Can We Teach the REAL American History?

Mr. Peabody & Sherman

“Sherman, my boy, I’m afraid this may be a problem even we can’t solve!”

“History”…to me, it was probably the moldiest word in the English language.  “Social Studies” would rank a close second, if not for the fact that it is actually two words.  Anytime someone started talking about anything “historical”, my mind pictured Mr. Peabody and Sherman—a brilliant dog and his adopted pet boy, respectively—setting the date on Peabody’s “WABAC Machine” and setting off to correct fractured versions of past events, often using similarly and anachronistically fractured means (Ward, 1959).  As funny as those cartoons were, it seems they were prophetically congruent to the history we’ve been taught in elementary and middle school; it too was mostly fractured, if not completely incorrect.  I’d like to step into the WABAC Machine myself and look at how history has been shown to us; how it differed from what I learned outside of the school setting; and how my experiences have affected (and will affect) how I teach in the future.

Being as I had spent very little time in elementary school (attending parts of the fourth and sixth grades), my experiences with history at those levels were in short bursts.  My main sources of education came from old books, movies, television, or stories from my grandparents.  Even so, something about the lessons I learned at the time did not seem to fit in with the reality of the world of the early 1970s.

Cristobal Colon

@ChrisColon: “Google Maps? Hah! I know EXACTLY where I’m going!” smh! #wrongwaystupid

In school, we were told that “we” always won…”we” meaning America as a whole.  Even when we fought ourselves, “we” won.  Places were “discovered” or “won”, and their peoples “conquered” or “freed” (after being enslaved by the very same “conquerors”, of course).  History was, to use one of my mom’s favorite terms, “color-struck”—it always seemed to favor White European (and later White American) males over all others.  We were taught famous people, places, events and dates to memorize and parrot back; many even had their own little mnemonic devices (HOMES for the Great Lakes, for example).  The sad part about the whole affair was that there was no “me” there.  Sure, there was a lot of American history, but it happened either before I was born or in places I only heard about in class or on TV or in movies.  Considering the “current events” of the day, one would think there would be all kinds of questions raised by the students, or even brought into the classrooms by the teachers.  As Cowhey (2006) rightly points out, however, there was no room for controversy in the curriculum (p. 12). When you brought in your own information, it was censored and re-edited to fit the mold, never to deviate from it.

I wanted to deviate.  I wanted to know why I could have friends who were Hispanic and Jewish (both Orthodox and Hassidic), and many different kinds of “Black”, while the news showed everyone else fighting and hating each other.  I wondered why real people lived in crowded, run-down buildings while everyone outside of New York lived like “The Brady Bunch”, in nice houses with two-car garages.  I wanted to know why going to the moon was so important if no one could live there.  I wanted to know if people like me who didn’t believe in God could still pledge allegiance to the flag.  We never talked about food stamps, though most of us had them; or teenagers, who were our older siblings or cousins or “aunties”, having babies; or why our fathers or uncles came back “wrong” after being in “the ‘Nam”.  The word “holocaust” was something we heard from the “crazy cat lady”, because no one else wanted to talk about it.  I wanted to know so many things, but was told what I was told, and told to repeat what I was told, and told to write it ten times in my composition book so I wouldn’t forget it.  I was told that we were “one nation, under God, indivisible”; yet, we always seemed to be divided about something, including God.  I wanted to know why, but I wasn’t told.

As with hooks (2010), we seemed destined to remain placed within our socioeconomic status, both by the educational system and by our own local society.  We were expected to succeed at the passing level; anything more than the teachers met with surprise and enthusiasm.  However, getting high marks also brought scorn and taunts (if not beatings) from other students.  Girls were especially fearful of standing out, lest they lose their popularity with their friends and the positive attention of boys.  The idea of going to college was never brought up in class, even during middle school.  We were simply primed to get through high school (or get our GEDs) and get whatever jobs we could…or remain on welfare.  Our parents weren’t rich or famous or in political power, so unless we were very lucky, there seemed no point to look past the next grade.

If there were students who had a physical disability or psychological illness, we didn’t see them at our school, though they definitely existed in our community.  I myself am visually impaired, but not totally blind—I was a curiosity to my fellow students, but I managed to avoid the “special classes” label by fitting in and doing my work.

Stepping back into 2014, I was surprised to find out how much had changed in terms of what is being taught in schools—and what still is not—since the days of disco.  Unfortunately, there is so much yet to be taught; things that fall outside the “teacher-proof” textbooks of our curriculum (Cowhey, 2006; p. 12).  How are we supposed to teach our children about freedom, fairness, justice, equality, ableism and the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” when what is taught to us—and what we see in the real world—tends to contradict all of these “American” ideals?  We all deserve to learn the true way of things, but at what price?  At what age is it okay to expose a child to the song “Strange Fruit”, with its poetic yet grisly depiction of a Black man hanging from a tree?  How do we get children to relate to child armies in Somalia or school shootings here at home?  Can we get a child whose family lives on EBT to understand how people survived the Dust Bowl or the Potato Famine?  Or that the chances of getting a good job after obtaining a college degree are far better than signing a multi-million-dollar sports contract or being the next big entertainment star?

