Reflections From a Lead Learner
Due to the chronological distance that our students have from 9/11, they often struggle to connect to that day personally. In most cases, they understand the general events surrounding the terrorist attacks and the mass number of casualties, but tend to be disconnected from the impact on individual lives and families. When I had the opportunity to study September 11th at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York with Gilder Lehrman over the summer, I focused on creating a lesson that would help my students make a more meaningful, personal, and emotional connection to the events surrounding that day.
Every year our school district remembers 9/11 with a brief flag raising ceremony that always touches me and many of our faculty and staff members, but as I look around at our student body, they generally go through the motions and don’t necessarily understand the gravity and impact that the day that we are remembering had on the United States and the world. I was not directly impacted by the events that day, but watched them live from the classroom where I currently teach (second seat, second row) as a high school senior and was indirectly impacted by the economic, social, and military consequences of the attack on the country. It is the central historical event in my lifetime and the one that shook the world. It’s almost cliche to say that the world isn’t and never will be the same as before that day, but the older I get, the more I understand that statement. Spending five days in New York only enhanced my curiosity and emotional connection to that day.
My most significant takeaways from my time spent at the memorial and museum were the number of names engraved into the memorial and the sheer size of the site and footprint of the World Trade Center. I searched for a way to help my students understand the scope of the attack in terms of the material (the twin towers and other buildings) and immaterial (the lives lost on that day). Our students are often introduced to film footage and summaries of the events of that day, but in most circumstances are not connected to it with any emotion. I grappled over the first three to four days with how to communicate the sheer size of the terrorist attacks while portraying each of the 2,996 people murdered that day as individuals.
One of the centerpieces of the museum is the Ladder Company 3 fire truck. It is a unique piece that offers so many different interpretations of the event. Size, individuality, sacrifice and randomness each come to mind when reflecting on the artifact as it sits in the void between the footprints of the towers on the lowest floor (bedrock) of the museum. The massive truck suffered major damage, proving that the event was one of large scale. The question about who was on or travelled to the Trade Center on it also comes to mind immediately as they were taking significant risk to save lives. Finally, the truck can be divided into two segments, the rear, where there is moderate damage, and the front, which is absolutely destroyed and is recognizable only as large mangled pieces of metal, showing the randomness of the damage as a result of the attacks. As I walked through the museum multiple times, this piece continued to resonate with me and I kept coming back to it and eventually decided to turn it into an activity for my students to experience.
I photographed the truck--not from the typical perspective of taking in the whole, but in segments from one of its rear wheels and tires, then consecutively backing away slowly providing more information to my students for them to analyze until I reached the line between the moderate damage in the rear and complete destruction in the front. These photos were going to be released to my students in the same way in the classroom activity. The activity was still missing the personal connection that I felt with the truck though. In order to find that meaning for myself and my students, I made my way to the memorial and found the names of each firefighter from Ladder Company 3 that died sacrificing their lives in order to save others. The classroom activity began and ended with these photos.
When displaying the photos of the engraved names in the memorial, I provided no background, I simply asked my students to find a sheet of paper and tell me what they saw and next, to tell me what they thought. Most of them stated, “names,” then after being asked to provide more detail, they added a bit--”engraved names,” “somebody being remembered for some reason,” and others noticed the drops of water on the pieces of stone. Simply stated though, those names meant nothing to them at the beginning of the activity.
The next photo reveals only one of the rear wheels and tires on the truck. It is a bit obvious that it’s a fire truck, leading students to make some basic assumptions. There is very little damage to this tire, only a patch and a small bit of damage in the right side of the photo reveal that there might be something out of the ordinary taking place. The second photo releases the second wheel and tire--it shows more damage as the tire is flat and the wheel damaged. After each of these photos are released the questions “what do you see?” and “what do you think/wonder?” were asked to the students who documented their answers on their paper throughout the entire activity.
The next two photos reveal the rear half of the truck slowly. The first displaying the back ⅔ of it, and the second showing the entirety of the rear half of the truck. It is evident at this point that there was major damage to the truck. Students were then asked the same questions as above, but then an additional question, “what would your experience have been if you were here at the moment that this happened?” Then to clarify, “what would you be seeing, smelling, hearing, touching?” Finally, the students were instructed to draw or explain what they think the front end of the truck looks like. It is typically completely different to what the actual information released to them is in the next photo.
In the final photo, the entirety of the fire truck was released to the students. In one class, there were gasps, and I think this makes it hit home that the damage was major and they begin asking themselves about the firefighters and making that connection. The same questions were asked, including the one about the experience. To drive the point home, I asked them to compare their experiences between the front and rear of the truck and in another to put themselves at the rear of the truck with their best friend standing at the front of the truck--this drives home the point of the randomness of the events that took place that day. If they were standing near the rear, they would have had a decent chance of living, but would have probably been injured, but if they were only three feet away, those chances of living were greatly diminished.
After students were given a moment to process the entire scene, the photos of the names were then presented to them again and they were asked, “now what do these names mean to you?”
This was one of the more emotional days in my ten years as a classroom teacher. I think that if you put yourself through the process honestly, you will feel the same way that they did. I was so proud of my students for working through the process and noticing the details, then processing what they felt afterward in a blog post where they shared their experiences throughout this activity. It created an atmosphere of curiosity about the event and we decompressed by opening the floor to questions about the day, the memorial, and the museum. Overall, the activity accomplished the goals of providing personal insight and emotion to the event and changed many perspectives on the events surrounding 9/11.
Student Blog Posts: Reflections on 9/11 Activity
The second of my goals for this year is to successfully implement student blogging into my classroom (for the first see this link: http://basocialstudies.weebly.com/blog/infusing-inquiry-into-pbl-week-1). Three weeks in, I am excited to share that it is going better than expected! Heads up though, it takes a little extra time every week to first assign and allow students to create posts, and a little more time to read through and respond to students’ thoughts, reflections, and learning. Coming into the year, I wanted to offer my students more authentic voice in my class and a way to connect their learning with the “real world.” Across the board the benefits have outweighed the drawbacks. Here are my thoughts on the challenges of the implementation of student blogs to this point.
