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!