Design. Think. Play. Experience. Understand

This is probably September 1997. It is my sister's first day of kindergarten and my first day of second grade.

This is probably September 1997. It is my sister’s first day of kindergarten and my first day of second grade.

Today we learned about design thinking at KSI from Suzette Duncan. I was unsure what “design thinking” was, and even after being inspired by the readings and videos, I still had questions. The most obvious applicability seemed to be when addressing bigger institutional or community issues, what role could it have in my history class? We were asked to think about the first day of school, and a challenge posed by this awkward and exciting day.

First, we conducted informal ethnographic research asking people around the Lawrenceville campus about their first day of school memories and stories. I was humbled and surprised by how people opened up when you asked them about their stories, and the quick establishment of trust. The development of empathy and the “human factor” was critical to give a sense of purpose to our work.

We then went into defining a point of view of someone we wished to serve. This was creating a user of whatever problematic resource we were addressing. In this case someone who has a direct relationship with the first day of school, a student, a teacher, a staff-member, or a parent. Then we discussed their potential point of view regarding the first day of school, and what they would need based on our insights from the interviews.

We focused on the fictitious “Charlotte”, a student returning to her school to enter the 7th grade. Charlotte recreated herself over the summer, both on purpose and as she physically matured. She was excited to reconnect with her friends from last year and recreate her image.

We then came up with a “how might we….” statement as a group. The end result was “How might we help Charlotte feel at home on the first day and reintroduce herself to her community. We talked a lot about the idea of reinvention and rebirth on the first day of school, the feeling of being lost (whether in reality, or psychologically) and overwhelmed by not having a “place”. Also, about how easy it is to notice physical changes, more than identity changes and how we wanted to help Charlotte recognize her intrinsic worth more than her physical adjustments  All of these “big ideas” came directly from the 6 interviews we did around campus.

Then we entered the “Ideate” phase, where we began to pose solutions for Charlotte’s need to reintroduce herself in a safe place to talk about herself. We were putting sticky notes on a tarp where we had written our “How might we…” statement. It was easy to first critique or be pessimistic about why a suggestion might not work when someone would suggest an idea, then we employed the directive “don’t yuck on my yum”, and realized the purpose of this was to truly, freely brainstorm in a non-judgmental place. This allowed for creativity and collaboration I have never had before.

We centered on the image of a refrigerator door being a place where a family’s identity is represented. We then decided to design a classroom space for students to build together on the first day of school. A giant poster of a refrigerator would become a mosaic of images of students from when they were younger, more recent images, mantras of the class etc. We also utilized the Harkness style table in our imagined classroom to recreate the idea of a kitchen table. We put a table cloth on it and talked about how stressful the normal lunchroom experience could be on the first day of school when everyone decides where to sit. Complete with a tablecloth image, or classroom table became a place for discussion and laughter in our imaginations. We also discussed the idea of having two bowls on the table where students could anonymously write down what they were anxious about for the year and what they were excited for in the year. The teacher could read these notes and lead a discussion after a communal lunch.

Next, came the physical play time. We had been doing a mental playtime with our imaginations, and now it was time to build a prototype. I have to admit, I did not think the prototype would be a useful component of the process, we were building an idea/experience, not an actual functioning object (as Liz Perry helpfully articulated in the reflection session). However, it was FUN! it was JOYFUL! It was COLLABORATIVE! Isn’t that the experience we want to design for our students?

Our Class Refridgerator

Nervous/Excitement Fishbowls

photo 3

Bird’s-eye View (Charlotte has the excellent rope hair)

Our Classroom

Then, we paired up with another group to “test” our prototype and get feedback. They noticed the homelike atmosphere and thought we were in a kitchen. We took that as a success, as that is the feeling we were shooting for in this classroom. The feeed back session brought new questions to my mind: to what extent would every student have a “mirror” of themselves in this “home”? Hopefully everyone on the refrigerator. I also wondered about the use of the fridge, could everyone relate to it? I think so? Either way the conversation about our solution was interesting and driven by the prototype.

How could I use this in my history classroom? How could I bring genuine joy and curiosity to my assignments? The most natural fit for a bigger project of this nature might be my Research Methods class. It is a semester long course where students are taught basic research skills, complete a National History Day project of their choice (see my student’s website who earned first place for the state of NH here). We also try to get “out of the Western World” with a study of Belgian’s conquest of the Congo, Apartheid South Africa and a unit called “Modern Africa” where we look at the typical perceptions westerners have of Africa, why these perceptions developed and why enormous amounts of aid have seemed to be ineffective.  Through these three content-driven units, students practice the skills of finding sources, analyzing sources, annotating sources and writing with sources.

