Posts Tagged 'Bill Waychunas'

You Can’t Support LeBron’s New School and Be Against Charter Schools

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By Bill Waychunas

LeBron picked a team this summer that turned a lot of haters into fans and raised questions about what the fans are actually cheering for. I’m not talking about the Lakers or even basketball. I’m talking about schools.

There has been a lot of buzz around LeBron contributing millions to open the I Promise school in his hometown of Akron, Ohio.

And, as the kudos have rightfully rained down for LeBron’s commitment, many people have qualified their support of I Promise with the point that it is a traditional public school and NOT a charter school. It’s good for kids because he’s on our team.

So, as many raise banners to support LeBron’s school, they also raise the question, do they support the education of children, or do they support traditional public schools? What kind of fans are they anyways?

But education isn’t sports. In sports, you can have a favorite team. In sports, there are winners and losers. I would argue that societal tolerance of certain students “losing” in schools is the greatest historical and current injustice in public education. When it comes to education, we can’t have teams or sides. We should cheer for all children, families, and communities, not just if they happen to be on our team.

More frustrating is the irony of those touting I Promise as a traditional public school who don’t realize that it functions more like a charter school. Like that player on other team that you can’t stand, but secretly wish was on your team (think any player from Duke or these guys), LeBron’s school is exposing many of his supporter as hypocrites as they embrace a school which they previously would have criticized if it was a charter school.  

Let’s first acknowledge the hypocrisy around philanthropy. When charter schools accept donations, they are allowing privatizers to influence schools in an attempt to destroy public education. How is LeBron’s money different? If LeBron wasn’t a basketball player, but a Wall-Street type with ties to Akron, would his philanthropy receive the same welcome, even with the same good intentions? Not likely. We shouldn’t need to rely on celebrities to support public institutions like our schools anyways, but when money is given for the benefit of children, it shouldn’t matter what team (or type of school) is cashing the check.

The I Promise model, which is being touted as a long-awaited miracle for students, is based off the successes of urban charter schools, such as KIPP and Rocketship. These include, “longer school days, a non-traditional [longer] school year, and greater access to the school, its facilities, and its teachers” with the aim of “reducing the achievement gap between low-income students and their peers.” When charter schools do the same things, they are accused of exploiting teachers, having deficit views of children, and being overly focused on standardized testing.

I Promise fans should also acknowledge that, like charter schools, LeBron’s school is a school of choice. According to Time, “[t]he school selected area students from among those who trail their peers by a year or two in academic performance,” used a random lottery to decide who was admitted, and made phone calls to the families, asking “How would you like to be part of something different, the I Promise School.”

Let’s unpack that a bit.

Giving parents the option of “something different” implies that something isn’t working with their current public-school option, a foundational argument in favor of school choice. This also means that the kids selected would otherwise be going to neighborhood public schools. With funding being allocated on a per-pupil basis, for every student who goes to LeBron’s school, they take away a little more than $10,000 from their originally assigned school. That means less money for teachers, supplies, technology, and other supports.

The best teachers from Akron are also being extracted from the neighborhood schools. They even had to approve a separate union contract for these teachers, further implying that something isn’t working with the status-quo in the school district. If these students and teachers were leaving their traditional public schools for charter schools, it would be draining resources from neighborhood schools. But again, right player, right team. That means instead of extraction or injustice, it’s opportunity.

The selection kids by lottery may most clearly expose elements of hypocrisy for some fans who support the #WeChoose movement, which is associated with Journey for Justice Alliance and the Badass Teachers Association. They claims that charter schools are a scam and don’t offer a real choice to families, in part because the “choice” of quality schools is only available to some lottery winners, while leaving the rest behind. They advocate for well-funded schools with wrap-around services for ALL students, not just the lucky ones that won LeBron’s lottery. Clearly, the I Promise school is a step in the right direction, but it surely doesn’t serve all students or all schools. What about the students that are left behind? Clearly, one can’t claim that advancing the interest of some in LeBron’s school is progress while criticizing progress for some in charter schools is a problem.  

The bottom line is that the services and model at LeBron’s school would be good for kids, families, and communities no matter what type of school he opened. That’s what we should be focusing on, not the type of school.

