Some Musings on Reparations, Teaching Civil Discourse and Collective Memory.

Blog. It has been a while. The drafts of post that linger for a year, (but not quite years yet..) because of perfectionism ceases for a moment. Forgive the lack of proofreading.

What is the trend line of my most recent thinking? One of my good friends and colleagues often says that I am interested in everything, and he doesn’t know how long I will hold onto an idea until I jump to a new passion or idea. He means this as a compliment (I think). For me, it is a muddled web most of the time. How could my interest in comparing governments connect to my fascination with Gilded Age Boston, and then the politics and history of memory and memorialization? Sitting at the lunch break for the Universities and Slavery Conference at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard is one of those moments where I start to sort out my tangled web of ideas I am mulling over…so bear with me as I jump around a bit.

My junior year independent study at St. Lawrence was on the lack of official public recognition about the French complicity in the Holocaust. This was inspired by a single comment in the Caen peace museum when one of my professors (Bruce Weiner) lauded the fact that the Caen museum actually acknowledges this component of French history. Junior year I took the topic on. Russo’s The Vichy Syndrome became a core part of the way I thought about the role of collective memory. I traveled to France thanks to a research grant to look at the way French museums talk about World War II. (Everyone was in the resistance was the main conclusion, excuse the sarcasm). My interest in this topic was not radical as I picked up a new book in the Logan airport, Sarah’s Key that had invited this topic back into consciousness.

Fast forward to yesterday, when I was teaching AP Comparative Government and talking about the legacy of colonialism for developing countries (a theoretical introduction to the unit before we study Mexico and Nigeria) and I was struck yet again by questions of responsibility. What is the Western World’s responsibility in former colonies where they erased traditional leadership, supported feudal authority and then left? How do those countries “Get to Denmark” (we had just read parts of Fukyama’s Origins of the Political Order) ? I found myself again coming back to the notion of reparations, writing it on the board and asking my students if it applied here as a possible solution? What form would it take in this case, when in a statement that is astounding lack of political correctness one of the Nigerian interviewees says, “the British should come back”. The Director of the Royal African society was our next video, who talked about the profound lack of self-confidence as an important legacy of colonialism. Jury is still out on how I think about these sources….

A few weeks ago in Art History we looked at art theft, and considered the Rape of Europa. Again, reparations to Maria Altmann seep into that story of paying for past crimes as a small attempt to repair several layers of violation of a social contract. When I applied for my MALS program at Dartmouth (which I have set aside for a variety of reasons) I wanted to enter the creative writing program. I wanted to begin to experiment with the role of historical fiction in the history classroom. I was specifically curious what would happen if we made students write from the perspective of Nazis, it is much easier to empathize with the victim, but how do we help students understand the systems and modes of thinking that led to the perpetrators acting the way that they did (without become apologists)?

And now I find myself at this conference. The topic of reparations began the conversation with a keynote address this morning by Ta-Nahisi Coates. As he was queried about his “Case for Reparations” piece, he challenged Universities “to make the language of Reparations respectable”. On Monday of this week, Dr. Eddie Moore visited our school to kick off a student led unconference day on the topic of privilege. In the smaller conference setting he outlined the system of white supremacy for our students and how the “mission statement of the United States” entrenched in the constitution and Declaration of Independence was only a reality 3% of the time. When I probed him about what constituted the 3%, and what would have to happen to shift the bar for him, he said reparations; and that he believed we give too much credit for basic human treatment.

I am reminded of “This is Water” by David Foster Wallace. I am reminded of the debate about the role of media in our society and positionality, how much can the media give the public unbiased facts with which to make up their minds about society, and how much does their experience in the world always color their interpretation? What is the water we swim in right now that we don’t even recognize? Is it mass incarceration? Is it rape culture? Is it the fact that our conspicuous consumption is propped up by workers who have few rights and make less than $1 a day?

I am also struck by the challenge of turning the lens inward. How do we have this conversation without alienating people? Coates said some people will be “affirmatively ignorant” and yet the parts of his talk I found most compelling are when he ventured into different territory pondering, “would we cease to function if we had to acknowledge it was THAT bad?” Another scholar on the panel, James Campbell, later talked about PTSD and the notion that societies can collectively experience trauma. Coates said we have to do more than call the “affirmatively ignorant” people “deplorable” as Hillary did, we have to ask WHY they are deplorable?

Most surprisingly in one of his final comments he said something along the lines of: “I am not an activist, I am a writer. ‘The Case for Reparations’ was part of my journey to understand the Civil war. The question about reparations is answered for me. Yes.” He then spoke of how being a writer means he needs to pursue the questions most captivating for him at that moment. I wondered about this, and while he says as a society we have a responsibility to acknowledge this plunder, but at the same time pivots away from calling himself an activist. Yet he also encouraged playwrights and artists to reconsider the images we have of the antebellum South (Gone with the Wind) and change that, to become activists of sorts. I think I can affirm that anyone should pursue the questions they find most compelling, but at the same time how do we have this conversation if people can pivot away from it? Some of the comments from the crowd asked how to we can lead the uninterested to water and “make drinking attractive”? This seems to be a central question: how to convert the ignorant to be less ignorant? (essentially the task of educators)- but on a single way of thinking that is absolute truth… which I am wary of.

