Where’s Abe Lincoln?

LincolnThe new College, Career and Civic Life Framework for Social Studies State Standards, released on Constitution Day, is “avowedly, even proudly, devoid of all content,” writes Checker Finn on Education Gadfly. What it’s got instead is “inquiry.”

Nowhere in its 108 pages will you find Abraham Lincoln, the Declaration of Independence, Martin Luther King (or Martin Luther), a map of the United States, or the concept of supply and demand. You won’t find anything that you might think children should actually learn about history, geography, civics or economics.

Instead, you will find an “Inquiry Arc,” defined as “as set of interlocking and mutually supportive ideas that frame the ways students learn social studies content.”

Turn to table 23 on page 49. This has to do with “causation and argumentation” and purports to be part of the inquiry arc as applied to history, in particular to “dimension 2,” dubbed “causation and argumentation.”

By the end of grade 2, “individually and with others,” students will “generate possible reasons for an event or developments in the past.” (That event might be World War I, or it might be the day grandma dropped the turkey on the floor.)

By the end of grade 5, they will “explain probable causes and effects of events and developments.” (Let me tell you what happened after Susie smacked Jamie.)

By the end of grade 8, they will “explain multiple causes and effects of events and developments in the past.” (Actually, she said she hit him for two reasons.)

And by the end of high school, they will “analyze multiple and complex causes and effects of events in the past.” Now we’ve moved from “explain” to “analyze,” and we’ve added “complex.” But, as throughout the entire document, there is no content whatsoever. No actual history.

“Many state standards in social studies are overwhelmed with lists of dates, places and names to memorize – information students quickly forget,” said Susan Griffin, executive director of the National Council of Social Studies. The new framework will stress . . . wait for it . . . critical thinking.

More than half of students scored “below basic” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam in civics, notes AEI’s Rick Hess. “Most college graduates can’t identify famous phrases from the Gettysburg Address or cite the protections of the Bill of Rights.”

If our “national experts” can’t bring themselves to come out and just say “Kids should know when the Civil War was” it’s not clear that “an inquiry arc of interlocking and mutually reinforcing elements” will help kids find out.

He wonders: “Just what it is that students are going to think critically about.”

Poll: Math is most valuable subject

Math is the most valuable school subject in later life, say Americans in a new Gallup poll. English, literature, or reading came in second, but lost a few points since 2002. Science/physics/biology increased from 4 percent to 12 percent, passing history for third place.

Trend: Thinking about all the subjects you studied in school, which one, if any, has been the most valuable to you in your life? [OPEN-ENDED]

The importance of English rises with higher levels of formal education, tying math as the most important among four-year college graduates and coming in first among postgraduates.

School apologizes for ‘evil Jews’ assignment

“You must argue that Jews are evil” in a five-paragraph essay, using Nazi propaganda and personal experience “to convince me of your loyalty to the Third Reich!”  Hoping to teach persuasive writing, critical reading of propaganda and  history, an English teacher at Albany High School (New York) told students to pretend the teacher was a Nazi official who needed to be convinced of their loyalty.

A third of students refused to write the paper. Superintendent Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard said the assignment should have been worded differently and apologized. ”I don’t believe there was malice or intent to cause any insensitivities to our families of Jewish faith,” she said.

Vanden Wyngaard said the exercise reflects the type of writing expected of students under the new Common Core curriculum, the tough new academic standards that require more sophisticated writing. Such assignments attempt to connect English with history and social studies.

I’m quite sure the teacher doesn’t believe Jews are evil. But the assignment was unwise. Plenty of people still think Jews are evil. Anti-Semitic trolls lurk in the comments section of most blogs. It’s current events, not history.

If the teacher had come up with a uncontroversial assignment, would it have taught critical thinking as effectively? asks Ann Althouse.

Why not ask students to write an essay urging Germans to vote for Hitler in 1933? (Advanced students could pretend to be American communists defending the Hitler-Stalin pact.)

Integrating history with other subjects requires forethought. A New York City math teacher raised hackles earlier this year with slavery story problems that seemed to trivialize slave ship deaths and whippings.

Update: The Albany teacher has been placed on leave, reports AP. That’s an over-reaction. Meanwhile, her classes are about to begin reading Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir, Night. 

Multiplying and trivializing slavery

Integrating history and math, getting students to write math problems . . . It must have sounded like a good idea at the time. Now a fourth-grade teacher at New York City’s P.S. 59 is in hot water for  assigning “slavery word problems homework,” reports NY1.

Question 1 . . . asked:

“In a slave ship, there can be 3,799 slaves. One day, the slaves took over the ship. 1,897 are dead. How many slaves are alive?”

