I promised I would minimize the war story biography entries. Just one more! And you will see why I am including it!
Roll the clock forward a few years later. By now, I had begun to hit a stride that had become very successful. Simply put I had discovered and begun to refine simulation and role-play as the main weapon in my instructional arsenal.
Weapon connotes an us-versus-them metaphor doesn’t it? I regret that. What I mean is that these kinds of instructional strategies, best umbrella-ed under the category of EXPERIENTIAL were just flat out so very effective.
By effective I mean I could engage most any learner any time to actively participate in the learning at hand. I had given a measure of ownership / empowerment to even the poorest academically prepared student to feel success in mastering material and in transferring their learning into some serious skills building too.
How I got there and how I got even better at it may be discussed in future posts. If you are interested in learning and knowing more now, go to http://www.activelearningconsult.com for more. However my intent in this post is to show you how antediluvian leadership, encrusted mental models about teaching and learning, and ignorance of basic learning theory by so-called supervisors, can twist together to strangle creative teaching. That is, if the creative teacher, even at risk for his job, will not actively resist neo-fascist supervision.
If you are a new teacher, particularly a new social studies teacher I will strongly advise that you work backwards in your unit design. Notice I deliberately said unit design and not lesson design. You see, lessons should build toward something or somethings so that the culminating activities of a solid unit will have become the sum of the lessons that built toward it.
Another way to understand this point is the good old fashioned thinking model, Bloom’s Taxonomy; http://www.odu.edu/educ/roverbau/Bloom/blooms_taxonomy.htm
The conventional wisdom was that you taught from the bottom up. You know, from the Knowledge / Recall spit-back level in order to perhaps, perhaps, elevate students’ thinking by having them ultimately assess some aspect of the lesson or unit. I’d contend that teachers more often than not would bog down on the rote -spit – up learning and rarely get to anything terribly complex or for that matter interesting. Take a look at the SYNTHESIS, or the EVALUATION levels: “Design”, “Put together”, “Create”, “Decide about” ,”Judge”.
Well stop for a moment and think about those higher level verbs …. Don’t they suggest some really interesting lesson activities?
I think they do. I know they do. And more importantly, with a backwards FROM Higher Order Thinking unit design DOWN To Lower Order Thinking lesson design the effective teacher actually justifies to her students the necessity for the spit-back or is it spit-up lower level lessons in the first place.
So with this brief sermonette as a back drop, understand that when I planned for any unit and when I since worked with teachers anywhere I have them create the most engaging, interesting, motivating, end-activity (grounded in Higher Order Thinking Skills) first and then have them break down and identify the lesson series that will enable their children to practice and master the content and skills they need to have to make the end-unit activity work.
And with that brief sermonette in hand, back to my story:
I was casting around for a way to enable my seventh graders to peel back the dynamics of the American Revolution and to help them recognize that not every colonist embraced its causes. I found a novel, “Rabble in Arms” by Roberts, written in the 40’s that dealt with the conflicts between the Tories and the Patriots. One chapter is about a young Patriot, Oliver Wiswell, who comes upon a mob of Patriots about to tar and feather a Tory.
Tarring and feathering was not a cute hazing activity. It was a fearful experience and often a mortal one. In this story, Wiswell rescues the Tory, brings him to his home, and nurses him back to health.
When I introduced this reading, I asked if one helped an “enemy” was one automatically a traitor? This question led to a lively exchange. I invited the students, a basic, heterogeneously group class by the way, to read the chapter and decide if Oliver Wiswell was a traitor for rescuing the the Tory.
I fast forwarded. We imagined that the Revolution was over and won. And that the winning Patriots, eager to exact revenge on their Tory counterparts, have decided to put Wiswell on trial for treason for having rescued a hated Tory.
We took the characters from the chapter, and assigned these to students. I assigned Defense and Prosecuting lawyers. I assigned a judge and we chose jurors to hear the case.
Students spent several days anticipating questions and cross-examining questions they might be asked. I helped the attorneys create opening and closing statements and suggested questions they may ask. In other words we prepared for a full -fledged trial.
It took I think about a week to pull it all together. In the midst of this I was notified that the High School Social Studies Chair was going to be in to observe a lesson. You guessed it. Of course I invited him to see the trial of Oliver Wiswell lesson.
He entered the class and sat in the back. I introduced the lesson very briefly. I put the Constitutional definition of treason on the board, turned to my “judge” and told him to run the trial.
It was a wonderful thing to see. The kids ran the whole lesson from front to back. Opening statements, questions, cross-questioning, summaries, evidence, all produced by the students. About five minutes before lesson’s end, they had concluded the trial portion. The judge turned to the jurors and we watched them “deliberate” against the treason definition they had gotten.
In truth I don’t remember what they decided! I do remember the verdict was announced about 30 seconds before the period bell sounded. I stood up, thanked the class and assigned a homework task where they had to identify the key reasons why they thought Wiswell was or was not a traitor. The students left arguing and exchanging among each other.
It was a classic. The kids had the content down. They used all manners of skills and reasoning. They “DECIDED”, one of the classic evaluation level verbs in the Bloom’s Taxonomy.
I was pretty proud of myself and went up to the Chair expecting to be anointed as the next John Dewey. The Chair peered at me over his glasses. I noticed that he had taken virtually no notes. He said “Do you do these kinds of lessons often?”
Stupid, as in yours truly eagerly volunteered “Yes!”
Whereupon he said that this was not a lesson. This was “s—t” and that this sort of Madison Avenue film-flam was the kind of teaching he abhorred. And he marched off.
Needless to say his observation said what I have noted above with the salt taken out. But the salt in my teaching sensibilities only burned and burned. In fact I refused to sign the observation. This was pretty nervy in those days and remember that I was non-tenured.
But I refused to agree that this was a bad lesson! It was a great lesson. It was all of what great lessons are supposed to be. And it was an effective one.
In the end, after much, much arguing the Chair grudgingly acknowledged the possibility that the techniques involved might in fact have positive effects on student learning. And what his major problem was, aside from not understanding experiential strategies were in the first place, was that he just did not know HOW to observe this lesson! After all I wasn’t in the front of the room lecturing and droning. I barely opened my mouth! The quality of the student-run activity was the sum of my prodigious efforts to facilitate their learning!
I never forgot that when I became a Chair myself!
And the lessons to be taken from this will be in the next post(s).