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?
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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)?
- 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.