If we’re going to be fans, let’s be fans for all kids, not just the ones on “our team.”

 

In the Shadows of the Maestros

Museo_del_Prado_(Madrid)_04

By Bill Waychunas

Today, I stood and waited in a line to get free entrance into The Prado art museum in Madrid, Spain. While everyone enjoys getting something for free, two things I generally try to avoid at all costs are waiting in long lines and art museums, especially modern art museums. Plus, it was HOT outside, like melt your flip-flop on the asphalt type of heat.

When I first spotted the length of the line, winding around the sidewalk and gardens outside of the Prado, the thought of turning around and going home popped into my mind. I decided to stay. Despite all the reasons I had to turn and run, I couldn’t help but feel an excitement come over me as I slid into my spot at the end of the line.

Everyone in line slowly shuffled forward, audibly groaning when the movement in the line paused and they found themselves in a spot on the sidewalk unprotected from the blazing-hot afternoon sun. At one such moment, I longingly looked behind me at the shade I had just left, trying to reconcile my conflicting desires for shade and progress towards the entrance.

My eyes followed the shadow across the sidewalk. As I glanced upward at its source, I came to the sudden realizations that I’d been standing under a statue of one of the Spanish masters (or maestros) in this case, Velasquez. A few more minutes of shuffling forward in line and I find myself in the shadow of another maestro. This time it’s Goya with a healthy smattering of pigeon crap covering his forehead as he gazes over the crowd.

My excitement grew, and I forgot about the line and the heat.

Once inside, I found that walking the gallery was blissful. But why? It wasn’t just because the museum had an excellent air conditioner; my mind drifted to another maestro but not one who’s paintings or sculptures would be found in a museum.

See, in Spanish, the word maestro has multiple meanings. One of the them can mean master, in the case of an expert, usually an artist. The other meaning is teacher, a different type of artist whose works of art are saved for the select few enrolled in their classes. Today I found myself in this museum as a sort of pilgrimage or tribute to one of my high school teachers, Señor Mendoza, my Spanish teacher for two years. He was truly a maestro in both meanings of the word.

In one of his Spanish classes, Señor Mendoza took some time to stray from the typical textbook curriculum and taught us about the most famous Spanish artists, including Goya, Velasquez, El Greco, Dalì, and Picasso. It wasn’t something that I was particularly excited about at first, but the stories he told about the artists lives and their pieces were captivating. He told us about some of the places where such works were housed and here is was, 15 or so years later, standing in the shadow of the maestros.

By my senior year of high school, I had decided that I would major in education in college and pursue a career as a teacher. This was certainly in no small part due to the excellent teachers I had, including Señor Mendoza. In fact, he was such an excellent maestro that I actually considered becoming a Spanish teacher for a short while. Thankfully, for the sake of the children, I choose to focus on social studies instead.

I found out soon after I graduated from high school that Señor Mendoza passed-away after a battle with cancer. I was lucky to have had his classes. More than just the lessons in Spanish and art history, I learned a lot from his teaching example, but in terms of the values and approaches he brought with him to class every day, including:

  • Learning should be fun – If it’s not fun or interesting, then make it fun and interesting. Part of this is remembering to laugh and smile often.
  • Be humble and honest – Admit when you make a mistake, share your personal passions and background with your students, and be able to laugh at yourself. It makes you a human instead of just a teacher.
  • Learning should be an experience – It’s not just about quizzes and tests. Change it up every once in a while. Kids won’t remember that awesome exit ticket you wrote but they will remember the projects they did and how you made them feel in class.  For example: Señor Mendoza would sometimes have us write and perform skits in Spanish using vocabulary from the unit instead of taking a test. I vividly remember playing the role of Señor Mendoza in a classroom scene where some of my friends played the role of students in our class, poking a little bit of good fun at everyone along the way. In fact, when I googled Señor Mendoza’s name, I found this comment on his rate-my-teachers profile which gives me some personal validation on my acting skills: waychunas1
  • Expose students to things outside of their bubbles – Sometimes, there’s value in being “culturally irrelevant” in the classroom and getting students out of their comfort zone. Art is not something that I would have ever been introduced to or would have sought out on my own. My world has been widened by his choice to expose us to that unit as well as some of the fantastic field trips we went on as part of his class, including one where I first tried some of my current favorite foods, tapas and paella.