What would I take away from my current curriculum? How could I shape the current curriculum to drive this type of “action research”? I heard from a friend who works at the Miss Porter’s School on the way down here about their Research Method’s class (led by the statistics teacher) doing research on a school issue, proposing a solution and presenting to their school’s adult leadership. My friend spoke of how the girls were empowered, and learned how to be leaders in their junior year before they took on leadership positions where they would “enact” their plan. I looked it up, and the teacher, Jessica Watkin presented at the National Coalition for Girls Schools check out her presentation here.  I wonder if I could do something like that?

I also thought about doing something with the local community. I have long wanted to integrate local history into my curriculum, but have struggled to make room for it. (How cool would it be to study why people moved and settled near the river in our town (which also runs parallel to the highway) and investigate this abandoned mill and village that is now a swimming hole five minutes from our school? and have them find the place this photo was taken? I digress- but this is an awesome grad school experience I had that I want to replicate). I also wonder how “interesting” a local historical study would be to boarding school students who largely do not come from the area? I think it could provide some nice connections between our school and the community, but how do I frame a “challenge” like the first day of school that they could all relate to? MPS has answered that question by having students research their own school. Another challenge is a core component of the course has been trying to get them out of their largely Western mindset. Something I could change, but I think is important, could I do both? Do I just do a mini-unit on a local topic to teach the skill? I love the idea of an action plan that they implement…but how do I do that efficiently and effectively? Would this have been less fun if I didn’t have engaged, curious peers? Would it be less fun if it was spread over a longer period of time?

I have lots of challenges to think about….but my goals remain to get them to a point of understanding through design, experience, thinking and of course, joyful play. 

I would so appreciate ideas/comments for how I could implement this design thinking into my class.




Design your own Virtual Experience: Windows or Mirrors?

Johannes Vermeer “The Astronomer” Louvre in 1668.  Notice the location of the celestial globe in relation to the window…

Norman Rockwell “Girl at Mirror” March 6, 1954. Notice the magazine looks a lot like her…

There have been so many provocative conversations over the past week at Klingenstein’s Summer Institute for Young Teachers. Whether it was in the plenary sessions with incredible speakers, or in diversity group addressing tough, but critically important issues, in the history cohort where we get to delve into the essential questions of our discipline (and some dorky videos), or around a breakfast, lunch, dinner table, or changing the tire on my car with new friends, I feel like my head is circling with probing questions all day. A conversation at the lunch table today seemed to bring so much of what we have been learning together for me, and I was led to a new understanding I thought I would share….it will take me a while to get there, but bear with me, I am a bit verbose. Yesterday, Dr. Eliza Byard spoke about the importance of having windows and mirrors in our curriculum for all members of our communities. Windows into the unknown. Windows to expose students to new knowledge. Windows to challenge students’ misconceptions of the world. But we also need mirrors. We need to see ourselves in our community, in the curriculum, in the faculty, in the staff and in the students. The many different identities we bring to the table need confirmation and acceptance. What too often happens, are that the dominant and powerful identities of white, straight, male, and wealthy can eclipse any recognition of others’ sense of “normal”.

I learned at an earlier professional development through SPHERE when I worked at the Ethel Walker School, of the importance of recognizing I am white to my students. I am by no means an expert in this research, but I have found this simple recognition, early in the school year, allowed for a more open and honest discussion of race in my classroom. I couldn’t feel guilty that I was white, and I couldn’t pretend we lived in a “color blind” society.  Now, when I introduce myself to a new class I tell the classic “what-if” used in international politics classes to describe nationalism: “who would I trust with my bags at the Paris airport?”  I introduce them to a picture of my family, then friends,  then members of my immediate communities, perhaps alumni from one of my past schools, maybe a fellow New England native, then perhaps an American. Perhaps I would have to go to the bathroom so badly I would just bolt?  Then I ask my students “would I trust that same American in New York City?” “Why would I trust them at all if they are a stranger?”, “What would be positive about this way of thinking?,” “Negative?”, Why do we operate this way?”, “Is it because an American will likely speak English?”, “Or is there something bigger at play?”

