About a month ago, I saw a number of people in my news feed sharing an article called “Horizontal History” from the website Wait But Why. I wasn’t familiar with the site before, but it seemed interesting, so I saved it in my Instapaper queue. I finally got around to reading it this week, and it’s worth a read. Fair warning: the language is a bit coarse at times, but the ideas are nevertheless worth considering. I was particularly struck by the following passage.

The reason history is so hard is that it’s so soft. To truly, fully understand a time period, an event, a movement, or an important historical figure, you’d have to be there, and many times over. You’d have to be in the homes of the public living at the time to hear what they’re saying; you’d have to be a fly on the wall in dozens of secret, closed-door meetings and conversations; you’d need to be inside the minds of the key players to know their innermost thoughts and motivations. Even then, you’d be lacking context. To really have the complete truth, you’d need background—the cultural nuances and national psyches of the time, the way each of the key players was raised during childhood and the subtle social dynamics between those players, the impact of what was going on in other parts of the world, and an equally-thorough understanding of the many past centuries that all of these things grew out of.

That’s a pretty good explanation of why we must teach students to think historically. It also explains why history, as it should be taught, is far more complex than names and dates. Like Whitman, real history is large. It contains multitudes.

Earlier this month, Valerie Strauss, in her Washington Post blog “Answer Sheet,” published a guest post by Steve Neumann entitled “Why kids—now more than ever—need to learn philosophy. Yes, philosophy.” Neumann, to his credit, recognizes the seeming absurdity of his claim, opening his manifesto by acknowledging that “The idea that schoolchildren should become philosophers will be scoffed at by school boards, teachers, parents, and philosophers alike.” But Neumann is not arguing for esoterica; his is a call for a more usable philosophy. As he writes, The kind of philosophy I have in mind helps kids become better citizens by turning the classroom into what the philosopher John Dewey called ‘embryonic society.’”

Laughable though it may appear, in today’s hyper-partisan society, Neumann’s call is spot on. In particular, Neumann takes issue with political polarization and the “state of discourse” in our current political culture—an issue that shapes my own educational philosophy. Neumann states, “I think most of us realize that society is a necessary compromise, and at least pay lip service to the idea that critical thinking and effective communication are virtues essential for its success. As we get older  many of us tend to be less open to new information, evidence, and arguments — but we can and should instill the requisite virtues in our children via K-12 education.” He quotes Frederick Douglass in support of this: “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

Central to Neumann’s article are the concepts of inquiry and dialogue—hallmarks, to my mind, of any good classroom.

The focus is on asking questions because philosophy, as Socrates said, begins in wonder. We don’t just ask ourselves questions—we ask others, those who make up our society. It’s true that philosophy involves a lot of sittin’ and thinkin’ on one’s own, but as the late American philosopher Matthew Lipman wrote in his essay “The Educational Role of Philosophy:”

“Philosophy may begin in wonder and eventuate in understanding, or even, in a few instances, in wisdom, but along the way it involves a good deal of strenuous activity. This activity generally takes the form of dialogue.”

Dialogue is key because only then will our assumptions, reasoning, and conclusions be challenged. Only then can we become better thinkers. And in the process of becoming better thinkers through intellectually rigorous dialogue, our children can become better citizens.

Neumann argues for a constructivist classroom, or as he describes it, “a kind of philosophical apprenticeship where they learn by doing.” Although his focus is explicitly on philosophy, I think the idea holds for history as well. As he writes, “The teacher’s job is to guide and inform student inquiries, helping them pay attention to the quality of their reasoning, and making sure they realize they’re meeting on terms of equality and mutual respect.” That’s exactly what I try to do in my own classroom. I even wrote an article about this a few years ago.

As I read the news about Antonin Scalia’s death and the partisan rancor that swirls around his potential replacement, I can’t help but think of the opportunity that exists for those teachers brave enough to wade into the controversy. What a wonderful opportunity this offers to help students ask important and relevant questions, and then converse about it. In an ideal setting, the classroom would contain a spectrum of opinions which led to strenuous—though civil—conversation.

We have an opportunity to help our students become philosophers or historians or whatever they want to be, but we have an obligation to help them become citizens worthy of the name. Neumann is right: the younger generation has the capacity to create a better, more civil politics, but they won’t do it unless we help them. Left to their own devices (literally and figuratively), they will be socialized by the likes of Donald Trump and Michael Moore, and they will be trapped by our broken status. We, the Teachers, must help them become philosophers (in the sense that Neumann describes) so that they might envision a better way.

