I want to share our first “project” in American Studies and the philosophy behind it. First of all, it will not really be a project at all. When the students and I started looking at the standards for this year we noticed that there was a ton of overlap with last year’s standards for Global Studies. In particular both classes include WWI, WWII, and the Cold War. The standards do have a bit more of a domestic focus but some of them are practically identical. These standards are also a big chunk (approximately 25%) of the “power” standards for this year.
I felt like my students did a very nice job with WWI and WWII last year and have a good understanding of these events. Their level on the Cold War was not quite as deep though. So we decided to start the year by reviewing WWI, WWII, and how WWII led to the origins to the Cold War. We will return to the rest of the Cold War later this year. We will spend only two weeks on this and end with a test. Of course the test will be like last year’s test: open internet and collaborative.
Why are we doing this? Quite simply I hate standardization but I am forced to teach the state standards. So to paraphrase a story told to me by a colleague about a conversation he had with Dennis Littky of Big Picture school. At their school students are encouraged to study their passions. My friend asked him how they deal with standards. Dennis told him, “You do what you have to do.” So they cram all of the standards in at the beginning with students knowing that they are working hard so that they will have space in the year to explore their passions later. So that is my motivation here.
We are going to knock out a big chunk of standards at the beginning in order to create space later in the year for students to dig deep into their individual (or group) passions related to being an American citizen. Since this is our second year together I already know what those interests are for most of the students. So this is why I have a vague idea of how this year will end but am extremely excited because I expect my students to decide to do some amazing work to make our world a better place.
There is a Save Our Schools March in Washington D.C. this week. I can’t go but here is my contribution to the discussion.
Still thinking about passion as a major part of student learning. I have a lot of rambling thoughts in my brain right now and this is my attempt to organize them a bit so help me out where it does not make sense.
One thing that has me thinking about passion is the path of my life-long learning. I was an excellent student and great at “playing the game” of school. I knew how to listen, read, take notes, and pass tests. I was also convinced at the time that I was “smarter” than most people. This was a major part of my adolescent identity. I now look back and see that I was just better at playing the game than others, and lacked many problem-solving skills.
After I returned to the US from teaching English in China, I started working for the largest commercial concrete construction company in our area. My skill level was mostly as a laborer in residential concrete. I had a foreman who became my mentor and trained me to be a legitimate concrete finisher. After that I watched others being trained. The difference I saw between myself and some of them was that I did not naturally figure out how to finish concrete. I needed to be taught directly just like in school. I saw other guys who experimented and figured it out on their own. I began to recognize a skill set that they had toward problem-solving that I lacked. It was a standing joke that I asked questions about everything, especially “why.” But eventually I became an expert at knowing what to do after I understood the reasoning behind things.
The other thing I have been thinking about are my “strengths” and “weaknesses.” In school, I was a math/science kid. I hated English (writing) and thought history was a waste of time. In college I had to take one philosophy class and saved it for my senior year because I knew I would hate something so impractical. When I finally took philosophy I loved the class and wished I had minored in it. I decided to become a teacher when I returned from China. I loved learning about the culture and history of China so I majored in history. This year on the National Day of Writing I wrote for “fun” for the first time in my life by my own choice.
So I would have never chosen philosophy as a passion until I experienced an actual class in it. I don’t think I would have ever chosen writing or history in high school either. I needed to mature and have more life experiences for when I was ready to learn these topics.
Maybe the key is I know how to learn and how to access learning. I can now learn anything that I want to because the tools are easily accessible. Maybe the key to schools should be teaching how to learn and exposing kids to as many learning opportunities as possible and let them run with the ones that are most interesting to them at the time and trust the future for them to learn about the “standards” that they might miss while they are pursuing their passions.