History is too a worthwhile major!

Love this op-ed from James Grossman at the LA Times about why history is a worthy major, “History isn’t a useless major.” This post was written in May, but even in just a few months, his emphasis on the critical thinking skills one learns in history are even more crucial. Analyzing the current presidential election through a historical lens makes it even more terrifying than it is on its own…..

I was a history major. I love history. I admit it did actually lead me to my first job out of college – an interpreter (or guide) at a historic site. I spent the summer teaching the story of a fort in 1827 to visitors. I wore period dresses, I went barefoot, I cooked in a fireplace. It was fantastic. I still work for the same organization, but I rely much less on my historical skills, but on my much-more-recently acquired computer skills.

I never took a single computer class in college. I didn’t learn to code until I was 35. But – that doesn’t mean I can’t do this. Any coding I would’ve learned in college would’ve been so outdated by the time I was 35. My current job relies very little on what I actually learned in college, but relies much more on how I was able to learn since then.

I don’t put much stock in the “marketable” college majors. Of course, I don’t have anything to back this up — just that 30 years out, it really didn’t matter what my major was. It mattered how I was able to learn, adapt and keep up-to-date.  We tell our kids that they should major in something they find interesting, something where they are learning more and expanding their horizons and minds. Something where they can gain some expertise and confidence. We think that’ll carry them much further than having a specific degree.

Communication vs. Writing

This blog is a great place to story some of my other writing. Here is another response I wrote for the MOOC, “The Art of Teaching History.” The prompt in this case was, “What are the obstacles to teaching writing?”

Communication isn’t just writing

The prompt this week is about obstacles to helping students become better writers. I certainly support helping our students become better writers, but I feel there is a gaping hole in the conversation in the videos. Our old definition of writing is the obstacle. We must think about communication, not just writing.

The videos solely address formal, academic writing. Journals, when assigned, are still an academic writing exercise. As a few threads here have addressed, the world has shifted, and students are exposed to many different types of communication media: Twitter, blogs, videos, Tumblrs, Instagram, etc. The list is endless and ever changing.

I am glad to see a few threads here addressing the issue I see. Some of the threads here are disturbing, because the blame for students not being able to write is being placed on our students and their use of technology/digital information. That is simply not fair to our students, and shows a lack of being able to think forward. We cannot continue to live in the past and expect students to perform in school the way we, as adults, were taught. We — the adults — need to also learn from where the world is going.

I am not saying students shouldn’t learn to analyze and evaluate. They need to learn to communicate their thoughts and knowledge, including this analysis and evaluation. It is our expectations of how they communicate this that must change. Is the standard 5 paragraph essay still necessary? What about a 90 second video? A powerpoint/prezi or some other presentation? It takes more skills to communicate visually. They must still get their ideas out in an orderly manner. They must make a thesis and support these ideas. Using visuals, doing a presentation, or some other mode of communication is JUST as valuable — and perhaps in our increasingly visual world — MORE important than just being able to write.

Teaching other modes of communication also allow us to differentiate the classroom, and perhaps allow students to shine in different ways. We cannot limit our world to text. Students with certain learning disabilities or those who are creative/artisitic may show you a different side of themselves when presented with the opportunity to use other modes of communication. Students who are well versed in writing are done a disservice if they are not encouraged to explore other modes of communication.

Writing is merely the beginning. By limiting ourselves in teaching history to this mode of communication, we limit our students.

“Successful” Students

The following is a response I wrote for a Coursera MOOC I’m taking, “The Art of Teaching History.”

In the video I’m responding to, the instructor talks about what he thinks makes a “successful” history student. I admit I bristled at this a bit. Who defines a “successful” student? I’m sure there are many definitions/thoughts about success. What is “successful” for one student is different than might be for another. I tried to watch the video with an open mind.

Anyway, here is the response I posted on the course forums:

A “Successful” History Student

I struggled with the definitions given for “successful history students.” They were:

  1. Knows history/significant knowledge of history
  2. Reads and writes well
  3. Thinks analytically and historically

I do agree with #3, but the first two give me pause. In my work, I teach and develop content about state history primarily for 6th grade students. Perhaps these definitions of success apply better at an older age — more like undergrad — but I can’t apply them to 6th grade, middle school, or even to high school.

If the knowledge of history was the measure of success, we’d be testing facts. We don’t want to do that. We want to engage students in history, give them a sense of their place in the world and how the past has influenced where we are — where THEY are — today. For 6th graders, we strive to build a base of historical knowledge, of course, but our measure of success is not that they know the date of statehood. We want them to understand the factors that created the state, what were the positives and negatives about how the state was made. Who were the players? How do past events impact them today. We want them to understand the “So What” questions — why does it matter that we study history. We want them to know HOW to find historical detail and information. It is not necessary that a 6th grader memorize minute details, dates and more.