The second question . . .  said:

“One slave got whipped five times a day. How many times did he get whipped in a month (31 days)? Another slave got whipped nine times a day. How many times did he get whipped in a month? How many times did the two slaves get whipped together in one month?”

Aziza Harding, a student teacher, showed the homework to Charlton McIlwain, one of her professors at NYU. The professor contacted NY1, which showed the worksheet to the principal of P.S. 59, who responded: “I am appalled by this.”

Another fourth-grade teacher’s students wrote the questions in January.

“You’re ostensibly teaching or trying to teach history or call attention to a particular historical moment, yet there’s no explanation, there’s no education, there’s no teaching going on,” McIlwain said. “And so, for someone who is probably, at nine years of age, has maybe heard of slavery but probably doesn’t know what it is really like, their first, perhaps, and most lasting impression about this historical event comes in a very abstracted, nonchalant type of thing that they have no real sense of connection to.

Harding, the student teacher, fears students will be “desensitized to this type of violence” unless they’re taught to understand the history of slavery.

 

Why I teach stuff

Jessica Lahey teaches stuff, she writes on Coming of Age in the Middle, which I’ve added to the blogroll. One of her Twitter “followers” has posted what purports to be a quote from Albert Einstein: ”I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” Lahey disagrees.

I can see how this sentiment would be attractive to teachers, because it implies that all we have to provide is an inviting atmosphere, a bubble of trust and creativity with comfy chairs to cradle students’ tushies, and the rest will magically happen.

Creating a supportive atmosphere for learning is just square one, writes Lahey, who teaches at a Core Knowledge school dedicated to teaching content.

My youngest son, Finengan, is in third grade, at my Core Knowledge school. Three times a week, he leaves the comfort of his classroom and attends a bona fide history class. Not “social studies,” but capitol-H History class. Content. History. Facts.

This month, he’s learning about the Vikings and Rome, Leif Erickson and Julius Caesar. When he gets to fifth grade and Dr. Freeberg’s reading of The Odyssey, he will have a context for the journey of the hero, lust for power, and land, and exploration. This might evolve in to discussions of Napoleon, colonialism, and slavery. In sixth grade, when I finally get my pedagogical talons in him, his web will be sticky enough to hold on to Julius Caesar, the geography of the Roman Empire, the literal and figurative meaning of “alea iacta est” and the controversy surrounding the quote “Et tu, Brute?”

“America’s educational system contains enough empty platitudes and kitten posters,” Lahey concludes. Students need to learn “real content” to create connections that will enable new learning to “stick.”  (I’d bet boys enjoy learning about Viking explorers and Roman conquerors.) Her analogy is weaving strands of knowledge into a sticky web that catches new facts and ideas. I like to think of knowledge as Velcro, which is made of many small loops and hooks. The more Velcro, the easier it is to learn more.

Great history books for students

When Reading History, Read Great Books, advises Diane Ravitch. She quotes Will Fitzhugh, who publishes historical research by high school students in the Concord Review. Common Core State Standards calls for students to read more nonfiction, but they don’t suggest reading complete history books, Fitzhugh writes.

. . . we find them suggesting little nonfiction excerpts and short speeches to assign, along with menus, brochures, and bus schedules for the middle schoolers. Embarrassing.

. . . Everyone is afraid to mention possible history books if they are not about current events, or civics, or some underserved population, for fear of a backlash against the whole idea of history books.

His favorites: Mornings on Horseback (the young Teddy Roosevelt) by David McCullough for high school freshmen, Washington’s Crossing (military history of Revolutionary War) by David Hackett Fischer for sophomores, Battle Cry of Freedom (Civil War) by James McPherson for juniors, and The Path Between the Seas (building of the Panama Canal) by David McCullough for seniors.

What else? I keep thinking of The Red Badge of Courage. It’s fiction, but reputedly so accurate that Civil War veterans couldn’t believe Stephen Crane wasn’t a combat soldier. It sparks students’ imaginations,  it’s short and there’s  no sex.

It’s the best and worst time to teach

It is the best of times — and the worst of times — to be a teacher, writes Justin Reich on Education Week‘s EdTech Researcher.

In his seventh-grade U.S. History class, students had a textbook and a primary source reader with 20 documents, Reich writes.

Today, a history teacher can choose from the millions of documents archived online by thousands of libraries and archives around the world, including not just texts but images, audio recordings, film clips, and ephemera.

Students can create “multimedia performances of their understanding” and “share their work with peers and audiences around the world.”