I am a bit off topic, but this intro is a way for me to examine and introduce  the various lenses which color my interpretation of the world, and the importance of recognizing they are, in fact distorting and guiding my interpretation.  I then move on to global identities. I am able to recognize verbally my identity as a member of the developed world, as white, as female and as straight. Now, I am not off the hook after I recognize these parts of my identity, but it does let students know I am open to talking about these issues, and I recognize my privilege. We then move to an introductory “get to know you” essay about how their positionality (their place in the world) impacts the way they think (epistemology), (totally copied it from this author). Ultimately this also allows me to introduce ideas of historiography, and debunk the misconception that history is a single narrative. Click here for more on white anti-racism and the negative impact of the image of a “color blind” society

In my introductory exercise I am putting up a mirror of myself and hopefully, honestly reflecting into it. When I was thinking about how I could prompt students to write better postionality essays (some were good, some talked about watching the news with their parents, and  others were very superficial) I was thinking about their virtual identities. Was there a way I could engage them with the complexity of their identities through what they put online? Their virtual identity is so important to many of them. I thought about prompting them to think about “what the web knows about them.” If they Google themselves, what groups do they obviously belong to? I would encourage them to observe their pictures, tweets, instagrams and the collective message they send to the world. This a bit of digital citizenship exercise, but I am more interested in them thinking about how this “window” to the world, might in fact actually be a mirror. THEY get to construct their worlds online by who they follow, the various media forms the read, who their friends are. They also don’t have control over their virtual worlds in terms of the software that tracks them and tailors their advertisements to their specific preferences, or what they just looked up the day before.

As I was talking about this idea, a new friend Leslie brought up, the notion of “net neutrality” and how the internet is seen as an equalizer in terms of “access to information” by virtue of seemingly “unfiltered” access to information. The conversation turned to the ways internet is filtered, from countries that do block certain sites, the parameters we set on our school’s internet (although easily bypassed by 3G), and the times when the US does have limitations/consequences of “free” internet use. Who owns the internet? What does it actually look like? Leslie directed me to the book Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet written by a friend of hers on the actual infrastructure of the internet. She also discussed the various reasons cable companies would like to filter our web use (to make a profit of course), and then notion of Google Fiber. (So much! You can see why my head was swimming!)

So why am I fixated on mirrors and windows? Students need these in our schools, but we also need to teach them to craft their virtual worlds not only as a deceptive mirror of the things they believe and affirm, but also windows into that big ‘ol world. Too often, they will see the internet as a window, but when they look into it, they will only see confirming ideas and faces reflecting back at them. We need to encourage them to follow news outlets that do not necessarily match up with their politics, or their countries, to follow people that they can both question and re-tweet. We need to encourage them to construct their virtual worlds in the same way we construct our classrooms, schools and communities: as both mirrors and windows. 

I just scratched the surface in the ways in which students could add complexity to their virtual worlds. Any ideas?

The Ever Evolving Educational Philosophy

A word cloud from my educational philosophy

Where do we learn what we believe? There have been countless answers to this question, both constructed institutions such as churches and schools and the informal “contact” beliefs from family, friends, authors, and others met and admired, or disdained along the way. Rarely does someone we do not remember distinctly truly impact our learning. This question makes some broad assumptions. If it is belief, do you have to learn it? Can you question what you believe? I find schools, specifically high schools, are one place to ask these probing questions about identity.

Formal schooling is often explained as a place to develop skills and knowledge necessary for later life pursuits; however, in an age where the job most of our students will pursue does not yet exist, the skills and knowledge are only part of the equation. High schools capture students at a brief, but interesting moment in their lives. To generalize: they know enough, and thus, they think they know everything. The frustrations of managing quasi-adolescents lead many into generalizations about their general disrespect, laziness or ineffectiveness. I think high school is important because not only can students start to define what they believe, but they can question it. They then have the materials at their disposal to explore their interests, and hopefully their beliefs.

The study of history is an appropriate venue for these questions. I am not just a quick convert after reading The Students are Watching: Schools and the Moral Contract (Sizer and Sizer), where I found the most compelling examples of teaching morality existed in the realm of the history classroom. I aim to complicate my students understanding of history and help them to battle with their established beliefs. In this history classroom, we do this on a relatively micro level to start. The battle to find “truth” in history allows for some fun myth de-bunking, and also some tougher questions about the role of history in societies, and the impossibility of finding the “right” narrative. Through recognition of the complicated task of historians, I hope the students are enabled to privately and publically question their own beliefs. Training students how to ask questions and how to deal with muddled, complicated answers is the primary goal in my classroom whether through analytical essays, creative essays, class discussions, projects etc. This teaches analytical thinking, but also prompts, or at the very least enables, honest internal reflection.

