Fun with slavery

Letting middle schoolers earn game points by stacking bodies in a slave ship turns out to be offensive, reports Liz Dwyer on TakePart. A Danish company has withdrawn the Tetris-style component of Playing History: Slave Trade 2 after a social media backlash.

“Travel back in time to the 18th century and witness the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade firsthand. In this episode, you will be working as a young slave steward on a ship crossing the Atlantic,” reads the description of the game at the Steam store. “You are to serve the captain and be his eyes and ears—reporting any suspicious activities is your duty. But what do you do, when you realize that your own sister has been captured by the slave traders?”

Students could then earn points as the game took them through various scenarios of Africans being captured, held in cages, and suffering in chains on the slave ship.

Some want Serious Games Interactive to drop the whole game. “Gamifying slavery trivializes a serious time in history that shouldn’t be fun,” Rafranz Davis, a Texasbased educational technology expert, wrote to TakePart.

Last year, Mission U.S.: Flight to Freedom, which features the escape of a 14-year-old slave girl, faced a backlash for turning slavery into an adventure. “Critics say the game . . . sanitizes the brutal institution,” writes Joseph Williams on TakePart. “By avoiding the perspective of Lucy’s master, they say, the game doesn’t compel students to consider how or why whites perpetuated the oppression.”

I’m offended by the slave trade game, but not by Flight to Freedom. What do you think?

It helps to have a sense of humor

Via Larry Cuban.

Is your school’s namesake worthy?

Florida has more schools named for manatees than for George Washington.

Some want to rename the nearly 200 K-12 schools named for Confederate leaders, writes Robert Pondiscio. As a teacher of civics and history, he sees a teachable moment.

So here’s a challenge for every school in this country named after a president, military figure, athlete, civic leader or any prominent person: Commit the coming school year to a close examination of the life and work of your school’s namesake.

. . . Let (students) debate, defend or challenge the merits of their namesake – but from a position of deep, informed conviction.

. . . Agree that the current name must stand until or unless an alternative person – not a street, natural feature or other bland, inoffensive name like Valley View High – is chosen if the current honoree fails to pass muster.

It’s increasingly rare for public schools to be named for people, according to a 2007 paper by Jay Greene and colleagues.  It’s easier and safer to choose a name from nature. That’s why Florida has 11 schools named for manatees and only five for George Washington. Arizona has as many public schools are named for the roadrunner as for Thomas Jefferson.

“Unfortunately, such caution betrays public education’s civic mission,” Greene and his colleagues wrote. “To teach civics effectively, we have to affirm that democracy and liberty are superior to other systems of government and that the history of democratic societies – shaped by the leadership of people whose names we should know – reinforces this point.

Is there anyone we can agree to honor?

Time travel, invention and history

In David Hunter’s Making History, time travelers visit different historical eras to invent or discover important breakthroughs using the knowledge and resources available at the time. Projects integrate science, math and writing.

A former social studies and language arts teacher, Hunter designed Zombie-Based Learning, which teaches geography. He builds free curriculum-design tools for teachers at

Here’s the kickstarter.

I’m back

Thanks to Darren of Right on the Left Coast for blogging up a storm while I was traveling.

I had a moment in St. Petersburg that reminded me that comprehension depends on knowledge. We were walking along Nevsky Prospect, the main drag, when police cars blocked the road. We saw several jeeps with elderly women leading thousands of young, jovial rollerbladers in red T-shirts with a word in Russian. (Not being able to read Cyrillic was very, very frustrating for me.) Some were carrying the old Soviet flag with the hammer and sickle.  Pro-Communist demonstrators? They seemed too young. Then I saw the shirts said “1945.”

I knew the city — then Leningrad — had survived a 2 1/2-year siege during World War II. The Soviet flag had been the country’s flag in 1945, the flag of victory. When I got a wi-fi connection, I asked an app to translate “victory” to Russian. Yep. It was the word on the shirt.

I’m now in Kentucky for a family wedding. I believe the reception is at a bourbon distillery.

Knowing is essential to writing

Her second graders’ writing was flat, repetitive and dull — until she gave them “an opportunity to build knowledge and  way to organize what they’ve learned,” writes Debbie Reynolds, a Nevada teacher, on Core Knowledge Blog.
Before students wrote about America’s westward expansion, she read 10 Core Knowledge “read alouds” on the topic and had students discuss details with classmates and answer comprehension questions.

Students then did an exercise, such as “whole group or individual brainstorming to list key ideas and details, individual or group note-taking, summarizing, or illustrating a scene or idea.”

