Teaching Teachers

This has been an extremely busy week for me.  We just finished our second trimester and will give exams through next week.  Luckily, the following week is spring break.  My department is in the process of hiring and, because I am taking over next year as the head of the history department, I am much more involved in the process than in the past.  I am learning quite a bit and even though I don’t consider myself to be the administrative type, I am very excited about taking on a leadership role and having the opportunity to set goals and work with a few new colleagues.  One of things I’ve become very interested in over the past year is the application of social networking/media in the classroom and I hope to make it my top priority.

On top of all of this I took part in two Teaching American History workshops this past week.  Last Friday I went down to South Boston to share my interest in the Civil War and memory and how I apply it in the classroom, and on Thursday I worked with a group of teachers in Virginia Beach on turning points in history.  This is my first experience working with teachers and I don’t mind admitting that I was just a bit nervous.  In the end, it was a learning experience and both sessions have given me quite a bit to think about in anticipation for future workshops.  First, I need to be much more sensitive to the challenges that public school history teachers in various parts of the state are currently facing.  It can be something as simple as remembering that my class size (avg. 14) doesn’t conform with most public school classrooms or remembering that some schools divide American history into two years and that a teacher who teaches the modern period may not be as familiar with early American history.  Finally, I need to be much more responsive to the fact that these workshops bring together teachers from all levels.  That said, the particular program that I am working with emphasizes critical historical thinking and advanced understanding of the subject.  It is up to the teachers to think of ways to apply what they’ve learned to their classes. Still, I would do well to think about future presentations with these facts in mind.

In the end, both groups were very engaged and curious about the subject.  They asked insightful questions, challenged one another, as well as their instructor.  One particular moment from last Friday stands out for me.  I was suggesting various ways of teaching the Lost Cause and so I decided to introduce them to the Dixie Outfitters website, which I used this past semester to highlight its continued influence.  They thought the idea was pretty interesting and we had a wonderful discussion about the site’s commentary on the cause of the war as well as the content of the clothing they sell.  One gentleman inquired about the racial/ethnic profile of my school.  I knew exactly where he was going with the question and I felt just a little embarassed that I had not anticipated such a question.  He mentioned that a number of his students buy clothing from this site and did I really expect him to raise this as an issue in class given his school’s racial profile.  The teacher admitted that it would indeed be an interesting way to discuss the continued influence of the war in our culture, but that it would not come without some risk attached.  Added up these little moments have given me a great deal to think about, which I hope to use to improve future presentations.

Overall, it was an incredibly rewarding experience to be able to work with enthusiastic and bright history teachers.  I’ve said it before that we spend so much time exposing what is wrong with our public school system, including teachers gone bad, that we completely ignore those individuals who are in the trenches and doing amazing things with their students.  The one depressing moment came last week in South Boston when I learned that a few of the participants had to leave early to attend meetings in their school districts about whether jobs would be cut for next year.  We don’t live in a society that values its teachers.  If we did a great deal would be different.

I have my concerns about Obama’s new budget, but I have no reservations whatsoever for strengthening our committment to public education.  The teachers I worked with this past week deserve it and more.

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12 comments… add one

  • Greg Rowe Feb 28, 2009

    Thanks for realizing that public school teachers are one of the most undervalued human resources in America.

    Don’t be too hard on yourself as a presenter. The best workshops I’ve been to is when a question from the attendees makes the presenter think. It show they have a human side. I’d much rather learn something with the presenter than the presenter know everything before he/she arrives. I don’t think it means the presenter is unprepared, unless it happens regularly throughout the presentation. Once or twice makes it interesting! :)

    • Kevin Levin Feb 28, 2009

      Greg,

      Nice to hear from you on this one. I guess it comes down to a distinction between preparedness in terms of content and a learning curve in how it might apply to the audience. Well, the experience should make me a better presenter in the future.

  • Chris Feb 28, 2009

    I second that Greg!

    I get sooooo tired of Rush Limbaugh and the other Conservatives bashing Public School Teachers. Yes, there are some bad teachers and isn’t nice that they get all the headlines.

    And I could not agree more Kevin:

    “…I have no reservations whatsoever for strengthening our committment to public education. The teachers I worked with this past week deserve it and more.”

    C

  • Kevin Levin Feb 28, 2009

    Let me just add a few more thoughts. I am a product of the public school system, my father taught public school for 35 years and my younger brother just started his first year as a teacher. Even with that strong connection I’ve never really felt connected or empathetic towards my fellow public school teachers. I never intended to become a private school teacher, but sort of backed into it after graduate school in the 90s and realized that I actually enjoyed working with that age range. My point is that I could have easily ended up working in the public school sector. It’s easy to feel insulated and even privileged working at my particular school. One of the unexpected surprises from these two workshops has been the challenging of these artificial boundaries between the public and private sector. It’s nice to be able to think of myself as part of a much larger community that has a common interest and goal.

