23 November 2013

For the Love of Social Studies!

“As long as I don’t have to miss social studies” was the reply from my ten-year-old son when I told him the school interventionist was going to start pulling him for extra help with reading two times per week.  Really, I couldn’t agree more with him.  You see, my ten-year-old loves history, and has loved history for most of his elementary school aged years, but this year (5th grade) is the first year he has had regular social studies instruction.

Fortunately for my son, he also has a 5th grade teacher who happens to love history too.  She is a National Board Certified Teacher who is dynamic, reflective, thoughtful, and purposeful with instruction.  She also understands the importance of kids moving, exploring, and learning in non test-prep ways (in most of Kentucky, public schools only teach social studies in 5th grade because that’s the year it’s tested for the state testing system).  This is wrong, and even slightly illegal, given that the state has required social studies standards for every year of a child’s elementary grade.  Unfortunately, schools feel pressured by the high-stakes testing and accountability system, so most schools in Kentucky only teach a subject if it’s tested that year  (they only teach science during 4th grade—the year it’s tested, much to the dismay of my older son who loved science and only had it one year grades K-5).

I have written about this frustrating system and approach in previous posts and have shared ways my husband and I have worked to supplement our sons’ public school experiences.  Rather than make this post another soapbox post about how much I want the system to change, I’ve decided to focus on Isaac’s love of history and the great year he’s having because he’s receiving excellent social studies instruction—something that really interests him. 

Isaac says his teacher makes history interesting because she has students role-play, debate, ask lots of questions, read and write (all called for by the Common Core) and explore artifacts she’s collected and keeps in her room.  She also enriches standards based classroom instruction with games and field trips.

On a recent field trip to Fort Boonesborough, the students dipped candles, learned about blacksmithing, heard about Daniel Boone, and very impressively--discussed with one another primary and secondary sources and historical artifacts. They knew what they were talking about, and they were curious, bright-eyed, and attentive as they walked from cabin to cabin.

Not only does Isaac's teacher provide explicit and purposeful social studies instruction, she also supplements the history standards that are part of her fifth grade curriculum with social studies issues related to present day, and she recommends books to children based on their interests.  For Isaac, her recommendation included Kate Messner’s Capture the Flag, set in Washington D.C. (specifically Regan National Airport). This was perfect because Isaac had the requisite background knowledge since our family flew into this airport for our Washington D.C. trip during spring break last year.

 She’s also currently working children’s rights into her instruction and having children learn about Malala and watch clips from the film Girl Rising.  These issues are pertinent to children having a global perspective about the world in which we live.  Even though the standardized test children will take in the spring is focused on early American history, this teacher understands the importance of children learning about the bigger world in which we live.  She purposefully works into instruction issues and topics relevant to current political events as well as historical events being remembered

I decided to check out what the National Council for the Social Studies has to say about learning social studies in elementary school.  Turns out, they have plenty to say about “powerful and purposeful teaching of social studies in elementary schools.” They share links to research and documentation about how the subject has been marginalized in the years since No Child Left Behind was passed.  One of the many important quotes from their site--

teachers should ensure that the social studies experiences woven throughout the curriculum follow logical sequences, allow for depth and focus, and help young learners move forward in their acquisition of knowledge and skills. The curriculum should not become, in the pursuit of integration, a grab bag of random social studies experiences that are related marginally to a theme or project. Rather, concepts should be developed to assure coherence and meaning.”

Thankfully, my son’s teacher practices purposeful instruction and keeps Isaac’s love of history alive each day ensuring he experiences coherence and meaning with what he learns.  We are grateful beyond belief for this excellent teacher and the fabulous year Isaac is experiencing.

17 November 2013

Musing on Classroom Discussion Methods

In my third high school in as many years, I was not a vocal participant in class discussions.  However, when my English teacher said our grade for the Lord of The Flies unit would depend upon how much we participated in class discussion, I decided not to let my reticence hinder my grade.  Each night I would read the required chapters before the next day’s discussion and then I would read the Cliffs Notes for ideas about what I would say when the teacher started asking us questions.  Since we sat in rows and I sat in the back, the teacher had no idea my insightful remarks were actually not my words or my insights. 

Flash forward six years to my senior year of college and a poetry seminar where my reticence once again threatened to take hold.  This time, however, I did not turn to cheat sheets or someone else’s ideas because our professor took a different approach to our class discussions—an approach that required us to dig deep and to think critically and carefully about what we were reading.  We typically sat in a square facing one another, so hiding behind rows of students was also not an option. Fortunately, this professor did not just expect us to read carefully, he taught us how by modeling it, and by asking careful, prodding questions about each line of the poems we read.  This is the same professor who introduced us to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature by way of asking us to take a quiz on the characteristics of a good reader, emphasizing the importance of re-reading texts for deeper understanding.

