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.