Teaching a lesson in a progressive school
Last week I taught my first student-teaching lesson. The teacher I work with collaborates with two others on her lesson plans, a special ed teacher and another 11th grade humanities teacher. They meet to plan lessons in the afternoons, and usually I'm at class then, so I don't get to input a lot. They are open to my suggestions, up to a point.
For example, the kids' writing is terrible. I mean scary terrible. One essay I just read was almost unintelligible, in that the students' words seemed to have been scattered randomly throughout the "sentence," which went on for like four lines and counted as a paragraph. The girl is bright and articulate, and to my knowledge does not have any type of learning disability.
I suggested I could do some mini grammar lessons in class, and my teacher thought it was a nice idea. She does support the idea of grammar, and recognizes that the kids are pretty weak writers. Although I don't think she has the same fear in her heart that I do for them. But the thing is, she won't let me give any grammar quizzes. The school as a whole is sort of "against" quizzes, although some teachers use them I guess. It's difficult to assess whether the kids have learned the specific principle you taught when you can't quiz them on it specifically. Also, there is every reason for the kids to tune out when I try to teach it to them, since they are not really accountable. But this is a small frustration only.
On Friday, I taught the whole lesson. It was about the Declaration of Independence and what Thomas Jefferson meant when he wrote, "all men are created equal." We read some of his ambivalent and conflicting views on slavery, and talked about what why he was so conflicted.
This is a really difficult topic because you have to closely examine the American situation at the time. Jefferson was so steeped in the politics of his time--the revolution, trying to maintain colonial unity, condemning slavery while assuring southerners of its preservation, a slaveowner himself, a man of thought in an age of events. He saw slavery, and saw its injustice. He saw how it contradicted with his ideals of equality for all men. So he changed the game by claiming that African-Americans were...not quite men. Sort of pseudo-men, perhaps evolutionarily stunted. It was his awful compromise between reality and idealism.
However, in class we hadn't talked about the revolution yet. We hadn't talked about the different ways that the northern and southern colonies developed and why. We hadn't talked about the fragility of the revolutionary will. We hadn't talked about northern attitudes toward slavery and toward Africans.
Why, then, did we do this lesson when we did?
Because although it is a history class, the class is based around themes, not history.
The themes for this unit (colonial founding through the early American period) are roughly as follows:
the racialization of savagery
race as a social construct
what freedom means to different peoples
It's difficult to find room in there for things like a) the development of the colonies, b) events leading to the revolution, c) ideas leading to the revolution, d) dissent regarding the revolution, e) the war itself.
I would imagine that the kids have had many classes based around themes like this. One girl said in class today, "how come we always have to learn about race?" Not that it isn't an important topic, especially in American history, but I think the sentiment stemmed from theme overload.
Another hint that they haven't really learned a great deal of content, in the past or so far this year, is that they don't know a lot of content. I'm pretty sure a lot of them don't know what "Europe" is, or at least the difference between "Europe" and "England." When I talk to them, they try to reconstruct the facts of history logically, from the themes we learned about.
My teachers and others want kids to understand the "big ideas" in history, rather than memorizing facts and details. But I just don't think you can teach these big ideas directly. They are empty and meaningless by themselves. You teach the small stories, the facts, the dates, the chronology, the events, and then out of these, patterns begin to emerge. That's the beautiful part, when the students start to see them. It's like giving them tree after tree after tree, and suddenly they realize it's a forest. Or it's like that painting, by...Seurat? The one with all the little dots. There is no picture without all the dots!
It's funny, because I feel that the teaching strategy I am suggesting is actually more constructivist than my constructivist teachers. It doesn't involve lots of group work, and it doesn't shun facts, and there would have to be a lot of teacher support and prodding, but I think students could come up with a lot of "big ideas" on their own, without us directly telling them. Giving them the facts, rather than a somewhat revisionist thematic interpretation of the facts, actually gives them more power, and a forest full of trees.
In my lesson during the first block, we read a lot of the primary source documents out loud together, and then I led a discussion about them and we took notes together. This was roundly condemned as the wrong approach, and so the next period I had to let them read and interpret in groups. As usual, they wasted a lot of time and I don't really think they understood it. Not that I'm sure they had totally understood it in the first block, since they didn't have the proper historical background and I can't give them quizzes, but at least I got some reasonable answers out of the class discussion. In the second block, everyone got something different, depending on their group. It was so frustrating. I don't want to learn to teach like this because I don't think it's right. But I can't contradict the teacher. But I need the practice. It's an education grad school moral dilemma. The best kind.