Reynolds created a graphic organizer to help students build their essay. They wrote as if they were moving west as pioneers — or as displaced Cherokees on the Trail of Tears.

DR1After writing a first draft, students edited their work and showed it to a classmate for peer editing. The teacher met with each student “to offer ideas for revisions and sometimes further editing.”

Finally, students wrote and illustrated a final draft.

For the westward expansion project, each student also made a quilt square.

Reynolds provides excerpts:

My family and I are heading to San Francisco. I am getting there on the Oregon Trail in a wagon. I am going so I can mine some gold and have a better life.

. . . We faced many hardships on our journey. We sometimes broke a wheel going across the dirt. We faced the cold at night. We faced the heat in the desert. We faced danger in the Snake River. We faced ruts in the dirt on the trail.

. . . We felt tired from the long trip and can’t wait to meet new people.

That’s not bad for second graders.

“I get admirable essays, stories, poems and songs from kids AFTER a unit in which I’ve supplied them with knowledge,” writes Ponderosa in the comments. “Then they are good writers ABOUT THAT SUBJECT.”

“The essential ingredient in good writing is knowing,” writes Ponderosa. “Knowing the subject, but also knowing the conventions of English and knowing a good deal of words with which to express what you know about the subject.”

Most student writing is bad because the student has nothing to say, but is obliged to turn in something to a teacher, who is obliged to read it.

History, civics, geography: Huh?

www.usnewsMost eighth graders don’t know much about U.S. history, civics and geography reports the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Only 18 percent tested as proficient or better in history, 23 percent in civics and 27 percent in geography. About half of students scored at the basic level. The rest did even worse.

The good news is that scores are no worse than in 2010, when the test was last given.

NAEP tested a representative sample of eighth graders in 2014.

Only 45 percent could interpret time differences using an atlas with time zones, notes AP.

Only about a third knew that “the government of the United States should be a democracy” is a political belief shared by most people in the U.S.

While most students said their social studies classes used textbooks, the percentage is falling. More are reading primary sources, such as letters and other historic documents, and viewing online presentations.

Chicago schools debut Latino studies

Kindergarteners will learn about the Mayan counting system.

Kindergarteners will learn about the Mayan counting system.

Chicago Public Schools will teach an interdisciplinary Latino and Latin American Studies curriculum to all K-10 students, Melissa Sanchez reports for Catalyst Chicago.

“Kindergartners can learn about the Mayan counting system while they’re learning numbers, and fifth-graders can learn about African influences on South American percussion during music class,” she writes.

“The history of Chicago cannot be written without celebrating the contributions of immigrants from Central America, South America and the Caribbean,” CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said in a district news release.

More than 45 percent of CPS students are Latino.

On The White Rhino, a Chicago English teacher named Ray Salazar called the curriculum well-intentioned but over-simplified.

Chicago already is piloting an African and African American studies curriculum that was released last year.

Teaching history through games

New Jersey history teachers can learn to use games, play and digital tools through a HistoryQuest Fellowship from the Woodrow Wilson FoundationDeveloped with the Institute of Play in New York City, the program helps educators experiment with learning games and assessment tools.

CommonSense Media lists games that teach history.

Teaching History includes a forum titled Games and History: A New Way to Learn or Educational Fluff?

Ubisoft’s Valiant Hearts, an “adventure puzzle game,” uses World War I soldiers’ poetry to teach about the Great War.

Think big — and get rid of history, chem, etc.

Dividing courses by subject matter — history, biology, chemistry, etc. — is old hat, argues Eric Horowitz on Pacific Standard. Except for English and math, all subjects should be taught as “themes that hold some of the keys to succeeding in modern society,” he writes.

The women’s suffrage movement could be part of a class on Evolution, Horowitz suggests. A class on Justice could include To Kill a Mockingbird.

A class called Evidence could touch on all areas of science, but also history, statistics, philosophy, and psychology.

Human Behavior or Relationships could be organized around novels driven by the relationships between characters, but also include content from biology or chemistry, psychology, and lessons on social-emotional skills.

Even straightforward scientific context from chemistry and physics would be better suited to courses organized around ideas like Cause and Effect or Complex Systems.

Specialization can wait till college, Horowitz believes. In high school, students should be taught how to analyze real and hypothetical situations. “What is happening and why? What might have prevented it? What are the likely consequences?”

Could history or science teachers organize and teach thematic, interdisciplinary courses?