What are the Challenges and Benefits that Outweigh Them?
Choosing a Platform:
Two weeks into the year, I can tell you that it took a bit of prep time deciding on the blogging platform to use. There are 10+ great options out there with each offering a bit different options and price points. Eventually, I settled on Edublogs due to the options that it offers for the price ($39.99/year, which seems to be the lowest cost for any student blogging platform) which includes classroom management options that allow the teacher to control all aspects of the blogs/websites but will still allow me to release my students blogs back to them to turn into a portfolio that they can take with them and build on when they leave my class--also a long-term goal of mine.
It takes a lot of time to work through 90+ separate blog posts per week, which I will elaborate on below, but If you’re looking to include more student voice in your classrooms, provide an opportunity to informally formatively and summatively assess, and offer more authentic feedback to your students, there seems to be no better way to go. The connections that I’ve made with my students up to this point have been positively affected by introducing blogging to my classroom. The blogs provide a way to get to know students as individuals better than I have ever been able to. Also, I feel that they take their writing seriously due to the authentic audience provided by the opportunity.
This is not the most simple thing to do with the platform that I chose as all pending posts are displayed from most recent submission to least recent. I’ve done a ton of flipping between gradebooks in my SIS system, and at first, when I wasn’t familiar with the students and which class periods they were it, it took a ton of time to get those in. Also, there is the challenge of balancing providing students with the opportunity to write without squashing their excitement to do so. Across the board, my simple explanation and emphasis for my students when they are writing blog posts is that their job is to communicate effectively by using proper writing skills along with proving that they are learning by including specific details. I often remind students that I am using their posts in lieu of other assessments, which typically provides them with the understanding of the purpose and intent of their blogs.
As I mentioned previously, it is time consuming to provide feedback to students, but the gains in connecting with my students have made it worth it. As we know, learner autonomy and buy in is huge in getting students intrinsically motivated. The only grades that Ihave entered into the grade book at this point in the year are for these blog posts. Nothing else has been necessary, as my students are getting the purpose of activities due to the reflections that I have been asking them to write on a weekly basis. I think that it is helping them understand learning as a process and that they are learning along the way. Participation in class activities has been as close to 100% as it has ever been (in fact, I can’t think of a time when I’ve really had to get after a student to this point to join an activity--just the typical, “make sure the conversation that you’re having is on task” stuff). I attribute this to the fact that my students have received feedback which proves that I’m reading what they write.
Reflection and Thoughts After Three Weeks:
I’m excited! I was a bit nervous that the students would not take it seriously, but they’ve proven that they are happy to have the responsibility to become digital citizens and understand the power of having a positive public place to share their work. I think that they understand the long-term implications that their blogs can have and their value. It’s exciting to see them take the next step in taking control of their learning and understanding the intent of the blogs as a reflection and public display of their learning.
Finally, be sure to stop by fhssocialstudies.edublogs.org and comment on my students posts and work!
Based on my reflection of the development and implementation of PBL into my classroom last year, I have decided that one of my two key focuses for this year is to improve and implement stronger inquiry based strategies into my curriculum (the other being student blogging--a subject for a future post). The intent of making this change is to allow my students to have better control over their learning and to begin thinking of research as a continuous inquiry process with the end goal of justifying their opinions and supporting them with evidence.
Last year as I developed my project/problem based curriculum I began each unit by providing my students with their “essential question” that would drive their learning for the duration. To begin, we broke down the question into many smaller or more detailed ones. In general, students struggled through the process because they did not understand the purpose of it. I explained it as part of the research process and in general, they played along, looking for the specific number of questions that I assigned for them to put together. We created questions as a group, and in general, the students came up with decent ones, but after all of that, I took those questions, and chose which ones met my needs regarding curriculum and content. I found that I was artificially having my students drive inquiry and we never came back to their questions after developing them. After reading Make Just One Change from the Right Question Institute (RightQuestion.org), I found a new method to try to drive this inquiry process and actually provide my students to take more control of their learning by allowing them to drive the research process more completely.
In general, the only variation that I made was changing my essential question into a statement that I decided to introduce to my students as a hypothesis for them to prove or disprove. For example, in my government course, my first unit essential question last year was, “What are the most significant principles of American Government and what are their origins?” I changed that to the statement/hypothesis, “The ideas put into the Constitution by the Delegates at the Constitutional Convention were original.” We spent a week on the process of developing our driving questions. In the end, each class now has developed their own research question, from which each group will begin their research. My students were challenged and highly engaged throughout the entirety of the week and I’m excited to see where it takes us.
Here is a summary of the first week of the process and implementation specifically. I encourage you to give it a shot!
Day 1: Introduce the “Question Focus” and the “Rules for Questioning” from the Right Question Institute.
The Right Question Institute (RightQuestion.org) has gone into great depth to develop a Question Formulation Technique (QFT) which is the basis for the development of this portion of our unit in class. I used their rules for developing questions for students to follow which include the following:
Though I didn’t use their QFT to a tee, I did follow the basic direction that they provide and their rules briefly explaining the purpose of the rules in this activity.
Next, I introduced the Question Focus to each class. In the government course, it is “The ideas put into the Constitution by the delegates at the Constitutional Convention were original” and in economics it is “The economy is in better shape now than at the beginning of President Obama’s administration.” In the introduction to how each statement should be used in regard to question development, I explained that the students’ job was to prove or disprove the statement using credible research including data for the economics course and primary sources for the government one and that their questions should drive their research.