A student in my AP US History class said to me earlier in this year (eerily similar to an anecdote from Sizer and Sizer), “this class is my favorite class, but I really don’t like America anymore.” We then talked about patriotism, the historical mandate of learning US history by the government, and what provides a foundation for nationalism. The class asked the question: can you be patriotic and still acknowledge the negative history of America? Teenagers are particularly attuned to hypocrisy, because of this, they are already asking excellent questions, for example, after viewing a segment from the miniseries John Adams where a tax collector was tarred and feathered by a mob led by John Hancock and Sam Adams, they asked the question: “Was America founded by a mob?” When our administration frames a newly required program as “full participation”, they fire back “mandate”. To put it bluntly, you cannot bullshit teenagers. Their entitlement to ask exposing questions is exactly what makes them a joy and a frustration to teach. Suppressing their anti-establishment impulse for vague notions of “respect” is the norm in American high schools, but I hope in my classroom students feel free to ask the hard questions, and understand that the hard questions are often the most important to ask.  This approach can be problematic. When students feel respected in a classroom, and are empowered to state their opinions, they will often criticize other teachers, or school programs, testing my professionalism and my commitment to being honest with them. These are invaluable moments, and yet are difficult to manage. I believe in an open classroom where students know I value their ideas and opinions, but I also believe I need to be a role model for professionalism and respect. Residential schools permit the establishment of multi-faceted relationships with students, on the fields, in the dorm at night, sitting around a dinner table, or around a campfire during special programming and in the classroom. I believe the success of this model is because it fosters relationships between students and their teachers; I cannot expect to teach a student successfully if I do not know, recognize and demonstrate respect for their individual stories.

Recognition of the individuality and diversity of student experiences is essential to teach effectively, but it is also important for students to recognize my stories. While there are some stories I openly discuss, such as my challenges to pronounce words and speak effectively, or my struggle to get into college; there are topics I keep private, for both professional and personal reasons. It is also important for me to acknowledge some of the groups with which I belong early in a school year. Each year as I introduce myself I recognize I am female, white, straight and privileged through my education. How can I expect students to talk about gender issues, race, sexuality or privilege if I do not share my stories with them as well? While discomfort with these topics can often lead to greater understanding, this is often causes some problematic discomfort of only having an identity as a teacher. It is important to retain a private sense of self, outside of the identity of being a teacher, and for students to see this as a mark of professionalism and balance in my life.

I believe in teaching history, not only because it prompts hard questions, but because compelling stories are the ways in which we interpret and find meaning. When coaching students to learn, my job is to make the material compelling, so that they want to ask those difficult questions. Through local history, film, literature, creative writing, and many primary sources, history can come alive. My favorite style of teaching is by having students start to love and empathize with a villainous historical character. Now, this is not because I am a Nazi sympathizer, for example, but because I believe students can only truly understand the Holocaust if they understand the reasons people supported Hitler. Understanding the plight of the victims, or the heroic actions of the resistance are also important, but I would argue the most important group to understand and study in this era is the majority group under the Third Reich. It is also important for students to learn to recognize what lenses they bring to their study of a historical subject. They had an opinion on Nazis before this coming to my class; it is critical to investigate the extent to which this lens could distort or minimize the depth of their interpretations.

I believe teenage students learn best when they feel valued. When they believe their teachers value their work, the drive to understand the material comes from a place of wanting to maintain that perception. Many want to be treated as adults. As soon as a student feels a teacher thinks little of them, many will respond with limited engagement, and see school as a required mandate, rather than a place for them to figure out who they are and what they want to be. The role of assessment in the formation of a strong teacher-student relationship is important. A student can feel a teacher does not value their work from something as small as a poor performance on a reading quiz. Utilizing a standards-based assessment approach, where students are encouraged to engage in the process of learning, and are not afraid of taking risks, facilitates the establishment of trust, empathy and respect between teachers and students. The broader role of the teacher should be to foster a classroom dynamic of a team. When a classroom is seen as a place where you are practicing daily towards a greater goal, failure is seen as a learning tool rather than a punishment, classmates become supportive teammates and the teacher, as the coach, guides the team towards a fuller understanding of the world around them, and hopefully themselves.

How could I assess my philosophy of education? I came up with these questions to ask my students at the end of each year…what do you think? 

