Saturday, October 30, 2010

Scaring the Children Two: A Halloween Tale of Conquests and Barbarians

One of the great thrills of teaching World History is sharing with my students the history of the Mongols. In past years, I gave an introductory lecture and then over several days we discussed a variety of readings exploring different historians' views of Genghis Khan and the Pax Mongolia. Students then wrote an analytical essay assessing the role of the Mongols in shaping the 13th century. This year I threw the old plan out. This year students were going to chart their own course with the Mongols. I assigned three short readings by Jack Weatherford, David Morgan, and Gregory Guzman. We spent two days comparing approaches and interpretations to the topic, though not much actual history.

Then I introduced the project.

One student asked me if we were doing the project before we studied the unit. I said yes. This worried them. A second student asked how they would know what to research. I suggested we brainstorm their existing knowledge and from there they should discuss with their neighbor what they thought they wanted to learn. They didn't think they knew very much -- and they were correct!

The homework over the weekend was to post on our class wiki the topic they wanted to explore, the questions they hoped to answer through their research, how they intended to demonstrate what they had learned to me and their classmates, their plan and timetable for completing their work, and the rubric they wanted me to use in assessing their work. They were welcome to work with a partner, though no group could have more than three members. The proposals were to be posted in the class wiki. They were all expected to comment on and make suggestions on each others proposals. I commented on their proposals and in most cases asked for greater specificity in their rubrics. For instance, how was I to recognize quality in their report? Or what did it mean to have clear visuals? Ten days later our class ended up with a film on Mongol food and the steppe environment, a wiki examining the social structure and culture of 13th century Mongols, a Prezi examining the conquests of the Mongols after Genghis Khan died, a film examining the life of Genghis Khan up to his election as Great Khan, and a multimedia presentation on the conquests of Genghis Khan after his election (complete with poster, Prezi, and demonstration with models of Mongol battle formations).

Throughout the research process students shared in our wiki what they were learning, lifted up questions they were having and offered help and advice to others in the class based on what they were learning in their own research. I also weighed in with my advice and suggestions.  In the end, I know that students have learned much more about the Mongols then they ever have before. They have worked intensely to pursue knowledge as completely as their sources would allow (they don't read Mongolian, they couldn't hold the arrows in their hands, they have never been to the Asian Steppe, and most have never ridden a horse!). My weakest students were authoritative and thorough.  They might have rebalanced with a bit more over arching thesis versus detail, but I was impressed (as were their peers) with the accuracy and curiosity they brought to their work. My strongest students were empowered to construct their own meaning and understanding of the Mongols. While no one worked on exactly the same topic, taken together, the class (including myself) has learned more about the Mongols than any previous class.

There were a few bumps along the way, they all used a source from with an author that appeared credible based on her credentials, but when tested against the big names in Mongol History, her facts didn't exactly jibe. I commented on this in their wiki updates and finally had to announce to the class the flaw. But this source issue actually allowed us to have a conversation about the importance of knowing who the important scholars are whenever you do research. The second bump had to do with book sources. I had showed them copies of several books on the Mongols. These were available in our classroom for them to consult.  The two groups working on different phases of conquest, complained that they weren't finding lots of details. I suggested they refine their search terms, consult Google scholar, and J-Stor and asked them if they had consulted the books on reserve. They were still coming up empty. So I opened the books to the sections on various conquests and showed them where to start looking. Sheepishly, the students in question admitted that in this case the books had what they needed. Another great teachable moment about the need to continue to use old tools.

Along the way, two students learned to use film editing software, one learned how to watch herself on film without dying of mortification, three learned to work around image problems with moodle wiki, four students learned to use Prezi (now if only I could!), and one student learned how to film boiling oil without getting burned! Their research skills were stretched and refined making them ready for our major research project in the winter term--three weeks in the library on a topic of their choosing (as long as it falls between 1000CE and 1920CE).

They were scared at the beginning. One student confided in me that it felt daunting to be responsible for determining what needed to be learned. On Monday, All Saints Day, we will debrief the whole project and process. I am willing to bet, that given their druthers they will choose project first (project instead of) over our other approaches to topics in World History.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Scaring The Children

Right before the mid-term, in my 10th grade Advanced US History class I had 5 students come to me with drop add forms to switch to regular US History. Four of them were in over their heads but the fifth was one of my best students. Then right after grades came out two more of my stronger students asked about their grades on a test I had yet to return. I had intended to scare off the weaker ones, but not the stronger ones.

Last Monday I went into class and we had a heart to heart. I offered that I knew what we were doing was difficult. When was the last time you had to read all of Tom Paine's Common Sense or Jonathan Edward's "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"? I asked them to explain what felt the most challenging and we distilled it down to three things: its hard to take notes in a discussion based class, we don't go over everything in every reading and we don't go over everything in wiki study guide for our text, the reading at night takes lots of time. Drilling down further, they felt I was asking too much for any one person to do. I agreed with them (which really worried a few). "Of course Advanced US feels intimidating and overwhelming, you are trying to do it all on your own! You want me to provide the solution by telling you what to know."

Then I asked what seemed to be working for them, some found the Moodle forum helpful, by posting questions before class it helped to make sure a question got answered (they also found it helpful when a peer answered a question within the forum). The collaborative class wiki study guides had helped some get ready for the previous test, others hadn't thought to look at it. A few were regular contributors to the study guides, most were willing to make the bare minimum required contribution and take their own notes. None of them looked through it before reading our textbook to see what I thought they should know and by not mentioning something in the study guide imply they could skim over it.