On my stroll home from the museum, I stopped into a bar for a refreshing cerveza. When the waitress told me that the tap beer was out, she directed me towards their bottle selection. Like a sign from above, the first beer on display was called Maestra. I ordered one and raised my Maestra towards the sky for the maestro.

 

The Perfect Book for the Perfect Time

Claudette_Colvin

Claudette Colvin

Bill Waychunas

I was unpacking some boxes the other week and I came across a box (one of too many) that contains some of my “teaching stuff.” Every teacher has these boxes stashed somewhere, and I’ve even heard nightmare stories of former teachers finishing their careers with storage units full of these boxes. Anyways, in this particular box was a book that I used last year in my 9th grade Activism and Social Justice class called Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice written by Phillip Hoose. It’s a story about a teenage hero who’s name you probably don’t recognize. She was an African American teen living in Montgomery, Alabama, who stood up against segregation by refusing to give up a seat on a bus before Rosa Parks.

That’s right. Before Rosa. One could even argue that Claudette inspired Rosa.

As I pulled the book out of the box and flipped through the highlighted and dog-eared pages, I thought to myself about how perfectly relevant this book and this story are at this very moment in time. As we transition from Black History Month to Women’s History Month, here is Claudette Colvin, the perfect figure to bridge between the months as a Black woman (though she and this book are great for any month of the year). But even more striking to me is how after the rash of mass shootings which our country has recently faced, we’ve seen teens leading the charge towards justice, just as Claudette Colvin and so many other young people have done throughout history.

It might seem obvious by now: I’m recommending this book. If you are a middle school or high school social studies or ELA teacher, you need to consider using this book in your class. Heck, if you are a human being with a pulse, you should probably pick yourself up a copy. First, it’s a Newberry and National Book Award winner, so you know it’s good. Second, it’s only about 125 pages long and written in a style that lands somewhere between a narrative and non-fiction, making it the perfect length and genre for hitting those oh-so-important teaching standards.

But even more important is the way that this book speaks to students by allowing them to connect with a true story about the challenges and opportunities to make the world a better place. The discussions and writing that I saw from students when reading this book were truly incredible and even beyond the typical subjects that one would expect to arise when reading a book that takes place during the Civil Rights Movement. In a quick thumbing through the book, I’m reminded of following topics which either students were able to connect to in this story or that I was able to provide supplemental materials to deepen understanding: school inequity, the criminal justice system, confronting stereotypes about light skin and dark skin African Americans, debating the straightening of hair vs. natural African hairstyles, teachers as activists, diversity in the teaching force, “hidden figures” of the Civil Rights Movement beyond MLK Jr. and Rosa Parks, sex education, adoption, and–most importantly–the difficult individual choices that we all make in pushing our world towards or away from justice.

I’m honestly disappointed that I’m not sharing in that experience with a new group of kiddos this year. But maybe after reading this, I’ve convinced a few more people to give the Claudette Colvin story a read and hopefully get it into the hands of more young people.

 

To Test or Not to Test? That is the Question

5843577306_1a98149efb_o.jpgBy Bill Waychunas – “Because I said so.”  No words that a teacher (or parent) ever wants to utter. That’s how I felt as I pathetically begged my 9th graders to do their best on a recent PARCC test, which is the newer, more rigorous, common core version of standardized state assessments.

My stomach turns thinking about the questions they asked and the half-baked responses I gave as I tried to give them a quick pep talk before settling in for testing.

“Does this count for a grade?” – No, but…

“When will we get our scores back?” – Probably not until next school year…

“What happens if we just go to sleep during the test?” – Nothing really except that I’ll wake you up…

“So, why does this test even matter?” …because I said so?

Inspiring, right?

Generally speaking, I believe in testing and assessment as a way of verifying student understanding and for teacher and school-wide reflection on their effectiveness. After all, every teacher assesses students in some way; informal and formal assessments happen every day in class as students volunteer correct or incorrect answers, complete homework assignments, or do ANY assignment. Show me a teacher who doesn’t assess or test their students in some way, and I’ll show you an ineffective teacher who likely has no end goals for their course or who rambles aimlessly through content assuming that “if I said it, then they learned it.”

