Tuesday, January 25, 2005
( 7:52 AM )
What Does History Matter?
As most of my regular readers know, I'm a teacher in training this year. I'm taking graduate school courses to get my MAT while I teach at a local high school (the poorest district in the area). So since September, I've been teaching off and on in a government class (seniors) and mostly observing in a history class (juniors). Yesterday, the mentor teacher that I work with was absent, and so I took over both classes. The students have their final semester exams (they are on a semester system) on Wednesday. The government class was fine - I've taught there many times and we're comfortable with each other. But in the history class, it was the first time I'd led the class. The directions the teacher left were for the students to use almost the entire period (70 minutes - it's a block system) writing outlines for the essay questions they would have to answer on their final. Trying to get 32 16-year olds to sit for 70 minutes writing is not exactly what I would call a plan. So instead, I asked if they'd like to talk through the study prep questions and discuss anything they had concerns about. (basically, they were given a list of quesitons, they were to choose five of them to outline and then those would be the five that they would answer in essay form for the final). They had studied 1945-Present this semester and had just finished up a 3-week unit on the 80's.
Now, this entire semester has been a bit of a trial for me, because my mentor teacher is in his 30th year of teaching and a bit burnt out. He is a good mentor in that he has given me lots of room to design my own lessons and teach, but his own teaching example, for me, is a lesson in what not to do. He uses old, old worksheets - PILES of worksheets - and just shows video after video. The kids in the history class have bascially been watching the latter half of the 20th century through videos. He focused on pop culture for each decade more than he delved into any issue that one might have thought would be important for understanding the century, like the Cold War, Civil Rights Movement, things like that. The teacher topped the semester off with a 3-day viewing of "Forrest Gump," that oh-so-true-to life telling of the timeline they'd been studying this semester. Argh!
As we began to talk about the questions on the final, two things became extremely clear. One, they'd barely learned anything. Two, they were desperate to have their voices heard. They knew facts here and there, but for the most part, on major issues they had been divided into groups to do projects, and so some of them knew something about McCarthyism, and some hadn't even recognized Joe McCarthy's name. After the last 3 weeks studying the 80's, not one of them knew the word "Glastnost" and they were completely unaware of the Iran-Contra Hearings. But they knew about Madonna and the Celtic/Lakers competition! We verbally traced the progression of the Cold War through foreign policy and domestic issues across the decades they'd studied, we discussed the connections between decisions made about Iran in the 70's and where we are today with our foreign policy, we talked about the different economic focuses taken by LBJ, Nixon, and Reagan. They discovered they knew more than they thought they did. They realized they could think critically and make connections, even though that hadn't been part of their curriculum all semester. They had been silenced all semester by videos and worksheets and research projects that focused only on pop culture (which is good, but not enough to qualify as history - when the point is to help kids become participating citizens in our democracy, knowing the fashion styles of the 80's is not what I would call a crucial part of the curriculum).
It was, I thought, an exhilarating 70 minutes where the kids were able to culminate their semester by tracing history through the decades and seeing how much it matters that they know what happened then so that they can better understand the present and change the future for the better. They had spent 3 classes watching "Missippi Burning" with barely any critical follow up on that graphic film about the killings of Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman. Despite the amount of time spent on that film, the teacher hadn't even brought up in discussion a couple of weeks ago when there was an arrest made in that very case. When I brought up the arrest, they were amazed that that case was still going on. History matters. I regret the 5 months they've spent not realizing that. But we got one good day in before history class ends, I hope something will stick with them. The triumph of such a wonderful discussion time, where the students were able to finally have a voice in their own learning, and where we uncovered the true reason why it's important to know history felt a little tempered by the fact that a whole new set of kids would go through the exact same mindless journey this coming semester with that teacher. Sigh. Baby steps, I suppose.
I take over my own class starting next Monday. I'll be teaching government for the whole semester. New kids, new day. I am looking forward to the challenge, though a little daunted by the amount of work teachers must do to prep for all the curriculum they have to cover. Towards spring, I'll be taking over another government class and a history class. The history class should be somewhere in the 60's or 70's by then - we'll see what we can do from there. First things first though.
Okay, teacher vent over.