Yet I am also teaching American History with the most politically engaged group of students (conservative and liberal) that I have ever worked with. Every day I wonder if I am being true to my belief in free speech and open discourse in education. I am intimately aware of the power I have to direct the way students think, and wonder how much do they parrot my ideas back at me? How much room do I leave them to disagree? How can I be balanced in an age of Donald Trump? Probably a question for another post, but I can’t help but feel the question of how to talk about this is intimately linked to how we invite civil discourse into our classrooms even at the expense of the beliefs that ground our ideas? The University of Chicago’s Statement about Free Expression seems to be the closest thing I can come to supporting, but I still do have questions about the role of power dynamics in free speech even at universities.

Sven Beckart’s is an organizer of the conference and his A Global History of Cotton (which I will admit is lingering on my bedside table beneath a pile of student essays, bookmark starting to impress the pages) inspires a new class we will offer next year, Advanced History of the West. A combination of AP US and AP Euro in a two-year course that rejects the notion of the history of America existing as a topic we can study independent of global events. Textbooks we use have been doing this for a long time, but we still require a year of “US history” to graduate- it seems a nationalistic project to our department we are excited to poke holes in. How will a study of the constitution be enhanced by genuine time to cover the Enlightenment? How will we consider the world that the African Slave Trade made in a more global context?

The lunch break is ending. Natasha Trethewey, Vincent Brown and a panel on “Slavery at Harvard” are up next..

On Storytelling

There are a few things that happen when a new acquaintance unfamiliar to the world of education learns that I am a teacher. Subsequent inquiries are frequently made about what age level and subject I teach. When I respond that I teach high school, it seems to open a neural pathway to a pool of teenage memories. Those who smile dreamily thinking of their high school sagas I often believe were popular jocks, and those who grimace seem to resent me for reminding them of the acne, cliques and heartbreak. When I mention that I teach history, they either light up and state their avowed love for the discipline or confess their lack of aptitude. Nearly everyone shares something about a history teacher. These teachers are characterized as either master storytellers or resented date-drillers. They often cite a renewed adult interest in history courtesy of a Ken Burns documentary. What strikes me most is the detail with which people of all ages remember the storyteller teacher.

See the rest of my reflection on my summer study in Scotland here. It was posted a few weeks ago on The Lamp, Holderness School’s space for sharing ideas about education and the teaching profession.

The sweeping views and cobblestone streets of Edinburgh, Scotland, provided the perfect setting for Kelsey Berry to study the many stories and narrators of history.

Why Study History?: Thoughts on the Job of a Historian for History Teachers

A junior student asked me last May, during dorm duty, “Ms. Berry–What can you do with a history degree?”

Me: (joking) “You mean, besides do what I do?”

Student: (sheepishly) “Well… yes.”

Me: (in my best saleswomen voice with the goal of admiring her foresight, but also lessening her anxiety about the college process )…

I spoke somewhat apprehensively about the skills that are developed at a liberal arts school, and in the humanities especially (and noted this was from my limited perspective/experience). We discussed how the job she will likely do, probably has not yet been created... it was definitely an unintentional plug for the liberal arts approach. Then I spoke about being interested in what you are studying, and how important that is to success.

But I need a better answer to this question, “why study history?” While education is the focus of my career so far, why history education?  I have been with 30 teachers for the past week (mostly history, some English and one librarian) studying Thomas Jefferson and the Enlightenment. As we debate the enigmatic character of the father of both the Declaration of Independence and slave Sally Hemmings’ children (likely), we were constantly trying to reconcile competing images of a hero of the American national story. Should we care that he was a slave owner? He was a “man of his time”… but the argument goes, he was also “not a man of his times” (all men are created equal, unalienable rights etc). What is the historian’s job? What is the history teacher’s job? Is it to defend Jefferson? Apologize for Jefferson? Indict Jefferson? Are these even the right questions to be asking? (also these questions are at the heart of the AP US curriculum debate). The opinions and ideas of this group of teachers had me asking…what does it mean to be a historian? Perhaps, if I try to define the role I play in regards to Jefferson’s story, then I can ask a better question.

What is the job description of a historian? Often historians are teachers, and sometimes a teacher would identify as a historian. Are “professional” historians just those with a PhD?  What about the mental engines behind small town historical societies? But what exactly does a historian do? Study the past is the simplest description. So how do they study? It seems that the historian appropriates/adopts the methodology of other professions as they seek to study the past. What is the job description, then, of the history teacher? To facilitate burgeoning historians? To model being a historian? So then I return to my first question: what is the job description of a historian? A few ideas…

Tell stories.                      

Historians can be story tellers in the tradition of Herodotus.

Investigate the data.      

Historians can be scientists of the past, carefully measuring data with the precision of a chemist, but their scientific method is foiled by the countless  unknown variables.

Weigh the evidence.    

