolute truths" which are not debatable in our croom (I will not tolerate comments when it comes to things like racism, sexism, etc.), most topics are worthy of a good back and forth.  But if all we allow is free-for-all debate, we miss the chance to stress the importance of listening.  Debate is not a taboo word, and can be effective when listening is stressed.  I often tell my students that at least half of a great conversation is listening.  I also stress to my students the need to engage in informed discourse.  Imagine a country in which the citizens were willing and able to sit down with anyone, and speak on the issues of a day, a discussion rooted in actual knowledge, and one in which all involved left the conversation with a little more understanding.  Imagine if our crooms were a place where these kinds of discussion were not only allowed, but encouraged, and these conversations carried their way home.  Imagine if we were a nation of citizens content in the conversation, and not focused on being right.  If that is an ideal, call me an idealist.

Even though I know that not every student will leave their time with me and be this kind of citizen, it doesn't stop me from trying.  To that end, a few of our efforts...


  • Don't shy away from the tough topics, but change the way they are discussed.  I teach government, and when we discuss the Constitution, the conversation inevitably steers towards the Courts, and how civil liberties and rights have been interpreted over time.  This leads us to discussions of discrimination, same-sex marriage, abortion, etc., all issues which would easily lead to blow-ups.  But if we want our students to emerge as functional citizens, we can't skip over the topic just because we are afraid of the conversation.  Our crooms have to be the laboratories where the American experiment grows, where informed dialogue is encouraged.
  • Set rules- establish the "lines" for class discussion across which students are not allowed to cross.  A few of our rules- your voice has value, be prepared to support your point with serious evidence (and no, Grandpa doesn't count), speak with respect and listen with more, do not speak until called on (don't try to speak over others).
  • As teachers and discussion facilitators, we have to be prepared to speak from the other side, even if you disagree with it personally.  I know many teachers who share their personal views constantly; there can be some value to that.  But, in general, I keep my thoughts on most issues to myself so that I can argue another side without the students believing me to be biased.  Plus it's fun to see the students try to guess where I stand.
  • Challenge students to speak from a point of view contrary to their own.  I also teach US History, and often put students in groups which will likely push them to see another side, eg. Federalist v. Anti-Federalist, or in government I might have the student present on a Constitutional point different than their own.  Having to argue from the other side of the argument can be a great way to encourage students to look at multiple perspectives.

In the end we have to remember that we are not just teaching a body in a desk; we are teaching the next generation of leaders and citizens.  If we don't encourage them to be better than us, to be willing and able to listen, to work with someone who thinks differently, to realize that our world is far from homogenous, then we fail them.  If we don't foster opportunities for these young people to grow, we fail them.  It's time that we become part of the solution.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Admitting Weakness in Education

In a recent Twitter string based in the weekly #sunchat discussion, one of the many great educators, @thnorfar, mentioned that "something about this profession [teaching] makes people fear weakness." This initiated a long string of discussion, and truly got me thinking- do educators fear expressing weakness? If so, why? How important is this to the larger goal of personal and professional growth? If we can admit weakness, then what? In the post below I will try to tackle each question, and flesh out my thoughts.

Do educators fear expressing weakness? If so, why?

The answer to the first question is, I think, a resounding YES! For so long, educators have been the classroom "expert", the "sage on stage",...and the first person to be blamed for something wrong in education. There is a great deal of pressure on teachers to be experts in all matters education. Some of that pressure is good; we should have a deep knowledge of our content, and we should take the time (and have been challenged) to think deeply about classroom practice. But how many teachers are afraid to say, "I don't know", when asked a question.

The truth is that education has become, in many ways, a game in which all things are measured by "winners" and "losers". When it comes to the classroom, it comes down to grades- does your class average match out, do you have enough points possible, do you have enough students getting A's? When it comes to the school, it comes down to test scores- are they high enough, how do they measure against every student in the state and country? In short, education has become more focused on statistics than people, more focused on numbers than growth, more focused on students as commodities rather than as the individuals they truly are. When educators function in this kind of environment and feel the pressure of being blamed if points possible don't meet quality, or if test scores aren't high enough, it sends a clear message- You had better get it all right, or else. It's no surprise that a teacher might be afraid to admit weakness with that reality bearing down upon them.

How important is admitting weakness to the larger goal of personal and professional growth?

Fact- Teachers are human beings. (insert gasp from students) We are human, we are flawed, we have weaknesses. Being able to admit that is absolutely crucial to maintaining oneself in education. I was once scared to say "I don't know" in a classroom, afraid that I might lose the respect of the students in my charge if I couldn't answer that question they asked, afraid of how I might "look" to other professionals in the building and beyond. But the moment I embraced my weaknesses was the moment that I began to experience real growth. Knowing one's weaknesses shows a teacher how much they still have left to learn, and motivates growth.

If we can admit weakness, then what?
It is unfortunate that most teachers work in an environment driven by test scores. It is an environment which is ultimately successful in creating little more than fear, and hinders the important elements of growth in the classroom. While difficult, admitting weakness is crucial for us to grow. Even more importantly, teachers must work to not only admit weakness, but seek out ways to improve. It is one thing to admit weakness; it is quite another to take the steps necessary to better oneself.

The field of education has not only accepted a culture of test scores, but it has also grown comfortable in dated or just flat-out flawed teaching practices. Growth as a professional is as important as anything we do as educators. The on-going challenge before educators, and administrators, is to admit weakness, but never accept it. Only when teachers make the decision to stop growing have they truly failed. Growth is success, and one of the few legitimate constants in this field! But growth means failures along the way. Every journey has detours. But, here is the real question- how far will you drive the wrong way?

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The True Test of Our Fidelity

Yesterday I was asked by a number of students how I felt about the kneeling controversy, largely because I had made the decision over the weekend prior to change up our schedule for US History to allow us greater time to spend with the Constitution, and I had shared with them that if there was one thing that the debate on social media had shown me over the weekend, it was that more Americans needed to spend time with the document before they claimed themselves to be experts.  When students asked their question, I gave a wishy-washy answer with which I wasn't comfortable.  And so, I've decided to compose my thoughts in my blog.


