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Trends in Secondary Education

A couple of nights ago a former student majoring in social studies education asked me for some guidance. She’s in the midst of her student teaching and wanted to know if I had any thoughts on how she could teach the subject of World War I. Before I could answer, though, she informed me that her students were "burned out on book work," which I took to mean that any suggestion that involved their actually reading something would be ill-received. When I tried to get more of a sense of what she was looking for, she helpfully informed me that last week she had taught the students how to fox-trot.

I apologized, and told her that I didn’t think I could be of help. I’m afraid I’m hopeless as a ballroom dancer.

Discussions - 20 Comments

I guess I don’t have to wonder why college students resent having to do "book work." I would imagine that many high school students got burned out on "writing" in high school as well.
It is tough to teach history to college students who can’t read or write.

As a high school teacher, I think I know what she means by book work. Students are taught so much today just to pass some state test...they must write and read just for the test...they do this in every class regardless of the subject because the schools main purpose is to pass the test. Students are tired of doing that. They want to be more active participants of learning. I haven’t taught my students how to dance, but I have collaborated with the gym teacher...she teaches them swing dancing (which is part of her curriculum), I teach World War II and then we have a USO party for the kids where they get to dress up.

This year I have gotten away from the book more, but I haven’t gotten away from documents and other primary source materials. I think your former student needs to realize that reading and writing are not boring if they are actively engaged. Too often people tend to teach to the book, which is not the way history should be taught. Make the students fall in love with history again and they will become active learners.

My 7th/8th graders are studying Ancient History as part of our Great Books/classical curriculum. We’re doing a lot of "book work." We’ve read the Epic of Gilgamesh, four books of the Bible, Herodotus, and are moving to the Iliad, Plato, Sophocles, and Plutarch.

Sure, Tony, but are you building their self esteem?

Tony, You also have the advantage of teaching in an elite private school. Those of us in public schools have to deal with a wide range of students. While I am not saying that we shouldn’t attempt to introduce these things to students, I can only give my regular students excerpts and inspire them to read the rest on their own.

WWII? How about teaching them the Bataan Death March or writing to the Sullivan brothers’ mother? How about Ann Frank’s last days? I guess the Rape of Nanking is prewar, but the relief of Buchenwald would make a nice project.
Or just mark it up to American imperialism and get on to mcCarthyism.

Lori--you sound like a terrific teacher. But you might want to reconsider your statement to Tony. There isn’t necessarily anything special about the students at a private school (and I say that as a mother of two kids in private school). I don’t even think you can assume greater parental involvement anymore--many parents put their kids in these schools in lieu of their own involvement. I think our public schools would all be better off if they worked on the assumption that the only difference between students in public and private schools is that the students in private schools have parents who can pay the tuition. Start with that and see where you end up with them. I’ll bet it’s further than you think. You never know what you can get out of a kid until you challenge him. Even if the kid doesn’t get to the point where you were aiming, he’ll get farther that way than by aiming too low. It always used to burn me up in college when I had professors who assumed that they didn’t have to ask as much out of us because we were just a small liberal arts school and not an Ivy League university. I know you’re a good teacher--so keep your positive attitude and keep striving. It’s worth it.

Walter, They do learn all of that stuff during the World War II unit. The USO party is a culminating activity for the entire unit. I forgot to mention that we invite local World War II survivors (those that are left) to attend to talk to the students in an informal manner.

Lori certainly doesn’t need me to defend her, but I can vouch for the fact that she teaches the substantive aspects of World War II. She collaborated with me in developing a set of lesson plans on the subject for the National Endowment for the Humanities. Anyone interested in looking them over can find them here. I don’t think anyone can claim they aren’t rigorous, although we limited ourselves to the strictly military aspects of U.S. involvement in the war.

For the record, I like the idea of student activities designed to get students excited about history--as long as they are an adjunct to the "book work," and not a substitute for it. Which is exactly how Lori does it.

John...thanks for the pat on the back

Julie, my comment to Tony meant no disrespect. My intention was to point out that not only does he teach in a private school, but an elite private school. From that description that he gave us this past summer, I am assuming that he doesn’t deal very heavily with Learning or emotional support students. It is these students that often cause us to have to alter our plans. I do, however, believe that is is possible to bring primary source documents to all students. I don’t want you to think that learning support students are an excuse not to teach. My advanced history classes are writing case studies on supreme court cases dealing with child labor, while at the same time my regular classes are looking at photos of child labor and creating their own journal.

Actually, Lori, it’s not an "elite" preparatory school, but a classical school that pushes kids to excel. We have many different economic and ethnic backgrounds, but all share a commitment
to education from Athens & the Middle
Ages up until JJ Rousseau and John Dewey. Kids pay tuition, but it’s not
the $30,000 kids in Boston pay. You made it sound as if we’re Eton or Groton. We’re just part of a bourgeoning movement of classical education of reading great books and socratically asking and answering questions about big ideas. That should be as democratic as possible and open to all.

