Sunday, August 26, 2007

Teaching State History: Point/Counterpoint

Well, I’ve been walking around all weekend with with my head in my hands mainly due to my head swelling in response to a wonderful set of comments sent my way by Florida School Boss:

History Is Elementary is the best curriculum blog I have ever visited. If the teacher is as good in the classroom as she is in putting together her blog, she is an excellent teacher. She teaches Georgia and US History to upper elementary kids. Her blog has amazing articles, many with pictures, that provide great content background in US History as well as Georgia-specific history.

I appreciate your comments very, very much FSB. Can I use you as a reference some day?

However, my head was also plagued with a headache due to the remainder of FSB’s post which responded to my question, Is State History Important?, a post I wrote in July. FSB said:

One of my concerns about spending much time on Florida history, or any state history, is that the focus tends to get widened, usually due to lobbying by various interests in the state. So do kids really need to know the history of tourism in Florida? Are Mickey and Shamu really historical figures? What about the mandated survey of agriculture that happens in every state history course, no matter where in the country you happen to live? Gimme a break.

FSB...thanks for buttering me up before heaving a knife in my chest. :)

The loud windy noise you head on Friday around 4 p.m. coming from the western region of Georgia was me letting go with a heavy, heavy sigh after I read FSB's take on the teaching of state history.

Matthew Tabor instantly weighed in with his response, In Defense of Teaching State and Local History, while my response has been delayed due to that swollen and throbbing head I spoke of above, and the fact that I have tried to refrain from blogging on the weekend, so my family can see a different mommie… without a laptap attached to her fingers constantly.

The time gave me pause to think about the points I had made earlier, FSB’s points, and Matthew Tabor’s point of view as well. Educators should always begin examining a curriculum concern by heading straight to his or her standards (teaching objectives), and I’ve done that today, but before addressing standards I’m starting with FSB’s comments first.

It seems that one of FSB’s concerns about a year of state history, generally taught in eighth grade in many states, is he grew up in Indiana where he became an “expert” in Indiana history yet ended up spending his career in Florida. I have no clue to FSB’s academic area of expertise, however, unless he majored in Indiana history in college I don’t believe he could be considered an expert due to one year’s participation in an eighth grade history course. FSB, if I understand your logic with this point, you feel that since we don’t know the future plans of our young students a course of state history is irrelevant. People grow up and move making state history irrelevant. Is this correct?

I’m glad that curriculum experts across the country don’t follow that way of thinking. If they did I would have never been taught any Geometry. I can state emphatically I have never had to solve a geometric proof in any of the three careers I’ve had since my teen years. Throw out the reading of Poe, Melville, and Whitman because students who might grow up to be policemen really have no use for early American literature. Perhaps we should delete teaching students Linnaean Taxonomy because very few ever have to know the species, genus, family, etc. of every animal they encounter.

FSB mentioned several items covered in Indiana state history….the French trading history along Indiana’s river towns, General “Mad Anthony” Wayne, the automotive industry in Indiana, Cole Porter, Indiana high school basketball, corn, soybeans… that seem to be relevant only if you plan to make Indiana your home.

Let’s see….my fourth graders learn about river exploration and trade by the French during our explorers unit, and while we discuss the Spanish settlement along Georgia’s barrier islands and DeSoto’s jaunt through Georgia they receive another view again in eighth grade. Good old “Mad Anthony” Wayne makes an appearance in my classroom simply because he’s a great item of interest during a look a the American Revolution, and if I taught Social Studies in Indiana you bet I would add in Indiana’s automotive industry when discussing assembly lines and Henry Ford since I discuss Georgia’s own automotive industry when we get to the 1920s. Some details aren’t so unique to a particular state when you get right down to it.

Matthew Tabor’s response to the question of relevancy regarding unique details for a particular state zeroed in on an important point regarding state history:

Understanding New York State history as a student in its public schools prepared me for precisely the irrelevance that you seem to deride. I’m not a young schoolboy anymore, but throughout my adult life – during college and beyond – when I encounter unfamiliar history, I have a very easy time grasping it quickly because I can perform comparative analysis. Though I have never spent any time in Indiana, I suspect that I could have profitable, enjoyable conversations with its residents – or, in your case, a former resident.

I believe this should be the whole point for having a history course at the eighth grade level that takes into account state history details filtered through an American History framework. Eighth grade students are ready to take on American History with a different perspective…that of the state. I believe it is relevant to teach students unique details concerning their state because as they move into more sophistocated courses for Economics, Political Science, Geography, World and American History they do have something to compare and contrast with. For example, why should my Georgia students even care about the War for Texas Independence? Sure, it explains to them how Texas eventually wound up as part of the U.S. and their map finally begins to look a little more like the map they see today, but as some students say to me….so what? Little ears perk up when I tell them that Texas Independence was won with the help of several Georgians who volunteered to help Texas, and a young Georgia girl is credited with giving the state their Lone Star flag.

FSB seems concerned with spending “much time” on state history, but I don’t consider an entire year devoted to details of state history to be “much”. A quick look at Georgia’s Social Studies Standards which go into effect this year indicates the following: Grade K mainly examine symbols of America and holidays, first graders learn about American heroes, third graders begin an early look at Georgia history by learning about prominent figures in Georgia history and take a gander at the Creek and Cherokee tribes in relation to how those tribes obtain their food, shelter, and clothing from the regional resources. Fourth and Fifth grades follow a full blown course of study in American History with the Civil War being the dividing line between the two grade levels. Sixth and Seventh grade Social Studies examines regions of the world by discussing the history, economics, geography, and political systems in each region.