Historians can be lawyers, carefully weighing the available evidence to judge the past.

Listen and analyze.      

Historians can be psychologists, poring over diaries and letters with a Freudian lens judging sexuality, phobias and temperaments.

Architects of a national story.     

Historians can be politician-soldiers , “Defenders of the Faith” whatever that faith may be, if their hero is Thomas Jefferson, if their historical satan is Thomas Jefferson, some historians are in the business of defending the fairy tale given by the storytellers to young children.

Time travelers. 

Historians can yearn to be anthropologists as well, and travel back in time and live among and study their subjects, one reason for the many historical reenactments.

The verb “to reconcile” seems closest to the work I do with my students. See the Google definition below. The french word conciliare means “bring together”. How do we reconcile, or bring together the view of Jefferson as the author of words below yet also the view of him as salesmen of humans, and more contentiously, a rapist by modern standards?

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”

Reconciliation has a positive connotation, but when a historian does it, is it a positive thing? Seeking to reconcile is an important part of the historian’s job, but we should, perhaps, clarify that it is a constant state of trying to reconcile, rather than asking students to square a circle. The hardest part of teaching history, I find, is the lack of a “right answer” for students. However, it is also my answer to “why study history”? There is no right answer, but seeking to answer, seeking to reconcile the irreconcilable, is not only a practice in critical thinking, but a constant acknowledgement of human complexity. Jefferson is the archetype of a historical paradox, a walking contradiction, and he is not unique.

Rudulph Evans’s statue of Thomas Jefferson was mounted in the Jefferson Memorial in 1947, four years after the memorial opened, Washington, D.C. Highsmith, Carol M., 1946-, photographer,

James Akin. “A Philosophic Cock,” Newburyport, Massachusetts, c. 1804. Hand-colored aquatint. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts (140),

reconcile ˈrɛk(ə)nsʌɪl verb
verb: reconcile; 3rd person present: reconciles; past tense: reconciled; past participle:reconciled; gerund or present participle: reconciling
  1. 1.
    restore friendly relations between.
    “the king and the archbishop were publicly reconciled”
    • settle (a quarrel).
      “advice on how to reconcile the conflict”
      synonyms: reunite, bring (back) together (again), restore friendly relations between, restore harmony between, make peace between, resolve differences between, bring to terms; More

      “the news reconciled us”
      settle, resolve, patch up, sort out, smooth over, iron out, put to rights, mend, remedy, heal, cure, rectify
      “the quarrel was reconciled”
      antonyms: estrange, alienate
    • make or show to be compatible.
      “the agreement had to be reconciled with the city’s new international relations policy”
      synonyms: make compatible, harmonize, square, make harmonious,synthesize, make congruent, cause to be in agreement, cause to sit happily/easily with; More

      “it wasn’t easy trying to reconcile his religious beliefs with his career”
    • make someone accept (a disagreeable or unwelcome thing).
      “he was reconciled to leaving”
      synonyms: accept, come to accept, resign oneself to, come to terms with, learn to live with, get used to, make the best of, submit to, accommodate oneself to, adjust oneself to, become accustomed to, acclimatize oneself to; More

      grin and bear it;
      informallike it or lump it
      “the creditors had to reconcile themselves to drastic losses of income and capital”
  2. 2.
    make (one account) consistent with another, especially by allowing for transactions begun but not yet completed.
    “it is not necessary to reconcile the cost accounts to the financial accounts”
late Middle English: from Old French reconcilier or Latin reconciliare, from Latin re- ‘back’ (also expressing intensive force) + conciliare ‘bring together’.

Introducing The Lamp! “Working Where you Live, Living Where You Work”: Work Life Balance at a Residential School

The Lamp Cover Page

Check out The Lamp, Holderness School’s new place for conversations about teaching and learning! (better viewed on Safari than Chrome at the moment). My first post is about work-life balance at a residential school.

Work-Life Balance. From some very quick research, this phrase seems to have first been employed in England in the 1970s in New Ways to Work and the Working Mothers’ Association in the United Kingdom. Historically the creation of a dichotomy between work and play is an industrial concept. Time away from work was a byproduct of the industrial revolution. While often this “time” was limited to Sundays because of long working hours, the separation of work from the home was perhaps as big a shift in human history as the agricultural revolution was to hunter-gatherers. So the notion of work-life balance isn’t very old, perhaps 100 years for the United States.

The language we use to describe this balance came from another historical event — women in the Western world’s entry into colleges, universities, and some boardrooms. The curious world wondered, how can they run the company and have company for dinner? Women were told “they could have it all” with newly won rights such as Title IX, and Roe v. Wade (1973). Setting an almost impossible standard for women, the idea of “everything” – the job, the family and the freshly baked bread – erased any notion of balance (see video below). More recently the phrase has been employed across the gender line to discuss the tentacles of technology bringing work into the home.

Check out the rest here...