We could do the radical thing—ask the children.  Regardless of the era, children have always been curious about the world around them.  They also have their own history—their own “social studies”—that they can share from, learn about, and compare to those of their classmates (Jones, Pang & Rodriguez, 2001; Levstik & Barton, 2011).  In this age of instant-access information, students need to be able to understand the events that shape their lives.  My goal as a teacher is to do for them what my teachers had not done for me—help them to find answers in ways they can comprehend.  I want to help them find ways to connect those facts to the present, or vice-versa; that they matter in the grand scheme of things, and that they won’t need to step into the WABAC Machine to see history as relevant, interesting, and fun.

Day One: So Much to Learn!

This past Thursday I attended my first class at Teachers College, and let me tell you, it was quite the experience.  I learned so much in 100 minutes of class time that I needed two days to fully process it all…and that was from one class!  I’m gonna need a bigger brain.

I had thought that the class I attended, Mathematics for Childhood Education, would be a long lecture about how we were to manipulate the brains of our little charges so that they could better grasp the concepts we were about to cram into their heads.  That notion was shattered within the first ten minutes of the class—it was our brains that would be manipulated.

Our preconceived notions about how children feel and think were challenged when the instructor gave us a “do now” exercise.  That’s right, a quiz…on Day One! 

“Carol bought some items at the deli.  All the items she bought were the same price, and she bought as many of the items as the price of the items in cents (for example, if items costs two cents each, she bought two of them for a total of $0.04.  Or if she chose items costing eight cents, she would have bought eight of them.)  Her bill was $2.25.  How many items did she buy?”

Image

“Oh my…maybe I’m overthinking this problem a bit…”

After giving the class a few minutes to do the word problem, the instructor asked how we felt about having been given the test.  Not surprisingly, the class reported various levels of anxiety.

Our first lesson: Kids are anxious about taking tests, just as we were at that moment.

When the instructor asked how we arrived at the solution to the problem, most gave algebraic formulas, the deconstruction of square numbers or other methods gained through higher learning in order to arrive at the answer.  One answer brought a wide smile to the instructor’s face: a student simply counted up from one until she reached the answer (15 items at 15 cents each).

Our second lesson: Kids don’t use complicated equations to solve problems.

Later, we were broken up into groups, with each group solving a different word problem.  Rather than simply having one person in the group come up with the answer, the group worked together, comparing strategies on how they arrived at the answer.  In most cases, the simplest strategy made the most sense.  Other methods were used to check and double-check answers.  And since the group had to explain how it arrived at the answer to the rest of the class, the simplest way proved to be the easiest to communicate.  In this manner, the group worked together to find the solution, with each member of the group contributing either a different strategy or a concern about the outcome.

Our third lesson: Kids work best when they share information in order to resolve a problem.

As the class continued, we all seemed to pick up on the main theme of the session: children learn the way children learn, not the way adults learn, so we cannot teach them as if we are teaching adults.  This brought me back to the “Growing Down” article I wrote here awhile back; as prospective educators, we cannot expect kids to grasp concepts that we ourselves learned (and in some cases, re-learned) years past their grade level.  It is up to us to understand their thought processes and problem-solving abilities. 

For me, that was the key in solving many of the homework problems we were given.  Rather than using algebra immediately to discern whether a sequence of numbers were arithmetic or geometric, I simply counted the differences between the numbers in each example.  The algebra came to be understood once I had a grasp of how the differences could be put into a formula.  In other words, there was a progression to how I learned..

Image

Don’t worry, kid…we’ll have you spouting the Fibonacci sequence before lunch!

I’ve been shown how education has changed drastically from the days when I was in elementary school (think pre-disco!).  I am also glad to see my assumptions on how we should reach children was correct; that we should reach them on their level, so that they can relate to the material, even if it gives them a little discomfort.  We should not sell them short—they can work together to solve problems just as we adults can (maybe better than we can, I think!).

One class.  All this came out of just one class.  I have three other classes, and nearly four months to go before this semester ends.  If you see someone’s head spontaneously explode on a YouTube video somewhere, it will probably be mine.

Read My (Physical) Book, Please!