I would like to preface this post with a few notes.  First- as always, the views expressed in this post (and all posts) are mine alone, and do not necessarily represent my employer.  Second- I have long maintained a personal mission to not interject my personal reactions to political issues because of my desire to help students see multiple perspectives on issues.  Third- I have always stood for the flag and national anthem, and am proud to do so.

When this post began to form in my head, I thought back to something which President Obama said during a town hall.  He was asked by the moderator, Jake Tapper, about his reaction to the initial kneeling of Colin Kaepernick, and he responded by talking about what the flag means to him, and how he feels that the flag and anthem can be a unifying force for all Americans.  But then he also said this,


"I also always try to remind folks that part of what makes this country special is that we respect people's rights to have a different opinion...The test of our fidelity to our Constitution, to freedom of speech, to our Bill of Rights, is not when it's easy, but when it's hard.  We fight sometimes so that people can do things that we disagree with ... As long as they're doing it within the law, then we can voice our opinion objecting to it but it's also their right."


It was the second line that really came back to me- "The test of our fidelity to our Constitution, to freedom of speech, to our Bill of Rights, is not when it's easy, but when it's hard."  Listen- I don't believe in many universal truths, but those that I do, and which will always be a part of any classroom I work in, are that 1. Sexism, racism, and hatred will have no place in our classroom.2. Our students have rights, and when given the environment, can and should express those rights.  Our students should know and feel that they have a voice, and that their voice has value.3. If students (or any American) wants to express their right to a voice, it should be informed.  Ignorant speech is just as dangerous, and often times more so, than keeping quiet when your voice should be heard.If one thing has become very clear over the past few years, it is just how reactionary a people we can be.  Too often we instantly react when we see something that makes us uncomfortable, when the reality is that there is almost always a moment to stop and think, almost always a need to have a conversation, almost always another perspective just as valuable as your own, and almost always a need to empathize.


Regarding this particular controversy, here are my thoughts:


I stand for the flag, but at the end of the day what I am really standing for is the ideal the flag represents.  If we look at the flag in a literal sense, it is really just fabric.  But, as a symbol, it stands for freedom, our Constitution, all that we have fought for over the course of 240 years.  I stand for that because that is how I express my feelings about this history, I stand for that because I believe in what it represents- the rights we all possess as Americans.  A hallmark of those rights is the right we have to express ourselves freely, provided we remain within the law.  The First Amendment speaks of freedom of speech, and does not qualify that with provisions for anyone's comfort.  Protest is central to our nation's history, so much so that it could be argued that protest is a fundamental American principle.  And so, for those who want to express frustration about kneeling protests, you have the right to do so, and I would be the first to defend that right.  If seeing this kind of protest makes you uncomfortable, I can understand that as well.  But you do not have any greater right to express yourself than those who choose to kneel.  We all have equal right to protest, and at a time when we have "protestors" marching through streets, waving Nazi flags, spewing hate speech, and driving their vehicles into groups of other protestors, a peaceful protest, even one that might cause us some discomfort, is far from our biggest problem.  

This may seem like an "easy" issue for many to give voice, and if you have or wish to, that is your prerogative.  But there are rarely issues that are easy; with the exception of a few absolute truths listed above, there is almost always a conversation to be had, almost always multiple perspectives.  In this case, if we examine the root of the initial protests (taking issue with the treatment of blacks and other minorities in the United States), my reality is that I, like most, have no idea what it is to be a black person.  I certainly have no idea what it is to be a black pro athlete.  I would love to have their money, but I would never trade for their history.  Most of us cannot fathom studying our people's history, and seeing so much of it dominated by slavery.  Most of us cannot fathom watching the news and being concerned with the realities of race relations.  How can we take issue with someone expressing their thoughts, exercising rights possessed by them, just because they are highly paid athletes?  Their money doesn't take away their rights as a citizen, and for many of the black men and women, they carry the responsibility of being highly visible and looked up to, and as such it should come as no surprise that they might use their platform to initiate change, or at the least, a conversation.

So, my thoughts- I stand for the flag and will continue to do so.  I hope that these players will think about their protests, and consider why some might take issue with it.  I hope that those who are so quick to condemn them would remember that they are simply exercising a right, knowing full well that there could be consequences for that right.  I would hope that we all might remember that freedom of expression and speech either means something, or it means nothing at all.  I will continue to hope that, one day, we will realize that we are a nation constructed out of compromise, and a desire to live free.  That we are stronger because of our diversity, that the great glue that holds our nation and people together is the great conversation we've lost, and must get back.

And I would hope that the same verocity with which some have approached this issue would be applied to helping others in need, like Americans affected by natural disaster, including the thousands of Puerto Rican Americans without power.


Thursday, August 31, 2017

Taking History Outside of the Classroom- Starting a History Club

Starting a new school year means a new year with one of my favorite student groups- the Frankton History Club.  Nine years ago, students in one of my history classes asked me, "You know Mr. Cline, we have a Spanish Club, a French Club, a Science Club...why don't we have a History Club?"  That question was the spark that led to the creation of what has become one of the most active and popular student organizations in our school, and has, without a doubt, helped to motivate increased student interest in the classes we offer within our department.  Since I've been asked by several colleagues to share what we are and what we do, here is a quick rundown.

I've always approached this organization with two thoughts in mind.  One- I want this to be student-driven as much as possible. Two- I don't want this to become the "field trip club".  To the first point, we generally begin each year with a call-out meeting, and immediately I start talking to kids who might have interest in joining our leadership team.  In the past we have used executive officers, but this limited the minds contributing to planning, and so we have blossomed to a 10 student team.  These students are central to the planning and implementation of the the club's activities.  I obviously want to plan activities which will interest our students, and I want the students to buy-in to the work we are doing.  Having a student-led leadership team does just that.
HC Students with Guest Speaker

From there we work towards a goal of planning one activity per month.  We strive to vary the activities we plan to include field experiences, but also guest speakers, movie nights, community service, etc.  This year we are excited to already have several experiences already in place, including:

  • A trip to the Mississinewa 1812 Reenactment- Indiana doesn't have many historical battles around which to build a living history experience, but one that we can count is the Battle of the Mississinewa, which took place near to our school during the War of 1812.  This reenactment, while built around that battle, focuses more on the country at the time, and gives students a great experience in speaking with historians.  Plus the food is amazing!
HC at 1812
  • Participation in the "Follow the North Star" program at Conner Prairie.  Central Indiana is truly blessed to have this living history museum, built on the grounds of the William Conner estate.  William Conner was an Indiana trader, and his home and land form the basis for an experiential landscape set in 1836 Indiana.  This program revolves around Indiana's role in the Underground Railroad, and places students into the role of an escaped slave.  The experience is intense and thought-provoking!
Conner Prairie