Ha ha LOL Julie Ponzi, you are the GREATEST thing since sliced bread ol’ gal! :) I’ll tell you what I still would love to marry you if you weren’t already taken what with all the cool stuff you get to sayin’ on here! Like that stuff you say about private and public school kids, dead on, right? I mean heck there’s not one shred of difference between rich kids and po kidz, right? Like yeah, totally, if some parents have the money and the desire to send their kid to private school they’re pretty much exactly the same as soem parent who just sends their little tykes off to public school because they have to! Wooeee, another bullseye for J. Ponz!!! She knows everything and her special "polite" way of saying it is always a hoot. AKA, Lori I’m sure you’re great but you’re wrong because I know everything, love, Julie :)

Oh and Tony Williams I am excited to meet you, if only online, hizzoner!!! You are certainly the mayor of our Nation’s Capital, right-o? I have been there and it was fun. Great museums, buck! Keep up the good work!!!

It’s amazing how one moron can stop an interesting discussion in its tracks.

Now, now Hal - don’t be so hard on yourself!

I have to say in response to the earlier statements that "real" education cannot happen in public schools that is not true. If you want to teach students to pass the test and be successful in their future, they must be taught to think. I am a public school teacher in Irving, TX, which is 45% hispanic, and our testing statistics have gone up dramatically by getting away from teaching to the test. With all due respect, because it sounds like the ones talking are great teachers, teachers must have a great knowledge of their subject and a love that can go to the students also.

I am not sure you can teach someone to think, who does not already know what thinking is.

Hey, forget about the books, we can teach people about World War I by recreating it. In the end it would involve a lot of standing around, poor rations and possibly several cases of trench foot. (since you couldn’t kill the kids battles would have to be made less realistic..., after such "torture" most kids would beg to go back to the book work...

In the end I don’t think you can teach history, because we are alienated from it, the present is too overpowering. There are today in the United States children who will grow up sharing "absolutely" nothing in common with the children who grew up during the civil war. You can’t enter the mind of the past unless you share something in common with them. Today we romanticize almost all the past, for certainly it provides the richest grounds for our entertainment. We are free to romanticize any period of time and it is easier to do so when we forget as we almost always do the power of nature. Man has so conquered nature that he miscalculates the past and renders it to his mind as devoid of smell, touch and taste as the Newest Movie.

I think the notion of basing a class curriculum on catering to the lower levels of achievement in the class does a great disservice to the top students who aren’t getting an education that challenges them, and is often an insult to those at the bottom because of the presumption that they can’t keep up. Schools need to emphasize reading and writing more, not less. I’m currently in law school, and am constantly amazed by my fellow students’ inability to write. We have student who have done well enough in college to get into law school who can’t differentiate between they’re, their, and there. There are students in my class who don’t know that 2 spaces follow a period in typed works. There are students who don’t understand subject-verb agreement. I’ve read briefs submitted to the court by practicing attorneys that contain similar mistakes. These are highly intelligent, motivated, allegedly educated people, and the only explanation I have is that they simply were not taught the basic rules of grammar. I won’t pretend that I have any solutions to the problem, but it is painfully obvious that there is a problem, and it must be addressed.

I am not saying that projects and interactive learning are not vitally important to the learning process. I am not saying that teachers should be "teaching the test" at the expense of other vital subjects. I am saying that students need to be taught to read and write, and that the ball has been dropped by too many educators in that respect. Not only are the learning-disabled falling through the cracks at an alarming rate, but the most readily capable (who would theoretically require the least effort to teach) are, as well.

correction: "we have students who ..."

I have read this entire thread, and I find it quite interesting. I teach professional writing at the university level. I have done a lot of research about learning disabilities in the postsecondary classroom. I will agree that students need to learn how to read and write. I’m fascinated by my students’ lack of knowledge. I must say, however, that the space behind the period varies according to discipline. In technical writing, we only use one space after the period. The same is true for literature. I suppose this may be different for law.

As far as the difference between private and public domains, private schools offer smaller classrooms, meaning more chances for one on one interaction. Public school classrooms are overpacked. There are not enough teachers to deal with the needs of normal capacity students, let alone LD students. Furthermore, special education teachers rarely get the opportunity to teach because they are too busy filling out all the paperwork required by the government.

And what’s worse, is while our students are being prepared to pass a standardized test, great teachers are missing the opportunity to snatch the one getting away. To have that impact that can change a student’s life. So the solution appears to be, "don’t teach to the test." Unfortunately, many schools won’t take the chance of allowing teachers to teach material the way they want to teach it because if for some reason the students don’t meet the requirements, the school loses funding. Some of the greatest teachers I ever had never even mentioned a standardized test.

I believe teachers should hold high standards in the classroom. I believe reading and writing are essential skills to survive in the economic world. I agree with Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, when he says, "expecting all groups of students, including special education and English language learners, to meet the same academic targets at the same time is the equivalent of expecting a weekend cyclist to keep pace with Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France."

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