Archive for the 'Social Studies' Category

Don’t Be Rotten to the Core

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

I thought I’d take this opportunity, while the federal government is shut down over the question of its own power to legislate, to talk about another somewhat controversial initiative, namely the Common Core State Standards.

It should be noted that this is not a simple left-right issue. At a recent conference, I heard Kim Marshall joke that he never thought he’d see national standards because “the right doesn’t like national, and the left doesn’t like standards.” So, as you might expect, the Common Core seems to be embraced by moderates in both parties, while being attacked by extremists on both sides. Teachers and parents, who are the most directly affected by the changes, express the same range of opinions as policymakers and pundits. So, the discussion continues.

To get a sense of the issues involved, as well as the general tone, check out this New York Times editorial by Bill Keller, and this response by Susan Ohanian.

For the record, I agree with the Bill Keller editorial (you can just change that “K” into an “H” and we’re good). I’m a fan of the Common Core, though I have a number of concerns about the way it’s being implemented. But I respect the opinions of many who oppose it, and understand the quite valid reasons why they do. Unfortunately, most of the rhetoric that I encounter against the initiative is either focused on areas that have very little to do with the standards themselves, or are based in a fog of misinformation.

Now, if you’ve read the standards, and you honestly believe that we should not want our students to be able to cite evidence from informational texts to support an argument, I’m very willing to have that conversation. If you think the Common Core shifts aren’t the right direction for our students, I’m very willing to have that conversation. If you have a problem with emphasizing literacy in the content areas, I’m very willing to have that conversation. That’s just not the conversation I’ve been hearing about the Common Core, and if we’re going to discuss these very large-scale changes in the way they deserve to be discussed, we need to clear the air of distractions and distortions.

With that in mind, I present the Top Ten Most Common Objections to the Common Core, and my responses to them. This is meant to be the beginning of a conversation and not the last word, so please feel free to continue the discussion in the comments section below.

1. The Common Core is too rigorous. The standards are not developmentally appropriate.

I think we’re feeling that now because we’re transitioning into these standards from a less rigorous system. If students come in on grade level, what they’re being asked to learn in each year is very reasonable. The problem is that we’re so far from that “if,” that the standards can often seem very unreasonable. Add to that a rushed implementation, complete with career-destroying and school-closing accountability, and the Common Core expectations can leave a very bad taste in our mouths.

What’s more, the Common Core includes qualitative shifts as well as quantitative shifts, so students will be as unfamiliar with the new ways of learning as their teachers are. The good news is that each year we implement the Common Core, students will become more used to Common Core ideas such as text-based answers and standards of mathematical practice, and will be better prepared for the work of their grade each year. It will likely get worse before it gets better, but I do think there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it will at least become visible in the next year or two.

2. The Common Core is not rigorous enough. My state had better standards before.

Well, the standards are meant to represent only the minimum of where students need to be in their grade level in order to be on track for college and career readiness by the end of Grade 12. So if you can meet these standards and then exceed them, more power to you. States that adopt the Common Core are also free to change up to 15%, and to add additional standards as well.

So here in New York State, we added Pre-K standards that aren’t in the national version, we put in additional standards throughout the documents (including Responding to Literature standards in ELA and teaching money in early-grade math classrooms), and we still retain the state-wide content standards in social studies and science that students need to pass their Regents. And even where states are slacking, a high-performing school won’t suddenly lower their standards just because they can. That’s not how they became high-performing schools in the first place.

3. The Common Core is a mandated top-down program that infringes on state control of schools.

The Common Core is not mandated by the federal government. States can choose to adopt the Common Core or opt out. I hesitate to present the most blindingly obvious of proofs, but here we go: not all of the states adopted the standards. Some states chose to opt out. That should suffice as proof enough that states can choose to opt out if they want to.

Did the federal government sweeten the deal by adding Race to the Top incentives for states that adopted the Common Core? Yes. But that’s bribery, not coersion. You can say no to a bribe, even if you need the money. And this wasn’t even that much of a bribe, as everyone knew there were only going to be a limited number of states that won Race to the Top funding and Common Core adoption was far from a guarantee.

Whether you love or hate the Common Core, it was your state legislature that adopted the standards, and the credit or blame should be placed there. States are just as capable of having cynical self-serving politicians as the federal government is, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. But some states may have genuinely adopted the Common Core to improve education for their students, even if you don’t think it will.