This is a great article and should be read by all teachers, but especially history/humanities teachers.

On Monday, I came across this article on The Atlantic website: “A Better Way to Teach History.” It should be required reading for all history teachers. The author describes an undergraduate class at Harvard taught by Professor David Moss, who does most of his teaching at the Harvard Business School.

In a spacious classroom in Aldrich Hall on the Harvard Business School campus, 100 students are passionately discussing a case called “Battle Over a Bank.” But these aren’t MBA students deliberating over how much the government should regulate the financial sector. This group of mostly undergraduates, guided by the award-winning Harvard Business School professor David Moss, is diving into the fierce 1791 debate over whether the Constitution could be interpreted to allow the fledgling U.S. government the power to form a bank at all.

This class, “History of American Democracy,” is no pedestrian historical survey course. It uses the case method—the business school’s signature teaching technique—to immerse undergraduates (as well as a limited number of HBS students) in critical episodes in the development of American democracy.

The article was a revelation. As someone who is committed to a more constructivist classroom, I am always looking for tools and techniques to add to my toolbox. The Harkness method forms the cornerstone of my pedagogical approach, but students (and I!) sometimes need a change of pace. The case study approach looks like a wonderful way to bring the concept of contingency alive for students–to illustrate the present is profoundly shaped by each decision made in the past. By extension, the decisions we make in the present will shape the future.

Along those lines, the case study method offers a way to engage students in the learning process and also, as the article states, “help students develop an instinct for how to respond even to problems—whether they be furor over same sex marriage or a massive financial crisis—that feel unprecedented. Through sheer repetitive exposure to problems and problem-solving, students learn the art of decision-making.” This is very much in keeping with my vision of history education as a key to civic preparation.

Last fall, I discovered the National History Center‘s Mock Policy Briefing Program, which has the potential to do much the same thing: illustrate for students for students how the study of the past can, in fact, have relevance in the present and influence the future in important ways.

I recently finished reading Education and Democracy in the 21st Century, a slim but provocative book from Nel Noddings, Professor Emerita at Stanford. She packs a lot of punch into 157 pages.

Noddings clearly leans progressive, both in terms of her educational philosophy and her politics, but she is even-handed. While some of her particular recommendations are likely to appeal more to “liberals” than to “conservatives,” she argues above all that we must teach students to think critically. At first blush, such a stance seems uncontroversial. (After all, what parent—Republican or Democrat—doesn’t want their child to learn to think critically?) Noddings, however, takes the rarer and more subversive step of actually thinking critically about the current state of education.

Notably, Noddings challenges one of the central dogmas of education in the 21st century: the idea that “all children can learn.” To be fair, Noddings, would probably not disagree with that simplistic statement; rather, she would flesh it out and add a qualifier. Throughout the essays in this book, Noddings argues that while all children can learn, not all children can learn everything we hope to teach them equally well. She acknowledges, for instance, that some children may not have an aptitude for or an interest in higher level math and that a true 21st century education should accommodate this. “Children are not equal in their capacity for academic learning,” she writes, “and a universal, academic curriculum may well aggravate academic differences. A richer, more varied curriculum might help students find out what they are suited to do . . . Even within a particular course, there should be a balance between common learning and individualized units and topics that provide students with opportunities to exercise their special talents and interests” (30-31).

Here I detect a similarity to Ken Robinson, who notes in his famous TED talk, “I think you’d have to conclude the whole purpose of public education throughout the world is to produce university professors.” Why continue treating children as widgets, forcing square pegs into round holes? This is the outdated factory model of education. More to the point, Noddings argues against the notion that every child should learn everything; followed to its logical end, she says, that idea is fundamentally anti-democratic. In our pursuit of “equality,” she posits, we have created an educational system that is unfair and counterproductive.

Her point about aptitudes and interests leads me to reflect on Carol Dweck and the “growth mindset,” an idea that has received much attention from educators over the last ten years or so—and one which has become a central part of my own educational philosophy and practice. In her work, Dweck argues that while we may all differ in our natural aptitudes, we can all improve with effort. (Try as I might, I’m never going to surpass LeBron James in basketball ability—but I can become better than I am today.) Also, we have different mindsets in different areas. I, for instance, have a growth mindset when it comes to cooking but a fixed mindset when it comes to art. I believe that I can improve in the kitchen with practice, and to this end, I have taken a few cooking classes, bought onions to practice my knife skills, etc. If you were to ask me about my artistic ability, however, I would tell you, “I’m not an artist.” The reality, however, is that I simply don’t have a strong enough interest in art to justify the time and energy it would take to improve. If I did, I’m sure that I could improve.