Tests are not inherently bad. But, they can certainly be used in a way that is hurtful to our education system. The PARCC and Smarter Balance tests will provide information and insights into teaching and learning that were previously unavailable. Never before have we been able to compare the schools in different states, districts, and cities in such a widespread and consistent manner. The potential to make more informed policy decisions to improve our education system based on such assessments is enormous. But, by not testing smart, we risk wasting everyone’s time in the process.

Here are some questions that schools, district, and state policy-makers should be asking so we can become smarter about standardized testing in our classrooms:

  1. Will this test be useful? If the test doesn’t tell the teacher, student, parent, or school anything that they can use to take action on behalf of a student, then it is probably a waste of time. Tests should show us what students know, as well as where they are struggling so that we can make plans to remediate misconceptions, target instruction towards skills that haven’t been mastered, and push students to new more difficult levels when they’re ready. We cannot keep giving tests just for the sake of giving tests; there should always be a good reason to give them.
  2. When will we get the results? If it takes months, or even weeks, to get the results back from an assessment, then it’s generally too late to do anything with them, making them generally useless to a classroom teacher or parent.
  3. Does this test really matter? I’m not arguing for high-stakes testing, but tests should count for something. There are other ways to make tests matter than giving them a grade or threatening a student with repeating a grade level if they don’t reach a certain cut-score. If no one at the school particularly cares about the results of the test, then we should really be asking ourselves why we are taking the test in the first place.
  4. How much time are we spending on testing? A high-quality and thorough test takes time, but that doesn’t mean that we should be testing all the time. Some schools and districts spend so much time on testing, that they seriously curtail the amount of time spent actually teaching. Lots of people like to blame this on federal or state testing requirements, but the reality is that, in most cases, we are doing this to ourselves through district or school-level decisions. I’m not sure that I have an exact percentage of time that should be spent on testing, but the “law of diminishing returns” is at play here. By only using tests that are actually valuable to instruction, we can avoid hitting the avoidable point of assessment and data overload.

This is by no means a comprehensive, fool-proof formula for solving all of the woes related to standardized testing, but by taking some time to make more thoughtful decisions about what, how often, and why we test, we can perhaps find a fair middle-ground between assessment and instruction. For my sake, I hope that we can find this middle ground soon so that I never again have to utter the words “because I said so” as the empty and hollow reason for taking a test.

Not Fooled by the Chicago Teachers Union

By Bill Waychunas – It’s not that I’m anti-Union, I’m just against unreasonable people that take advantage of political situations. Trying to fool people into thinking that you’re fighting on behalf of kids when it’s really your own interests at the forefront, frankly, makes me sick.

On April Fool’s Day, the Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU) held a one-day strike, or walk-out as they’re calling it, to protest “unfair labor practices” at Chicago Public Schools (CPS). What I find unfair about CTU’s protest is their lack of consideration for CPS’s current situation and their actions’ negative impact on the teaching profession’s public perception.

The Chicago Public School district is so short of money that they have taken out massive loans and laid-off thousands of teachers and staff already this year. They’ve even announced that teachers will have to take unpaid furlough days to help make ends meet. This isn’t a new thing either; CPS hasn’t been able to make a payment to the teachers’ pension program in years.

This is all amid a state budget holdout that’s been going on for almost a year and extraordinary pension related debt in Chicago which led to a doubling of property taxes last year and general financial problems in the city.

Don’t get me wrong, the importance of education should cause people to rise up and demand better from their legislators and local leaders. Kids deserve to go to well-funded schools. And if this is what CTU is actually protesting about, then I’m all for it. Unfortunately, this isn’t really their end-goal.

The CTU and their leader, Karen Lewis, have had some very public battles with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, stemming from the teacher’s strike over the summer of 2012, where teachers and the mayor duked it out over teacher evaluations, salary, insurance benefits, and extending the school day and year. Both sides came out of the strike claiming some victories, but the real result was the creation of a political rivalry which is getting in the way of the city and state from finding real solutions to the very real financial problems.