I also feel strongly that teaching history is part of the process of creating readers and writers, but this is a text-centric approach. Students today need to be able go beyond text and into visuals, audio and more. Our culture is moving from only text into communicating strongly through visuals (images, art, video) and sound. Students of today need to be as fluent – if not more so- with these modes of communication. They also need to be able to express their knowledge through these modes. Producing a video requires many skills: organizing information, determining important and non-important information, creating a thesis, writing a script, choosing appropriate visuals and audio and more. This, to me, is far more than writing, and we as educators and parents are responsible to see that students can do all this. Focusing on the academic historical essay is doing a disservice to all students except those planning on graduate work in history — and can be saved for the high school or undergraduate work.

Digital Content

Being a digital content developer, I’m always on the lookout for articles about how schools are using/acquiring digital content.

Great article on Mindshift, “For Public Schools, the Long, Bumpy Road to Going Digital” brings up many good issues and possibilities.

7 year cycle: Schools are stuck in the 7 year curriculum cycle. I sat on a district curriculum committee and saw how it hampers any opportunity for teachers to be nimble and take advantage of new content and technology. As a developer, I know that things in the tech world change so fast, it’s impossible to say what will be available in 7 years. If it were my money, I’d never commit to any digital content for more than a year or two.

Expensive! Schools never have enough money to do what they need to do, and buying content/curriculum is no different. Yet, content is expensive to develop. Contrary to what many believe, digital content is actually more expensive to develop, not less. Sure, you don’t have to print a book, but really, printing the book is a miniscule expense compared to the time to develop good content. Things like video, audio and interactives take time and money to develop.

Free resources: There are some tremendous free online resources. Teachers often create excellent resources — but that is also expensive, or done on their own time (which is wrong.) There has to be a move to fund digital content development differently – not on the backs of the schools and teachers.

Flexibility and customization: Digital offers tremendous opportunities to customize content and how you use it. The future lies in the companies that can offer this flexible, customizable content that allows teachers to incorporate material in their curriculum, rather than the company dictating what the teacher does. Add a quiz? Sure. Have students cooperate on a writing assignment? Yup. Enable students to share their work? of course. Search for specific subjects, rather than using the text as the publisher printed it? You bet. These are all things that have to be enabled.

Destructive Homework

Yet another article about the negatives of homework. I’ve posted about homework so many times in the past, but can’t pass up another one.

A few things in this article popped out — the mom saying she has backed off being the homework dictator, for one. I’ve done that this year, and it’s been a godsend for both my daughter and myself. The funny thing is, very little of the day-to-day homework gets done anymore, yet somehow she is doing just as well, and even better, than before.

The destruction of family relationships due to homework is significant in our house. Homework is very, very difficult for my daughter. A full day of school exhausts her. She has no room left for homework. This has been the case her entire life. Hindsight is 20/20, but I wish I would have said no homework until she was in 5th grade or so. There were FAR too many evenings arguing over stupid worksheets. I am so grateful to my daughter for broadening my mind to see beyond my world view that academics and school are everything. Just because it was for my, and school was very easy for me does not mean it is always the case.

My daughter did a major shift in type of class this trimester, away from the AP classes to more creative classes. In the little homework she’s done, it’s been with great interest and attention. Guess what – it’s all been creative, problem-solving types of work, not paper based assignments. Art projects and visual demonstrations of learning have been approached with enthusiasm.

The homework question is one we are seriously considering when looking for a school for our son, who is entering 9th grade in the fall. The high schools we like also have a reputation for considerable homework. At one interview, we made it clear that we do not want hours of homework per night. Maybe they won’t admit him because of this, but I just can’t see four years of him spending 3-4 hours a night on homework. That would leave him no time for music, for relaxing, for exercise.

Video

Understanding Ukraine: The Problems Today and Some Historical Context – YouTube

I love John Green. He talks so fast, I think he gets in twice as much info as anyone else….

I cannot evaluate the content in this video, as I know next to nothing about the situation in Ukraine.

I do know, however, that John Green has nailed how students – and adults – learn. I learned more about the situation in this 6 minute video (which I watched twice) than I have in the last few weeks.

Green makes great use of using history to understand a current situation. There is really no way to understand what’s going on there without knowing the history, but he does a great job moving through the essentials, and demonstrating how history, geography and politics all contribute to the current situation.

Wouldn’t it be great if students were empowered to do this type of assignment? Not only does video production require writing (like a paper), it also requires visual literacy skills. Yeah! 21st century skills!

Professionally, I would love to be able to produce content out this quickly as it relates to current events. I’m not keeping my fingers crossed….