One of the best decisions our club has made was to become affiliated with the National History Club. Through this group, our club is able to sponsor a Senior Award (which features the winner recieving a copy of the HC Book of the Year, which is autographed by the author), and the National History Honors Society.  This group has also started publishing newsletters, monthly emails with resources, and has a Facebook group in which advisors can share ideas.
Honor Society Inductees

The time I have spent with students in this organization has been amongst the best I've spent in 12 years of teaching.  Teachers should always endeavor to build authentic learning experiences into the traditional classroom, but with increasing class sizes, and varied student interest, this isn't always easy.  Our history club has proven to be an outlet for specific study, and has allowed students the chance to study elements of history which interest them on a personal level.  It has provided opportunities for our students to make history real, and that has sparked interest in continuing their research.  If you are a history teacher, consider this opportunity to take what you are teaching outside of the classroom!

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Hamilton: The Creator of the "American Dream"


Over the past week I've had the tremendously good fortune to study the life of Alexander Hamilton, a week which was prefaced with some great reading from experts like Richard Brookhiser and Ron Chernow, and which was peppered with lots of the Hamilton mixtape.  As a history teacher I've obviously been well aware of Hamilton and his impact for some time, and have made every effort to incorporate him into our curriculum, but have met with a lot of blank faces.  Prior to 2009 far too many students had no idea who was on the $10 bill!  All of that, of course, changed when Broadway star Lin Manuel Miranda did this at the White House:

Since then, and certainly after the release of Miranda's hit play, it's been much easier to pique student interest in the man, and I've had a lot of fun the past few years using the play as a way to bring deeper conversation on the Founder into class.  But the nature of that conversation will likely change after this week, as, after the lectures, conversations, and readings, I've come to appreciate Hamilton in a new way, as someone who, even though he wasn't born in the country, may, in many ways, represent the idea of "American potential" more than anyone else of the era, perhaps the first to fully appreciate the idea of the "American dream."

Hamilton's background is famous- born on an island in the Caribbean to a mother who had just spent several months in prison, placed there by her first husband for "whoring".  In reality she had simply fallen for another man, and having not lived with her husband for a long time, she had married this new man- James Hamilton.  The matter finally resolved, the Hamiltons moved to the island of Nevis, where Hamilton, his older brother, and his mother were deserted by his father.  His mother, Rachel, was determined, and started her own business, with her son Alexander as clerk.  Just as things had begun to look up, both Alexander and his mother contracted a fever, from which Alexander would survive, but his mother would die.  At 11 Alexander Hamilton was a penniless orphan, and, in the eyes of many, a bastard.  Fortunately Hamilton was taken on as a clerk for two merchants- David Beekman and Nicholas Cruger- who, after being impressed with his work, sponsored him to go to the colonies so that he could study medicine, after which he would return to the islands as a doctor.

Alexander Hamilton arrives in New York City with only faith in himself, that he offered something that could make a significant place in this country.  Hamilton is, in truth, like so many immigrants who have come to these shores, even still today, escaping a situation which had become untenable, searching for something better, believing that America offered just that.  Hamilton began studying law at King's College (now Columbia), organized his own artillery unit when the Revolution began, impressed General George Washington enough to be placed on the General's staff as an aide-to-camp, led a successful assault at Yorktown, married the daughter of a wealthy and influential member of New York society, and became a successful lawyer.  In short, Alex did good.  It is, of course, his work with the Constitution that stands out with Hamilton.  Active early, along with James Madison, in the work to replace the deeply flawed Articles of Confederation, Hamilton was key in the call for a convention in Philadelphia, and even more central in convincing his state of New York, crucial to the process, to ratify the new document.  Under the new government, which yielded the incomparable George Washington as first president, Hamilton was named the first head of the Treasury, responsible for coming up with a plan to rescue the country from tremendous debt.  To describe his rise as meteroic is putting things mildly.  To describe Hamilton as the epitome of the "American Dream" fulfilled would be right on.

If Hamilton's rise has become well-known, his death has always made him famous.  For all of his gifts, Hamilton's flaws stand out as much.  Hamilton was brash (again putting it mildly), with an insatiable belief in his rightness, and was unafraid to let people know they were wrong.  These qualities did not endear Hamilton to many, including Thomas Jefferson.  It is in this relationship, however, where Hamilton demonstrates his most ardent belief in the "American Dream."  As Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton devised a new financial plan intended to not only rescue the nation from crushing debt, but also to set it on a course for the future which would help ensure advancement.  The plan called for an increased focus on manufacturing and industry, which flew in the face of Jefferson's hope for a country of small farms.  Jefferson's hope is hardly surprising, being a Virginia planter who had grown up in an agrarian society- it was all he knew.  In defending his belief in the need for increased manufacturing, Hamilton offers perhaps his greatest testament to an "American Dream"-

"As to the furnishing greater scope for the diversity of talents and dispositions, which discriminate men from each other. This is a much more powerful mean of augmenting the fund of national Industry than may at first sight appear. It is a just observation, that minds of the strongest and most active powers for their proper objects fall below mediocrity and labour without effect, if confined to uncongenial pursuits. And it is thence to be inferred, that the results of human exertion may be immensely increased by diversifying its objects. When all the different kinds of industry obtain in a community, each individual can find his proper element, and can call into activity the whole vigour of his nature. And the community is benefitted by the services of its respective members, in the manner, in which each can serve it with most effect."

In this passage from his "Report on the Subject of Manufactures" (1791), Hamilton uses his own story to serve as evidence of the need for this change of focus- "...minds of the strongest and most active powers for their proper objects fall below mediocrity and labour without effect, if confined to uncongenial pursuits."  In effect, Hamilton argues that, had he stayed on Nevis, had never come to America, his talents would have been wasted.  In other words, if the country remains strictly agrarian, too many of the great minds of this country will be wasted.  Instead Hamilton argues for a national focus on manufacturing and industry as a means of bringing choice to Americans- if you don't want to farm, then here are the plethora of other options.  Later on in the same report Hamilton argues that "...there is, in the genius of the people of this country...it would operate as a forcible reason for giving opportunities to the exercise of the species of talent...".  In short, Hamilton is arguing for a system, for a country, which offers choice of opportunity, that these shores offer far too much talent to remain steadfast in the way things have always been done; in effect, Hamilton is arguing to make things easier for future Hamiltons.