The AP US History Controversy, Liberal Bias and History as the Study and Practice of Drawing Conclusions

The new AP United States history framework has prompted a lot of controversy. The media has picked it up in waves, first last summer, then in September with the sick-outs in Colorado, over the winter with the debates in Georgia, and most recently with the Oklahoma bill that has now been pulled for further review. Often the headlines describing the movement against the curriculum are laughable, employ Orwellian language, and references to North Korea and totalitarianism abound.

My AP classes were discussing the Scopes Monkey Trial and the culture wars of the 1920s (often cited as a parallel in reports on the AP US debates) while the Oklahoma debates were happening. There was a parallel between Foner’s discussion of the fundamentalists in our textbook and the technique of labeling opponents of the new framework with these volatile, extremist words. I recognized, perhaps begrudgingly, that there is a lot of support to revise the standards, just as there was a lot of support to enact Prohibition, the 1924 Immigration Act, teaching creationism etc. However my making that connection may be part of my liberal bias. Although at times the supporters of the move to revert to the old AP standards are sometimes comical in their description and clearly lack of understanding of the curriculum (I pleaded with my students that the curriculum should not make them want to join ISIS), I wondered about what they really seem to be objecting to, the “liberal takeover” of history education. Is education, especially higher education intrinsically liberal? Do the opponents of the curriculum want a nationalist curriculum? Or am I misunderstanding them? Is it liberal to consider how liberal my curriculum is? It can not be that simple. Maybe it is. I used this current event to discuss historiography, and the idea of revisionist history, but also the importance of looking for point of view in everything.

We started first with a list of quotes about the study of history, several from the approved documents list from the Oklahoma Bill.

America was not built on fear. America was built on courage, on imagination and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand. –Harry S Truman (approved source)

Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death! –Patrick Henry (approved source)

The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults. –Alexis de Tocqueville (approved source)

I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past. –Thomas Jefferson (approved source)

The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice. –Mark Twain

History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again. –Maya Angelou

That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history. –Aldous Huxley

Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe. –H. G. Wells

The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history. –George Orwell

There is an old saying about those who forget history. I don’t remember it, but it is good. –Stephen Colbert

Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) “The New Colossus” [titled “Sonnet” in notebook] 1883. Manuscript poem, bound in journal. Courtesy of the American Jewish Historical Society, New York and Newton Centre, Massachusetts (41)

Jacob August Riis, Lodgers in a Crowded Bayard Street Tenement–“Five Cents a Spot”, 1889, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art


Then we looked at the composition of the sources on the Oklahoma bill. Many reports about the bill noted the lack of diversity in the sources (which my own quote list above probably wouldn’t stand up to either) nearly every article about the bill highlighted fact that the ten commandments made the list of 52 documents, the 4 documents by women, the single document (of surrender) by a native American, and the five documents from non-white men (non from non-white women). Of these 52 documents, only 2 are truly critical of the United States. What many articles and reports failed to note however, is that within the new curriculum framework, I taught 90% of these 52 documents, however I also taught many documents that showed an alternative “America”. For example, their summer work included a document-based question about American exceptionalism, which they wrote after reading Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City. They read Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus” but they also considered a Jacob Riis photograph. As we considered the Oklahoma Bill I had the students check off which ones they knew, highlight in different colors those sources that were written by members of a minority group, and asked them to try and come up with a primary source that might contradict or challenge each of the 52 sources. It became a review lesson as well.

I was left wondering, is the critique of with the new curriculum that the conclusion many students come to after a consideration of both sources often finds America lacking? A student last year came into class a few weeks in and said, “Ms. Berry, I like this class, but I do not like America anymore.” Georgia students protesting the legislation to limit funding to the AP had an interesting take on this “anti-America” trend in AP textbooks, “As someone who is directly affected by this class every day, I must say that statement is false. Students in Gwinnett County are taught about the positive effects the United States has had on the world since we are in elementary school.” 

In trying to understand the bill, and the impulses in American society behind it, how do I avoid the liberal bias? By naming it? Is it “liberal” to name bias, even if it is reflective?

More links:


Design the Revolution! Step 1: Who is the User? Reflections on NAIS Conference


Traditional Classroom (Wikipedia)

Modern American Classroom (Wikipedia)

My Classroom- Video Conferencing in Comparative Government with Wen Ho about his trip to North Korea (a connection made at KSI!) Photo by Emily Magnus

“Education is the only thing a person from 1915 would recognize” serial educational entrepreneur Brian Bordainick said at the annual NAIS conference this past weekend. But ever since I tweeted it I have been wondering about the implications of this statement. My classroom doesn’t look like it did in 1915, and I know this is not just because I work in an independent school (which can actually be more “traditional” at times in classroom architecture but I acknowledge has more room to maneuver). What about the art classroom? The Harkness Table? This critique isn’t entirely original, and has been a common comment of our educational system since, well, forever. I also hesitate at that idea that education is the “only” thing that would be recognized by a 1915 time traveler. What about class divisions? hymns? the recreation of bygone eras for amusement?(see footnote 1 for the digression). One of my favorite time-traveling observers is Simon Rich’s “Herschel” character. While historical fiction and imagining time-travel or subjunctive history it is a great way to test a student’s understanding I wonder at the co opting of the historical narrative for any argument… because often it is portrayed singularly, and there is danger in a single story as Chimamanda Adichie reminded us. The next day at the conference Southern New Hampshire University President Paul LeBlanc referenced the leveling of the music industry in the 1990’s and the surge of innovation that followed, and noted that the “schools at the bottom” have the gift of “urgency and a sense of crises” that push innovation. However, I think both of these observations fail to recognize that while the goals of the music industry have remained the same (to make music and money), and that innovation seems to start best as a response to failure, the goals of education have fundamentally shifted while at the same time staying very much the same.