Finally, the students, in groups of two or three, were provided with as much time as needed to develop questions based on the focus statement. It is a process full of ebbs and flows, students struggled getting through the first few questions, but went through highly productive spurts along the way. As I circulated the room in many cases, they were struggling, then when I came back around they had five or ten more questions down. The key to making this process work is to be involved and constantly remind the students of the rules. In general this can be done in a light hearted way and the process is pretty collaborative and enjoyable for the students.
Day 2: Prioritize the Questions and Place on Brainstorming Wall
To begin the second day, students were asked to prioritize their questions based on the idea that they were developing them to use in their research, reminding them that their goal was to prove or disprove the Question Focus. In order to help them with this process, in their groups, students evaluated each one individually. Upon completion of that step, they were assigned with the task of choosing their top five and writing them on a note card in Sharpie that was eventually taped to the wall (in our hallway due to space restrictions and wanting to offer audience for their work). Students were also asked to evaluate on their process of developing the questions and to write a blog post to share their thoughts. In those blogs, students acknowledged the challenge and the thinking skills that it took to develop those questions.
Days 3-4: Creating the Class Research Question:
The final phase of class inquiry consisted of two sections, top question selection, then another round of prioritization. To begin the process of narrowing our research focus, each group was offered the opportunity to vote for the three “best research questions” on the brainstorm wall which now included all of the classes’ top questions using a sharpie to dot their votes. Each group also chose the #1 question that they saw on the wall that they thought would be the best to start research.
From that point, the top questions that each group decided was the best were written on the board and shared with each class. From there, they evaluated each one, ranking them from most important for beginning research to the least important of the ones on the board. Each group provided their number for each question and the numbers were averaged to come up with the starting question for the class to begin researching. At this point, each class has decided on their own research direction based on their entire class contribution combined with the contributions of the other section of the course. It is interesting to note that each class chose a different question to begin their research.
Day 5: Introduction to Researching the Questions
At this point, the students have understood that this course will be made up of sustained inquiry as a part of their project based units. Therefore, they understood that they were not done asking questions. Although we had narrowed our research focus, I still wanted to offer them the opportunity to personalize the question if they did not necessarily agree that it was the “best one.” For this reason, students were asked to evaluate the class question, then break it down into five more detailed research questions. Finally, students divided up those questions among their group members and were set to begin their basic research with the caveat that they were expected not to answer those questions, but to begin creating a database of people, places, things, documents, ideas, etc. that will direct their next set of questions.
It’s awesome to see that the students have taken to the process of developing the questions and that they are wanting to dive in and answer them, but I am still working them through the process of developing research by expanding their net before just trying to answer the question. This will be a continuous process, and I’m excited to see how it continues to challenge them and promote higher order thinking.
As a social studies educator and advocate, I am aware that the general consensus is that the United States lacks proper civics education. I agree. In terms of social studies education, including civics education, we are "missing the boat." This has been well documented. In schools, the social studies have been thrown to the side in many instances due to the pressure to perform on math, science, and reading tests.
I am also an advocate of preparing our students for “college and career readiness.” Another focus that the government has pushed over the last decade and one that innovative educators are addressing. Students should leave with higher level thinking skills that will prepare them for their future endeavors and good educators are working to provide them with the tools to do so.
With this being said, I would like to discuss the Civics Education Initiative, and its recent adoption in Missouri (among other states). Under the current law (Missouri HB 1646--Signed by the governor on June 22, 2016):
“Any student entering the ninth grade after July 1, 2017, who is attending any public, charter, or private school, except private trade schools, as a condition of high school graduation shall pass an examination on the provisions and principles of American civics.
The examination shall consist of one hundred questions similar to the one hundred questions used by the USCIS that are administered to applicants for U.S. citizenship.
The examination required under this section may be included in any other examination that is administered on the provisions and principles of the Constitution of the United States and of the state of Missouri, and in American history and American institutions, as required in subsection 3 of section 170.011.”
I have no problem with the intent of this law and I am a proponent of that intent. The issue that I have is the obvious contradiction that the government has put into place. If the end-goal for our students in K-12 education is “college and career readiness,” I would like an explanation about how a test with “100 Facts Every High School Student Should Know” is preparing them to meet that goal.
There is an obvious disconnect proving that our elected officials are consistently playing politics without common sense in mind in many cases regarding education reform and improvement. I understand how a “nea” to this would not be politically savvy and probably was not an option on the table in almost all cases. If you say no to this, you are saying no to stronger civics education.
Or are you?
I argue that a “yea” narrows social studies and civic education down to a set of “100 Facts” that any student can memorize in a week. As a result of this, what will happen in classrooms as a result? Nothing. Most educators will continue to teach social studies at a higher level than this and in the exact same way that they have been. Social studies once again gets reduced to simply “one hundred questions similar to the one hundred questions used by the USCIS that are administered to applicants for U.S. citizenship.”
This initiative in its current form does not strengthen civic education, but instead diminishes it. The role of social studies once again gets sent to the backburner. Instead of providing students with the opportunity to think at a higher level, determine how they are going to participate in the government, along with determining what they believe, they will be taught 100 basic facts. Students are going to miss out on the best and most important part of social studies courses, learning how to decipher what they think and know and becoming key contributors to society and United States democracy.
If we want students to become knowledgeable, responsible, conscientious, and civically engaged, is the best way to have them simply memorize these basic facts for a state mandated test? If our goal is to teach students how to think for themselves, we need to get more creative about ensuring that they learn civic values by teaching them to become part of the process. Being civically educated does not mean only knowing a series of simple facts, but by learning how to become an active part of United States democracy. This takes so much more than another required test. In Missouri, our students have been expected to “pass” tests on the United States and Missouri constitutions for decades. I can guarantee that the tests that I, and most other civics educators have developed take into account much more, at a higher level, than the simple set of factual knowledge that the Civics Education Initiative requires.