Frankly, I’m no more a fan of Race to the Top than I was of No Child Left Behind. I don’t think states should have to compete for education funding. And there were other incentives in the Race to the Top formula I had issues with, like the charter school expansions. But these are criticisms of federal education policy, and not the Common Core standards themselves.

4. The Common Core is a result of the corporate reform movement that’s undermining public education.

Maybe.

I don’t think the standards do undermine public education, though, and I believe the people who actually put them together are earnest in their attempts to improve it. I’m not blind to some of the strange bedfellows involved with the process, but if an idea leads to good things, I don’t care where it comes from. This is an argument that just doesn’t work on its own. Just because Bill Gates funded it, it isn’t necessarily Windows 7. Zing!

5. The Common Core is only about testing and accountability.

I hate to break it to you, but the testing and accountability movement has been around a lot longer than the Common Core. We’re already teaching to the test, so it makes sense to design a better test, one worth teaching to. You can read about early attempts to align New York’s state-wide exams to the Common Core in this article, and I’m quoted towards the end, but the bottom line is that they didn’t go very well.

Two multi-state consortiums are now hard at work to build a better test, though this turns out to be a tougher job than they originally thought. They are talking about having students take the state-wide (actually, consortium-wide) tests on computers, which means that every school needs to have computers. That could be a logistical nightmare in itself, but it could also mean more funding for computers in schools.

In New York City, teachers are being evaluated through a system that uses test scores, in one form or another, as 40% of a teacher’s score, while the other 60% will be based on the Danielson Framework. In my opinion, that’s a vast improvement over using test scores alone, which even the Gates-funded MET study doesn’t endorse.

6. The Common Core is a conspiracy to keep the poor uneducated.

No, that’s what we have now. There is a strong correlation between socioeconomic status and academic achievement. Having a set of common standards is one step in the process of attempting to close that gap.

7. The Common Core replaces literature with government manuals.

That simply isn’t true. There is an entire section of the standards that covers Reading Literature. There may be a government manual listed somewhere in the examples of informational texts, but it’s disingenuous to hold that up as the centerpiece of Common Core expectations for student reading. Anyone who makes this argument is either unfamiliar with the standards, or uninterested in engaging in a serious discussion about them.

8. People are making money from the Common Core!

This is true, in as much as we need people to write tests, publish classroom materials, and train teachers. But we would have needed this anyway, Common Core or no.

Liberals tend to think that everyone should do their jobs with the purest of motives, and if someone’s profiting from something, it must be an evil conspiracy. Conservatives tend to believe the opposite: that if you made money from an idea, then that proves the idea had market value, and those who improve the system deserve to profit from their innovations. I take a more neutral view of profit’s correlation with good in the world. I work in teacher training, and the Common Core affects what I teach, but not how often I teach or how much money I make. I have no financial interest in defending the Common Core.

Keller’s editorial estimates the costs of the new tests at about $29 per student, in a system that spends over $9,000 per student in a year. You might not like the Common Core for other reasons, but cost alone can’t be the only reason to oppose it.

9. These Common Core-aligned materials I have are bad.

I don’t doubt it. But just because a product claims to be “Common Core-aligned,” it doesn’t mean that it is Common Core-endorsed. I have no end of problems with the range of “Common Core-aligned” curricula being rolled out by New York City alone. This is not a function of poor standards, but rather poor implementation.

By the way, a lot of the Common Core-aligned materials were delayed getting into schools this year, even as teachers were required to start using them. You don’t have to convince me that we’re having implementation problems.

And I spent last summer modifying my own organization’s social studies curricula to be Common Core-aligned, and I feel strongly that our products improved immensely because of it.

10. The Common Core is untested, and shouldn’t be implemented on such a large scale without a pilot program.

This is from Reign of Error author Diane Ravitch, and she makes a fair point. But nothing’s written in stone. The standards will work in some ways and need mending in others. And where they need mending, we’ll mend them. Ten years from now, we may come to see the current version of the Common Core as a really good first draft. Or we may remember it as New Coke. There’s no way to know until we try it out. That can be used as an argument for it as well as against it.

I do think that we should do everything we can do to make it work. That’s the only way we’ll really know if it doesn’t.

Honorable Mention: President Obama is for it, and therefore I must be against it.

Hey, look! Someone over there is getting health care.