This shift/non-shift is in the “user” of education. This is not a simple answer, who are the users of education in America? The variability and complexity of the answer to this question is what makes it so hard to define a solution. Sir Ken Robinson’s comment about needing to move beyond the industrial model of education resonated, because something has changed, and the model needs to adapt, but what precisely has changed? How has it changed? Why has it changed? Should it change?

The theme of the conference was centered around design thinking. I still can not clearly define it, but I did have some experience with this framework at KSI this past summer- see my post about redesigning the first day of school here. If we were to actually “design the revolution” what might it look like? The panel on the future of education in the general session was fascinating (I particularly enjoyed Nannerl Keohane’s citation of Alice Freeman Parker’s Why Go to College? Essay ) but too often it seemed to start not with the first step of design thinking, empathy, but with a definition of problems. This is not to say that the panel hadn’t practice plenty of empathy behind their ideas, but if we, as a society, do not define the user, we have a glaring blind spot in the design process. The definition of the user is, perhaps the hardest part. Liz Davis at EdcampIS last Saturday described it well: “Design thinking doesn’t start with the problem, you have to define user first, empathize and then identify the problem.” Let me restate that: If we define the problem before the user we are working in our blind spot. For example, if I start by asking the questions: what is the problem with education in America? or What is the problem with the schedule at a residential school? There are the initial answers if you don’t employ the empathy step first…Much like trying to define the “user” in a “schools” schedule, the variety and definition of the user for education in America becomes the central issue. The entrepreneur isn’t afraid to try new things, and is an important approach as Brian Bordainick has reminded us, but that step comes after the definition of the user in design thinking (the test stage). John Maeda, another speaker at the conference shared his leadership style as including not only the willingness to fail and try new things, but also the importance of empathy and having office hours and time to listen (first college president on twitter too!)

I am left with many questions. Thank you NAIS for keeping me thinking.

  • Locally what role does design thinking have for Holderness School? For my classroom? [Stay tuned for a post about my experiments with Mastery Based Assessment]
  • What does the “revolution” look like for
    • a residential independent boarding school? How are our traditions, and intentional community counter-cultural? What does this mean for the future?
    • a residential liberal arts college like the one I attended? cost-value of the $60,000/year price tag
    • the economy? Does the educational model drive the economy or does the economy drive the educational model?
    • for society? How does society change through education, or does how education change through society?
Education in America Schedule at a Residential School
Defining the problem pre-empathy….working in the “blind-spot”??? (summary of common statements about the “problem”)

(from my limited teacher perspective)

  • Not enough time in the day
  • We don’t go to school enough
  • Kids and Teachers are over-scheduled
  • Can’t do everything well as a “triple-threat” faculty member
Empathy Who is the user?

  • Teachers (Public, Private, Charter, Independent, Home-school)
  • Students (Public, Private, Charter, Independent, Home-school)
  • Administrators
  • Families
  • The World (via MOOCS?)
  • Employers?
Who is the user?

Faculty Families
The often-small town communities? (remember non-profit tax benefits)

Define How would the definition of the problem be different if there was an empathy step first? How would the definition of the problem be different if there was an empathy step first?

I do not have the answers. Please comment if you are interested in sharing any projects that you know that are in the ideate, prototype or test phase! = any sort of innovation that is trying to solve problems in education, casting a wide-net here. How would you define the user?




1. For example the 18th century costumes in To Catch a Thief  and the modern obsessions with the Gilded Age and the 1920s.

Back to the Drawing Board

Back to the Drawing Board

I was recently reminded I even have a blog by a mentor I was lucky enough to run into at the NAIS conference in Boston yesterday. I just counted: 15 drafts of posts each awaiting my perfectionism to publish. The demands of life always seem to come first… putting that reality aside for a minute, here is my foray back into the virtual world of online teaching and learning. (Also I recently remembered I had a Twitter handle, when asked what it was after beginning to tweet again yesterday, I had to look it up.)

This experience of feeling like I am somehow failing at my goals of being an innovative educator is a representative of how my classes have gone this year, post Klingenstein Summer Institute. My classroom is my laboratory, in theory and in practice. I hope to post soon about my trials and errors with competency based assessment experiments with seniors and sophomores. Yet, in my AP US class, I feel like I am the Benjamin Button of innovative teaching, I started with all of these ideas and goals, and have become more traditional, not the other way around. Sure we use tech every day, and there is a Harkness discussion once a week, we use multimedia, and different platforms to go over the content, but it is still teacher centered.