Fast forwarding to the mayor’s race of 2015, and the only thing which prevented Karen Lewis from running against Rahm Emanuel was a bout with brain cancer. Instead, the CTU did the next best thing and anointed a hand-picked candidate for mayor, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, and pumped in record amounts of cash into local elections for alderman and state representatives.

With the election of anti-Union Republican Governor Bruce Rauner in 2014, who is generally a moderate, the CTU have continuously criticized and demanded more from a state and city that are in financial ruin.

This brings us back to the walk-out or strike on April Fool’s Day. What were CTU members really striking about? Money? I’m not sure how their strike could make money appear out of nowhere from a state and city that are frighteningly broke, leaving the CTU looking like a bunch of childish whiners. Their continuous demands are even hurting the teaching professions image, by making CPS teachers seem unrealistic, greedy, and ignorant. Far from acting like the respectable and reasonable professionals which teachers constantly profess to become, they’re acting immaturely by making a thinly-veiled political move for their own personal benefits.

Knowing that there is actually no money currently available that is going to change the situation faced by the district, city, and state, the CTU concocted this event to further crystalize their political image as the anti-Rahm and anti-Rauner brand. This is a move to entrench their political strength with hopes to leverage it in future elections and their on-going contract negotiations with the city. This was not about children or education. It is about adults taking advantage of a political situation, at the expense of children, while offering no real solution or willingness to face financial realities like grown-ups or professionals.

The irony will be if the CTU does win this political battle, then is forced to see their own unreasonableness and deal with the financial woes in ways which they would have previously howled and complained about. With the current politics of the CTU, I hope that day never comes.

Maybe their plan will work and they fooled everybody with their April Fool’s Day strike, but Karen Lewis, you’re not fooling me.

Some Honest Truth from a Charter Teacher

5.2-Apples.jpgBy Bill Waychunas – Telling people that you teach in a charter school can elicit a wide range of reactions.

Usually, people simply ask me some innocent questions to try to figure out what charter schools actually are. This is completely normal because the vast majority of us grew up at a time when school choice meant the option between public and private schools; charter schools didn’t even exist. Because so few people have had experiences with these types of schools, it should be expected that they may have some reservations, or at least questions, about them. Sadly, this unknown world is too often demonized as the world renowned rapper Macklemore has said so plainly because “we fear what we don’t know.” After spending the past seven years teaching at three different charter schools in two different states, I’d like to think that I know a thing-or-two about the topic and would like to offer my honest thoughts on charter schools and the school choice movement.

Let’s first clear up the most common misunderstanding that people have about charter schools. Charter Schools ARE public schools. Students at charter schools do not pay tuition. They do not have to take a test to get in. Students in charters can live in any part of the city to attend, and charters are mostly funded using taxpayer money (alongside some private donations–to be discussed in a future blog).

I do not believe that charter schools are some sort of saving grace in public education because not all charter schools are good schools. Some struggle mightily and do a disservice to many of the students. Some are outstanding and are making huge strides towards closing the achievement gap. Many are just mediocre.

Of the three different charter schools which I’ve taught in, one has been middle of the road and in a suburban area, and the other two have been in high poverty urban areas, one which did no better (and possibly worse) than nearby schools and the other which significantly out-performs the neighboring schools. The spectrum of quality in charter schools is as wide and varied as neighborhood public schools. So, let’s please move past the “good vs. evil” narrative, which is too often injected into the school-choice discussion and collectively reflect on what can be learned from the differing models to provide better learning opportunities for students.

Another common sentiment among those who are anti-charter is the idea that school choice cherry-picks the best students and leaves the neighborhood public schools with the most disadvantaged students, with a disproportionate share of students with special needs, and the least involved parents. By skimming the cream from the top, charters are dooming neighborhood schools to chronic failure. In my personal experiences, I haven’t found these arguments to be particularly true.

In regards to special education populations, the school which I teach at now has had a comparable or higher rate of special education students compared to the nearest neighborhood high schools. In Chicago, charters average special education populations of 13% compared to the 14% average in neighborhood public schools. When teaching at a more suburban charter, I saw a different problem. In a disturbing trend of “school hopping,” parents of students with disabilities would leave one school for another once the school had referred their child for special education testing as a way to avoid a label being placed on their child, which ultimately had a negative impact as their student didn’t receive the services they needed.