Noddings argues for more student choice in the curriculum. She supports the notion that students—especially middle school students—should be encouraged to discover their aptitudes and interests, and that education should provide multiple paths to success. Not everyone can do calculus, but then, not everyone needs to do calculus. Contrary to one of the central tenets of “standards-based” education reform, an “equal” education does not mean that everyone should get the same education.

Similarly, Noddings notes that, despite our best intentions of sending every student to college in the name of equality, “there will always be unattractive work that needs doing” (102)—work which does not require a college degree. Thus, she argues that “schools should direct their efforts toward producing people who can act purposefully and morally in every domain of life. When people are forced to work at meaningless jobs, they need even more to find meaning in their personal and civic lives” (102). Again, the supposedly “equal” college preparatory track may not serve every student equally well—especially if that track serves to tell some students that they are stupid. Noddings calls for more respect—and support—for vocational education, a better vocational education that goes beyond the mere learning of employable skills to include some liberal arts exposure as well as training for parenting and home life.

Although the book will generally serve to further our thinking on education in the 21st century, it is not devoid of flaws. For instance, Noddings seems to believe that she is only suggesting tweaks to our current system, when in actuality, her proposals would amount to massive changes in American education. She is careful to point out that her intention is not to prescribe a full curriculum, and she restates several times throughout the book that we must work within the existing discipline-based curriculum framework. For instance, in her chapter entitled “Educating for Home Life,” Noddings writes, “I am not suggesting that we should develop detailed sub-curricula on houses and homemaking for each of the traditional subjects. That might well defeat our purpose. Teachers would revolt against one more demand on their time” (72). However, she then goes on to propose numerous additions to the curriculum. For history courses alone, she suggests adding material on “the history of homes or women’s history” (74) and “the history of childhood and child-rearing” (80). While these would be likely be valuable additions, Noddings does not seem to recognize that these add up to “detailed sub-curricula”: yet another demand on limited instructional time. To add them would mean cutting something else, and therein lies the rub.

Also, in her call for “ecological cosmopolitanism,” Noddings reveals a certain degree of naiveté. She calls for a 21st century “ecological cosmopolitanism” (a love of and commitment to the Earth) to replace the 19th and 20th century emphasis on nationalism, she acknowledges that cosmopolitanism “does not ‘grab’ us emotionally as does national patriotism with its multiple supports in rousing music, flags, parades, uniforms, heroic stories, and celebrations.” However, she posits that “The possibility of destroying Earth through neglect and selfish exploitation might well have some emotional impact” (99). I won’t dispute Noddings argument that we must do a better job of protecting our planet, or even that such a call should inspire an emotional response. The fact of the matter, however, is that it doesn’t inspire an emotional response, at least not for most people. Here Noddings is guilty of preaching to the choir. (Here, too, she also proposes numerous additions to the curriculum for helping students learn about the Earth and develop their ecological cosmopolitanism.)

In the end, Noddings offers a powerful reminder that “Education is an enterprise with multiple aims” (41). In an era of increasing standardization, centralization, and politicization, that is a worthwhile thing to remember. Schools should never be anti-intellectual places, but to say that their focus should not be strictly academic is hardly anti-intellectual. It is honest. In fact, those who present the false dichotomy of schools as “intellectual” or “anti-intellectual” are the ones who are guilty of anti-intellectualism. It is possible to disagree with some—or even most—of Noddings proposals, but we can, and should, and must think critically about education rather than accepting the cant of “reformers.” Here, Noddings makes a substantive contribution to the debate.

Truth be told
I’m not much for the cold
But if you’re selling a snow day,
Mother Nature, I’m sold!

An original poem, perhaps one of my finest! (Excluding those I wrote for school assignments, I think I’ve written–at most–a half-dozen poems in my life. See what you can do on a snow day!)

We missed the brunt of the recent winter storm as it passed through Virginia; just a bit to the north of us they received about 25″. For our part, we got probably 6-8″, though it’s hard to say for sure. Late Friday night it changed over to freezing rain/sleet, which compacted the original snow and turned it to ice. It then changed back to snow for much of the day Saturday which added a few more inches of powder on top. School was cancelled on Friday, primarily because everything else was cancelled, and it’s cancelled again today. And what a wonderful winter weekend it has been!