What happened? Why did my twitter handle fall silent? Why did I stop innovating in that class? Why did I fall out of the blog-o-sphere? Well here is what happened.

I wanted to do a good job.

I wanted to prepare my students for an AP exam to help catapult them to the college classroom and in doing so I reverted to the traditional, teacher centered model of education.  My diligent students are suspicious and often resentful of paradigm shifts. They (and this is cultural) are so focused on college and outcomes rather than process that my student-centered approaches were too scary and new to use on an unwelcoming audience.  I can easily empathize with their outcome-driven mentality- I felt that pressure as a student–it is the culture they are in. They have signed up for my AP class with the college process in mind, even if they genuinely love history.  I let my empathy for the students in the “sausage machine” of college admissions distract me. They were/are more comfortable with my role as the “bastion of knowledge”… perhaps I was/am too.

What is even more disappointing about my “regression” is that the new AP US curriculum doesn’t require you to have a content driven course anymore. Although the textbook companies haven’t quite caught up, (even my excellent new text Give Me Liberty! by Eric Foner isn’t structured to support it.) I don’t have to teach the way I was taught. But I do. I teach via my relationships with the students, a bit of personality, and knowledge of the subject. But too rarely do I give students the opportunity to drive the course.

A new colleague reminded the entire school in chapel talk last week of the importance of optimism. He is new to the school this year, and he commented on the common-place phrase he has picked up over the past six months “that will never happen.” I am reminded at NAIS, as I am inspired by the innovation around me, of the importance of rejecting that statement.

How do I shift the paradigm about teaching and learning from the bottom up in my classroom? How I do I counter all of the grade-motivated, college motivated, outcome based culture even in my AP class? Of course I hope we can do this on an institutional and cultural level, but in my “cog” of School House classroom #3, how can I shift the paradigm?

I have to go back to the drawing board. Practice some design thinking. Doodle. And most importantly never again say, “I can’t do that because it is AP.” I can do it. What “it” is I am not sure yet, but I will let you know.

“Hi, nice to meet you. I am Ms. Berry. Have we met before?”

Whew….I knew this was going be hard to keep up, but the expression “haven’t come up for air yet” seems apt for the first few weeks of school. I drafted a post about the night before the first day of meetings, then meetings happened and it no longer seemed honest. I drafted a post about orientation activities, and then was on a three day hike with no internet access. I drafted a post about some ideas for the first day of school, and then I did something different. I know. Lame. Excuses.

Here I am. Block 1X, Tuesdays 10:30-11:50. An 80 minute block reserved just for this little blog. Every Tuesday practice “reflective teaching”….before I get to each lunch (I, like my dog can be motivated by food).

This semester I am teaching 63 students. Nearly half of them I have taught before which poses some interesting observations about how the introductory week goes (they already know I prefer the latte to the apple) I am wary of referencing past classrooms with them too much, as it is not inclusive to the new students; yet I am excited they remember things from last year! So much of the first week is about establishing expectations, classroom norms, and the students ascertaining just exactly how they should behave. The students who have had me before go through this assessment much more quickly than those who are new to my classroom. Yet, there is something about the rebirth of a teacher and a student that happens in September that merits consideration. This is a new group. A new year. A chance to start fresh, start with, quite appropriately, a clean slate. I am a different teacher than last year. The process changes you. One more year of experience has changed me. Most notably, the intense two weeks at Klingenstein in June, and a summer of thinking about teaching even as I fell asleep, changed me.

Last year I was full steam ahead in the first week. This was based on a belief that I had so much to do, might as well dive in head first. This was problematic. I have slowed the pace a bit this year. In AP US, for example, we are taking our time to focus on the work they did in the summer. Last year, the assignment included four historical monographs, they had to pick one and compose an essay. We (the two AP US teachers) tried to use these monographs and the students knowledge throughout the year to make it relevant. Unfortunately, by the time it came to talk about Martha Ballard, the book was not fresh in their minds that were full of fear of failure in an AP, stress, wanting to prove themselves on Varsity X, disappointment over not making Varsity X, the boy/girl sitting next to them. The kids who wrote excellent essays a month earlier couldn’t access them easily.

This year we had them read Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, and answer a DBQ question about American Exceptionalism. Check it out below, or here. The Gilded Age is a complicated time, and a challenging period for students on the exam. With a chronological approach, it often falls in January. Which in New Hampshire is cold and dark, and did I mention cold? I think it is also challenging because it is the convergence of so many different themes/narratives. It is not just about industrialization, it is not just about corruption, it is not just about progressivism, populism, or monetary issues, it isn’t just about imperialism, or dealing with the legacy of the Civil War and reconstruction, it isn’t just about the beginning of a “modern-looking” America-it is about all of these things. All periods are complex, but the Gilded Age is harder to distill into clear content objectives you can count on your hand. So we thought, let’s have them focus on it in the summer and spend a week discussing it; establish some basic level of skills and introduce the expectations of the course.

Jury is still out. But I am optimistic, I can use this unit and summer work again.