Once again, education has been reduced to a standardized set of questions with an answer that can be memorized and forgotten. If we want real change and reform, we should be looking for innovative ways of teaching and assessing our goals with lasting impact, not another mandated test full of standardized questions to be regurgitated and forgotten.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are strictly those of the author and do not represent those of any organization in which he is affiliated.
Text of Missouri HB 1646 Establishing the Civics Education Initiative:
The Civics Education Initiative:
Civics (American History and Government) Questions for the Naturalization Test:
Nothing against interactive whiteboards here, but when was the last time that you used yours and its interactive capabilities? Also, nothing against my district or the hundreds of others that placed a focus on putting one in every classroom. Having this meant/means that you have the technology in place to help students to learn, right? The problem isn’t the technology resources. The problem is that our education system does not promote progressive ideology that allows us to find better ways to use it. It does not promote allowing teachers and students to find the best ways to use those resources, but simply says here’s a cool new tool, now use it in the same way that you used magnets on the refrigerator or on the magnetic chalkboard from the 1950’s. If we are honest with ourselves, most of us aren’t using all of this new technology in the most impactful ways are we?
Now, think about the billions of dollars spent on putting this technology in the classroom…
I know that this isn’t a question that can be tangibly measured here, but I would like to ask it. “How much ‘bang for the buck’ have we gotten out of all of this new technology?”
I recently had the opportunity to hear keynotes from two education leaders (at the Greater Ozarks Cooperating School Districts Innovation Summit in Springfield, Missouri--#GOInnovate @GOCSDMO), George Couros (@GCouros) and Will Richardson (@WillRich45). The general message that I gathered and I hope that all else in that room took with them is that our current education system is not structured in a way that allows our learners to gain the skills necessary to be successful in the real-world. One topic among others that drew my attention was that across the board, schools are laden with the latest and greatest technology but are missing educators trained with and willing to learn how to use it to its full capability.
I am fortunate enough to work in a district that has a 1:1 laptop to student ratio from grades 5-12. I’m also very proud of the fact that our district has been at the front of adopting this. It is what is best for our students. They need to have these tools in their hands in order to learn how to use them because that is the direction that the global society is moving. Our students will need to have the ability and skills to use computers, tablets, smartphones, and social media in order to get a job, turn it into a career, and be successful at it. Making connections is huge, and social media needs to become a part of our education culture. Remember the age old mantra, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”
Go back and take a look at the previous paragraph. What is the purpose for providing our students with this technology?
Now here is the real question: Are we fulfilling our purpose and goals in regard to providing our learners with “21st Century Skills” (I hate that we are still using this term a decade and a half--16% of the way through it) that they need to be successful?
I would argue that as a whole, we are not. Why? Let’s take a look at this from the perspective of each significant group of stakeholders within education.
As the place that all things in education should begin, let’s discuss our students’ perspectives (from what I see in the classroom every day). Why haven’t students bought into using this technology? The real answer, they have. Now, using it productively and having the ability to do so is different from “using it.” Across the board, our students lack models for how to use technology and social media in a positive and productive manner. Shouldn’t one of our missions as educators be to allow them to learn this skill? I’m not talking about creating a course on “Digital Citizenship.” What I’m talking about is instead, using these tools in every course and allowing our students to become digital citizens. I really worked last year to connect my students to others, having them write “research blog posts,” and trying to find people to review them using my Personal Learning Network (PLN), I also brought in Greg Myre (@GregMyre1) via (failed video call) phone with my students as a resource for a PBL unit on current tensions in the Middle East. That was a start. One thing that I took from Couros and Richardson was that I can and should be taking this way further. I’ve started thinking about how I’m going to encourage regular use of social media, blogging, vlogging, writing, etc. in my classes for next year.
This makes learning more relevant, more personal, and provides students with a voice. What better way to get students involved in using technology and learning how to take control of their own learning? If we are using technology, but still using methods from the 1950’s, how is that relevant to our students and to their future?
The Educators (Teachers and Administration):
So, I’m going to throw this out there. I recently did not get an instructional leadership position in my district that I would have loved to have and felt that I would have been a great fit for. I really do enjoy being a leader from within the classroom though, so why did I want this job? Because I wanted share the perspective with others how making a shift in mindset and learning and how incorporating technology with sound pedagogy can make our classrooms so much more successful and enjoyable for everybody involved. Now, was I the right personality for the job (this is where it gets tricky when you’re really evaluating whether you are actually the right fit)? I probably would have ruffled some feathers, which may be a reason that I didn't get it. I expect for all educators to take pride in being lifelong learners--that includes being open, willing, and adaptable in order to do what is best for our learners. Looking around at our district, and mine is probably the same as yours, we have many that do not have the mindset to meet the expectations that I have for them, both as teacher and parent, in becoming adaptable educators that are open and willing to change along with the pace of the rest of the world.
In essence, I’m calling out all of my colleagues at every level of education, to focus on and embrace lifelong learning. From my experience, education is one of the few sectors where it is "OK" to be a part of the status quo and it is sometimes even frowned upon to make changes even when it is evidently necessary. Does the old way work? Maybe. Does the new way work? Maybe. What’s the difference in the outcome here? “Maybe.” There is no difference. So, why not try it? There is no right or wrong way to learn or teach, but we need to be working on our craft continuously.
So now another “real question.” Why don't teachers embrace lifelong learning, and why won’t they make changes?
This is where I’m really going to go on my soapbox, so beware if you are going to continue reading.
The atmosphere in education currently does not foster growth, innovation, change, adaptability, or choice. There is significant risk involved if you are going to try any of the items on that list. Why? Because teachers are the ones that get blamed. Blamed for accountability scores from high stakes tests. Blamed for a failing school system. Blamed for the United States standing in the global community on those high stakes tests. Teachers lose and get jobs based on their ability to get their students to perform on whatever measurable test that policy makers throw at them.