In the end, Hamilton's vision has proven to win out.  This country has become the cradle of diversity that Hamilton envisioned, at least in diversity of choice.  In that lies the foundation for the "American Dream", that anyone could come to this country and find a niche, an avenue in which to apply their talent towards a better life.  Hamilton certainly wasn't the first to move to this land with the dream of a better life, but it could be argued that he was among the first to see the true potential of how big those dreams could be.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Walking in the Footsteps of What You Study

As I write this, I'm sitting in an Union Square Starbucks, preparing, both mentally and physically (because coffee is the key to both) for day one of the Gilder Lehrman seminar on Alexander Hamilton and Founding Era.
It's a far cry from the Indiana cornfield in which I live, and the neighboring Indiana cornfield in which I teach.  But I sit here as both a deeply passionate and tremendously blessed teacher of social studies.  I am blessed in the sense that this is the latest in a series of incredible professional opportunities I've had the chance to experience, one which will, without a doubt improve my knowledge and teaching of this important era in American history.  But it's my passion that has led me here, a passion founded in the purpose of my field- serving our students.  And as a social studies teacher, that purpose must include taking the time to, and seizing the opportunity, to visit and experience what we teach, and if possible, cultivating opportunities for our students to do the same.

By now, if you are a history teacher, I hope that you have come to realize that a textbook study of history offers little other than a base level of knowledge, one that students are destined to forget almost immediately.  History studied right is experiential, and that experience includes exposure to the images, words, music, etc. of a time period.  And it is defined by the realization of every opportunity to experience the actual location of something being studied.  As teachers we need to seek out every chance to offer ourselves the chance to walk in the footsteps of what we are teaching; I can guarantee it will change the way you teach.  But we also have to seek out those opportunities to offer the same kind of experience to our students.

1- The Impact of Experiential Professional Development on Teachers
Professional development is one of those terms which I am convinced is defined by the teacher.  Can't anything which inspires growth "pd"?  These can include more structured experiences, and for those who are social studies teachers (but also teachers of other subjects as well), here are a few of my favorite structured development groups:

  • Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History- apart from being a first-stop destination for primary documents and other classroom resources, GLI offers a series of summer seminars throughout the country.  Each seminar focuses on an element of American history, with a few of this year's offerings running the gamut of the Civil Rights Movement in Memphis, The Second Great Awakening at Princeton, and the one which I am attending right now, Hamilton and Founding Era in NYC.  Each of these seminars is, essentially, free, with room, board, and food free, and travel expenses reimbursed.  Each seminar is led by an expert in the field, including great minds like Denver Brunsman, John Demos, Eric Foner, and Richard Brookhiser.  Teachers are on location for a week, which is filled with lecture/discussion, trips to historical locations relevant to the topic, and time spent on pedagogy and lesson development.
  • Ashbrook Center at Ashland University- the group associated with the "TeachingAmericanHistory" and "50 American Documents" series, Ashbrooke offers weekend seminars at historical sites around the country, which are, again, free.  These are led by faculty of the university, and are based in primary document study and professional discourse.  I recently visited Montpelier for a discussion on the Constitution, and if you can't be inspired to discuss Madison's influence whilst sitting in the shadow of his house, then you may want to consider another field!
These opportunities are incredible without a doubt, but the work of a teacher never ends.  Seek out the opportunities available to you anytime you are out.  When on a trip to Florida, find the battlefield. When driving through a state which you have never visited, stop at the state capitol building.  Or, if you find yourself in a historical goldmine like New York, just walk around.  On a recent visit to NYC this past May, my wife and I spent a few minutes outside of the Stonewall Inn.
It happened to be just before we discussed the beginnings of the LGBTQ movement of the 1970s in class, and it changed the way I presented it.  You see, I firmly believe that teaching history goes hand in hand with teaching empathy.  If empathy is, at its heart, understanding, then walking on the ground upon which a movement such as this began is a must.  

2- Students need the opportunities as much as teachers.  History is best learned experientially.  This is where the topic discussed changes from some sort of an abstract and far gone event, and becomes something tangible, something relatable, something real.  We have to find those opportunities, and they are likely closer than you think.  I promise- experiental learning is a game-changer in the classroom.  My favorite example was provided by a local living history museum called Connor Prarie.  Each year for the past several I have taken students to participate in what they call the "Follow the North Star" program.  This program features a number of first-hand presenters, each of which has based their character in deep research so as to fully portray the individual.  For 90 minutes students are taken through every step in the experience of a fugitive slave, including the sale, the escape, and the flight.  Along the way the students were treated like slaves, including being spoken to as a slave might, and meeting individuals at varying levels of willingness to help.  The students have told me that it is an emotional experience, and one that fundamentally changes the way in which they study and think of this period in our history.  I've had several students connect the experience to more current events like trafficking.  It's real, and that changes everything.  Disclaimer- these experiences are not for every student.

Here's the deal- these opportunities require a teacher to miss a little school, or a little of summer.  We can't take students on field trips every day.  Cultivating these experiences take time and research.  And as teachers, we can often feel like "If I have one more thing I have to do"...I get it.  But isn't this what it's all about.  I've seen the change in learning, the deepening of knowledge and empathy.  I've seen it in my students, I've seen it in myself.  
So, stand in front of Hamilton's grave, and see Betsey buried in front of him, and think about how his brashness got him killed, but made him distinctly American.  Think about his impact, and how different this country might be without his impact.
 