It is day three of AP US. Check out the backwards planning (Understanding By Design style with a Performance Based Assessment: thank you #ksi14 ) for the unit here,. Today they discussed a set of multiple-choice questions (I wrote feverishly last night, trying to use the new AP language)  in groups, and then as a class. Through observation I was able to see their different personalities, what prior knowledge of US history they bring to the class and how well they played with others (they had to come to a group consensus). As it was a long block, they then looked at feedback on their summer essays and drafted an action plan for revision.

It seems greedy to steal a week from our already limited time together (ahem 90 class meetings to prepare them for the AP yikes), but I learned so much about them as current students (not who they were last year) from today’s observation. Tonight they are facing some short answer-style questions on the same sources, but individually.

Questions I still have:

  • Will they remember this in January? Will it be useful to them?
  • Do the few who do not have a good base of prior knowledge feel under-prepared for the class? They shouldn’t. It is early.
  • Is this (relative) sacrifice of a week worth it?

Other notes on the first few days:

  • Senior electives are fun! I had students write a “positionality” essay considering how their experiences and identity influence the way they think…my favorite papers to read all year. Check out the introduction to the prompt here. More on how this is going next week.
  • Bringing local history into my Research Methods class. I was worried students would find it boring. Got an email on Saturday night asking to see more local pictures. Too early to pronounce victory, but, cough. Victory!

Question for the Blog-o-sphere: 

How important is the first week to establish the norms, expectations of a classroom? I am introducing myself as Ms. Berry, but what does that mean in September of 2014? It is different than September 2013.


And so it begins again….soon

It has been nearly a month since I left the Klingenstein Summer Institute, and school (meetings) start in one precisely one month. This month, I have been doing a lot of driving and I find car trips do give me time to think (especially when you are commuting across rural New Hampshire and there is no radio….the scan button just keeps on going through all the numbers, seriously).  I have been thinking about teaching and what I want to accomplish next year….and I am overwhelmed. I want to institute authentic assessment practices through Standards Based Assessment. I am thankful to everyone on the blogosphere who I has published their work and I hope to do the same here on this blog. These questions are still in my mind:

1. How do I introduce this paradigm shift to students? I want to generate student buy-in, but not ever hear “well we can turn stuff in again and there aren’t grades) because this seems to have the opposite effect I want. I do not want to scare them away with a 20 page handout on all the standards of the course, or for that matter, even a two page handout. They have to survive in a grade driven world outside of my classroom, I know I will introduce this gradually…but, by next week’s post, I hope to have a plan for HOW exactly.

2. Can I keep track of all of this? Our new learning management system, Canvas has a “mastery” grade book. I have been painfully putting each of the standards in and changing the language to (Proficient, Partially Proficient and Not Proficient….I also worry these words are too fixed mindset but that is a whole ‘nother can of worms). It will show students what they are proficient in (green), what they are working on (yellow) and what they haven’t mastered (red). I then also have to put “assignments” into the gradebook portion for them. Cross your fingers…if Canvas crashes mid grading through the year at all (as my last lms did, we won’t name names ahem-oodle), the Google drive chart I had created and planned to use for each student will have been the better choice after alll… more on this next week.

3. Should I teach Handwriting?  I am interested in having students keep a journal of all of their work. This may seem like a silly question, but at first I thought it should be  in a google drive folder, but this article and anecdotal evidence has me reconsidering. I know my AP students need practice handwriting things but should I have them keep a physical journal? Should I have all of my classes keep a journal?

Have a great week!

A Perpetual State of Renaissance?: Applications and Interpretation of the Growth Mindset for Independent Schools

Dr. Derald Wing Sue spoke about micro-aggressions to an audience of the Klingenstein Young Teacher’s Institute and the two-summers masters cohort last weekend. He showed two film clips. This new advertisement from Verizon represents micro-aggressions towards young girls, but also, the development of a fixed mindset. By telling her she was a “pretty” girl and emphasizing how she looked, this was establishing a mindset that told her she could not succeed in the math and sciences. I am struggling to differentiate and understand the interplay between “fixed mindset”, “stereotype threat” and “micro-aggressions”. I find them all interrelated, but have yet to find a schema that presents a cohesive picture of how these different social behaviors play out and interact.

Dr. Kelley Nicholson-Flynn’s citations of Carol Dweck’s work on “mindset”, and Steele and Aronson’s “Stereotype Threat and the Intellectual Test Performance of African Americans”, and Whistling Vivaldi on “stereotype threat” left me with a lot of reading for application in my classroom; but I think it also applies to some of the readings I did for today about enacting change in the culture of our institutions. I have two case studies of schools I have worked with to present in this post; I will refer to them as my “alma mater”, and my “current school” rather than their names, as I believe the virtue of comparing them is not to advertise the individual institutions (I have high opinions of both of them, as you well see) but rather what their two different approaches illuminate about ways of enacting change, and a adopting broader “growth mindset” approach to the school culture