I have been asked these questions during presentations on the implementation of Project Based Learning in my classroom. Each of them really drive my point home here, I think, and really show the ineptitude that our current system fosters:
I typically don’t receive questions other than that. Those who are really curious and are open to making changes are there to see how it looks, how it’s been implemented, to get ideas, and usually thank me on their way out the door. I understand these questions and why they’re being asked. Our jobs are at stake if something doesn’t work.
I’m all for accountability, and it’s a topic for another day, but how we assess students, teachers, schools, and districts needs to be THE topic of discussion for our policy makers, which I will elaborate on later.
When I think about getting my students connected, I immediately wonder what the backlash could be. There is risk involved and a possible (though small if done correctly) negative outcome. The world isn’t all rainbows and sunshine and there is risk in getting our students connected. When I have discussed the 1:1 Initiative with parents in our district, there are a few (though not the majority) who look at the machine that the students have been provided as a negative thing because it has now exposed things to their child that they might not have been exposed to without it. Is it worth the risk?
Even speaking with my college friends about what I do, and how school has changed, they are in awe typically. They realize that education is not the same as it was when we were there (I graduated high school in 2002). They realize that school is and should not be done the same way that it was then. That was before Facebook, text messaging, etc. When I explain it to them that way, it seems to click. Also, we are open to how much technology has changed our lives because we have lived it in our generation. We were raised without cell phones and with the original Apple Desktop Computers in our school wide computer lab playing Oregon Trail and have seen it transform to having more technological capability in our pockets than the vehicle that transported us to the moon. As a whole, I think that parents understand the purpose for implementing technology and progressive methods in the classroom, but may not fully embrace it.
One of the issues is that there is risk involved in the lives of our children. My son is entering preschool next year. Do I want him to be in a classroom where the teachers are taking chances and messing with things? Of course I do! If I walk into a classroom where he is expected to sit in one place and complete worksheets all day, I will be ticked! I hope that parents become more in tune with this over time as well.
There are many parents though that believe that if teachers are doing that, they are using their kid as a “Guinea Pig,” and don’t want their child to be a part of a failed experiment. I understand that sentiment for sure. I feel the same way. My perspective though is that if an experiment fails and my kid sees it, he should learn from it. As long as we are all learning in the process, there is no risk. There may be reteachable moments along the way, but across the board, what is the risk of having our children in classrooms that aren’t making the changes to keep up with the pace of the rest of the “real world?”
It's up to the parents first, to understand the reasons that education is changing, then to demand that our children/learners, educators, and policy makers also do the same.
The Policy Makers:
Yes, I’m going to broach the topic of politics here. Risky move, I know. That being said, they are often neglected when it comes to a list of stakeholders. That being said, they are the stakeholders with the most power to allow our education system to make significant progress. I propose that together, we have open dialogue with our policy makers to share our qualms with the way that the system is set up, especially in the way that it is assessed.
In the same way that educators should be adapting to the times, so should our entire system. No complete change can take place until those at the top realize that the answer is not more high-stakes testing to measure school performance or by labeling schools as failing, then taking away funding. Shouldn’t education work be more like the private sector? Who gets the dollars from consumers? It’s a simple economic concept. In order to continue to sell a product, businesses have to adapt. They have to improve their product, offer more choice, and innovate new ways of doing the same thing in order to earn consumer dollars and stay relevant. Why not promote that way of thinking in our education system? Promote innovation, adaptability, learning and support for educators and assess schools and educators based on the skills that are needed most in society for our students to be successful in the long term.
I don’t necessarily have a plan or direction, but I’ll think about it, regarding how this assessment model would look, but doesn’t it make sense if we are going to adapt education to the times in the long-term?
Finally, I’m calling for our politicians to be lifelong learners as well. I know that education isn’t the only topic that they have to deal with, but I would think and hope that it’s a top five issue for them to think about and address with their constituents. Wouldn’t it be nice if they dealt with classroom educators, immersed themselves in professional development conferences with them and actually interacted with those that are in the classroom on a daily basis? Ask the questions about what teachers really need in order to help our students succeed, and involve ALL stakeholders in the process, not just a select few on state school boards and in state education departments, who are politicians themselves (whether they believe it or not) that have not been in the classroom for decades or ever in most cases. Only then will real changes take place in our education system.
I want to leave you with this to consider: Whether you are one or a combination of these stakeholders, how are you going to make sure that you are making the best use of the resources provided to us? It’s going to take a real change in mindset from all involved in order to make real progress in education. How do we open this dialogue in a realistic way and do what is best for our students and communities in the long-term?
Legacy: “Something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor or from the past” (Merriam-Webster)
My grandfather--Papa as he’s known within our family and even to our family friends--passed away recently and I’ve been looking for a way to process my feelings. I know that this post will not be the most “educational,” but I promise that it will tie in at the end… I also know that we have all been through this same scenario in our lives--I’m not expecting and don’t want sympathy, instead I want to celebrate.
I want to focus on the word LEGACY, probably the number one thing that my wife and I have discussed and thought about over the past three years as Papa battled ALS (Lou Gehrig’s). I want to celebrate his legacy.
I have spent a lot of time the last couple of months thinking about all of the great times and memories that we had with Papa and as a family: watching (and usually complaining about) the Broncos with passion, playing cards (and catching him cheating), constantly rhyming about nonsense that somehow made sense, heckling Grandma on a regular basis, telling jokes (both good and bad), letting me mow the pasture into a ball field for my cousin and I to have home run derbies (then realizing it looked terrible, and letting me mow the rest of it--then paying me), and showing me how to take care of an ant problem. Then there’s camping and fishing, which we did as an extended family on a regular basis--there are so many memories of those days sitting around the campfire, being kids, and being together as a family.