Raise a glass to Washington in Fraunces Tavern, and think about how, just one floor above you, he said farewell to his officers at the end of the Revolution.  Men who had shared the sacrifice to found this country, and who now embraced a man many looked at as a father.
Visit St. Paul's Chapel, and stand on the spot where Washington prayed for strength and guidance after being inaugurated as the first President of the United States, and say a prayer for our country.  Walk in the footsteps of history, and feel your knowledge, your teaching deepen.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Perspective, Empathy, and a Teacher's Responsibility

It's been a while since my last post, but that does not mean that I have been under a rock, oblivious to the realities of the world.  And if one reality were to be the most clear after this summer, it would be that this may be the hardest time ever to be a teacher of history and government.  As someone who has long maintained an approach geared towards presenting doors to students rather than pushing them through one, I was frustrated to read a recent article published on a Philadelphia-based website by David Horowitz and Mark Tapson.  The thesis of the editorial, titled "To restore balance in schools, teacher code of ethics needed", was that a left-wing conspiracy had developed amongst educators to warp children's minds in a liberal fashion.  Although this sort of teacher-bashing has become the norm, I'll admit...I was left more than frustrated by the contents of the article.   Fortunately, less than a week after the editorial was published, I had the opportunity to participate in a discussion amongst fellow teachers on the subject of social justice, and what we should be doing to encourage and ensure this crucial quality in our classrooms, and I was buoyed.  And now, after a few days to digest both, a discussion of what I believe our country is missing, and what we as teachers can do about it.

Last week I sat with a room full of US History teachers, and the conversation turned towards social justice, a term which I have come to define in our classroom as every student having an opportunity to succeed, to look at every student for the individual they are and designing an experience which best gives that individual the chance to learn.  Clearly, however, this term refers to a much larger idea when applied beyond the walls of the school.  And we as teachers have to realize that.  To say that we have a responsibility to serve our students justly in the classroom is obvious (or it had better be).  But we have to understand that what we teach our students is not just for the classroom; it is for the real world as well.  And how we teach them is often as important as what we teach them.

You see, as frustrated as the Horowitz editorial made me, I have to admit that there are, without a doubt, teachers who push an agenda (from both sides).  So, if the point of the editorial was to suggest that there are teachers who ignore balance in their classroom, then point taken.  But I know far more teachers who have only one primary concern in their classroom:  the kids, and their well-being.  As a history and government teacher, I will admit that I have an agenda.  I want my kids to emerge from their secondary school experience as willing and engaged citizens.  If that somehow fits me into the Horowitz and Tapson definition of a teacher-conspirator, then so be it.  But I believe in the potential of this country, of these kids, too much to give up now.

That word, "potential", is one that so significantly applies to this country.  Americans tend to forget that, in the grand scheme of world history, we are but infants.  In some ways, our country is going through its awkward teenage years, still struggling to find our identity, still trying to come to terms with the responsibility that comes with having freedom.  But our potential as a country lies in my favorite period of American history- it's founding.  Something I try to stress to my students is that, for as much pedestal-sitting as we like to do for our Founders and Framers, these were imperfect men and women.  They were agenda-driven, stubborn, and in some cases, slave-owning.  But they were also brilliant, and their brilliance shines in the fact that, at a time in our country's history when we were dealing with some of the biggest challenges we ever will, these individuals were able to emerge, on two separate occasions, with founding documents which still stand as the backbone on which this country is built.  The Declaration and, even more so, the Constitution were far from perfect, and few, if any, of the men who signed it left those conventions happy with all of it.  But, they believed in the potential of this country, and endeavored to achieve compromise built on discourse.  How far have we fallen?!

When trying to identify the "big problems" facing our country, a friend and colleague, who also happened to be in this discussion of US History teachers, talked about a lack of empathy being the disease inflicting the country.  My answer:  that we have lost the art of discourse.  The reality- they really are not much different.  At the core of empathy lies understanding, and that can only come from experience.  We have become far too comfortable with our small zones of understanding, and have become disconnected with the realities of our fellow Americans.  I'm reminded of that classic line from To Kill a Mockingbird, when Atticus tells Scout that "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."
In a world in which humans have more access to other humans than ever before, we have become content to turn our eyes away from others and stick to what we "know."  We have become confident in our "rightness", confidence which is only fueled by our increased access.  If you believe you are right, a simple Google search will turn up something to verify your point, regardless of how short-sighted that point may be.  And I am as guilty of allowing this kind of confirmation bias to affect me as anyone.  But it seems to me that the only way things change for this country is if we take a page from the Founders, and talk.  I've come to hate it when someone says something along the lines of "We just won't talk politics so we all get along."  NO!  Talking is not the problem; we need to change the way we listen.

In response to Mr. Horowitz and Mr. Tapson, I do have an agenda.  An agenda to encourage discourse, to encourage empathy in my students.  I will do this by loving each of my students for who they are, not who I think they should be.  I will understand that each student has walked a unique path, one that has molded them through life experience into the person who sits in our classroom.  I will provide opportunities for each student to interact with multiple perspectives of historical events through resources like primary sources, and even news articles such as your own.  Including the views of a Howard Zinn or James Loewen is not indoctrination, it is a perspective.  It is not "revisionist" to discuss that Helen Keller was a socialist when she was, or that Columbus' voyages had devastating consequences because they did.  This is "reality" history. I will encourage perspective by asking students to answer questions from their point of view, and from point of views different than their own.  I will encourage perspective by ensuring that multiple viewpoints are heard, even if I have to argue them myself.  I will check my own perspective at the door in the realization that each student deserves the opportunity to craft their own, and should never feel like their teacher is telling them how to think.  I will never ask my students to agree with a perspective, just to appreciate that it exists.  

For all the talk of "founding principles", it seems clear that this country was, undoubtedly, founded on the principle of deliberation, which places far more emphasis on listening rather than talking.  When we debate, we listen to find holes in another's argument.  When we agree to deliberate, we listen to appreciate the other perspective before giving ours.  How can we ever expect to realize the potential of this country if we cannot sit down with someone who has a different point of view and talk, without leaving the conversation angry?  Is this an easy change- no!  But it is an effort that we have to model at home, and we have to model in our classrooms.  Let that be our agenda.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Professional Development...What is it good for? Absolutely Everything!

So...before I dig in, a little background on my current situation.  I am writing this in Wichita, Kansas, fresh off of an incredible one-day seminar through the "Teaching Literacy Through History" (TLTH) program of the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History.  This seminar was focused on Vietnam (hence the playful title of the post), and featured the tried and true "seminar + pedagogy" format that works so well.  The seminar portion was presented by Dr. Frederik Logevall, the Harvard Professor and Pulitzer Prize winner.  And it was awesome.  I've taught history for twelve years, and learned more about the conflict in that 3 hours than I ever had before.  I just finished typing up my notes, and have already considered ways in which my teaching of the war will differ next year.  The pedagogy was fantastic as well- here is the information, now here is what you can do with it.  Truly a great method.  Seriously, if you teach history, and haven't been to a Gilder Lehrman seminar, you're missing out!