  • Larry Cebula Feb 28, 2009

    The TAH program is changing the way a lot of us see ourselves in the historical community. When I first became involved in the program I did not see what I as a university instructor had to do with the high school history teachers in my area. (Despite being married to one!)

    Fast forward ten years and TAH has defined my career. I have worked with teachers in a almost ten grants as a teacher, as an evaluator, and as a grant writer. It is the most satisfying thing I have ever done. For most public school teachers it is the first professional development aimed at history content they have ever enjoyed. Every previous workshop was focused on pedagogy, and 90% of them were lame. The teachers are so happy to be studying history again, to be with other good history teachers who care about their craft, and to mingle with real historians on a level of mutual respect and professionalism.

    I do disagree that it is up to the teachers how to use the content. I used to think that and we would write grants that gave the teachers incredible added content knowledge and dropped them back in their classrooms. Their classrooms where they get 22 minutes a day to plan and eat lunch between the surging changes of 5 or 6 different courses each packed with 30-40 kids. And surprise! The teachers mostly went back to teaching as they always had, because they simply did not have the time to develop anything new.

    Now2 when my wife and I write TAH grants we design them with professional learning communities where the teachers work cooperatively to develop new teaching materials and use them in their classrooms. Content workshops are paired with history-specific teaching pedagogy (which it sounds like is what you were doing this week). Educationese does not come easy to this historian, but some of it is actually useful and necessary.

    I should make a post about the TAH program on my own blog–as soon as I am done with the current round of grant writing! Proposals are due in 10 days.

  • John B. Amos Feb 28, 2009

    Kevin – I spent an hour last Monday teaching my son’s journalism class at a big public high school. His teacher, a woman that my son thinks very highly of, had asked me to come talk about writing. The class had 31 students, as many as 3 of my current classes in a upscale private school. The thing that struck me most, however, wasn’t the size of the class, but rather the number of distractions that could easily have been prevented had the system been more serious about what teachers do and need: for example, Ms. Ryan’s classroom telephone rang twice during the class with messages for students from the central office (neither message was an emergency). Then a sort of air raid siren sounded 3 times (at five minute intervals) to announce the staggered lunch periods. I ended up teaching a good, productive class; and the kids were polite and (mostly) engaged. I left exhausted and with tremendous admiration for my son’s teacher because she manages to teach well in a system that doesn’t really seem to care about fostering an atmosphere that’s serious about learning. I also attended a big public school, and I’ve considered teaching in the public system off-and-on throughout my career. However, it would be tough to quit a good private school that really takes education seriously to work in a system that doesn’t. Bottom line: there are tons of good public school teachers, but they mostly succeed in spite of the system, not because of it. Best,

    John A

  • David L. Wiseman Feb 28, 2009

    Teachers working in public education have an extremely difficult job in that they are pressed by administrators, parents, and students to be many things to many people. Teachers in public education do a good job within the constraints placed on them, however, teaching has some members that poorly reflect on the good work of the general membership. Workshop presenters have the best of intentions and although they mean well they often draw criticism because their presentations cannot possibly address all the issues present in a group of teachers. In a way that students seem oblivious to anything beyond their own narrow interests so do teachers. Public educators frequently focused on accountability assessment preparation in the classroom can experience a diminished capacity to think critically in the workshop setting. They may be looking for some formula that will address their issues.

    If the over arching goal of education is to develop within students the capacity for critical thinking and an advanced understanding of a complex world, then the extent to which teachers and students use social networking and media in the classroom to connect with the world outside the classroom will in a sense determine the level of thinking and understanding achieved and consequently impact future actions. This generation of students may be ready to confront the stark reality of the past and move forward in a positive way. Continuing to defend and/or condemn the past seems to only extend the conflict.

    Our society does not value its teachers and it fails to grasp that in doing so it does not value its students or its future. Strengthening society’s commitment to public education can be demonstrated in monetary terms but money alone is insufficient. Cultural isolationism as practiced by older generations that is rooted in historical fantasy and cultural integration as practiced by younger generations that is unwilling to be rooted in any kind of history will not bring us together now or lead us to a hopeful future. There is an old saying that “more is caught than taught” and if it is true then teachers and students need to spend a lot more time fishing.

  • Sherree Tannen Mar 1, 2009

    Thank you for this post, Kevin. Public school teachers are among our nation’s unsung heroes. My sister taught in the public school system for twenty years, and she had a tremendous impact upon the lives of several generations of students. She finally had to seek employment elsewhere, however, due to financial concerns. Also, in the later years of her career as an educator, she had an increasingly difficult time maintaining discipline in her classes, as school administrators, and parents as well, left much of the parenting of the students up to her, to the point that it became very difficult for her to teach at all.