Image

It is often said that writers should be avid readers.  Whenever you see an image of a great author or successful writer, they always seemed to be surrounded by canyons of books–not just a simple bookshelf, mind you, but enough volumes to give even the most voracious reader a case of mental heartburn.  I think that image will be changing soon, given the move to electronic media.  It could very well be that today’s writers—e-journalists, self-publishing novelists, and bloggers like myself included—will not be pictured seated in a den in front of a massive book collection, but shown in transit holding our trusty traveling companion, the tablet.  As such, I wonder if today’s children will ever want to read a physical, printed book again.

I am neither a great author nor a successful writer (yet!), and if the stereotype has some truth to it (as they often do), then I may not be either in this lifetime.  The amount of books I have in my possession would barely fit a modestly sized bookshelf.  Those that I have managed to collect are textbooks, plays or manuals–all leftovers from college classes.  My iPad actually has a more impressive roster of authors, from Dickens and Melville to Hughes and Bellow.  Yet, those too came to me as the result of filling required reading quotas.  There is anarchy in the gathering; Friere sits next to Dr. Seuss and both serve as constant reference materials, while Othello and Macbeth collect more dust than Shakespeare’s coffin.  My anime DVD titles outnumber my book titles 3 to1.

The sad part of this whole mess is, I used to be an avid reader.  I could quote Marley’s visit to Scrooge at the drop of a hat, or argue for days about why I’m certain Lewis Carroll was on some serious drugs when Alice first wandered into his brain.  But ask me about current works and I’d have to depend on the movie to tell you whether I like it or not…if I even saw the movie at all.

Therein lies the problem, I believe.  There doesn’t seem to be a need to actually read anything anymore; modern technology can do it for us.  Whether it’s listening to an audiobook, having someone narrate it for you while you see pretty pictures on YouTube, or waiting for the big-screen version to hit theaters, the necessity of actually picking up a physical book (or reading the .pdf version on Kindle for that matter) is going the way of AM/FM radio or broadcast TV–it’s still available, but quickly losing its relevancy.

Shortly after my appendectomy, the director of the education department at Teachers College suggested I do some reading of children’s books.  Me being the tech-head that I am, I immediately started looking for .pdf versions of books I could download for free.  I bypassed reading altogether when it came to Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are”, opting for the animated version I knew existed online.  I didn’t have to read “The Velveteen Rabbit”, because I had the great Meryl Streep in my ears.

The closer I get to starting classes, the more i worry whether this generation will come to view the reading of physical books as old-fashioned or time-consuming as I do now.  Not just because I want them to actually read my books someday, but because I wonder if they will lose the power of imagination.  As many times (and in as many different forms) as I’ve seen the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come appear in front of Scrooge, the image I have in my mind as I read it is always more frightening than any I had seen in a movie.  Yes, my mind is twisted that way.  I feel that reading uses an entirely different skill set than simply watching a movie based on a book.  Sure, the movie may show you the terror of Smaug the dragon without your brain kicking that fear up a notch, or Katniss’ mad hunting skills without having to deal with her running monologue, but those things are handed to you pre-packaged.  I think it is more fun to imagine who the perfect Mr. Gray would be than to see someone who doesn’t fit the part at all; or to be a kid and act out all the parts of your favorite book before it becomes the next CG-animated box-office hit.

I don’t mean to say that reading in and of itself be dismissed anytime soon; in fact, I think that those in the Internet Age and beyond will depend on literacy to keep up with each other.  Even though text-to-speech functions are available on both word processors and chat apps, and there seems to be an icon for every action, the online world is still mainly text-based, which means it involves a lot of reading.  And while English appears to be the dominant language, there are more than enough translators (both online and off) to assist non-English speakers.  And while physical books may be seeing their sunset, online publishing is moving in the opposite direction, with even novice writers getting their ideas out there on sites like this one.

Another worry I have is the short-attention span we seem to be fostering in our culture.  In an era where cursive handwriting is a lost art, and contemplative thoughts are reduced to 140 characters or less, I wonder how much time and effort someone would put into reading an entire novel.  I myself have had trouble reading a 100-page book, simply because I have been too distracted by other things…and I think that will only get worse once my studies begin.

Traditional books are still being used and enjoyed by many people, adults and children alike.  There are those who still actually prefer flipping pages and going through chapters to fast-forwarding to the next scene.  The die-hard readers will always curl up with their favorite hardcover or paperback, because they love the smell of the pages; and I’m sure there will be kids who will want to have their parents read to them instead of Siri or some other disembodied voice.   I just wonder how quickly those numbers will dwindle.

“Growing Down”

Image

When we were children, we always had this urgent need to “grow up”—whether it was a desire to be treated like an adult, or to get to do the things that “grown ups” do, we could not wait to shed our baby fat and childish ways.  Now that I am an adult, and have been for quite some time, I’m beginning to question that need to grow up so quickly.  This is especially true now, when I will soon be studying to teach those who want to skip the most carefree and joyful time of their lives. 