I really do see a lot of parallel between the Affordable Care Act debacle and the Common Core controversy. Tea party Republicans want to talk about how Obamacare will destroy the economy and force the government between you and your doctor and lead to the apocalypse, but they really oppose it on ideological principles. If they would talk about their principles, we could have an honest debate, but they know these principles sound cold and selfish, so they obfuscate. Common Core opponents dance around the actual changes being made in education because most of them make sense. The real concern, as I see it, is the danger of the larger corporate-funded movement to use testing and data to prove the ineffectiveness of public education in order to move to a privatized free-market system.

That’s a concern worth discussing directly, and I’m very willing to have that conversation.

Science!

Monday, January 7th, 2013

Today, I worked with science teachers on their performance tasks. Actually, I’ve been doing a lot of consulting this year on performance tasks, which is the hot new trend in assessment.

A performance task is an opportunity for students to demonstrate that they can independently apply the skills they’ve learned in a real-world context. So it’s like a post-test, only instead of multiple-choice questions, students have to do an authentic activity. Teachers examine the resulting student work with a rubric to measure whether or not students have learned the skills, and they can then use this information to plan future instruction. It’s much more effective than standardized-testing data in diagnosing student needs, though I do admit it is much more time-consuming.

This year, I’ve been working a lot with social studies and science teachers. Because of the Common Core shifts, these teachers are now required to teach literacy skills. There are no actual content standards in social studies or science in the Common Core; all of the standards for these subject areas are literacy standards. There are science content standards currently under development by Next Generation. When they are completed, states will have the option of adopting them in the same way they adopted Common Core. But until then, science content standards come from the states, and literacy standards from the Common Core are applied across the curriculum.

Now, I actually like the idea of literacy across the curriculum, but it is a big adjustment for science and social studies teachers, and so the schools where I consult have asked me to work with these teachers to help them infuse literacy skills into their curriculum and their assessments, particularly the performance tasks that New York City is requiring them to administer this year.

I have had a lot of experience working with social studies teachers in the past, but I’m probably working more with science teachers this year than I ever have before. And that’s fantastic, because I get the opportunity to learn a lot of new things. I also get the chance to yell “Science!” like Magnus Pyke a lot. No, I don’t really do that, but it would be fun.

One of the science teachers I worked with today swears by a website for an organization called Urban Advantage. It has some great resources for teaching middle-school science with an inquiry-based approach. I like the way that their materials scaffold scientific writing, which is my focus this year.

Another science teacher I worked with today showed me the PhET website, which has some really compelling interactive simulations in the sciences. I watched 7th-grade students run a simulation on density, in which they had to determine the mass and volume of various mystery substances and identify them from a list of materials and their densities.

Science!

Shakespeare and the Common Core

Sunday, January 6th, 2013

Across the United States, education is undergoing a sea-change (into something rich and strange) surrounding the adoption of something called the Common Core State Standards.

Standards are simply a list of what students should be able to do by the end of each grade. Traditionally, these have been defined by states, with a requirement for them to do so by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. States still define their own standards, but, in an unprecedented act of coordination, 45 states (plus the District of Columbia and a few of the territories) have adopted the Common Core as their state standards. Full adoption has been targeted for next year, though New York has started phasing in significant portions of it this year.

Love it or hate it, the Common Core represents a new direction in pedagogical thinking, both qualitatively and quantitatively. Personally, I think the Common Core standards are a lot better than the existing New York State Standards, but we’re going to have to suffer through a difficult transition period before we can reap the benefits of that improvement. Right now is probably the most difficult time, as we have to deal with students who are not starting on what the new structure defines as grade-level, a lack of Common Core-aligned teaching materials, and uncertainty surrounding precisely how these new standards will be assessed. May you live in interesting times.

As with anything new and complex, there are going to be a number of misconceptions floating around about it. One of the most prevalent I’ve seen is that the Common Core eliminates (or at least de-emphasizes) literature, in favor of informational texts. In particular, many are convinced that Shakespeare will be replaced entirely by non-fiction, as public education descends into a Dickensian nightmare of Shakespeare-deprived conformity and standardization.

In fact, Shakespeare is mandated by the Common Core.

The confusion seems to stem from a chart that appears on page 5 of the English Language Arts Standards document, outlining the percentages of literary vs. informational texts included in the National Assessment of Educational Progress:

(Click for a larger image.)

The Common Core is explicit about aligning curricula with this framework, but it is just as explicit about how that alignment should be distributed:

Fulfilling the Standards for 6–12 ELA requires much greater attention to a specific category of informational text—literary nonfiction—than has been traditional. Because the ELA classroom must focus on literature (stories, drama, and poetry) as well as literary nonfiction, a great deal of informational reading in grades 6–12 must take place in other classes if the NAEP assessment framework is to be matched instructionally.