There is some validity to the argument that charters have more involved parents. For a parent to become aware of the educational options for their child takes some effort on their part. But, simply enrolling your child in a school doesn’t mean that you are an involved or particularly good parent. The “better parents” argument is based on a large assumption that parents know what makes a good school. Sadly, especially in low-income homes, parents don’t necessarily have the expertise to make informed decisions about their child’s education, which takes away this supposed competitive advantage for charter schools. Market systems depend on informed consumers and the lack of clear, easily accessible information about schools for parents is a large flaw in the school-choice theory, both for those who are in favor and against charters.

For example, I’ve had plenty of parents who have expressed to me that their child is “the school’s problem,” have hung up on me over the phone, and one who has threatened to break my fingers for giving their child a detention. Too often, I’ve seen parents withdraw their child from a charter school because it is “too much work” or because the school’s “doing too much.” Students sometimes even enroll in charters because they’ve been kicked out other schools. The “cream” which charters skim hasn’t always matched the rhetoric that I’ve heard people use regarding school choice.

I’ve had lots of great parents too, but this brings me to a larger point about the purpose of charter schools. The original idea behind charter schools was to allow freedom for teachers to get creative and find innovative ways for schools to educate students that were falling through the cracks in the traditional system. It has also become a way to inject a bit of competition into the field of education as a way to spur innovation. The reality is that many students are leaving the traditional system in search of better educational opportunities at charters and, according to research by Stanford University, they are finding them, at least in the cities. In order to avoid getting into a “who’s better” argument, (the research on charter vs neighborhood schools is generally very inconclusive) I’d like to point to another study of the highest-performing charter networks in the country that can bring charter successes back to their origins – to be the laboratories for potential education reform.

In 2012, the Brookings Institute and Harvard produced a report which determined the common factors associated with high performance in New York charter schools. Their findings shouldn’t be that surprising and can seem to be common sense. Schools which had the highest levels of achievement and growth had the following characteristics:

1)      Teachers receiving frequent observations and quality feedback
2)      Data-Driven Instruction Practices
3)      Providing High Dosage Tutoring
4)      Increased Instruction Time (or time on task)
5)      Creating cultures of high expectations

I encourage you to take a further look at the report and explore their findings. There are excellent charter schools around the country doing amazing things for students using these practices. So, instead of getting caught up in the partisan battle of the school-choice debate, I hope that we can step back and take an honest look at the good that can come from the charter movement and leverage that knowledge to better serve all students–no matter what type of school they go to.

Social Studies Classes are SOOOOOOO Boring

history-998337_960_720.jpgBy Bill Waychunas – Here we go again. Without fail, each and every year, more than one parent will turn a parent-teacher conference into a confessional. Usually, it happens when a parent asks me to explain what my course (Civics) is all about. Sometimes, it comes after they tell me a story about how their child had really enjoyed one of the topics we had learned about and talked their parent’s ear off at home. On occasion, I’m completely blindsided by it, but usually it starts off something like this:

“I used to hate my history classes when I was in high school.”

Then comes my favorite part.

“It was just so boring.”

Great. This is going well. Then comes the curveball.

“But now I just love history stuff.”

Huh?

Astounding. As a younger teacher, I thought the the adults who had this mindset or the students that weren’t particularly engaged by history just needed time to “come around” to history, as if it was an acquired taste.

Now, I believe that it has more to do with the way that the vast majority of social studies classes are taught. Just this week, I was riding in an Uber chatting with the driver and upon finding out that I was a social studies teacher, he said:”I always liked history classes. I’m good at memorizing things.” There lies the problem. Instead of teaching students to read, think, discuss, and write, we social studies teachers are focused on parading through as much content as possible. We can’t “cover” everything in our classes, yet when we try to, we are creating the “boring” class that’s just all about memorizing facts.

As more schools are shifting the emphasis of reading instruction into social studies classes, we have a great opportunity to teach less, teach it better, and teach social studies skills that will truly serve our students in their futures.