  1. Describe three times when you took an intellectual risk in this classroom. Did the grading procedures have an impact on your willingness to take risks?
  2. Imagine you were given two contradictory sources, and you knew a bit about the topic and you had an inclination to agree with one of them. Describe the approach you would take to interpret and assess the documents.
  3. To what extent did you feel valued and supported by Ms. Berry on the following scale: 0- not supported, 1- partially supported, 2- supported, 3-very supported. Please explain your response with specific examples.
  4. Think about a belief you held before coming into this class (you may still believe it, or you may have changed your mind). How would you respond to someone stating the opposite of what you believe(d)?
  5. Pick one word to describe the study of history. Use an example from this class to explain why you think this word describes history well.




Google Scavenger Hunt: Teaching Critical Thinking?

Thomas Friedman is obsessed with fiber-optic cable. I mean, why wouldn’t he be? It is, as he notes, one of the most important shifts in how we conduct the business of this planet, and truly “flattens” the world. Online classrooms are evolving quickly in the fantastic world of the internet, some for free and offering credit to entice paying tuition down the road, some for the pure joy of decimating knowledge to the world (for ex. Yale Open Courses); however, does something get lost with the physical absence of the classroom?

Efficiency is gained with the online classroom. Only those participants that are motivated and engaged are required to be “present” and delivery of material is on an individual basis. While the amount of feedback and assessment format varies depending on the online learning platform, in many cases it is not unlike the traditional classroom of the industrial era (that we largely still mimic today). Yet, as I teacher who wants to keep my job and feel as though it is valuable there must be some intrinsic benefit that is lost?

Varied learning styles, and diverse geography does not impede the pleasures of an online classroom. Whether from an internet café in Dakar, New York or Taipei, one can participate in an online course. Students who may need more time with the material, or wish to revisit the lecture need only slide the progress bar of the YouTube to the required moment in the lesson (also the rationale behind the flipped classroom model). The worldwide web is a superhuman university librarian, aiding with supplemental resources, quick online dictionaries/encyclopedias/spark notes and a plethora of resources to help understand virtually any content. So, again, I am led to wonder why bother with the teacher?

From a job security standpoint, I do wonder about my role as a teacher with the onslaught of online courses. My role is no longer about disseminating information (as I ruminated about in an earlier post here). It is about teaching skills alongside content.  It is about teaching writing and critical thinking. Can they learn all this without me? Maybe. I assert a large role of the modern teacher is in curriculum design. It is important, as we design, to craft experiences (both physical and virtual) to allow for the development of critical thinking and student-driven (and paced) learning.

I teach a class entitled “Research Methods”. In this class, owned by the history department in our school, our objective is to use history we find compelling to teach the skills of research. The content, as a history nerd, is the fun part (we started with Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost a great read for 10th graders). As I was composing my syllabus, with the section titled “Skill Objectives” I asked myself, what do I honestly want them to leave this semester-long course being able to do?

#1 Navigate the internet to find resources

#2 Comfort to confidently assess and critique sources

#3 Integrate sources into their writing

Ok, then how do I open the class in a way that is not drier than the Sahara? We have all been to those boring librarian lectures on how to use a search engine– and this from a self-proclaimed nerd. My Solution? A Google scavenger hunt. At first I thought this would be an easy exercise for my students. I had a friend do it to test it out and she completed it in about 15 minutes, double that for the class and I believed I had a 30 min exercise. As with all of my “brilliant” ideas, this one did not quite work as efficiently as I planned…..they were very challenged by it in a wonderful and illuminating way.

I think too often in the adult world when we marvel at the internet we think about the ways we can manipulate it. Our own lens of practiced critical thinkers clouds our judgment in this case.  Then, we see the ease of young children and teenagers with touch screen-pads and their ability to find music and movies at near lightening speed and as we reminisce about the age of CD players and Walkmans, we forget this does not mean they understand how to or are able to find something of use. Critical thinking, even in a basic form is not something most kids can do easily. In the world of internet research, it took years for me to be able to narrow my search terms down enough in my school’s library catalogs (again, I went to college with the gift of the internet, I am on the cusp of that younger(er) generation.) Skimming is an art I was practiced at, not from the internet, but from trying to find some semblance of meaning in my college texts. Reading an index and a table of contents to find what I needed was a skill I had to adapt of perish into the stacks.

When and how do we learn critical thinking? Experiential learning is one fundamental way (which is partly why I think there is a current surge in this area…but again it is not new; Thoreau wanted us all to take our classes for a “walk in the woods”).  Another way is through a different type of experience—one where students are not doing a lab, or an outdoor experiential learning course, but a virtual experience.