So, despite the canard that high-school English classes will only be allowed to teach literature 30% of the time, the 70% informational text requirement refers to the entirety of student reading across the curriculum. Given that one of the major shifts is an increase in reading and writing in the content areas, the ratio makes sense.

Let’s say that, over the course of a particular unit, a high-school English teacher is assigning 3 literary texts and 1 informational text. That means that (text length aside) students are reading 75% literature in English class. And if this is the only reading the students are doing, then they are reading 75% literature overall. But now imagine that, during the same timeframe, they are also reading 2 informational texts in social studies, 2 informational texts in science, and 2 informational texts in all of their other classes combined. They are still reading 75% literature in English class, but this now represents 30% of their reading overall.

And, far from being lost in the informational-text shuffle, Shakespeare now becomes the man of the hour. As the only author explicitly required by the Common Core, Shakespeare must be taught in grades 11 and 12 (see page 38, right column, Standards 4 and 7). Shakespeare is also included in the recommended texts for grades 9 and 10 (see page 58, left column, center). And Shakespeare is not excluded for younger students either, as the standards outline only the minimum of what must be taught in each grade. The Common Core does stress using authentic texts, so updated language versions of Shakespeare would be frowned upon, but that’s actually an adjustment I can get behind.

There is a lot of controversy surrounding the Common Core, and a lot of objections surrounding the new changes. Some of these objections are legitimate, and some are not. I look forward to continuing that conversation as the implementation develops. But rest assured that Shakespeare isn’t going anywhere.

Shakespeare, Our Contemporary

Friday, January 7th, 2011

The Antony and Cleopatra project is going well. Yesterday, I used the play to help the sixth-grade students make connections to present-day world events.

Antony and Cleopatra takes place in the first century B.C., a time when there was one global superpower in the world. By the time of the play’s opening scene, the Romans had scooped up most of the Hellenistic nations; only Egypt remained independent. However, both Romans and Egyptians were well aware that Egypt was living in Rome’s shadow. Philo has the opening speech of the play, and his racism and entitlement are readily on display:

Nay, but this dotage of our general’s
O’erflows the measure; those his goodly eyes,
That o’er the files and musters of the war
Have glow’d like plated Mars, now bend, now turn
The office and devotion of their view
Upon a tawny front; his captain’s heart,
Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst
The buckles on his breast, reneges all temper,
And is become the bellows and the fan
To cool a gipsy’s lust. Look! where they come.
Take but good note, and you shall see in him
The triple pillar of the world transform’d
Into a strumpet’s fool; behold and see.

For a rank and file Roman soldier to speak of the Egyptian queen as “tawny” and a “strumpet” sets the tone for a world where there is an unequal balance of power.

Today, there is once again a single global superpower in the world, but that has only been true for the past twenty years. In fact, there have only been a handful of unchallenged superpowers in world history. (The Macedonians and the Mongols are the other two that come to mind. Others?) Therefore, this play offers a unique opportunity to explore power dynamics in our present world community.

How does it affect the world when there is one dominant superpower? What opportunities does that country have? What are its responsibilities in the world? How did Rome handle its power? How does the United States handle its power?

We had a fantastic conversation, and I think the students have a new lens for viewing both the play and world affairs.

There is only one posting to the message board, but I’m patient. And it looks like I am going to be working with an eighth-grade class on As You Like It asynchronously. I’ll be meeting with them the week after next, but most of our interactions will be online. Watch this space for updates!

UPDATE (That was fast): I’ve just added an Antony and Cleopatra category, so you can follow along with the project.

The People’s Historian

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

“‘History is the memory of states,’ wrote Henry Kissinger in his first book, A World Restored, in which he proceeded to tell the history of nineteenth-century Europe from the viewpoint of the leaders of Austria and England, ignoring the millions who suffered from those statesmen’s policies. From his standpoint, the ‘peace’ that Europe had before the French Revolution was ‘restored’ by the diplomacy of a few national leaders. But for factory workers in England, farmers in France, colored people in Asia and Africa, women and children everywhere except in the upper classes, it was a world of conquest, violence, hunger, exploitation – a world not restored but disintegrated.

“My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.