    I had a short career in teaching that is quite different than the experiences described here, but the experience might be instructive and perhaps helpful in inspiring future educators. I taught a college level English course at a Job Corps center in the mountains of Virginia in the 1990s. The students were young men of different races and they came from different areas of the country. Most of them had just come out of prison, too. The students were extremely intelligent, but they had been abandoned by our society and by their families for quite a long time, so they were also truly difficult to deal with when it came to maintaining even a modicum of discipline in the class. With the help of the director of the program, however, discipline was established and these students began to excel. I used a textbook that had been written for students who had such vastly different life experiences from the young men in my class, that the divide that exists in our society on so many levels became very evident immediately. I gave a writing assignment from the textbook, in which the students were asked to write about an experience that had affected them deeply. At first, my students refused to do the assignment. After they finally understood that not doing the assignment was not an option, however, they turned their essays in. The essays were truly heartbreaking. One young man wrote about a failed suicide attempt. Another about how, at age eight, he had witnessed the murder of his mother by his father. Another student described the day that he and his twin brother, who was also in the class, were involved in a “turf war” in the gang they had both been in, and he was nearly beaten to death with an aluminum baseball bat. (The story was true. This young man’s left arm was shattered in the attack) I had to readjust my thinking completely about what the needs of these young students might be, and I discovered that they needed to talk, and that they were gifted at talking, whether in telling their stories by writing or through music. (I had many of them write rap lyrics, they were really good at it) By the end of the semester, my students were reading Hamlet. Looking back at the experience now, I don’t know what I hoped to accomplish by having my students read Shakespeare. They truly loved the play, though. And they also loved a book of paintings by Van Gogh that I brought into the class, and I was able to give a T shirt that had a Van Gogh painting on it that my sister had bought in France, to my brilliant student whose arm had been crushed in a fight in the streets. I can only hope that this young man and the other young men who were in my class are alive today. I also hope that President Obama’s call to service will be heard by students who will enter the teaching field, and that they will consider helping students like the students I just described. The program was short lived because of a lack of funding. It lasted only one semester.

  • Kevin Levin Mar 1, 2009

    Larry,

    I also noticed that the teachers appreciated the time to think critically about their subject. Thanks for confirming for me the need to shape future presentations with the classroom in mind.

    John,

    That they succeed in spite of the system makes me respect them that much more. To a certain extent we’ve been spoiled in the private school system.

    David,

    I agree with much of what you have to say, especially with your referencing of social networking tools.

    Sherree,

    The one passage that stood out for me during Obama’s recent address to Congress was his connecting of education and patriotism. Let’s hope we can broaden what it means to serve and have it extend to the classroom.

  • matt mckeon Mar 1, 2009

    I think a key factor is not just the public school system/administrators/facilities, but the students and parents. I imagine private school parents have a level of income to send their kids to school and probably a commitment to make that expensive education succeed, if for no other reason than to keep the kids out of classes with black people.

    I’ve been in public education for 20 years, 15 with high schoolers with emotional disabilities.

    Public education does not exist to foster critical thinking, at least in my state. Public education exists to (1) educate students in basic literacy and math skills (2) Have a acceptable number of students pass the mandated statewide tests.

    Individual teachers foster critical thinking skills, insight, wisdom, learning, expose students to new experiences, new ways of looking at the world, and news ways of being an responsible adult and citizen. But we’re doing everything we can to move away from that model and towards a model of doing well on a multiple choice state mandated state.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 1, 2009

      We do have plenty of supportive parents, but we have just as many issues when it comes to family support. You might be surprised. My school’s racial/ethnic profile has significantly broadened over the last eight years. It makes our classroom discussions that much more interesting. No doubt, some families send their children to private schools to avoid violence or to keep them isolated in one way or the other. Fortunately, that doesn’t really apply where I work.

  • Greg Rowe Mar 2, 2009

    I will agree with the comments accusing public education of focusing too much on standardized assessment and too little on critical thinking, especially when discussing the survey courses for history. I have a double-edged sword when dealing with my administrators. The principal and assistant principal, who are most responsible for my evaluations, were both history teachers before becoming administrators. I was able more easily convice them to allow me to teach the special topics course next year, which will allow for more critical examination of issues related to the Constitution and Civil War. On the other hand, because state history in Texas is not assessed by the a state test (kind of dumb to think state history is that important, but not find out if the teacher is actually teaching the material), they also demand a lot more critical thinking and cooperative learning from my Texas history survey course (and rightly so) since it is not tested. I do have that freedom and am successful with it, for the most part.

    Next year will be a different story. While I get my special topics class to look more critically at the Constitution and the Civil War, I am scheduled to teach the 8th grade US history survey course the other six periods of the day. It is assessed, taking the critical thinking part away. Thank God for the elective!

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