This scavenger hunt I designed evokes my father’s old treasure hunts where one clue led to the next little piece of paper around the house. The questions build on each other. You have to find a correct answer for the previous question to quickly find the answer to the next question. The students found it quite difficult, but ultimately it got them thinking about how they can use the internet. This scavenger hunt introduced students to….

  • The need to be critical of sources…as 20/22 of my students did not question the validity of pigeonrank (the April Fool’s Joke Google played to explain how they sort their results)
  • The real usefulness of Wikipedia (the cited sources at the end)
  • Google Scholar
  • “Standing on the shoulders of giants”, the ancient quote that really defines a fundamental theory of learning
  • Google Books
  • Online Exhibits at Academic Institutions.

PS. I began drafting this post in February. As I have finally finished it as I am now thinking about how I will open the course in September… (this course started in January) I would love feedback on this hunt. If you tried it were you successful? Did you learn something new about the internet? Did it force you to think critically? How do you teach critical thinking? What is your ratio of skill/content work in class?


1. What does the term “pigeonrank” have to do with how google sorts its results?

2. How does google sort its results?

3. What is the motto of Google Scholar?

4. What is the translation of“nanos gigantum humeris insidentes”? What language is it? Who is it attributed to? What date was it first recorded? What does it mean?

5. What is the first result for “pigeonrank” in Google Scholar?

6. What is available to read from this result? (What part of the article)

7. What do you learn from what is available about “pigeonrank”?

8. Who was Al-Khwarizmi? What version of Google (Web, Image, Maps…Scholars) provides the most informative first result?

9. In the Wikipedia article for  Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (Al-Khwarizmi’s full name) what is the html for the full text of the first encyclopedia entry cited (by G J Toomer).

10. Check to see if any books by Gerald J Toomer are available on Google Books.

11. Who did Gerald J. Toomer publish a biography about in 2009 from the Oxford University Press?

12. Provide a picture of the subject of Toomer’s 2009 biography.

13. Why would the Tarlton Law Library potentially have been useful to Gerald J. Toomer?

14. What would Gerald J. Toomer have seen in the atrium near the entrance if he visited Tarlton Library?

Musings on the Importance of Vocabulary

Information is no longer a commodity us pedagogues dole out in the information age. Because of this phenomena, there is an argument for an entirely skills-based, experiential approach in any discipline, because, who really needs to know the periodic table anyway? The labs are way more fun. Don’t even get me started on calculus. I will even go so far as to (subtly) question my own beloved discipline. The French Revolution, par example… do our students really need to know 1789, or even about the Third Estate’s woes (read 99% here) to have successful lives? There is the lovely trivia question: What do Robert Frost, Matt Damon, William Randolph Hearst, Bonnie Raitt and Bill Gates have in common? They are all Harvard dropouts.  However, this trivia is misleading.  Too often (in my short career of professional development) I have heard this trivia used in idealistic educational presentations by consultants, thinkers, innovators bla-bla-bla.  It inevitably leads to the justification of “throwing out” the textbooks, chalkboard, pencils, tests, standardized tests in favor of experiential, skills-based learning. While I am not fan of the SAT, and you may be reading “curmudgeon” between the lines of this diatribe, I think this trivia, and how it is used by orators, is one step too far. Read: baby with the bath water. Remember all of those Crimson Tide dropouts, well I assert they had already obtained the vocabulary and the skills needed to be successful.

I had an epiphany about vocabulary today, when I pointed to “bourgeoise” to highlight it as an  important vocabulary term and my I my team-teaching partner subtly asked me to clarify (for the students’ benefit) if I when I used the term vocabulary today, I meant the same thing when I called a certain group of words  key terms yesterday. I had a moment of “well duh” in my head and then remembered I teach young cherubs of fourteen and thanked her.

Here is my central problem with experiential education and skills-based education (no offense to Thoreau): while students will most certainly remember the words that they needed for “the experience”, will they grow in their vocabulary? Will they “expand their horizons”? My one truly “experiential course” I can apply here was called “Snow Science”. An avi I course taught by my northern New York college in Jackson Hole, WY….need I say more. However, I really do understand and remember how to dig a snow pit and analyze the snow pack. I remember the science behind the snow, what conditions to look for to test the slope etc. This is remarkable as it was years ago and science is not my area of success. My horizons were expanded quite literally from being on top of a mountain, but I can’t say they were expanded intellectually. There is the argument that those skills I learned in my experiential course, were necessary for survival, which is perhaps why I paid attention. Survival skills aside–experiential education has proven to have very strong results, and it definitely merits a place in our educational system.