“Thus, in that inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history, I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican war as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott’s army, of the rise of the Spanish-American war as seen by the Cubans, the conquest of the Philippines as seen by black soldiers on Luzon, the Gilded Age as seen by southern farmers, the First World War as seen by socialists, the Second World War as seen by pacifists, the New Deal as seen by blacks in Harlem, the postwar American empire as seen by peons in Latin America. And so on, to the limited extent that any one person, however he or she strains, can ’see’ history from the standpoint of others.

“My point is not to grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners. Those tears, that anger, cast into the past, deplete our moral energy for the present. And the lines are not always clear. In the long run, the oppressor is also a victim. In the short run (and so far, human history has consisted only of short runs), the victims, themselves desperate and tainted with the culture that oppresses them, turn on other victims.

“Still, understanding the complexities, this book will be skeptical of governments and their attempts, through politics and culture, to ensnare ordinary people in a giant web of nationhood pretending to a common interest. I will try not to overlook the cruelties that victims inflict on one another as they are jammed together in the boxcars of the system. I don’t want to romanticize them. But I do remember (in rough paraphrase) a statement I once read: ‘The cry of the poor is not always just, but if you don’t listen to it, you will never know what justice is.’

“I don’t want to invent victories for people’s movements. But to think that history-writing must aim simply to recapitulate the failures that dominate the past is to make historians collaborators in an endless cycle of defeat. If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win. I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare.

“That, being as blunt as I can, is my approach to the history of the United States. The reader may as well know that before going on.”

A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn (1922 – 2010)

Question of the Week

Monday, January 11th, 2010

The recent discussion about teaching information literacy skills on this post got me thinking about how our students would evaluate different sources of information. I’d like to do a version of this exercise, but with our students in mind.

I will list ten sources that a high school student might encounter, and I’d like you to consider their relative reliability on the topic of, let’s say, the American civil rights movement. That is, if a high school student received conflicting information from two of these sources, which source should be given the greater weight?

A. A 2010 high-school American history textbook.

B. A book on the American civil rights movement from the public library, published in 1991.

C. A high-school commencement speech, given by a well-known community activist.

D. A high-school English teacher who has been teaching American literature for twenty years.

E. A high-school social studies teacher who has been teaching American history for six years.

F. A television interview with a university history professor, who specializes in European history from 1700 to the present.

G. A website on American history maintained by a college junior majoring in American history, with a professional-looking design, well-organized information, and a straightforward writing style.

H. A website on American history maintained by a graduate student majoring in American history, with little in the way of graphic design or organization, but with well-written and insightful text.

I. A website on civil rights maintained by a well-known citizen activist organization.

J. A Wikipedia entry with no controversy alerts.

Once again, I have lettered them instead of numbering them because you may wish to rank some or all of these ten sources in order from most reliable to least reliable.

And I do realize that it may not even be possible to definitively rank these sources (especially since my sources are much vaguer than they were last time), but the exercise might help structure your thinking about what reliability means to a teenager, who may not always be encouraged to question what has been presented as authority. Whether you post your rankings or not, your contribution to the discussion is welcome.

And I’ll get the ball rolling by saying that I think Wikipedia gets a bad rap. Yes, you can certainly list incorrect information that has been found on the website, either through honest mistakes or the deliberate promoting of an agenda. But can you show me which of the other nine items on the list above doesn’t suffer from the same problem? With that said…

Where can high school students find reliable information?

The Google List

Monday, January 4th, 2010

I’m currently working on a project with eighth-graders who are learning about civil rights. The other day, we were talking about Rosa Parks. I told them that she wasn’t just some random bus passenger who was too tired to move, but rather (and more impressively) an experienced protester who allowed herself to get arrested on purpose. This surprised the students, who then wanted to know – if that was true – why all of their other teachers had told them otherwise. I said that their other teachers probably heard the story that way, as this is a well-circulated account of what happened.

As an example, I mentioned that it was a popular myth that Columbus proved the earth was round. This time, it was one of the other adults in the room who challenged me on this. I told the students that they didn’t have to believe anything was true, just because I said it was. They could put it on their Google List.

When I visit this class, the teachers asks me if the students should take notes. I encourage the students to keep a Google List. If we broach a topic we don’t have time to cover fully, you put it on the Google List. If there are questions I didn’t have time to answer, or didn’t know the answer, you put it on the Google List. If something I say doesn’t ring true, or contradicts what you already believe, you put it on the Google List. In the Information Age, there’s no reason that learning needs to be completely guided by the teacher, or that it needs to stop when the bell rings.