Papa left his mark on so many lives… As my Grandma said the night after he passed when I got to talk to her, “he was a good man,” and “he was so proud of all of you (his grandchildren),” I think that explains it all. “He was a good man,” and that is his legacy--that is the legacy that still lives after his passing and will continue be passed down to all of those that were impacted by him. His values and what he thought were always evident. He worked hard and was always willing to give a hand in any way that he could. Along the way, he always left a mark, always improving anything that he could put his hands on--both material and immaterial. Those values were passed down to my Dad, Mom, aunt and uncles, and then to me, my brother, and my cousins, and now, his great grandchildren. He instilled the value of family. He was the leader of his family. He lived for and valued his family. He was proud of his family. That is his legacy.
All of this has made me think about the mark that I’m leaving and I hope that this post leads you to think about the same. What will your legacy be?
I hope that mine follows the same lines as what Papa left to me, his family, and his friends. I hope that when I get to look back at my life and my legacy, that I will be able to celebrate the fact that I held the same values in high accord that he did: hard work, service, consistent improvement, family.
I am in a unique situation to have a drastic impact. As an educator I am allowed to model and teach these values. I get to be a mentor to students and teach them through my actions how to work hard, serve, value others and their contributions, and to better themselves and those around them. My philosophy on education, as discussed in previous posts, encompasses all of these values and is passed on to the group of individuals getting ready to jump into the “real world” within the next couple of years. I hope that when they look back on their years in school, that they will think back to their time in my classroom and the values that they learned there. It’s easy to get sidetracked with content and curriculum and the daily grind, but it’s important to understand the impact that we have on a daily basis in regard to developing our students as people in the long-term. In the grand scheme, our jobs are not about curriculum goals, but about passing on the values that will allow them to be successful (whatever the individual definition of success is) in the end.
As educators, our career choice is unique from many others in the fact that we have the opportunity to leave our legacy not only on our family members and co-workers, but on the hundreds of students that will pass through our classrooms, then to their thousands of family members and co-workers. The breadth of our legacy is something to keep in mind when we struggle through a day. The impact that we can have as educators provides us with the means to influence thousands.
So, I will leave you with this to consider: What will your legacy be?
I just returned from the Missouri Council for the Social Studies (MCSS) annual conference yesterday and I would like to reflect on the experience and my top five takeaways from my weekend in Columbia. I had a great time reconnecting with my Mount Vernon friends (it’s amazing how these friendships have grown in such a short time) and making new connections that all created a positive weekend and professional development experience.
Here are my top five takeaways (in chronological order) from the conference:
#1: Teachers are Looking for Examples of Project Based Learning
#2: George Washington Is Still the Man!
I have already written on the lesson that I planned and executed based on my inspiration from my professional development trip to Mount Vernon (http://bit.ly/AntonGW). Our (Sarah Courtney's, Kris Larson's, Alexis Small's, and my) session began with that activity and included three others that could be used as a way of integrating Washington, but also could be used for so many other historical figures. I think that our attendees left with four great lessons and ideas that they can take and use in their classrooms in some variation.
One person made the same note about the abundance of Washington sessions, but pointed out that every one of them were passionate and different, showing the diverse amount of information and excitement for G.W. gained from the experience in Mount Vernon’s education programs.
#3: How to Use Nazi Propaganda in the Classroom
Moving into the afternoon, I attended Rhonda Ireland’s presentation on “Examining Nazi Propaganda.” Rhonda has an evident passion for studying the Holocaust and she is well-versed on the topic. Her session was centered around her experiences with the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education (MCHEKC.org). I walked away with a packet full of primary sources that I can use in the classroom.
A few of the most interesting documents pertained to Nazi education on the issue of racial education that were very striking and could be used as an introductory activity to use in the discussion of the Holocaust or Nazi ideology. I think these documents would pair well with the Disney film, “Education for Death: The Making of a Nazi.” There is a ton of potential to show that American propaganda was factual in many cases. To me, the most striking part of these documents was how transparent and open the Nazis were in spreading their ideology of hate--something that always astounds me when researching the topic.
#4: How to Better Incorporate Photographs as Storytellers
From my perspective as a high school teacher, I am always skeptical when I walk into a session with an elementary teacher for the reason that there are often methods discussed that are more appropriate for that level than mine. This session was not that way. I walked out with a lesson that I can and will use in my classroom that used photographs and primary source analysis skills to create a timeline. Kathy Wilson and Craig Carson did an excellent job presenting a lesson pertaining to the history of the postal service that could be easily adapted to any historical event or topic. I especially appreciate how it could be used for a local history course where you could have students or maybe a local historical society provide photos to tell the story of the area.
#5: Activity Ideas to Promote Sustained Inquiry
My interest in PBL and intertwining inquiry based strategies brought me to this workshop. Paula Keltner provided us with many resources and ideas for use in our classrooms that included primary sources, infographics, op-ed pieces, interaction, and collaboration. One of my key points when incorporating PBL is that there is still structure even though the students are driving their own learning. This session provided activities that I will be able to use in my course as a way to drive and promote sustained inquiry in my classroom. My favorite activity dealt with photographs as inquiry hooks. There were a series of photos on the wall that introduced the idea for the unit that dealt with defining the “American Dream” and whether it is possible to achieve it. We circulated the room and wrote our thoughts on sticky notes based on each photo that helped us to wrap our minds around the differences that perspective has on our views of the American Dream and what it means to have accomplished it or if it's possible. My second favorite, because it is a skill that I have focused on more recently dealt with helping students annotate and see the value in annotation by having the teacher read aloud their thoughts with students as they analyze a text.
Personal Bonus: Appointment to MCSS Board of Directors
I was fortunate to make many new connections over the weekend and was appointed the Vice President of Legislation for the Missouri Council for the Social Studies. This position is perfect! It combines my passion for social studies education with my interest in state and local politics and government. I'm excited to get started and hope that I can provide value to the organization and promote the protection and value of social studies in education.
