I finally got around to setting up an account over at del.cio.us which is a social bookmarking service. Many of you out there are already familiar with this site, but for teachers who do not have their own web pages this is a great place to save websites for classroom use. Of course you can use the bookmarking options on your internet service provider, but de.licio.us allows you to manage these sites by attaching tags. Once saved you can see who else has tagged a particular site. If you browse my page you will only see a few websites listed. Most of them are videos that I’ve been showing in my survey and women’s history courses. I’ve always found it difficult to keep track of websites that I use in the classroom throughout the year. Best of all, students have access to your bookmarks which makes it possible for them to take advantage of the material on their own time.
The site also makes for an efficient research tool. How many times have you printed something and forgotten to write the URL? Again, you can categorize everything and it’s there at your fingertips. If you haven’t explored this site it is well worth your time. I’m sure there is a lot more that I can do with de.licio.us, but give me some time.
I may be slow, but I eventually get there.
Yesterday instead of classes we had a school-wide meeting to discuss the future of the school. After roughly 25 years my school has a new headmaster. He is young, energetic, and passionate about schools. I’ve had a chance to get to know him as he teaches a section of U.S. History in my classroom. He proposed and helped organize the two-week interdisciplinary seminar on the Civil Rights Movement which we wrapped up last night.
I’ve sat through a number of these meetings in years past and was not optimistic about this one. Those of you in the teaching profession know what I am talking about. Basically, you sit around, throw out some abstract feel-good/Oprah-esque concepts about the ideal school and what kinds of students you hope to shape. In the end, however, you rarely follow up to put the terms of the mission statement into practice. No wonder that some of us walked in having stuffed ourselves with danish and coffee, anticipating lunch and a chance to head out early.
Well, I was pleasantly surprised by what our new leader had to say. With the help of a committee made up of faculty, parents, students, and former graduates our new headmaster laid down a bold vision that includes goals that will hopefully change the overall atmosphere. First and foremost we hope to make this the greenest school in central Virginia at some point in the near future. We are already making changes related to physical plant issues and major changes are in the works. The other goal that stood out was the intention to mandate that every student spend time overseas on work-related projects in a developing country. What I like about both goals is that they are student-centered. Our students are disciplined and respectful, but very self-centered and privileged. Many of our students are grossly ignorant about current events or issues in their own backyards. Given the quality of education at my school it is inexcusable that students can graduate without having the opportunity of experiencing the rewards and challenges involved in service.
I am excited about the direction of the school.
Matt over at Southern Pasts applauds the idea of emphasizing individual works of history rather than the standard textbook. He rightly connects the possibility of such a move with the spirit of the recent report, "The Next Generation of History Teachers." [I commented on this report a few weeks back.] Matt gets to the heart of the matter here:
History, in my opinion, is about understanding the complexity of human events—the intersections of people and places and things and ideas. Rather than attempting to draw a set of guidelines for the future, students should be pushed to question the past on its own terms. Why did certain people make certain decisions? What impact did the actions of this group have on that group? Do we see changes? Continuity? How does our understanding of the past directly impact the way we make decisions today? Does history really matter?
Too often, textbooks fail to encourage these kinds of questions. Instead, they tend to provide a fairly simplistic “master narrative” of history, one which places an overwhelming emphasis on political history, often to the detriment of other approaches.
I do think it is important to acknowledge that textbooks can serve an important function, especially for students who need a foundation structured around a master narrative broken down into discrete sections. And there are indeed textbooks that do just this and present history in all of its richness and complexity. There is an excellent online textbook over at Steven Mintz’s Digital History site, which could be assigned for background reading as we move through the various texts. Keep in mind that this idea is for my regular American history survey courses and not for the AP classes. I simply do not see how the class could dispense with the textbook approach given the AP curriculum and its emphasis on content. That said, there are aspects of the curriculum, namely the DBQ essay, that forces students to think deeply about the American past.
I am working with one of my teaching colleagues on a list of books that could be used in such a course. As I mentioned in that previous post I’ve been thinking about such a move for the past few years but for one reason or another failed to make the move. Teaching can be like any other job where you grow sufficiently comfortable with a certain process and resist change. I believe it is absolutely essential for teachers to keep their end of the classroom fresh and challenging for their own well-being.
A few weeks back Rebecca Goetz shared her frustration after learning that her entire department received a copy of Bedford/St. Martin’s American History (6th ed.). Her post was written more in frustration with the high costs of these book, but towards the end Rebecca hinted that she might drop the textbook altogether next year. I’ve been thinking along these lines for a few years now. My survey classes use The Brief American Pageant by Kennedy, Bailey, Cohen, and Valparaiso. I use it because it is brief compared with other textbooks currently on the market. While it is brief it is an absolutely boring read and my students are at their wits ends. I haven’t read the book in about a year; however, a few days ago I read the chapter on WWI and was appalled. Keep in mind that I am not attacking the scholarship of the authors, in fact I am a big fan of Kennedy’s work. The text is difficulty to follow and it seems to me that it doesn’t have to be. It’s as if the writers of these books intentionally write in a way that will alienate or bore their readers. Why can’t I use books that are informative and entertaining to read? For the interdisciplinary seminar that I am currently team teaching on the Civil Rights Movement we are reading Harvard Sitkoff’s book and the students are fascinated. We asked them to have the first three chapters finished before the seminar started last Monday and at least half had already read the entire book.
What I plan on doing for next year is ordering a certain number of books that cover different stages of American history. The books must be accessible for high school students with a varying range of abilities. Of course, I am sacrificing breadth of knowledge, but I am hoping to push a deeper more meaningful understanding of the historical method as well as content. The history texts would be supplemented with primary sources of every kind. At this point it is completely up in the air in terms of book choices. Perhaps Joseph Ellis’s Founding Brothers would be an attractive read for the Revolutionary generation, David McCullough’s Johnstown Flood and Eric Foner’s Short History of Reconstruction. English courses read works of literature, poetry, etc, so why don’t we do the same in an introductory history course? I can easily imagine a course where students are able to think about different kinds of historical writing such as gender history or the differences between social and political history.
I would love to hear some of your ideas. What would you have me use in the classroom and why?
The English and History departments at my school decided to set up an interdisciplinary seminar on the Civil Rights Movement for interested juniors. This is a two-week seminar that started meeting this week on M, T, Th from 7-8:30pm. There are five teachers and 17 students involved. We meet in a room where we can all fit around a table and converse with ease. Here is the seminar description:
An interdisciplinary History and English course, this seminar will address the fundamental question of how Americans bring about change. While we will look closely at the Civil Rights Movement as a case study in effecting change, we will be doing so in the context of larger questions. What are the most effective ways to bring about change? What has to happen in order to make people want to change? What if not everyone wants to change? How do we resolve conflicts about our most fundamental values? What are the areas today in which you yourself would like to see change? What ideas do you have for making that change: the political system? the courts? education? protest?
Students had to read Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and Harvard Sitkof’s The Struggle for Black Equality before the seminar started. The conversations have been simply wonderful and the students seem to be thoroughly enjoying the experience. Last night we spent most of the time discussing King’s "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" and tonight we will discuss James Baldwin’s essay "Nobody Knows My Name."
Of course I set up a blog for the seminar. You can read the posts, but cannot comment. You will find a link on the left side bar under "Personal." The students are still getting use to the blogging format, but you can at least get a sense of the kinds of issues that we are discussing. I am seriously thinking about using blogs in my classes next year.