When I was in graduate school, I kept a “Library List” with me during my classes, so when a professor brought up a reference I didn’t know, I could go to the library and look it up. For me, that’s who these questions were addressed Before Google. What a difference the Internet has made! Today, I’m all over Google (and Wikipedia, actually), expanding my knowledge and filling in gaps on a daily basis. These are real 21st century skills. We should be encouraging our students to develop them.

Shakespeare Sunday

Sunday, March 22nd, 2009

I’d like to start a new weekly feature where I discuss the teaching of Shakespeare. I know – that’s the last thing you’d expect from this blog – but let’s give it a try and see how it goes. Over the next few months, I’m planning to teach The Merchant of Venice, Othello, and Hamlet to different eighth-grade classes, plus I’ll be doing Macbeth and Shakespeare in general with my graduate students, so I should have a lot to share over the next few months.

This week, I began working with an eighth-grade class on The Merchant of Venice. These students will be creating a video (similar to the Cymbeline video the same teacher’s class created last year). I came in to give students an introduction to the play. I happen to be working with the same students in their Social Studies class on our Civil Rights unit, and I’m looking to make cross-curricular connections, so we began by looking at Shylock’s speech from Act I, Scene iii:

Signior Antonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances:
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,
For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.
You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spet upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.
Well then, it now appears you need my help:
Go to then; you come to me, and you say,
‘Shylock, we would have moneys:’ you say so;
You, that did void your rheum upon my beard,
And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur
Over your threshold: moneys is your suit.
What should I say to you? Should I not say,
‘Hath a dog money? Is it possible
A cur can lend three thousand ducats?’ or
Shall I bend low, and in a bondman’s key,
With bated breath, and whispering humbleness,
Say this:—
‘Fair sir, you spet on me on Wednesday last;
You spurn’d me such a day; another time
You call’d me dog; and for these courtesies
I’ll lend you thus much moneys?’

I asked the students to interpret the speech, and they seemed to have no trouble at all understanding what Shylock was saying. We went through the rest of the scene and the students understood the deal being made and the motivations behind it on both sides. When we got to the last lines of the scene…

Come on: in this there can be no dismay;
My ships come home a month before the day.

…the students understood that Antonio’s ships would not be coming in. The teacher made a nice connection to the current financial crisis that caught everyone by surprise. We also covered Portia’s father’s challenge by reading Morocco’s examination of the three caskets in the next scene. Before we looked at Morocco’s choice, the students predicted that the lead casket was the correct one, because it’s always the most unlikely one. One student (who “hates Shakespeare”) explained that Portia’s father didn’t want someone for his daughter who was selfish or greedy. I’m really going to enjoy working with this class.

We showed them the Cymbeline video and invited them to start thinking about what they might want to do with The Merchant of Venice. And now that the students’ interest is piqued, the teacher is going to go back and cover the characters and themes before the students start reading the play.

More next week!

The Place to Be

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009

Last month, I had been considering making the trip to D.C. to be at the inauguration. But as the event neared, I realized that the most important place for me to be today was in school with the children.

When I was in the 10th grade, the teachers allowed us to watch the Challenger shuttle launch. This was the first time a civilian was sent into space, and it was a school teacher at that. As most of us remember, the shuttle exploded, and history was made in a different way.

I think that seeing the event in school made it something special. We usually don’t watch television in school, so the event was given extra significance. When I discuss it with other people my age, they often have a similar memory. I remember some news events I watched at home, but not nearly as vividly.

I hope the students who watched the inauguration today felt inspired by it, and that having been allowed to watch it in school helps them preserve the memories. I watched the event with an auditorium filled with junior high school students whose claps and cheers will forever be a part of my memory of the event.

I can’t imagine how being at the event myself could have been any better than that.

Prop 8: The Musical!

Monday, December 8th, 2008

Via One Little Fish comes a very funny, very timely video:

More information about the project here. The video has received over 1 million hits, spreading awareness about an important issue, and making a powerful statement about activism in the information age.

My organization just held an event today that had 7th grade students giving persuasive PowerPoint presentations on current events issues ranging from gun control to the death penalty. I served as emcee, and had a lot of fun riling up the students about speaking out on issues and taking an active part in their democracy.

Perhaps for the next round we should consider using video. I’m already planning a project with students to create Public Service Announcements about environmental issues. Creating current events PSAs in social studies class seems like the logical next step. I’ll keep you posted.

UPDATE: In the post, I said that the video has received over 1 million hits. Actually, the video topped 1 million views on its first day.