I promised to work with them by backing off a bit in the reading (but we are still going to the source more often than not). Then I asked them if they had seen the movie "Legally Blonde" and why they thought Elle so wanted to/needed to get into a study group (besides wanting to sit next to her slimy ex boyfriend). After a few minutes discussion I commanded them to form study groups, gave them five minutes to form a group of three and commit to meeting once a week for 30-45 minutes to go over things they were struggling with. We then discussed ways for them to meet when they couldn't manage a face to face. One group allowed that if nothing else they would chat on Facebook at a set time. Another is going to try out Skype. We agreed to check in next week to see how the first study session had gone.

Then I looked around the room and asked why no one had their computers with them? On three different
occasions I had encouraged them to bring a laptop if they owned one. I asked for a show of hands for anyone who had access to a laptop they could bring to class. I noted who had raised their hands and ordered them to bring their laptop from that day forward. (They dutifully did the next day, but the day after that two had left their machines at home as they didn't really think I meant EVERYDAY). Then I introduced Google docs. We have had two discussion classes since then --two rounds of Google doc collaborative note taking. The first day I had only one topic to cover, Shay's rebellion. It was a short period and I wanted to give my note takers time to get the hang of things. Later that evening I checked the notes and then posted them to our class Moodle site. Yesterday we slogged through a close reading of the complete texts of the Virginia, New Jersey and New York plans for a new federal government. The notes were better. I have posted the link to  them to the class site and noted that they have been improved since their posting. Next week we have more "Resolveds" to explore, this time on slavery and taxation. But, at least now, two days into "forced collaboration" they are feeling better and they are not going it alone!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Shostakovich and one of the five minds for the future

Last week we went to the symphony. Andre Watts, my favorite pianist was playing with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He played Grieg's "Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16". I first heard Andre Watts when my mother and I were in Chicago in 1981 for the interview portion of the Truman Scholarship competition. Not a classical music fan at the time, I was totally mesmirized by this man at the piano. Since then, every opportunity I have I go to hear him. I wasn't disappointed. The Grieg is familiar and yet he played it with amazing emotion and precision. I almost always respond to his playing by wanting to rise out of my seat (if only I could actually escape gravity). There are very few times when my mind is as focused as it is when I am in the audience listening to him perform.

The rest of last night's program was totally unknown to me. I had never heard anything by Dimitri Shostakovich. This symphony was so unlike the Grieg, so unlike anything I have experienced (I do not claim to be any other than an amateur and peripetetic appreciator of classical music). How do you as a composer decide you need nine French Horns or 7 percussionists (two tympaniests). How many orchestral works feature themes played by solo bass clarinet. The lead bassonist (one of three) got a special round of applause at the end. One of the flutist looked as though he was going to leap from his chair during his carrying of the main theme. Closing my eyes I listened as the music bounced from one section to the next. Looking down from our seats we could see the scores of the violins, the harps and the piccolos. The complexity of each individual muscian's score spoke to the intensive creativity at work within Shostakovich's mind.

The historian in me was fascinated to read the program notes concerning Symphony #4. Apparently, he wrote an opera called Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Stalin attended a performance of this opera in 1936 and did not like it. The piece was criticized in Pravda, Shostakovich fell out of favor and the Fourth Symphony, due to be performed later in the year was pulled from production. The Fourth was premiered some 25 years after it was written.

I am trained as a historian. My mind tends to run towards cause and effect, towards understanding historical context, towards weighing evidence and forumlating a thesis based on that evidence. Howard Gardner in his book Five Minds for the Future describes the disciplined mind as one of the necessary attributes we need to give our students. While I am not presuming to put myself in the same category as Shostakovich or Andre Watts, we do all share a common grounding in our respective disciplines. Watts can play the way that he does because of his hours of practice, his study of the composers and his years of work as a young man with the best teachers and mentors available to him. His work is energized by taking on new pieces to master and now teaching his own students. Shostakovich studied music almost exclusively, entering the Petrograd Conservatory at age 13. (Wikipedia). Both men pursued what we might call passion based learning. Not for them the moving from subject to subject in secondary school, though no doubt they did learn the math, reading and writing they would need as successful adults. There may well be what we as whole child educators would consider significant gaps in their education. Extensive study in molecular biology or mechanical physics, probably not. Shostokovich may well have read all those great and long Russian novels but I suspect he did not spend six years learning to write the analytical essay.

Most of us were not child progidies with early demonstrable talents in music or sculpture or mathmatics. Most of us were children with interests and passions. So, at what age does the exposure to all disciplines give way to immersion within one? Or put it another way, when do we give children time to immerse themselves so completely within a field that they might discover their vocation? (I mean vocation in the Calvinist sense of a calling). Just at that moment when a student is having a breakthrough with a science experiment and experiencing the wonder that comes with asking a question and through trial and error having it answered, the bell rings, its time to clean up and move on to the next class, the moment passes and a future Marie Curie is lost. When do we give students the time to so fully engage with an interest that after a period of time, they realize this is an interesting topic but not a life's calling? This is an equally important lesson.

Each child is different but I would suggest that every child sometime (or times) from 7th-12th grades has an inkling of where she wants to focus her energies or unconsciously demonstrates to aware adults her affinity for something. The structures of our schools frustrate rather than nurture her exploration and immersion. Some of our students will leave our independent schools for specialized public academies or preprofessional schools. Others will opt for homeschooling, taking advantage of all the online resources for the basics of a secondary education while organizing their days and weeks to emphasize the area of interest.

I would argue that developing the disciplined mind calls for us to re-examine the generalist priorities we give to our schools and the generalist, undisciplined students we tend to graduate. The disciplined mind is not equally versed in all the disciplines. The disciplined mind may be only barely conversant in other areas. And yet, this doesn't mean we have failed as educators. Our students will still be engaged citizens if we lift up the other minds Gardner identifies, the synthesizing mind, the creative mind, the respectful mind, the ethical mind.