So Simple, So Basic

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Social media platforms I’ve read lately insist  public schools no longer teach this particular lesson or that particular subject. And since I was a career history teacher, I want folks to understand that that isn’t necessarily the whole story. If your kids aren’t getting what you believe is important, the problem doesn’t lie in the public classroom. But before I delve into the obstacles, I’d like to describe a slice of my history course.

For sophomores we began the year with the Age of Discovery. As part of this unit students mapped various Native Cultures, placing the Nootka in the Pacific Northwest, and the Seminole in the Florida peninsula. Southwestern natives lived in the desert, while the Onondaga hunted the forests of the Eastern Woodlands. From that beginning we shifted study to Europe, with the end of the Middle Ages. In the new emerging era, Columbus sailed to the Bahamas, and changed the world forever. By the end of the first semester, in December, America had defeated the British in the Revolutionary War, and a new government waited to take shape until the second semester began in January.

We covered it all. And did the same for the rest of the material, closing the school year with the Confederate defeat at Appomattox Courthouse, and the trials of Reconstruction. And that was only the sophomore course.

The story of America grows longer everyday, and that’s a good thing. It means we’re still here to record the narrative.

The drawbacks this truth presents? Curriculum writers, in the interest of limited time, have had to decide what information stays and what is cut. For example, pre-Columbian America, described above, was jettisoned in order to add events that followed the Civil War. In short, where we once studied Native Americans in depth, we now focus on the post-Civil War Native genocide. What a message this decisions has leveled on our students!

When I was hired in the 1980’s our school district had one high school. Today there are five traditional secondary schools, and also a scattering of smaller alternatives. The district didn’t just grow, it exploded. To cope with this massive influx of students, administrators reworked our teaching schedule into what is called a 4X4 block. Under this more economical system, teachers were assigned 25% more students and lost 25% of instruction time. We became even more restricted in what we could reasonably cover in the history curriculum. (I called it drive-by history.)

On the heels of this massive overcrowding, came the legal mandates established by No Child Left Behind. Students were now required to take benchmark tests measuring what they had learned up to that grade level. Adult proctors would pull random kids out of class, typically in the middle of a lesson, often leaving only one or two students remaining in their desks. These exams ate up two weeks during the first semester, and another two weeks in the Spring.

If that wasn’t enough, politicians, and district leaders began to publicly demonstrate a great deal of favoritism toward the hard sciences, especially in computer technology. So considering the addition of new historic events, overcrowded classrooms, tighter schedules, and mandatory exams, the last thing history education needed was an inherent bias toward the hard sciences.

Public education was born in Colonial New England to promote communal literacy. Later, Thomas Jefferson, insisted education was the vital foundation for the longevity of our Republic. Immigrant children attended public schools to learn how to be Americans, and first generation sons and daughters relished the opportunity to assimilate. In short, enlightened citizenship has been the aim of public education, especially in American history courses. So basic, so simple.

If indeed, history classes provide the metaphoric glue that holds our nation together, we are all in big trouble. And the threats come from many sides. When our public schools are no longer a priority, open to all, we are essentially smothering our shared past.

Teachers cannot manufacture more time, nor meet individual needs in overcrowded classrooms. And both of these factors are essential for a subject that is struggling to teach Americans about America.

As Napoleon lay dying in 1821, he confessed his own power hungry mistakes, when he  whispered, “They expected me to be another (George) Washington.” Bonaparte understood the powerful lessons of America’s story.

 

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two volume memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Both available at http://www.river-of-january.com and at Amazon.com

Happy New Year

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This is my second fall since retirement from the classroom, and though I am content with my decision to leave, I am feeling a little nostalgic.

From the portal of my computer I have watched teacher friends psych themselves up for their annual migration back to school. Pristine, empty classroom pics are gleefully posted online, arranged with care for the students to arrive. Posters are tacked up on the green cinder block walls, desks neatly arranged, and books organized on shelves. (By the way, the day before the kids came was the only time of the year that my room looked that orderly).

Believe me, the night before classes start feels electric. No “60 Minutes,” or “Sunday Night Football” can dampen the anticipation for the following morning–we are restless horses pushed into the gate. For the one and only time of the year, I actually would iron my clothes, set up the coffee on a timer, and review my plans for the morning. If I slept at all, it was only for a couple of crazy dream-filled hours. This was big stuff, life was starting over again, the possibilities seemed limitless.

I cannot speak for other departments, but mine was terrific. We all authentically liked and respected one another. And even better we laughed a lot. I think that is the part of starting up the new year that I miss the most. I weathered more seminars, speakers, and other “professional development” drudgery than I like to recall, but nothing ever restored my spirits quicker than a good laugh with my colleagues.

As I reminisce about school, I’m reminded that members of my department didn’t approach their teaching duties at all  the same way, but still effectively reached their students.

One colleague tried so hard to seem stern and exacting, really wanted to be seen as a disciplined guy. He demanded punctuality, meted out consequences according to the student handbook, but it was no use. The kids saw through his pretense, and many went out of their way to express their amusement with his charade. Kids waited for him at his door to harass him with shoulder bumps, jokes, razzing. They loved him and knew he felt likewise.

Another teacher was a completely different character. Meticulous to a fault, his classroom and teacher desk always in perfect order, his lesson plans exact and centered on the desktop. In the front of the room lay needed supplies, seating charts, sharpened pencils . . .the whole deal. And though it sounds like he ran a regimented show, his kids too, adored him, thriving in a well-planned and secure environment. Though they didn’t bounce him around, he wasn’t the type, the kids hollered greetings down the hall, waving excitedly to get his attention.

Then there was the guy next door. His style was just as different as any two sets of fingerprints. My neighbor maintained a strong boundary between himself and his students. His magic came through with his classroom instruction. Walking past his door revealed students busily delving into the subject matter through the medium of cardboard, music, duct tape and research for presentations. This teacher presided over a carefully managed laboratory, empowering students with his experiential style. Those kids learned self management.

I know that those outside education have a hard time understanding why we do it. We make so little, are so pushed around–by politicians, administrative dictates, and from parents rescuing their kids from one thing or another. In the end I believe we teach because we are determined optimists. We believe deeply in the rightness of our calling. We know that we can quietly do more good for our country than any other occupation. We model knowledge, compassion, fairness, enthusiasm, humor, and hope for the future.

We teach ourselves. Happy New Year.