A snow day provides an opportunity to think and reflect (and write poetry). Over the past few days, I’ve luxuriated in a slow-sipped pot of tea, helped clean the house, and, yes, done some work–grading, catching up on e-mail, planning my upcoming weekend duty. These are all things I might normally do on a weekend day, but with a sea of white outside my window, it somehow feels different.

Another thing I’ve done this weekend is read–a lot. I just finished Dan T. Carter’s The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics. Now I’m working on Anthony Grooms’s novel Bombingham and Nel Noddings’s Education and Democracy in the 21st Century.

I also read this article from the Washington Post: “Expecting to enjoy a lazy snow day? Teachers urge parents, students to think again.” While it’s not the hardest-hitting journalism I’ve ever read, it does manage to provide an interesting angle on one of education’s stickiest wickets in just a few paragraphs. In short: whereas a heavy snow used to promise kids a fun-filled day of frolicking outdoors, educators now worry about the consequences of such activities. As the article states, “[I]n an era of increased academic testing, stacked curricula and virtual learning, many educators and school officials are urging students to continue their schoolwork during snow days to avoid the dreaded ‘amnesia’ that can set in after a few missed days of class.” Particularly in the upper grades and in Advanced Placement courses, “that can create stress for teachers, who worry about how they will cram a year’s worth of advanced curriculum into one shortened by snow days.”

To me, this is suggestive of the difference between a “teacher-centered” and a “student-centered” (or “learner-centered”) education system. I do sympathize with the teachers, who appear to be caught between an immovable rock (the AP exam) and a cold hard place, though I think the use of the verb “cram” is telling. How much curriculum should we be cramming in the first place? (And if we are cramming, is this really education?)

I think there’s a reasonable a fair conversation to be had about the “costs” of a snow day in the classroom, especially for those students who are really struggling or when a “snow day” becomes a “snow week” or more. For the vast majority of kids, though, the idea of “amnesia” setting in after just a few days is ridiculous. If that were true, we wouldn’t have long weekends, holidays, or spring break. In fact, such breaks are necessary to allow students (and teachers!) the opportunity to recharge and come back into the classroom fresh.

Perhaps most frightening of all is this asinine quote from Connie Skelton, Assistant Superintendent for Instruction in Arlington Public Schools: “In Arlington, we really are moving towards 24/7 learning.” She’s explaining how Arlington’s use of iPads and other technology can be a game-changer, but what does that even mean? Do kids not sleep? Do they not eat or go to the bathroom? And even if we set aside the ridiculousness of the actual claim, we should ask ourselves a more serious question: Just how much learning is necessary and appropriate? I’m all for providing a “rigorous” education, but the law of diminishing marginal returns applies here. There is a point at which enough is enough.

I am heartened, however, by this quote from Evan Glazer, principal of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (better known throughout the DC area as “TJ”): “‘We want them to go out and play and make snowmen and snow angels, because it doesn’t happen all that often,’ Glazer said. ‘You might as well take a break when Mother Nature gives you the opportunity.’” This from a school that has been ranked among the very best in the country and sends its graduates to top-notch universities. (I can hear the counterargument now: “With a more advanced student, you can ‘afford’ to take that stance.” Maybe so, but I also wonder to what extent the 24/7 “cramming” mentality contributes to the percentage of students who either drop out of school or simply go through the motions.)

 

I love it when things line up unexpectedly.

A significant portion of my students’ exam last semester was an entirely student-led Harkness discussion. Unfortunately, it didn’t go so well. They managed to sustain the conversation for the better part of 90 minutes, but it felt superficial and very competitive and, at times, downright rude. It was not at all reflective of what I’ve tried to teach them about how to have a discussion. (I suspect that’s because with such a high-profile grade attached, they reverted to instinct–but that’s another post altogether.)

At any rate, I started the new semester today with a reflection on that experience and tried to help the class move forward. We talked about the need to respect each other, and they talked about being “kind” and “friendly” and “not rolling your eyes”–all important ideas. But I took it a step farther, imploring them to actually value each other. As I told them, “Even if you disagree with someone–even if the two of you are completely opposed in every way–you can still learn from them. It won’t hurt you to listen to his ideas, and even if you come away still disagreeing with him, you’ll at least be forced to consider the merits of your own views and hopefully come away stronger. There’s value in that, so don’t waste that opportunity.”

We then moved into our regularly scheduled lesson, the beginning of a unit on virtue. One of my students pointed out that our school’s motto–emblazoned on the school seal (which I had placed on the course syllabus, which we had just discussed)–included the latin word Virtus. That was not part of my original lesson plan, but we ran with it. We talked a bit about why that might be. Why would a school want its students to be virtuous, and in what way(s)?

