Saturday, November 28, 2015

History is Many Things, but it is Generally NOT Glitter and Unicorns

I hope everyone (that is those that live and celebrate in the States) had a healthy and happy Thanksgiving!

As the leftovers were being cleaned up, I was reflecting on the year as well as the holiday itself - specifically how it is portrayed in schools.  My daughter is in elementary school and as such she did the typical Thanksgiving celebrations - turkey word searches and decorated pictures of pilgrims.  However, it made me think of something my colleague mentioned this month.

My middle school recently returned from a 4 day trip to Washington D.C.  It was a fantastic expedition during which we visited so many amazing and historical places.  Our students did an amazing job, pushing 13 hour days, over 10 miles of walking, and absorbing as much information as their minds would allow.

We were also part of a wreath laying ceremony at Arlington

The trip also showed our social studies teachers one of the problems with teaching history in American schools.  The focus on curriculum is not where it needs to be.  Students in 7th grade should have a solid understanding about the workings of the US government - the branches, the balance of power, the role of each branch.

She believes that elementary school students should not be directly taught 'history.'   History is NOT glitter and unicorns.  History is dirty.  Many of the topics are not appropriate for younger students due to their graphic nature.  Events are rarely black and white - good or bad.  Unfortunately elementary school students are not (nor should they be) exposed to this, and so they are raised with a strong cultural bias.

Ask younger grade school students about Columbus and they can tell you all sorts of "facts." He sailed the ocean blue in 1492, he found America, he proved the world was round, he traded with the Indians.  Then the pilgrims came, had a rough go of it, made friends with the Indians, who helped them survive before they vanished in the woodlands.

How we teach it

Unfortunately, many of those 'facts' are not true, and the ones that are are very much open to debate and perspective.  Elementary schools paint a pretty picture of colonization because, appropriately, the truth of how Columbus treated natives shouldn't be presented to 7 year old children.

And that is the problem.  We are teaching our younger children incorrect history, giving them part (specifically an anglo-american part) of an intricate story, and sending them on their way... and then middle or high school teachers have to be the 'bad guys' and 're-teach' students.  We have to explain that there have been multiple genocides, not just the one in Germany, and one occurred on the land on which we are currently teaching.  And when we bring this up, teachers are met with anger and disgust from both students and parents.

What isn't mentioned

The question she brought up was why not teach government and other objective topics in grade school.  Let's get students into middle school already knowing the different branches of government, the major historical documents, and how the Constitution is arrange.  Teach them about the electoral college.  Teach them about the different branches and their respective responsibilities.  Have them understand the difference between a democracy and a republic.

I certainly don't have a perfect answer - truth be told this is outside of my area of expertise.  But she did bring up some great points and I'm curious what other educators thing about this opinion.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Ripcord - Behavioral Managment Systems That Don't Go Splat

Thursday night on #mschat we talked about Social Emotional Learning and its importance in education.  I brought up part our behavior management system, specifically our 'ripcord' system.

During class, students go through a range of emotions - excitement about a new topic, frustration about being the 'only one' in the class that doesn't 'get it', and everything in between.  Our students take a class called 'brainology' where they learn about brain development, learning styles, and how emotions can interfere with learning. They learn that when someone is overstimulated or overwhelmed emotionally,  the amygdala goes into gear and higher function thinking gets shut down.  When this happens, people are more likely to say or do things that they may regret later.

Enter the ripcord.

In skydiving, a ripcord has a specific function - specifically to save you before you go splat.  However, there is a certain timing to pulling your ripcord.  Pull it too soon and you don't get to feel that freefall experience.  Pull it too late and the parachute won't be enough help to save you.

Much like the classic Atari 2600 game. 

This is the analogy our amazing school counselor uses for our students.  When students are overwhelmed emotionally (usually due to anger or frustration, but possibly because they have a laughing fit coming) they are encouraged to pull their ripcord.  We talk about timing when it comes to pulling a ripcord.  Pull it too soon and you won't learn your limits and abilities. Pull it too late and you'll go emotionally splat.

Each classroom has a ripcord area.  In this area are pre-printed sheets.  Students take a piece of paper and express their emotions.  Younger students identify their emotions by circling emojis, and then draw how they feel.  Older ones draw, circle words, or write their own.  The goal is to get them focused on the problem and in the process of doing so, re-connect all parts of their brain.  Once the student has calmed down, their teacher has a conversation with them about how to best return to class.

This system helps on many levels.  It gives students the power of self-management.  It allows students an 'out' before they say or do something that would be unacceptable.  It acknowledges that students (and teachers - yes, we have ripcord rights too!) get frustrated at times and a time-out is sometimes needed.  It also puts the teacher in the role of a coach and ally, not a cop looking to write someone up.

Would this system work in your setting? Please contact me or leave a comment below!

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Where have you been? Mediocreing?

The problem (for me) with blogging is twofold:

a) not having anything to write about because
b) I have so much I WANT to write about.

It becomes an endless cycle of 'list topic, start blog, ohh squirrel!'

Then I realized something.  This is what happens with teaching as well.  By this point of the year we're all 'in our groove', first term (or so) is finished, and we're hitting the main stretch of the school year.

Of course by groove I mean not-being-able-to-get-into-a-rhythm-due-to-all-the-holidays-and-days-off.

It is really easy at this point of the year to just lean back on the culture and routines you've established and just coast through winter break.

"What's the point of getting this fantastic lessons ready when I have a 3 day week then a 4 day week then a 2 day week, then just about two weeks, then winter break? I mean the students are going to be so disengaged that I'll just do this easy lesson and it will basically do the same thing."

Fortunately for you, the amazing teacher inside of all of us is shouting at full lung capacity:

As teachers, we need have many responsibilities, but there are also things we are NOT responsible for doing.  We are not responsible for 'getting through material' with 'easy to create' lessons.  We are responsible for sparking life long learning.  We are not assigned to stuff knowledge into student's heads.  We are assigned for opening, and then blowing up, our students' minds (more on this on my next blog!) 

A big push in education is student engagement.  Are students asking questions? Are they showing grit?  Are they moving up Bloom's taxonomy? 

Here's my question: How can you expect your students to be engaged if the TEACHER isn't engaged?  

You are responsible for your students engagement, and it starts with you.  If you are creating safe lessons, lessons that don't excite you to teach, lessons that you are bored even thinking about, how can you expect your students be engaged to learn?

As Dave Burgess, author of Teach Like A Pirate says, "Safe lessons are a recipe for mediocrity at best."

And you did not wake up today to be mediocre.