To renew my license this past year, I needed to take an additional course in reading instruction. So, I frantically enrolled in a course at a local public college and could only get into a Friday night course called Foundations of Reading Instruction. So, there I sat, the only secondary teacher in a class of future kindergarten and 1st grade teachers, learning about how to teach kids their alphabet and phonics. While I dreaded the class at first, I ended up learning more than just reading instruction.

To start each class, the professor would ask the class the seemingly simple question, “What is reading?” to which someone in the class would respond, “It is the interaction between the text, the reader, and their prior knowledge.” This is a powerful and important concept that has shaped my teaching of reading in my classroom but also has a related parallel to the work of social studies teachers.

If education and the study of social studies is about creating capable and engaged citizens and setting the foundation for a thriving democracy, then I would ask the question, “What is democracy?” Well, to borrow from my past professor, democracy is “the interaction between the real world, the citizen, and their social studies knowledge.” History and social studies are our “prior knowledge” which enables us to interact with and understand the world around us. Without background knowledge, students cannot use higher-level critical thinking skills that make history useful or relevant to their everyday lives. The problem that happens in most social studies classrooms is that we focus on cramming as much prior knowledge into our students brains as possible without ever showing them how to use it or why it matters.

I believe that this is exactly the reason why so many people are drawn to history as they become older; the success of the History Channel can’t be completely attributed to Duck Dynasty, after all. When asked to describe their high school history experience in one word, most people chose the words “boring” or “irrelevant.” How is it possible that history-centered entertainment continuously tops the charts of best sellers and blockbuster movies, like Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States or Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln? Clearly, there is an untapped wellspring of interest and value in history that has been unfortunately overlooked or simply underutilized by social studies teachers for generations.

Students today are growing up in a much different world than the vast majority of their teachers, which is why we must adjust the way that we teach social studies. In the past, factual recall and content knowledge was perhaps generally more useful due to the effort and time needed to look something up. For students today, anything that they could possibly want to know is available at their fingertips through smartphones and the internet. The old-fashioned way of memorizing dates, names, events, and other facts needs to be “history.” Instead, what we should be doing is teaching students how to take on the truly massive amounts of information available in the world today by comprehending it, evaluating it, discussing it, and coming to rational conclusions about it.

This is why I’m imploring my fellow social studies teachers to ditch their textbooks (maybe not completely) and venture into the dangerous, exciting, and relevant world of controversy in the curriculum. As adults, we must navigate the treacherous waters of uncertainty, face down conflicting information, and grapple with varying points of view. Why aren’t we asking our students to do the same? By bringing controversy into our curriculum we allow student to practice their skills of interpreting information, considering the views of others, and evaluating arguments and evidence to come to reasoned judgements about a wide range of issues ranging from raising the minimum wage to whether or not 16 year olds should be allowed to vote.

In a history class, why not present students with some of the many mysteries of history where there is conflicting opinion about what actually happened? These are real world issues that are both relevant and interesting to students. Best of all, they give students the opportunity to engage and practice the skills they will need to support and thrive in a democracy before they are released into the world of adulthood. Each year that I teach, I find myself teaching less and less content while more deeply diving into a select number of topics.

But what about the mandated curriculum? What if student opinions get out of control and go beyond disagreements into full-out arguing or bullying of other students? These are valid fears. Teaching “by the (text)book” is certainly the easier and safer route to take. A big part of this is practicality, as going chapter-by-chapter through a book is efficient in terms of the teacher’s expenditures of time and energy. There is little thinking or preparing that needs to be done by the teacher, or by the students. Stepping outside of a textbook can also expose a teacher to possible conflict with students, parents, or administration if they don’t agree with the teacher’s particular presentation of a controversial topic. Staying within the lines of appropriateness isn’t always easy for a teacher to do, but should always be a large consideration when moving away from a standard, textbook curriculum.

The alternative is to stick too closely with the read the textbook, take notes, memorize, and assess cycle that has plagued many social studies classrooms. If we choose not to bring our social studies curricula and teaching closer to what is valuable and interesting to students through controversy and emphasizing the skills truly needed for positive participation in society, we’re not only cheating our students but we will forever be the teachers of just another “boring” course.


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