It’s this quest for deeper understanding I aimed for when leading my own students through complex texts during class discussions.  Without experience or strategies, facilitating classroom discussions with teenagers was challenging.  I gave it my best shot, modeling what my professor did when he led discussion rather than what my former high school teacher did.  Still, I struggled for the structure some classes of teenagers need, and I also struggled with strategies for ensuring students like me were participating.  The same few students typically had the most to say while others sat quietly.

Enter Shared Inquiry and the Great Books Foundation—my school received a grant to participate in trainings using the Shared Inquiry discussion method.  We learned how to facilitate discussions that were student centered and focused on deeper understandings of text.  We also learned how to establish procedures for ensuring all students participated.  From the beginning of our grant, I was a huge fan and later an advocate of Shared Inquiry because I saw the difference it made in my teaching and in my students’ understanding of the texts we discussed.   

Years later I had an additional opportunity to participate in a Paideia Seminar training.  Paideia and Shared Inquiry share several of the same goals and operate very similarly, except with Paideia you are not focused on a set curriculum like you are with Great Books/Shared Inquiry  (Honestly though, I used the Shared Inquiry method even when I wasn’t using the Great Books curriculum).

Here’s what I like about both discussion methods.

o   You focus on deep understanding of a text (print or non-print)
o   You let the students do the talking
o   You encourage everyone to participate by facing one another with name placards posted, and you (the teacher) join the circle, sometimes drawing out students
o   You have students set personal goals and have the group agree on a group discussion goal as well (e.g. refer to the text when talking, everyone speaks, build on the ideas of others, ask clarifying questions, use names of classmates etc.)
o   You map the discussion for use during reflection (see picture below)

o   You complete the bulk of your work pre-discussion when you create open-ended opening questions and possible questions to use if/when the conversation is dragging
o   You end the discussion on a high note—leaving students to want more
o   You encourage participation without requiring hands to be raised to speak
o   You allow silence and don’t try to fill it—you wait for students to speak (can be really tough and uncomfortable for everyone at first—but it’s great!)

Discussion of Autobiography of Malcolm X w/pre-service teachers

The best part of both discussion methods is that you never grow weary or bored, and you always look for opportunities to participate or facilitate discussions because the more you participate, the better you become at facilitating the discussions too.   Just last week I had the opportunity to participate in a discussion when I visited a history class at a local high school—a highlight of my week, for sure.

What about you—What are your favorite discussion methods? 

08 November 2013

Part III : An American Educator's Thoughts on Girl Rising

As the credits started to roll, applause from the audience started to ripple through The Kentucky Theatre.  Attendees at our Lexington screening of Girl Rising were moved by the creative storytelling and the startling statistics presented in the film.  A few people asked me "what's next?"  Others tweeted praise for the opportunity to learn about the issues and the need to bring change.

If you've been reading my blog posts, you already know that I have been moved by this film, and you also know how I've been working to make sure my community had an opportunity to see the film because I have hope that my community will also be moved and will take action to change lives and policies that impact education both in our country and around the world.

One school district over an hour away from Lexington loaded up 49 girls and brought them to the screening.  These girls were curious as they entered the beautiful and historic theater and were attentive and emotional as they watched the film.  I sat behind a row of girls who were shaking their heads when they saw the story of Yasmin from Egypt as written by Mona Eltahaway. Eltahaway uses her journalism experience and expertise to share Yasmin's story, with a hope that "education will be the ultimate reinvention for her."  My hope for the girls from Kentucky who watched the film is that they, too, will recognize the importance of education and that they will use their education to make a difference in the world.

Teenage girls were not the only attendees at the film screening, there were also educators and community members from Lexington and the surrounding areas.  Some said they attended because they are huge fans of the magazine Cake & Whiskey and heard about the viewing through the C&W Facebook page.  Others heard about the event via twitter or newspaper.  I knew many of the attendees through my circle of friends and colleagues, but there were also just as many people who I didn't know but must believe they care about the issues of equity in education and that's what drove them to be part of our rainy evening downtown at the Kentucky Theatre.


Thanks for reading the third in my series of posts about Girl Rising.  If you missed the first two posts you can read about how I shared the film with my pre-service teachers here or you can read text that was omitted from what I wrote for the magazine article here.

If you are planning to host your own screening, there are many resources available to assist you on the Girl Rising website, and I'll also share my opening remarks from Wednesday night.

What can you do?

• Sign up to be a community organizer to bring the Girl Rising film to your area

• Volunteer your time at an organization aimed at impacting girls’ education

• Take part in a book study reading about lives of girls in developing countries

• Donate money to the Girl Rising Campaign

• Share stories and get the message out to make sure people are exposed to what’s happening globally

• Blog about social change and taking action

• Visit girlrising.com to learn more about arranging a screening for your community, business, non-profit, church, or school