Being that it has been nearly three and a half decades since I could be considered a “kid”, and I have no contact with children, this will be quite the challenge for me.  In reading over some of the course material offered at Teachers College and other institutes of higher learning, I have come to one conclusion: in order to help these kids “grow up” in the right frame of mind, I have to “grow down” as a person.

For the linguists out there, don’t panic.  Yes, the term “grow down” is an oxymoron.  Yet, I believe it’s the right term in this instance.  I will be growing as a person in terms of the education and understanding of young people; yet, I have to come to a lower level of educational material than I am accustomed.  Well, no…that’s not entirely true, as I’m sure there will be tons of Piaget, Dewey, Friere, et al. to keep my adult brain entertained.  However, I will not be exchanging the ideas of those great thinkers with 7-year-olds.  I will have to understand the hows and whys of talking dogs, curious monkeys, mischievous cats and an overly dependent mouse.  I will have to revel in the overuse of pictures and the underuse of words, and help children decipher the deep meanings layered beneath it all.  It’s not so much bringing myself down to their level, for that would be condescending; it is to remember what is was like to be a kid, to recapture the joy of learning, and to share it with a new generation.

This may be yet another challenge.  I did not attend school on a regular basis when I was a child.  The latter half of both the fourth and sixth grades was all the public education I received, due to family problems.  Growing up as part of what I like to call the “TV Generation” (because we were basically baby-sat by television) gave me some insight on what kids were learning in school.  From the early days of “Sesame Street” to the higher-end lessons of “Schoolhouse Rock”, I was able to get the basics down pretty easily as the years went by.  I filled the gaps by reading everything I could get my hands on—newspapers, comics, discarded math books, phone books…you name it.  I was probably the only kid who got excited by the old Spiegel catalog, because they always had lots of new and interesting things for sale (and to learn about).  The abridged versions of classic novels such as “Great Expectations”, “Moby-Dick”, “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “Oedipus Rex” were found at the back of the old Encyclopedia Britannica, and they found their way into my brain.  By the end of the sixth grade, I was helping other students with their reading and math homework.

Did I miss something important by not being part of the educational system from an early age?  I believe I missed out on what I believe was (and still is) a key element of learning—socialization.  Sure, all the knowledge I accumulated during the time I was not in school was important, but I felt I lacked good social skills.  Don’t get me wrong: I made friends pretty easily, but I think that was more because I had something to offer (help) rather than being a true friend.  If it weren’t for my intelligence, I think I would have been completely ignored by most students, and probably would have gotten the wrong kind of attention (a/k/a bullying) by others.  I believe socialization helps students learn social cues, bonding, rules (both societal and cultural), and shared experiences.  It was difficult for me to relate to kids my age at the elementary level, but I managed.

So here I am, some 35 years later, and I’m about to teach children things I learned much later in life.  In preparation for this endeavor, I have been trying to put my “grown up” hat to the side for awhile and see what it is that children are doing these days.  Since I have no direct contact with the little ones (and hanging out at parks and playgrounds would most likely brand me as a pedophile),  I have been reading children’s books and watching educational/informational programming (noted by the “E/I” rating).

One thing came as a shock to me as I watched about four hours of PBS Kids’ programs: was I really as oblivious of some of the blatant (as in forced) inconsistencies we were taught as today’s kids are assumed to be, as long as I got the message?  The best example of this would probably be “Dinosaur Train”, in which a single mother pteranodon raises four kids—one of which just happens to be a little tyrannosaurus rex.  Mind you, according to the show’s theme song, she had all four eggs, and they all hatched at the same time.  It’s clear to all involved that our little T-rex is not like the others (he even points this out himself, in case we missed it), but why that happened doesn’t matter; he’s part of the family, and it’s all good.  It took about fifteen minutes (including Googling “pteranodon”) for me to wrap the possible combinations (both social and scientific) of how such a birth would take place at all, but that’s the “grown up” me.  Looking at it from the perspective of the “grown down” me, it’s a wonderful example of inclusiveness, bonding and family love.  That’s the important thing to remember here—if we looked at the things we watched or read as a kid through the eyes of an adult, we’d probably lock ourselves up in an insane asylum.  We have to realize that a dog that gained the power of speech and reason because she ate some alphabet soup (as in the case of “Martha Speaks”) is just as plausible to children today as a certain “wascally wabbit” with a sadistic streak was to us when we were growing up.

While I wait to learn to teach, I will be teaching myself to learn…and to re-learn.  I will have to find ways to resist watching or reading material meant for children with the cynical, overly-logical eye of an adult.  In doing so, we tend to lose the things that make childhood fun; magic, wonder, dreams, mystery, and the belief that even the most absurd things can be possible if we only allow ourselves to imagine it so.

Now if you excuse me, I have to give a mouse a cookie…and prepare for the laundry list of crap he’ll ask for next.