Now, to my point.  During a break today I was looking over my notes, and it struck me just how much I was getting out of this experience.  It isn't the first time I've felt that way during a professional development experience, just the latest.  And I couldn't help but think of how many other teachers would benefit from this experience, from any quality professional development.  This post will focus on the why, as well as the obstacles to professional development.  First- the why.

I am a teacher.  It is the best job in the world.  But if one thing is clear it is that teaching is not a static job.  Or at least it shouldn't be.  Teaching is a career in which one must be committed to many things, one of the foremost being the importance of remaining a life-long learner.  I've always kept, as a personal mantra, a belief that the moment I feel like I've figured it all out is the precise moment I need to leave the teaching profession.  The truth is that there is not a single teacher who should ever feel this way.  I've known and worked with amazing educators, award-winning educators who inspire me and challenge me.  But none of them should ever feel that way.  There is always room to grow, new approaches to adopt; there is always something new that we can learn to better serve our students.  Professional development is not an option for the classroom teacher; it is a mandate.

So...why don't more teachers pursue these opportunities.  Obstacles.  Some of these barriers are self-imposed, others outside of their control.  The self-imposed are the most frustrating for me personally, because it is likely derived from an excuse.  Now, before I get chastised for not appreciating the busy schedules of a teacher, hold it.  I'm not saying that a teacher should be attending some kind of training every week, or even every month.  But I find it hard to believe that a teacher cannot miss a day, here and there, to grow as a professional.  Once a teacher understands that pursuing professional development is a requirement for sound practice, then that particular obstacle is removed.  But what about the obstacles placed in the way by educational realities, like money.  Many school districts lack the money to send teachers to development sessions; others requires teachers to take personal days to attend these sessions.  My message to teachers facing these obstacles is this:  look harder.  Many organizations have taken to pursuing outside funding so that not only are training sessions free, but often substitute reimbursement can be given.  Today's seminar with the Gilder Lehrman Institute was sponsored, very generously, through the Koch Foundation; teachers did not pay a dime to attend, and subs were reimbursed.  In some cases, especially with Saturday or summer trainings, teachers may even get paid a stipend for attending.  My message to state or national professional organizations is, on a similar vein, to consider the dearth of money available to teachers for the pursuit of professional development.  Asking a teacher to pay, out of pocket, for a training is becoming too much to ask.  If I am going to tell teachers to search harder, I would also tell professional groups to search harder.  Ask yourself- how can we provide development opportunities to our teachers at no or little cost.

In the end, here is my point- reach out, ask, research and find development.  It's out there- I promise.  And pursue it.  If you can, provide it. Understand that our students are not the only learners in a classroom; so are you.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Art and the Social Studies Classroom

As I sit here with Nina Simone singing in the background, and reflect on the past #sunchat discussion on the arts in the classroom, and consider the recent cuts to the NEA suggested by the Trump Administration, I felt compelled to post about both my belief in their much needed inclusion in every classroom, and some of my favorite ways to do just that in our social studies classroom.

As mentioned, I teach high school social studies.  And while I believe that the arts belong in every classroom, a social studies classroom is the ideal place to mix the contents.  After teaching history for twelve years, I have found that one of the greatest challenges is forging a personal connection between the content and the student.  We are asking students to connect with people and events that took place 5, 10, 100 years ago, and that is a tall task for any person.  This, I believe, is often what perpetuates the thought of history class as "boring."  We must endeavor to present history in such a way that it appeals to as many of the students' senses as possible.  When thinking of the way that art can help achieve this, I am often reminded of this quote from the artist Mathiole:
Image result for art speaks where words are unable to explain
History shouldn't be studied by merely looking at or reading words; it should be experienced, through the photographs, the paintings, the music, etc. of those who lived it.  By using those mediums to study, one can begin to "touch" history, and perhaps even understand it, if not empathize.

I have to admit- photography is one of my passions.  Ever since I was exposed to the great Robert Frank collection, "The Americans", I have been convinced of the power of the photograph.  And as a social studies educator, I have come to believe that this medium is among the foremost of ways to not only present content, but to present the message of an event, the emotion of someone directly involved.  For example, when discussing the Great Depression recently, I could have had students simply read about a young woman named Florence Owens Thompson, and some undoubtedly might have learned something about the reality of life during this dark period of American history.  But instead, I posted the more famous picture of Florence on the projection screen as students entered the room, and asked them to infer what they saw and to describe the emotion seen in the photograph.

                                                     
When one combines the story with the photograph, something changes...something becomes more real.  And that is the power of art.  As the quote says, art can convey something words cannot.  Words can state that the Great Depression was difficult; this photograph proves it.

A favorite way for us to combine the arts and our content is through what I call a "photo essay". It plays on the traditional essay, a written work in which a message is relayed or an argument made, and one in which evidence must be given to support said point while considering the importance of flow in writing.  When discussing events like the Progressive Era and the era of Vietnam, when a history teacher is trying to convey to students the difficulties of industrial life, the sad realities of child labor, the experience of the American soldier, or the passion of protest here at home, reading or lecturing about it will not do alone.  Students need to see the evidence.  The challenge is quite simple- choose a focus, select appropriate pictures, make sure to cite the source, and arrange the photographs in such a way that a point can be made, a message conveyed.  When looking at photographs from the Vietnam Era, students can choose the perspective of the American soldier, the Vietnamese soldier, the photojournalist, the protester, among others.  When done well, the student work is powerful, and the experience is that much more real.

