Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Reflections on my first three weeks of full-time teaching

I am currently in my third week of full-time preservice teaching, and I have been fully immersed in planning, designing, teaching, and grading three 10th-grade World History and Geography classes (one course or "prep," three classes of 26-34 students). I am having a blast so far - I've never enjoyed any job so much, and the experience has been very challenging, rewarding, and educational. The school day flies by, but for the first two weeks, I found myself putting in ridiculously long hours planning and grading at home. Finally, I am settling in - and today, the school is closed due to a snowstorm (I had forgotten how much anticipation and joy a snow day can create), so I am taking the opportunity to update Wide Awake Minds for the first time in a few weeks. Thank you for sticking with the blog through such periods of silence. (If you haven't done so yet, please consider joining the Wide Awake Minds Facebook page as well).

Curriculum: reading, writing, and ideas

One of my teaching goals this semester has been to push back against what I see as low expectations about the quality and quantity of reading and writing thought to be appropriate for non-honors/non-AP high school social studies classes. I am building a lot of writing into my world history curriculum, including making highly-structured extended essay prompts account for around 1/3 of each unit quiz grade and offering a lot of writing-intensive extra credit opportunities - but I'll save the details on the writing dimension for another post.

Reading tasks in my World History class take several forms. It is crucial, I have learned, to pair practically every resource (reading, video, visual image, audio, etc.) with some sort of assigned task to actively engage students and ensure that they take what you are asking them to do seriously.

First, I give 2-4 page (usually closer to two, and often including visual images with explanatory captions) take-home assigned readings, and I assess whether students have done the reading (and been paying attention in class) two school days later with a somewhat informal, generously-graded short-answer "warm-up" quiz that also offers opportunities for students to earn bonus points if they have been paying attention to current events (on some occasions, they can earn even more bonus points by drawing connections between current events and the World History curriculum).

Second, in the final days of each unit, I distribute 3-page summaries of the textbook chapter covered by the unit; these are created by the textbook company. I pair these chapter summaries with a multi-page, short-answer assignment (due roughly three school days later) I create that focuses on core concepts and is aligned with the shared, district-wide marking period final exam in World History and the Michigan state standards (HSCEs) in World History. I ask students to complete these chapter summary assignments as independent homework in order to study for their unit quizzes, and I ask them to take responsibility for themselves to ensure that they have a solid understanding of the core concepts we have covered; I do not assign the textbook itself, but I regularly suggest that students check a copy out voluntarily or access it online if they would like to deepen their understanding.

Finally, one of my goals as a high school history teacher is to bring a little bit of the intellectual excitement and engagement with the history of ideas that I have experienced into the sometimes boring and sterile world of the standard high school curriculum. I believe that this can be done within the parameters of standards-and-accountability systems such as the Michigan state standards. While not every necessary building-block of knowledge is destined to be experienced by high school students as equally exciting or relevant, none of the core academic content areas, when they are taught passionately and creatively and received by open minds, should be the least bit "boring."

I have experienced the social sciences not just as a student and teacher, but as a reader who has struggled through many challenging and provocative political and historical documents, as someone who has had many spirited discussions about politics and history with intellectually-inclined friends, as an alumnus of the University of Chicago with fond memories of discussing the Great Books in my first-year humanities and social science seminars, and as a former graduate student of international relations who has engaged in intense, high-level seminar discussions and thesis-writing with some of the greatest political thinkers in the country. In short, I have experienced the study of history (and the pursuit of knowledge, the research and writing processes, and the acts of non-fiction reading and writing) as an exciting and high-stakes activity, and I want to give my students some sense of what that experience feels like.

To that end, I am trying to sneak high-quality reading and viewing materials - the Great Books, "good books" on the outskirts of the established canon, and excellent contemporary writing and other media - into my students' hands and minds as often as possible.

In the first week of class, the take-home reading on nationalism I assigned them included excerpts from a recent debate between bloggers Jonah Goldberg (National Review Online) and Ilya Somin (The Volokh Conspiracy).

In another in-class activity, I asked students to write down examples of how they saw nationalism expressed (through flags, rallies, music/anthems, heroes, traditions, rituals, love/hate passed down across generations, "us vs. them" mentality, exclusivist behavior, love of the "homeland," etc.) in a series of YouTube clips that included a Michigan vs. Ohio State pre-game "hype video," a clip from a British documentary about Margaret Thatcher and the Falklands War, a clip about Slobodan Milosevic and the Bosnian War, a news story about recent controversies surrounding the issue of nationalism in Japanese schools, a CBS feature story about ultranationalism in contemporary Russia, and a patriotic American slideshow set to the music of Lee Greenwood's post-9/11 anthem "God Bless the USA."

Last week, I had my students read and answer a four-page questionnaire about excerpts from Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations and Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels' The Communist Manifesto - the central ideological documents of capitalism and communism, respectively. I assigned the students into groups (I randomized this process rather than allowing students to choose in order to ensure (1) that the class activity would be the primary thing bonding each group together and (2) that the most advanced readers would be distributed around the room rather than clustered together in a single group), and each group chose to either read the readings aloud or individually and then worked together to proceed through the questions and discuss possible responses.

We are currently wrapping up our unit on the Industrial Revolution. Then, we will move on to study the late 19th-century social reforms aimed at ending the slave trade, banning child labor, promoting women's rights, and creating free, universal public education. In every case, instructional time is very limited, but I hope to be able to bring in excerpts from some of the most important documents that fueled each debate. I want to find new ways to promote student understanding of these documents (even among my struggling readers) through creative scaffolding, and I want to steer students toward high-level, idea-conscious historical thinking.

Trying new things and seeing what works

This semester is a time for experimenting with different instructional methods, and I am thoroughly enjoying the process of trying new things and seeing what works and what does not. I plan to share some of the success stories on this blog and post some of my course materials on my website for those who are interested. Many of the ideas I generated before I began full-time teaching did not pan out for one reason or another, but some ideas have seemed to work - and the act of teaching and reflecting on teaching has helped me generate many new ideas every day.