Later, after brainstorming a list of possible virtues, I offered an unexpected one: politeness. My students looked puzzled. Politeness? In his book A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues, French philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville argues that politeness is in fact the foundation for all other virtues. I assigned that chapter of the book to my students for Thursday, and we will discuss it. Again, not part of my original plan when I chose the reading over the summer, but I’m hoping that the discussion on politeness might offer my students an opportunity to reflect on our exam discussion while practicing better (I daresay, more virtuous) discussion skills.

It’s getting pretty meta up in here, but I do love it when things line up unexpectedly.

Four years ago, I began keeping a log of all the books I read, which I cleverly titled Book of Books. Last night, I closed out my 2015 entries and have just about filled the entire journal. It might seem silly, but I’m proud of it. Because I like to record my thoughts about the book as soon as I finish it, the Book of Books has traveled with me to seven countries across three continents, and reading back over it today was a trip down memory lane. (Of course, my memory must be getting faulty, because I realized that the book I finished last night, just under the wire, I had already read back in 2013. Oops!)

I also noticed that the number of books I’ve read each year has declined somewhat from a high of 50 in 2011. I did start off the New Year on the right foot, though, spending this morning lost in a new book—one of the very best ways to spend a morning, if you ask me. (A long, lingering brunch is another, as is a big steaming mug of tea or hot chocolate around a campfire… but those are posts for another time.)

Reading is a priority for me, and I try to make time for reading every day, but I don’t always succeed–so I’m going to try something new. Last night, as I was catching up on blogs, I came across this from Farnam Street, reflecting on the daunting task of reading Robert Caro’s 1100-word tome The Power Broker:

The solution I devised for myself is a simple one I wanted to share. It’s 25 pages a day. That’s it. Just commit to that, and then do it. What will 25 pages a day get you?

Let’s say that two days out of each month, you probably won’t have time to read. Plus Christmas. That gives you 340 days a year of solid reading time. 25 pages a day for 340 days is 8,400 pages. 8,400. What I have also found is that, when I commit to a minimum of 25 pages, I almost always read more. So let’s call the 8,400 pages 10,000. (I’d only need to extend that 25 pages into 30 to get there.)

With 10,000 pages a year, at a general pace of 25/day, what can we get done?

Well, The Power Broker is 1,100 pages. The four LBJ books are collectively 3,552 pages. Tolstoy’s two masterpieces come in at a combined 2,160. Gibbons is six volumes and runs to about 3,660 pages. That’s 10,472 pages.

That means, in about one year, at a modest pace of 25 pages a day, I’ve knocked out 13 masterful works and learned an enormous amount about the history of the world. In one year!

I worry that setting a specific page goal for myself might make reading feel more like work—just another thing to be crossed off the to-do list each day—but I would like to find away to hold myself accountable. So I’m going to try to make a habit of posting the number of pages I’ve read on a regular (at least weekly) basis, even if that number is zero. I’m also hoping that this will help me log in here more frequently and encourage me to write more (one of my resolutions for 2016).

And, for the curious, here are the books I read in 2015:

Garrett Keizer, Getting Schooled
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five
Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman, NurtureShock
Julian Barnes, A Sense of an Ending
A.J. Jacobs, The Year of Living Biblically
Justin Fox, Whoever Fears the Sea
John Coski, The Confederate Battle Flag
Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland
Dan Brown, Inferno
Mike Matheny, The Matheny Manifesto
Laurence Steinberg, Age of Opportunity
Ted Sizer, The New American High School
Brad Snyder, In the Shadow of the Senators
H.W. Brands, American Dreams
Brad Parks, The Girl Next Door
Douglas Stone et al., Difficult Conversations
Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto
Neil Postman, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century
Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince
Jeff Hobbs, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace
Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
Fareed Zakaria, In Defense of a Liberal Education
Frank Bruni, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be
David Brooks, The Road to Character
Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
Laura & Malcolm Gauld, The Biggest Job We’ll Ever Have
Robert Coles, The Call of Stories
Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Steve Estes, I Am a Man!
Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage
Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train
Claude Steele, Whistling Vivaldi
Stephen Breyer, Active Liberty
Antonin Scalia, A Matter of Interpretation
Melton McLaurin, Celia, a Slave
Brad Parks, The Good Cop
Howard Gardner, Intelligence Reframed

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