Last year I made the decision to finish up the year by encouraging the students to take this experience to the next level.  Up to this point students had been using someone else's photographs; I wanted them to tell a story using photographs that they had taken.  For our focus I blended this push with our efforts at including state history into the curriculum, and thus challenged the students to answer the questions "What is Indiana?", "What is a Hoosier?" through photograph.  I gave the students categories to include, and made sure to include student choice in the assignment.  And the results were amazing.  With a topic like Indiana, to be sure, there were a lot of corn fields, barns, and basketball goals.  But there were also fantastic photos taken of favorite places for the students when they camp or kayak with their families.  There were photos of basketball goals that had been installed by their great-grandfather on an old barn.  There were photos of old trucks that had been used on their family's farm, but were now collecting dust in the barn.  In short, it was the most fun I had ever had grading.  And the stories the students' told...what a joy it was to see these kids grow in their appreciation of their state and community, to have spent time with their family and friends.  To view a a short video, linked to QR code in my classroom, that highlights a few exemplary photos which are hanging in the room, follow this link.

In short, there is nothing that we teach that is not made better, richer, more real through art.  At a time when the arts are seemingly being pushed away, it is up to teachers to keep their vital influence in our classrooms.  Our kids deserve it!

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Document "Mapping" in the SS Croom

A few days ago I posted a picture of some of my US History students at work, under the label of "document mapping".  I was asked the same question by several colleagues- "What is document mapping?"  At the time, it honestly prompted me to ask myself the same question, along with "Why did you choose that label for this activity?"  Truly I took the picture and posted it, typing in that label almost as an afterthought, an instinct.  It just felt right.  But as I've thought about primary document use in our croom I can see that "mapping" is exactly what we do...but perhaps not in the traditional way to which social studies teachers might be accustomed.

Since this post is likely going to focus a bit on semantics, a few reminders-

  • A primary document is any kind of source that was produced at the time of the event it describes.  These sources could be text (like a diary entry), visual (like a battle map or a photograph), something to be heard (like a song or a speech), etc.
  • As a social studies teacher I am an ardent proponent of using these sources in the croom.  I truly believe they are the lifeblood of what we teach, and often the most interesting lesson plan supplement we could use (I mean, who wants to "talk" about the 60's when we could listen to some Bob Dylan?)  For some of my favorite places to access great primary documents, check out this past blog entry.
In the traditional social studies croom, mapping is exactly that- working with maps.  And in that sense it is absolutely crucial.  The "where" is often as important as the "what" when studying history.  There is a great deal that can be learned by analyzing events in a geographic sense.  But does "mapping" always have to refer to geography?

Mapping is about relationship.  It is about comparing one thing to another.  It is about examining the process of something.  Key word- process.  Process- welcome to social studies 101.  As it turns out, I chose the right word after all. 

The lesson I posted was a lesson in which students in US History were focused on why exactly the United States had entered World War II.  We had spent the past several weeks looking at the US in World War I, and as usual we focused more on the "why" and the consequences more than we focused on the fighting itself.  A US History teacher cannot talk about the why of either war without talking about the intense attitude of isolationism seen in the country before both wars.  Americans were simply not sold on entering this war, and in both cases would have to be shown, in very tragic terms, why the United States could not stay out.  As we began the discussion of World War II, it was important that students dig in to understand this attitude, and how it changed, along with circumstances and realities around the world, leading up to American entry after Pearl Harbor.  We began this discussion with me asking students to explain why the US entered World War II, to which I had several students shout out "Pearl Harbor".  My next question to the students- "Would the United States have entered World War II if Pearl Harbor had never happened?"  Pearl Harbor was a direct attack, a clear reason for the US to exit its attitude of isolationism and get involved.  But were we headed there already?

        US History students discussing their documents


Process.  The word is at the center of what these students were examining.  How did we get from here to there?  To both challenge them and get them talking, students were each given a document that pertained directly to the process, ranging from the Kellogg-Briand Pact to a recording of a fireside chat on September 11, 1941, during which FDR discussed the sinking of an American ship at the hands of the Germans.  Students were given a few short analysis questions to focus their thinking, and then given a few minutes to compare their answers with other students who had the same document.  This also allowed me to quickly move through the groups to answer questions that might exist on the document.  Next the students were separated into slightly larger groups, each group featuring at least one student from each document.  Students were then challenged to place the documents in chronological order and then discuss their document with the rest of the group. Throughout this process the overarching question was kept on the board as a reminder- "Would the United States have entered World War II if Pearl Harbor had never happened?"  Students were asked, at the end, to answer this question in their journals, leaning heavily on the discussion from the day's lesson.

Process.  I keep coming back to that word because so much of what we do in social studies classrooms is about examining process.  How did this happen, how did a people go from here to there, why- these are questions which guide learning in our crooms, and if we can encourage students to find these answers in the actual voices of the past, their understanding of history is all that much more deep and meaningful.  Social studies teachers are in the midst of a revolution in teaching methods, ditching the textbooks and taking the learning to the source, giving students an opportunity to experience history on their own.  It's not as easy as the textbook, but it is most certainly better. Step up!

Thursday, February 16, 2017

How Can We Reach Absent Students?

After 12 years in the classroom, I find that I still have many questions, many areas of the craft where I still need to reflect and consider on my methods.  One area which has always left me pondering is how best to ensure that students who are absent truly understand what we discussed in class. Especially on days where a new concept has been introduced, or on the few days where our classroom might feature a more formal seminar, the only options seemingly available for absent students to gain the information were study sessions after school, or for the student to talk to his or her fellow classmates.  Recently, however, I have started using live streaming, and I'm excited about the possibilities that this will offer.

The How
I've long had a webcam through which students in our class have communicated with politicians, professors, and (hopefully soon) other classes.  Now, thanks to a little bit of help from our technology department, I am able to put this webcam to use for a live stream of our class.  Not every class is streamed, of course; as teachers we all know we have those days where students are working on test corrections, reviewing for a test, etc., where little would be accomplished from actually tuning in.  But on days when new concepts, discussion, explanation of an assignment, and the like are being covered, the stream is live.

We set up the webcam in the back of the room, and placed the camera so that it captured the whole of the front of the classroom, and kept as many of the kids out of the view as possible.  Going into this endeavor I knew that some parents might not want their students on the stream, so I have placed the camera in such a way so that few students are actually seen.  The start-up for this project took all of 5 minutes, but required the creation of a Youtube Channel.  When ready I simply open my Youtube account, access "Video Manager", and then select "Live Streaming." I then select "Events", and schedule an event.  I title the event with the class and the date, which makes it easy for students and parents to find the day missed.  After hitting "Go Live Now" Google Hangouts is automatically opened, and we are ready to stream.  The stream is accessible in live form through the Youtube channel (which is linked on my class website), but once the stream has been terminated, the captured video automatically uploads to the channel for later viewing.

