Thursday, November 02, 2006

Chronology, Chronology...My Kingdom for a Little Chronology

I apologize. I really shouldn’t have posted a blast at teaching thematically without taking an honest look at the whole teaching with themes versus chronological teaching question. Obviously educators have differing opinions that can create quite a firestorm. I saw this recently when I attended a meeting for social studies teachers in my district. See my original post here.

Dennis Fermoyle inquired as to the themes that were presented at our meeting. I have since discovered they were taken directly from the National Council for the Social Studies. The themes provided to my fellow teachers and I were:

*time, continuity, and change
*people, places, and environments
*individual development and identify
*individuals, groups, and institutions
*power, authority, and governance
*production, distribution, and consumption
*science, technology, and socieity
*global connections
*civic ideals and practices

You can see the themes and explantions at the NCSS website here.

Remember….it was our job to come up with a more condensed version of the themes that would be student friendly for children from Pre-K through 12th grade.

After three hours of torture my 49 colleagues and I arrived at a condensed list of eight themes that were basically the same but worded a little different here and there. We then found out the state would probably come up with themes on their own, so perhaps we had just wasted the morning. Education.....the efficient profession.

Unfortunately I left the meeting thinking I had a copy of the thematic nuggest we fought so hard for but, apparently I either left the meeting without it, or my copy is lost in the dark and dank recesses of my vehicle.

So, if the mandate comes down anyway and we have to teach thematically what could be the possible justification for the practice? How can I feel good about complying? I did some looking around for pro statements concerning thematic teaching and have posted them in bold along with my reaction.

Themes allow for a less textbook centered approach. I understand that. Textbook reading and answering the questions at the end of the lesson can be very boring. I think of it as a necessary evil, however. At some point sometime a student IS going to have to open the book, read the lesson, and answer some questions. My students are just learning how to do this. Some textbook use is necessary, but no teacher should simply rely on the text for the be all and end all of instruction. Standards drive instruction not the text. Gee, that’s scary… hear something enough and you start spouting it, but it is true.

Themes allow for instructors and students to view history through a particular viewpoint rather than the normal causes, events, and effects. By the time students reach the upper grades and the college survey courses they have enough of a background and experience in order to see the big picture. My nine year olds certainly cannot see (without a large amount of jumping forward and constantly spiraling back from me) the web of connections that each layer of history creates. To simply teach "war", "civil rights", or "individuality and identity" as some of my colleagues were fearing we would be providing interesting conversations for some students who know the content, but what about those who don’t grasp content so quickly? To teach in this way would leave some students at the kiddie table.

Themes give students personal connections. In literature, themes are used to enhance understanding and personal connections to text. One of the things we constantly tell language arts students as they read is to connect to the text. Has this happened to you? What do you already know about this? What meaning does this have for you? I follow the same practice with social studies attempting to show students the continuity of events and emotional reactions to the changing world around us. We can connect students personally to history without teaching a unit on war, a unit on women, a unit on global connections, etc. We can do it by showing connections, more connections, and even more connections.

Themes can become the bottom line message we want students to internalize. I agree, but the internalization should be a process over time not bashing the kid over the head year after year with theme, theme, theme. It just adds one more set of data they need to memorize. There is room to teach chronologically yet constantly show students how events can be classified into certain areas of commonality.

Themes allow for a creative flow and flexibility. You are not tied down to a sequenced, roll-call list of events. I’ll concede this, however, I feel it works best when students already have a background regarding the historical events being discussed. Hopping here and there would leave too many gaps and let’s face it….too many teachers at my level are not adept enough and the state boards do not provide enough information regarding what is tested in order to string together a coherent tangle of events for students to adequately master by playing hopscotch through the standards.

I teach chronologically and it is possible to have creative flow and flexibility as well. For example, I begin teaching American government at the beginning of the year when we examine regions and Native Americans. Ever hear of the Iroquois League? What about the Mayflower Compact or the Connecticut Fundamental Orders? Connect these concepts of government at a later date to the Albany Plan of Union including Ben Franklin’s political cartoon of the snake cut into thirteen pieces (little boys love this) and over time (there’s that chronological thing again) you are teaching thematically.

I’ve heard teachers talk about how boring it is to begin the year teaching about the Incans, Mayans and the Aztecs. I don’t see how you can discuss Spanish settlement without it. These were great cultures….not simply people living in the dirt. Many people forget about the civil war the Incans were participating in when the Spanish arrived. This civil war made their culture weaker and was one of the advantages the Spanish had. What a missed opportunity if students are not allowed to spiral back and remember the effects of the Incan civil war when our own American Civil War is discussed. Spiraling back gives the perfect opportunity for students to understand the concept of “divided we fall” and “preserving the Union”.

On the downside teaching by themes can become the overriding content topic, rather than a vehicle for addressing underlying concepts. This is what scares me the most about a push to teach thematically. I see too many educators who are not well versed in historical matters. They follow the course that social studies is the time for cutesey activities such as dressing as Pilgrims at Thanksgiving and reading a play that features the all important dinner. They then check off the standard that states, “The student will identify reasons why the Pilgrims travelled to the New World and will explain problems they encountered” which signifies that students have mastered it. I remember planning thematically in college to satisfy some requirement of some sort and once our units were presented that’s what they were…..a series of fun, cute activitities without no real meat on our turkey leg.

The implementation of themes should not be window dressing in a curriculum guide. Contrived methods to meet a mandate result in transparent actions that even nine year old students pick up on. This can be compared with the practice of requiring teachers to have a word wall in their rooms. If the teacher isn’t really using it and only has it there to meet a requirement by the powers that be even the most uninterested student realizes it as a gimmick.
So, can elementaryhistoryteacher live with thematic teaching if it comes down the pike?

Yes, I can live with my own interpretation of it…..and there in lies the rub. Hundreds of teachers each having their own interpretation…some excellent, some mediocre, and some deplorable…some understanding the vague guidelines that will be handed down and some won’t.

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