Will Hamilton: An American Musical change the emphasis of Alexander Hamilton’s role in the development of the United States? Heck yeah it will, has, and should. I haven’t seen the production personally (and probably will never get to), but the soundtrack is on repeat in my classroom (excluding the explicit songs of course), and is playing via Spotify as I write this (the inspiration for this post is the fact that I feel I need to explain every song and scene to my wife along the way). Every colleague that I have teaching history is talking about it on social media and playing it in their classrooms. Why?
Second, it’s crazy cool yo.
In the multiple “Cabinet Battles,” it brings the debate to life that Hamilton and Jefferson actually had in terms of their political views of the newly founded republic and as members of Washington’s cabinet as they battled for his ear and the ears of the public.
Third, it’s crazy cool, yo.
When I tell my students that the music I’m putting on (during research and work time) is about Alexander Hamilton and is a Broadway musical, their initial reactions are typically, “psh, this is gonna be terrible.” I’ve found that my students end up bobbing their heads to the beat and singing along with the chorus in the end. I think it’s awesome that they can’t help it. Though they may not be listening to the lyrics specifically, maybe the educational value is getting into their minds through osmosis? In general, they didn’t know that history could be presented in such a “cool” way. Maybe as history teachers we should be working to make history as lively as Lin-Manuel Miranda has when we tell these same stories in our classrooms?
So, how do I use Hamilton in my classroom, yo?
From my personal “historian’s perspective” that supports Washington’s role and viewpoint regarding strong federal power in the development and security of the early republic, I think that we should focus more on Hamilton in our classrooms as Washington’s true confidant, especially as his distrust of Jefferson developed over time. Using this soundtrack and the debate between Washington/Hamilton and Jefferson may be one way of really bringing out the real personalities of our Founding Fathers, bringing them down from the throne of “demagoguery” and making them real and relatable in our students’ eyes. The debates between Hamilton and Jefferson are the same ones that developed into the political thought and debates about federalism that we have today and are seeing become more popularized at this point in the election cycle. I encourage you to listen to, and think about incorporating it into your classrooms. The musical does an excellent job of providing both perspectives, allowing us as teachers to present both sides of the issue equally and allowing our students to discern the opinions they believe in on their own.
In September, I was fortunate enough to be chosen for and attend “A Residential Weekend at Mount Vernon” for teachers from Missouri and Kentucky. I have participated in many professional development opportunities in the past and this one is at the top of the list. It was only four days, but was well organized, the group of teachers in attendance were top notch and passionate, and the scholars were professional historians AND passionate educators--a unique and integral combination for a program like this. The education team at the Washington Library does a terrific job providing a program that balances content with pedagogy--something that is often neglected at professional development opportunities which usually focus on one or the other. This post will focus on the same and is the basis for a presentation that I will co-present at the Missouri Council for the Social Studies Conference in February.
I have also had a student-teacher this semester, but have stayed as busy as ever restructuring my government course using Project/Problem Based pedagogy throughout and working to become a stronger leader in and out of my district through this blog and the creation of this website. Along the way, I was able to go to the eighth grade because of a welcoming colleague to present a lesson on what I learned at Mount Vernon. As a teacher that has only junior and senior level courses this is a little intimidating, but I was excited to get out of my classroom and present the content that I gained from my time my experience.
One of the key ideas that I took away from Mount Vernon was that there was more to George Washington than the typical person thinks about. To prove the point, ask yourself the question: “Who was George Washington?”
First United States president… General… The guy on the dollar bill… Maybe even the president of the Constitutional Convention… Before my experience at Mount Vernon, this was pretty much all that I ever thought of Washington, and I am actually quite ashamed as a historian that I would be so shallow. I asked the eighth graders this same question with predictable results.
Here are some of the “faces” of Washington that the average person misses: landowner (THOUSANDS of acres), slave owner (a complex topic), westward expansionist (investor in a company to build a canal connecting the Potomac to the Mississippi), land speculator, technology aficionado (I’m convinced that he would have owned the latest iPhone for the sake of organization and efficiency), mill owner, distillery owner, progressive farmer, and one who valued education.
Our eighth grade teacher does a great job teaching students to work through primary sources lending perfectly to what I wanted to do. I researched and found documents that displayed all of the different facets that I wanted to expose those students to and narrowed them down to key excerpts for them to digest. I annotated them with questions with the intent of teaching students the value of jotting notes while reading in order to analyze and understand text (See below or the "Identity of George Washington" tab). I was impressed with the ability of these students to take transcripts of letters from Washington as well as his Last Will and Testament and summarize the information. From that point, students completed a “George Washington was….” statement and had to cite their evidence from the readings as justification. In the end, they were given a coloring page portrait of Washington, and asked to fill in the background in a way that depicted his identity based on their assigned document. Obviously, the students seemed to get into this part and eventually, they presented their information to their classmates as the basis for other discussions about Washington and what the documents could tell us about the United States during his time.
Student Examples: "Based on the primary source, George Washington was a/an....."
The most impressive part from my perspective was how students were able to have discussions about some interesting topics. Slavery is a key topic that is also difficult to teach and for students to understand. The students that had the “slaveowner” document wrestled with the idea that Washington freed his slaves in his will, but not during his life. Others also saw that he was concerned for their health and education and most understood that his reasons were for the efficiency of Mount Vernon. They concluded that he was “a good slave owner,” “a hypocrite slaveowner,” and “a nice slave owner.” All of these conclusions led to interesting dialogue and class discussion based on the idea that "good" and "slave owner" don't typically fit together. Finally, I think that students really understood Washington’s identity as savvy business person and entrepreneur, a point that I really wanted to get across. When you discuss that he had a mill and distillery so that he could sell finished products along with diverse investments in raw materials and crops as well as progressive farming techniques it really opens students’ eyes to who he was as a private person.