What You Will Need
1. Webcam- can be purchased for as little as $20.  Make sure that the webcam has a multi-directional microphone, however; you will need this to record your voice, and it will allow you to move throughout the room.
2. Youtube Channel- this is easily created, and the link can be posted on your website or Google Classroom.

Things to Consider
Based on my initial efforts with this new resource, I have found a few things that should be considered when implementing this into your croom:
1. Make sure when scheduling the event through Youtube (see instructions above), click on "Advanced Settings" and turn off the "live chat".  Trust me....you'll thank me later.
2. Strongly consider making this resource known to parents, both so that they can help keep tabs on student work, but also because it will give them an opportunity to let you know if you might need to move their child.  Often school acceptable use policies will take care of this potential issue, but it is a good way to ensure that you are covered.
3. Remind the kids that, while streaming, the microphone and webcam is picking up every word they say, and everything they do.
4. Watch for copyright issues.  I often use clips of video footage in class, but if it is live streamed the original makers of the video may report the use to Youtube, which will flag your recorded discussion.

When streaming class I often want the kids to see what is on my computer as opposed to the classroom itself.  In the actual class students can see my projector, but the projector usually does not come through well on the webcam.  Fortunately Google Hangouts allows for screensharing, meaning with one click I can switch to the computer.  In the short time that we've made use of this resource I've already had several students mention that they've tuned into the live stream on a day when they were sick, or ahead of time when they knew they need to leave early.  The benefit to the students seems clear, but I'm also excited for the potential for parents.  Giving the link to the parents allows for them to tune in and have a first hand look at their child's educational experience!  As a parent myself who would love to know what my son is doing from time to time, I see this as a benefit for our parents.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

"Qualified"- How Important Is That Word?


Sometime today, 50 United States Senators and the Vice-President will approve Betsy Devos as the next US Secretary of Education.  Such is the nature of a republic, but this vote will culminate in the selection of someone who is remarkably unqualified to hold a leadership position in education, or any position in education period.  Policy disagreements with Mrs. Devos aside, the biggest buzzword in this debate has been "unqualified."  Thousands of teachers across the country have spent the past several weeks contacting their Senator, sounding the call for her denial.  Several senators have publicly spoken out against her confirmation.  And the voice has been the same- Betsy Devos is unqualified for this position.  But this public outrage begs the question- how important are qualifications in the field of education?


The realities of teaching are daunting, to say the least.  Low pay and increased standards have led to a dramatic dearth in pre-service teachers, percentages at their lowest in 70 years.  According to a survey done last year by the Chronicle for Higher Education, only 4.2% of college freshmen expressed an intention to major in education.  Combine that with the impending retirement of the baby boomer generation, and one can understand the fear of many school districts across the country in being able to fill its classroom with teachers.  Most states require a degree in education, specialization in a content area (particularly at the secondary level), and a valid teaching license.  In my home state of Indiana, secondary teachers are expected to hold a degree in the content area and minor in education, at minimum.  But, in the face of a teacher shortage, districts across the country have begun to hire non-certified teachers to lead classrooms.  At a time when debates are raging over the qualifications of the person who will lead the US Department of Education, are we discussing enough the qualifications of the persons who will lead our individual classrooms?

I take education very seriously, not just as a professional, but as a father of two sons.  As a professional, I have found myself, after 12 years of teaching, to be a passionate educator who has never once questioned my chosen field.  I am decorated and proud to hold a position of respect at the state and national level.  But among the highest sources of pride for me is knowing I have earned every bit of it.  I believe in the importance of humility and I think most who know me would agree that I am not a "horn-tooter."  But I do appreciate positions of leadership and respect, and believe that I can fill those because I have worked extremely hard to earn those positions, and have a voice that lends experienced and credible insight.  Those educators of whom I have the utmost respect are those who bring similar credentials to the table and I have had the good fortune to have learned with, and from, some incredible educators.  


It is never lost on me that each day parents send their most precious gift to our school and our classroom, and trust me to provide them with quality teaching and guidance.  This is a heady responsibility and it has long been the guiding influence behind my drive to not only pursue further education, but continuous professional growth.  I want to be the best teacher possible for my students. I want to be the teacher I want my own sons to have.


I have no misconceptions regarding a belief that every classroom possesses a great teacher.  As much as I want this, it is impossible.  And I know that simply having the qualifications of being a teacher does not necessarily correlate with good teaching.  But I also know that caring about kids or being a good person also does not correlate with good teaching.  Passion for teaching is key, perhaps the most important element in effective teaching.  But it cannot, repeat CANNOT, be the only qualification.  I have no doubt that I am a better teacher for having had the opportunity to reflect on methods and theory, to have had the chance to learn from examples of real teachers, both good and bad, as a pre-service educator.  These "hoops" through which I jumped in my preparation were absolutely key in my growth as a teacher.  The teachers I remember, the teachers I respect, and the teachers I hope teach my own children are those that possess both qualifications and passion for the kids.


Full disclosure: I am not an administrator and therefore am not directly involved in hiring.  With that in mind, I am aware that some might find me naive in my view.  I fully understand that, as a nation and as individual states, we face a teacher shortage.  But the solution to that problem cannot be to fill those positions with those who are unqualified to hold the position.  It insinuates that anyone can walk in off the street and teach a class.  The solution seems clear- make the career more enticing.  I love what I do and would never leave for another field.  But even I recognize that the benefits for teaching are scant.  This must be considered or the education system runs the risk of being filled with unqualified employees.  In a climate focused on test scores, performance-based pay, AYP, and other like factors, does anyone think that these foci, as misguided as they may be (a subject for another blog) will be met or exceeded by an unqualified teacher?  


I am a professional, one who considers teaching to one of the great things I will get to do with my life and as such, I want to teach with other educators who will share that passion and the qualifications and expertise from which to speak and grow.  


I am a parent and as such, I want my children to be taught by teachers who are well-qualified in their field every step of the way.  I know that the passion for education will not be in every teacher my children have, or each I work with, but I do not believe that it is too much to ask for those teachers to be qualified.


Although, when a national standard is set so low as it just was (as I finished writing this Vice-President Pence cast the deciding vote on Mrs. Devos), perhaps this is too much.