As Dr. Pearl Rock Kane was speaking to us about how to institute change in our schools, I kept reverting back to the notion that our institutions often have “fixed mindsets”, and this is not an entirely bad thing; it is important to have a clearly articulated identity. Ideally, that identity includes “life-long learning” and the importance of a “growth mindset”. I feel lucky to work at an institution that has a deep commitment to professional development, and I hear repeatedly “we can’t rest on our laurels”. However, at times I wonder if our “laurels” and the celebration of “our culture” inhibits us from innovation. The high school I went to no longer exists (metaphorically). I graduated in 2007, and it has undergone a renaissance. They have embraced the culture of innovation and change at my alma mater, and have worked to support innovation with new buildings and facilities on campus. As the school I work at, and my alma mater,  are proximate schools that compete athletically, but have very different “feels” or “cultures” despite (or perhaps because) they are ten miles apart from one another. I often get asked about the differences between the institutions. As I grew up at my alma mater as a faculty child I often say it was my home and where I grew up, and the school I work at is where I chosen to “spread my wings”. This normally satisfies the questioner, until I accidentally wear some of my high school apparel to an athletic contest and I get called a traitor (all in good fun of course!)

If I reflect deeply on the differences between the schools; I note the place I work has a clear, and strong identity. There is a quiet, but deep commitment to reflective practice by virtue of “where the money is” and how many resources are devoted to professional development. However, if you were to look at our website, although we confidently publish our NEASC accreditation report and focus on the importance of growth, it might appear to be a place steeped in conservative, perhaps “fixed mindset” tradition (and conveying a true reflection of who we are is the challenge of the new communications officer, she is doing great work). My alma mater was a place that did not have a clear identity when I was there. Part of the reason for the cultural, and physical renaissance, and the buy-in from the community at my alma mater, I believe, is because it was very much needed. There was a clear “unfreezing”, or “sense of urgency” in the school culture , and the “fear of not trying” was made apparent to use some terminology from Robert Evans’ The Human Side of School Change: Reform, Resistance and Real-Life Problems of Innovation. There was also quite a bit of top-down leadership, facilitated by a relatively young faculty. The two institutions face very different challenges regarding their cultures.

I am very much an outsider to the change at my alma mater as an alumna and do not claim to be an expert, or even a real participant in that culture any more. As an alumna, however, I am very proud of the institution they are becoming; and I perceive that there is a new cultural value of a “constant state of becoming, or rebirth”. However, this is a bit complicated when the mission statement focuses on cultivating life-long learners in the students, but not explicitly focusing also on faculty-learners or “evolving” institutionally. They do ask the question in the strategic plan part of their website: “How does a an old school remain vibrant?” and target three main goals, one of which is “Faculty and Staff Support”and the creation of a professional culture, and under that category one initiative is to create a dynamic, innovative professional culture. So it IS a clearly articulated goal, but the fact that it is a bit “hidden”, and doesn’t talk about evolution on an institutional level. At my current school, again, while there is an  intrinsic growth mindset in our professional development, it is not clearly conveyed as a value in our mission statement.

This (very superficial and quick) comparison of websites begs the question- how does an institution “sell itself” to prospective families and donors, while also fostering a constantly evolving and growing identity?

I feel very lucky to work at my current school, that does not have a fixed mindset, although as Evan’s writes, a growth-mindset is not a comfortable, or natural phenomenon in our institutions.

Culture thus serves as an enormous conservative force, the collective expression of the conservative impulse within individuals. It reflects, “Our human need for stability, consistency, and meaning” (Schein, 1992, p. 11). Hence the culture of an institution strongly supports continuity. Indeed, it is as if this were its chief purpose (44).

Not all change is good. Resistance to change, is in fact formative and, I believe, an important part of the process of instituting change. Sometimes this “push-back” can be infuriating, and seem unenlightened, or “stodgy”. With the example of technology, there are real reasons teachers are wary of the role of technology in their classrooms. When it doesn’t work, for example, there is a very tangible example or vindication for those “tech-phobic” teachers. But it is deeper than that. There are intelligent, thoughtful, and (dare I say) progressive reasons to avoid technology in the classroom. Appreciating the complexity of experience (something I strive to teach how to do in a history classroom to avoid the singular narrative misconception), is very important when starting to initiate change.

My current school is a strong institution, and has been a successful, stable place. Evans writes, “…stability is bread by success.” Because of this, perhaps there is less incentive for change, or a lower “sense of urgency” at my current school. Luckily, however, by allocation of resources towards professional development, it is a school with a clear growth mindset for its faculty and staff. I found this quote from Evans particularly striking:

 “…what is surprising is not that institutions resist innovation, but that anyone would expect them to welcome it” (45).

I feel very lucky to work at a place that, on an institutional level, has dedicated structure and funds the growth of its faculty. It may not seem like “innovation” from the outside, but investing in faculty allows for, and provides space for innovation. But we can’t rest on our laurels. We can’t rest on the fact that we do a good job facilitating a growth mindset for our faculty, just like my alma mater can’t stop innovating, that would be counter to the whole notion of a growth mindset.

Do you believe the brain can “grow” just (metaphorically) like a muscle? I am convinced.