In the end, I think the students really grasped the idea that along with being the first president, war hero, and great leader, Washington was also very normal in the fact that he was a business person trying to make a profit and had other “regular” identities. This focus is important when looking at American History as a whole. Consensus historians often neglect many of these facets and and many of the Founding Fathers lose their human qualities. A lesson like this really helps students to understand that the founders of the United States were not gods, but real people with real issues, struggles, successes, and failures and allows them to connect and realize this fact. I think that’s key to getting students to understand and appreciate history as a story of individual experiences that culminate into the big picture. Personifying a figure with the historical stature like George Washington adds to their understanding of history and hopefully adds to student engagement and interest in the field.
Hopefully this post will help you implement a little bit of "G.W." into your courses as a man of his time and a complex figure in the history of the United States.
For the past two years, I have opened my room every morning at school at 7:30 with the purpose of creating a place for my students to work and have open access to me as a resource and offer an opportunity to get clarification or to discuss topics in class or outside of class. Friday morning, I did the same, and gave it the title, “Coffee Hour with Mr. Anton” with the intent of it becoming a question and answer session about the test that they had later on in the day… Here’s the issue: NONE of them attended. I had a brief discussion with one student in the hall about the material, but that was the only student that showed up to take advantage of the opportunity to make any sort of effort to improve their chances of success.
So, I asked myself: “What could I have done differently to get students to attend?”
As a result, these are the questions that I have for my peers, and for my students:
I think that we can all agree that student motivation is a major issue in education today, and I would argue that this generation of students will not meet their potential unless something changes. Obviously, the way that we do things is not working in regard to teaching the value of effort. I would also argue, because of discussion with work supervisors and articles that I have read, that these students do not have the skills as employees when they enter the work environment or higher education. The college educators that I communicate with also feel that students generally are not as prepared as they used to be with the skills to be successful.
For the sake of our students’ future success, how do we change this?
Here are my thoughts:
#1: Teaching students the value of learning and education:
Somewhere along the line, the opportunity of being provided with a public education has lost its value. The primary purpose of the education system is for students to learn content and be prepared with the skills necessary to be successful when they enter the work environment and be conscientious citizens at the local, national, and global levels. The fact that most students only do the work to achieve a certain grade is the main issue here. In general, students lack the intrinsic motivation for taking advantage of the opportunity to meet their potential because they will work to achieve whatever is “good enough.”
So much can be said of the ideas of “grit” and “growth mindset.” Teaching students the value of exceeding expectations should be one of our focuses. I think that we need to focus as educators on the process of creating, and not so much on the end product. The fact that we are beginning to look at the value of grades is a start. I still have mixed feelings about this topic, but I definitely agree with the fact that we need to restructure the way that grading is done. We should focus on personalized and individual growth, but measurement and comparison of students is not necessarily a negative thing in my opinion. After their education careers are over, students will be measured and compared with their peers and be in direct competition with them in the workplace for jobs, promotions, and pay raises. Our focus on grades needs to change though whether it is by determining what they actually measure, or by getting rid of them and going to a standards-based, proficiency approach.
The purpose and value of school needs to be a primary focus from the beginning of our students’ educational experience in order to get them to buy in throughout.
#2: Teaching students to “never settle:”
We need to focus on teaching students the, “get a little better every day” mantra. How do we do this? I think that we are taking a step in the right direction by creating student-centered classrooms with real-world implications and applications. We need to focus on teaching students to reflect on their learning in order to achieve intrinsic motivation, not on the extrinsic motivation of receiving whatever grade is the minimum in their eyes, their parents’ eyes, or the school system’s eyes. This is where it all gets muddled. What is the best way to achieve this in our classrooms and in the education system as a whole?
As teachers, we all have students that are on the brink of failing multiple courses and have struggled throughout the entirety of the their education as well as those students that have excelled in all circumstances. By focusing on teaching the growth mindset in our classrooms through modeling, application to our lessons, and discussion, we can do all of our students a service that they will hopefully be able to apply to their futures, whether they are the at-risk student, the “average” one, or the the gifted one.
Teaching students to strive to get better may not be the answer to all of our motivational issues, but I think it could have the largest impact in the long-term for their success and the improvement of our education system as a whole.
#3: Teaching students “what it takes:”
Finally, we all have those students that have plans for their future that don’t mesh with what they are achieving currently in school. For example, the “C” student that plans on going to med school, the “barely passing” student who plans to go on to a four-year college, or the “I get A’s without studying but plan on being really successful at the next level” student.
In many cases, we are doing a disservice to our students by allowing them to believe that they can achieve their goals by doing the status quo. To be clear, I am not saying to limit goal setting. I am a "hard to achieve" goal setter in most circumstances. The issue that I have is that we typically encourage setting goals, but forget to discuss the most important part: what it takes to achieve them. When I left for college, I had the same experience. I failed because I had set a goal, but was not prepared (on my own account) for accomplishing that goal. I had breezed through high school and had settled with meeting expectations, but not wanting to get better. I did not learn what it takes to get to where I wanted to be. That is a key disconnect, and if we can make those connections with our students, I think that we can see them make strides in regard to motivation.
In conclusion, implementing these ideas and combating student apathy are easier said than done, but we have to address this somehow and we have to start somewhere. We are raising a generation of students that are struggling when they enter the real world because they have not learned or been taught the value in the process of learning, hard work and sacrifice. The key is to teach that the status quo is not enough, and effort can make up for many of the issues that they are facing after leaving school.
Brian Anton is an award-winning high school social studies teacher. He also serves his community as Ward I Alderman at the City of Forsyth, Missouri, is a National Advisory Board Member for Teaching History: A Journal of Methods, and is the Vice President of Legislation for the Missouri Council for the Social Studies.