As someone who is striving to be a 21st century educator, and design curriculum that is relevant for my students, the road block I come up against in teaching history is a guilty conscience that I occasionally practice “old school” history. I require them to commit some things to memory….I feel like I could be shunned from the online teachers union (if one existed) for that statement. No one would follow me, and this may not be re-tweeted. Those people who have asked the question… “why do they need to know about the French Revolution?” Why do they need to remember terms, and people and connections to things? Is it just to make them pseudo-intellectuals? To make it so they can understand one full-length article in The New Yorker as adults? Why do they need to know about Robespierre and the Reign of Terror?” Well primarily, it is because of the adage: “Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.” ~Edmund Burke. This is a worthy adage, or (new vocabulary word here) apothegm, more than worthy in fact. It is one of the many reasons I believe in history education. But that is not my point.

Information does not only come from the bastion of knowledge of the teacher anymore. My students, to whom I am currently attempting to meaningfully teach the French Revolution, can Google “french revolution” (and even spell it wrong) and, in .17 seconds have access to 177 million sites touting information on events in France in 1789. Using the past to understand the present is the essential goal, however they can not do that without the vocabulary they need to memorize. Can you learn french with memorization? Can you study A Tale of Two Cities without impressing on students new vocabulary? Can you speak without knowing words? Vocabulary whether of the scientific nature, the translating nature, the literary nature or the historical nature is essential. As we expand vocabularies of our students, we are also expanding their ability to practice those skills we simultaneously need to teach them. Rote memorization should not be the only method, but we can not throw the concept of committing something to memory away with the card catalogs.

Technology has allowed us to stop teaching how to use a card catalog and how to alphabetize, because when you need to know what a word means, it is yours in few keystrokes and .11 seconds of patience (my search of apothegm). In short, we still need to integrate technology, and throw out antiquated parts of our educational system. However, let us not throw out the Socratic method, essential to learning critical thinking, let us not throw out learning vocabulary.

I know this may your moment to say “well duh”…no one is really going all out and throwing it all away. But I fear that is the trend. Last week, I asked my students to read aloud primary sources. Their vocabulary level truly shocked me when I asked for words they did not understand. I had made a poor assumption of some really smart kids. Reading aloud is another pedagogical tool that gets a bad rap. Kids struggle with it. However, it is a great way to slow students down long enough to let the baffling vocabulary sink in. It is ironic that I am touting this, because I hated when we read aloud in class; I was a faster reader and so it was boring. But, it is not boring if you do the voices.

On Being Wrong

Socrates utilized probing questions to induce thinking in his students. He used the spoken word and his ingenuity as his core lesson plan. With the advent of Christianity, monks became the conveyors of knowledge. Then, Johann Gutenberg invented the first printing press, and with his invention, the written word spread quickly across Europe. European history textbooks tout Gutenberg’s invention as a critical historical factor in the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther’s 95 Theses spread quickly throughout Europe because of this invention. Interestingly, John Wycliff had written in the same vein as Luther a generation before; why is he not the central figure of the Protestant Reformation? Well, he never got published. He did not have the wonders of blogs to disseminate his ideas to the masses.

When I taught the Protestant Reformation last year, I used a world history textbook. This text, claimed through its title, to be a history of the world. My students and I discussed what, exactly this means. What is left out, and what is included? We used this video that charts all of the Wikipedia articles, both by geographic location and historic date in less than two minutes to guide our discussion. Each “blip of light” is an article, and you can “see” the historic knowledge of our generation. We acknowledged the uncertain utility of Wikipedia and the dilemma with citing it in the “anyone can edit it” phenomena. However, we found that Wikipedia, is ironically, one of the least biased sources as you can publish in any language from any country–what publishing company can say that?

So back to my world history textbook. It was wrong. Gutenberg was not the first to invent a printing press. It took one, quiet, international girl to have the opportunity to research any non-western, 50-year-old topic, (my parameters) for National History Day to teach me about how I, the textbook, and Western civilization had it wrong. The Koreans invented the first printing press. Check out the website she made here.

As teachers, by definition, we are purveyors of knowledge, through our intellect and our ability to ask probing questions. Socrates did not quite fit this definition; the Socratic method is still utilized famously in law school because it fosters independent thinking, not because it necessarily spreads or shares knowledge.  The monks limited study to the ecclesiastical world; nobles sent their sons to be tutored in monasteries in the Middle Ages. Knowledge was a commodity. Traditional western pedagogy then took a form of even more rigor and discipline at schools like Eaton and Oxford.  In America, and specifically New England, we inherited the legacy of puritanical schools for boys. While my synopsis of western education is trite and grossly oversimplified, in our educational model inherited from the monastic tradition, the teacher is the grand, even sacred, purveyor of knowledge.  The information a traditional teacher is expected to know is awesome in scope.