Early elementary curriculum focuses on basic skills and basic content in order to give students a foundation to link to the much broader course of study in the fourth and fifth grades. The World History curriculum of sixth and seventh grades also serve as a foundation for content that will become even broader in high school while the eighth grade combined state and American History course addes a new perspective while reviewing basic content before high school American History.

Now, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post any educator knows to always go to the standards when a curriculum question arises and so I did. Here are the standards for eighth grade Social Studies standards in Georgia as well as eighth grade Florida standards Notice that both courses follow an outline of American History. The standards that deal with Florida specifically are somewhat broad while Georgia’s standards are more specific noting people, places, battles etc. that the instructor should make mention of regarding state history.

So I believe it all comes down to the words “relative details” that FSB and I might disagree on. He states it isn’t important that Florida students know who Brevard, Duval, or Broward are, however, Flagler and Oscelola might hold relevance. I can see his point, however, I'm not sure why Duval wouldn't be mentioned when discussing how Florida became a territory and when looking at Native American relations with the influx of settlers under Duval's guidance. I also believe Broward deserves a mention when discussing U.S. and Cuban relations during their efforts in gaining independence from Spain since Broward and his ship The Three Friends played a role.

Certain key people are important. I believe Georgia students should know Oglethorpe by name since he is given credit as organizing the Georgia colony, however, it is no longer important for students to name every governor of the state or other various details that can now be retrieved as needed from various information sources including the Internet.

Social Studies has moved beyond name the explorer who, what year, and locate on a map type of assessments. We want students to be able to think critically about what they are learning and to connect their learning to details they haved learned in the past whether they are life long residents of a particular state or not.

I’ll admit if I was teaching state history I would prefer Georgia standards over Florida’s since they are specific as to the Georgia content that should be infused. It makes the guessing game regarding what is relevant according to state test makers much easier especially for the unfortunate teacher who moves in from another state and must take a self-directed crash course regarding state history.

It would also seem that after reading this article and after going directly to the standards my headache regarding FSB’s post has subsided. Eighth grade teachers in Florida are receiving assistance with relevant details to add in regarding Florida state history, and I would bet they receive some sort of assistance from the Florida State Education Department regarding state history details that should part of a basic framework for Florida state history….at least I hope so.


Alasandra, The Cats and Dogs said...

I agree that State History is important and should be taught.

My problem with State History in the public schools concerns those students whose family moves from state to state, a lot.

It's a shame that a child can be prevented from graduating from High School, just because they lived in another state when the state they now reside in's History was taught.

Prehaps a solution could be that any state history would be acceptable for meeting graduation requirements.

EHT said...

As far as I know state history is not a requirement for graduation from high school in Georgia. I'm not sure about other states. This is mainly because the majority of high schools across the nation are more concerned with World and American History, Economics, and Political Science. State history in Georgia is presented during third and eighth grade. Graduation requirements are only concerned with the high school years.

Alasandra, The Cats and Dogs said...

GA, seems to have a sensible plan in place.

MS requires 1 semester of Mississippi studies in 9th grade. Which means it is require for graduation. With people moving into and out of the state it's very easy for a high school student to miss the requirement. Having it taught in 8th grade (like GA) instead of 9th grade could be another solution.

Personally I would love it if we could teach the history of every state. We studied Hawaii before we vacationed there and I learned so much about it's history that I was unaware of.

Rebecca Haden said...

We've been having quite a bit of controversy over state history requirements in the state where I live (Arkansas). While some of it is economics-driven, there are real concerns over the question of whether integrating state history into overall social studies frameworks will "water down" the state history instruction.
It seems to me that teaching state history as you do, with plenty of connection to the broader framework of national and world history, creates rich-context instruction while also allowing students to learn about and gain appreciation of their home state.
Perhaps the problem is less to do with specificity of instruction and more to do with either-or thinking.

The Tour Marm said...

Unfortunately, I haven't much time to reply to this.

I have spent most of my life traveling throughout the United States and Canada learning about state, provincial, and local history in order to add to my running commentary aboard the bus. It makes the ride more interesting.

It's amazing the connections I've made to the bigger picture by learning the history of the places I either visit or glide through. my post on the Straus family some time ago links Talbotton and Columbus, GA to Yankee blockade runners, Macy's, the Titanic, International Court in the Hague, and Jewish history. Wouldn't it be nice for the students in Georgia, Talbotton, and Columbus to know these connections and the part their community played in it?

My tour clients are normally amazed at these connections and are happy to learn about the families, politics, economics of a given area.

I have found that so many Americans have no idea of the history in their own backyard and are amazed to learn how their area contributed to something extraordinary.

I recently posted about my home community for the first twenty years of my life, and it wasn't until I did some research for the post that I realized that Queens, NY was named for Catherine de Braganza and knew nothing about the Native Americans, wampam industry, Adrian Block's map, The Flushing Remonstrance, or that we had a flag! Now that's pathetic! I felt let down by my school system on this - nearly fifty years later!

Our students should not be kept ignorant of the history of the place in which they live - whether the place is one of their birth or choosing.

Yes, state history should be a requirement for all students.

EHT said...

Great points, Tour Marm!