It has never been easier for educators to connect with one another, to share best practices, to see best practices from around the country or around the globe, and to connect across schools with teachers who share our subjects, or our interests, or our peculiar circumstances. Never before has the fraternity of teachers been more connected.

Yet teacher “morale is at a 20 year nadir”  as “narrow content standards and high-stakes testing pushes ever more teachers towards an ever narrower, test-focused curriculum,” Reich writes.

Audrey Watters’ annual review of trends in education technology lamented that “technology — like schooling — is something we do TO kids.”

“So, we face a moment where technology dramatically widens the scope of educational feasibility while policy dramatically narrows the scope of classroom possibility,” concludes Reich.

Thinking without knowing

Teaching thinking skills independently of the factual content of a topic is a  waste of time, writes Tom Bennett on The Behavior Guru. He includes some wonderful art.

Black Belt in Bloom’s. Can’t spell ‘Taxonomy’.

“Say you want a child to become more discerning in understanding the veracity of historical sources. You start them off by teaching them…well, some history, just to be controversial. Then you offer them a variety of sources. The next bit’s guaranteed to blow a few gaskets: then you tell them which source is better, and why. You heard me. Teach them. Don’t fanny about getting them to thought shower it in discovery clusters; tell them. Then work through more examples at the same time as you teach them the most accurate stories you can impart. Start asking them which sources are most attractive, and get them to justify their answers.”

Students need “facts about what happened, facts about which sources support the narrative; facts about which source is virtuous, and which vicious,” Bennett argues. “Knowledge is best learned in context.”

Via Stuart Buck.

Twisted history

Howard Zinn’s A People’s History is supposed to be the “anti-textbook,” a “corrective to the narrative of progress dispensed by the state,” writes Sam Wineburg in Undue Certainty in American Educator.  But Zinn’s widely popular book only includes evidence that props up his agenda while ignoring the rest, charges Wineburg, a professor of education and history at Stanford.  The book “contains unsubstantiated claims, uses anecdotes as evidence and presents complicated questions in simplistic yes-or-no terms.”

Abolish social studies

“Social studies” — as opposed to history, geography and civics — was invented in the Progressive era to socialize children for a future planned by technocrats, writes Michael Knox Beran in City Journal.  It’s become dull, vacuous and a waste of time.  Abolish social studies!

Social studies is hostile to individualism, Beran writes. A 1931 social studies book for junior high school students condemned the U.S. economy’s wasteful lack of central planning and extolled Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan, which “resulted in millions of deaths from famine and forced labor.”

In the 1940s, as social studies took root in elementary schools, there were no more paeans to central planning. Paul Hanna’s texts were designed to teach children  “desirable patterns of acting and reacting in democratic group living.”

A lesson in the second-grade text Susan’s Neighbors at Work, for example, which describes the work of police officers, firefighters, and other public servants, is intended to teach “concerted action” and “cooperation in obeying commands and well-thought-out plans which are for the general welfare.” A lesson in Tom and Susan, a first-grade text, about a ride in grandfather’s red car is meant to teach children to move “from absorption in self toward consideration of what is best in a group situation.” Lessons in Peter’s Family, another first-grade text, seek to inculcate the idea of “socially desirable” work and “cooperative labor.”

Hanna doesn’t acknowledge “individual exertion, liberty of action, the necessity at times of resisting the will of others,” Beran writes. It’s group, group, group all the time.

Today’s social studies books are big on group spirit.

Lessons from Scott Foresman’s second-grade textbook Social Studies: People and Places (2003) include “Living in a Neighborhood,” “We Belong to Groups,” “A Walk Through a Community,” “How a Community Changes,” “Comparing Communities,” “Services in Our Community,” “Our Country Is Part of Our World,” and “Working Together.”

“Social studies textbooks descend constantly to the vacuity of passages like this one, from People and Places” aimed at third graders, Beran writes.

 Children all around the world are busy doing the same things. They love to play games and enjoy going to school. They wish for peace. They think that adults should take good care of the Earth. How else do you think these children are like each other? How else do you think they are like you?

Beran prefers the “old learning” which awakened children to their cultural heritage. McGuffey’s Readers introduced  eight-year-olds to Wordsworth and Whittier, nine-year-olds to tShakespeare, Milton, Byron, Southey, and Bryant and  ten-year-olds to Sir Walter Scott, Dickens, Sterne, Hazlitt, Macaulay,  Pope, Longfellow, Shakespeare, and Milton.

In my younger days, I loved to read history. We didn’t study it till high school. Social studies consisted of memorizing the three principal products of every Canadian province and every country in Latin America. I also learned that Birmingham was the “Pittsburgh of Alabama” and the “Pittsburgh of England.” Malmo produces ball bearings.