I think, as many others would argue and have argued, education and the world has been revolutionized by the internet. Thomas Friedman’s “world is flat theory” via fiber-optic cable is a wonderful analysis, but it does not quite address the role of tradition in this new, flattened landscape. In the academic realm, change is slow. Stodgy, old professors who tout grammar and ancient languages are resistant to change. They are not trend setters. Boarding schools cater to college, we are in name, “college preparatory institutes” as such, the logic follows, prep schools are punctuated with tradition. However, I think the phrase “independent” boarding schools is important to note. This independence allows the exercise and experimentation of various forms of pedagogy.

I was asked a question by a student today in class and I was wrong. This litany on education and the shifts were inspired by my error, and is perhaps my coping method with being wrong. To top it off, I was being observed  by the chair of my department. My typical response to a question I do not know the answer to in the age of technology when they are on their computers/smart phones already is “use the resources available to you–google it”. However, as I had just asked the class to close their computers, for some good, old-fashioned, not type-set discussion, my typical response would have been nonsensical. I said, “I am not sure”. Fatal last words.  As I continue to lead the class I was struck with questions steeped with my insecurities as a young teacher: “Did I just lose all credibility?”, “Will I be seen as an idiot to my department chair?”, “What role do I have in the American history classroom if I do not know if the Stamp Act was part of the Intolerable Acts (the question of my demise)?” I breezed through the question, did not let my doubts get the better of me, and told the student I would look into it.

I felt worse than the textbook that had it wrong. I, as a teacher, the bastion of knowledge, simply did not know. However, I really believe, (and this is not just because I want to feel better about my ignorance) that knowledge is no longer a commodity. The internet has fundamentally changed what it means to be a teacher (not an original thesis, but true). It really does not matter if I know the French Revolution started in 1789. It matters that I can explain how the combination of the enlightenment rhetoric, absolute power of the monarchy and hungry people led to revolution. Better yet, it is important that I link the French Revolution to the Arab Spring and while I do not know every dictator that was overthrown by name, I can teach that those revolutions began with a combination of a new “enlightened” rhetoric of twitter, the absolute power of a dictator, and hungry people. I would trade my students knowing and remembering the date 1789 for my test, for them to be able to make a connection between history and the present. I no longer want to try to be a bastion of knowledge, because Wikipedia has that covered, I want to try to be content with being wrong. In many ways, as teachers we need to go back to Socrates, who relied just on his intellect and his ability to ask the right questions to be an influential teacher.


Tomorrow will be my twentieth “first day of school”. I have had many teachers, some excellent, and some a little less excellent. As I draw on my personal experience in planning to teach my classes tomorrow, I can not remember how those master teachers in my memory began their first classes. I keep mulling over the question “How should I begin the year?” Should I make them laugh or tremble? Perhaps it would be best to start by getting to know them as individuals and memorizing their pictures; or maybe I should leave them with an impossible riddle they will continue to mull over twenty years from now. Or should I sketch out the “bigger picture” of why they should bother with the study of history and my class? There is the adage “Don’t smile until Christmas” which is an honest and worthy piece of advice as I still look as though I am an adolescent. If I am not mean, will they take me seriously? While I used to have my outfit for the first day of school picked out months in advance, I have yet to glance at my closet. I have been preoccupied with this first impression and what to do with it. The Dalai Lama said, “Sometimes one creates a dynamic impression by saying something, and sometimes one creates as significant an impression by remaining silent.” Perhaps I should just stay quiet and wait for one of them to say something…wouldn’t that be dramatic? And “awk” as my students will say. The truncated version of “awkward” (while incredibly lazy) is fitting for I would most certainly blush as I tried to stand my ground without speaking. In sum, first days are awkward– “Firsts” of anything are awkward. Confidence is a slippery thing, one minute you have it and the next a comment laced with innuendo has swept that bravado out of your chest. I think the one mantra I will continue to live by with my students is “do not be a phony”, because they will know. The beauty of Salinger’s honest teenager is that he asks people to just be themselves, in fact he demands it. So on the eve of my twentieth first day of class I am choosing to be myself. No gimmicks. Although I am far too inexperienced to give advice, I think this is the fatal mistake the less than excellent teachers make.