A Week With Iran And Hurricane Sandy

Over the summer I applied for a conference on Iran and its role in the Middle East.  The conference was sponsored by The Foreign Policy Research Institute and it was held in Pittsburgh.  The conference was one of the best I have ever attended.  There were only 44 of us in attendance and the small venue gave us an opportunity to interact with the speakers in a very meaningful way.  The presenters were excellent and came from a wide variety of backgrounds and disciplines.  The variety in speakers gave us a view of Iran (mostly from 1953 onward) that was nuanced and shied away from easy answers and stereotypes.  It was one of those great conferences where you realize that you do not know nearly as much as you thought you did.  I love those experiences because they are both eye-opening and exciting.

I was fortunate enough to be sitting next to one of the presenters, Dr. David Crist, an historian for the Pentagon.  His book ‘The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran‘ served as the basis of his talk.  His talk was probably THE most insightful reflection on US relations with Iran over the past 30 years I have ever come across.  I highly recommend his book to everyone out there.

The only unfortunate part of the conference was Hurricane Sandy.  Because of the storm, airlines began canceling flights early Sunday morning.  It became obvious by 10 AM that I would be spending more time in Pittsburgh than I planned.  The upside to this was I got have lunch at Primanti Brothers!  The downside was I spend two and a half days away from my family while the storm raged.  Thankfully I am home now and looking forward to getting back to school.

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Summer Draws To A Close

It has been quite a while since I posted and summer is drawing to a close.  It was a rewarding summer.   I did a lot of planning and a lot of rewriting and rethinking of my units and lessons.  There were two real high points to the summer.

The first came as a total surprise, a book titled ‘The Courage To Teach’ by Parker Palmer.  I was hesitant to buy the book because it seemed too “touchy/feely” but the title kept popping up all over the place – especially on Edutopia – so I took the plunge.  I did not start reading the book till the middle of summer but it really has altered my mindset going into the school year.  Dr. Palmer does a great job of reminding teachers that teaching and education are more than just techniques and data.  The most effective teachers are the ones who teach out of a love for the subject and concern and compassion for their students.  Not that technique and data are not important, but they are not at the heart of teaching.  Great teaching comes from keeping the subject matter at the center of the classroom conversation and instilling a sense of awe in your students about the subject.  For all my teacher friends out there, I don’t need to tell you that right now the education world is focused almost exclusively on technique and data.  The Gates Foundation and others are doing everything they can to make education “teacher-proof”.  Teachers are to follow strict protocols in the classroom and should act more like technicians than mentors.  Dr. Palmer’s book was a breath of fresh air, reminding us that teaching is more than data and technique – it is passion, it is compassion, it is building relationships and giving students a safe place to explore the big ideas important to all human beings.

The other high point was the level of focus in my planning for my courses.  I am sure that once we get into the full swing of the year, gaps will appear.  However, I was seeing connections in my thinking and a level of consistency in my planning like I have never experienced.  For the first time EVER I was able to describe my courses in a single sentence that I think is complete, true and useful.  I have been trying to do this for the past five years when I was introduced to the exercise at a Grant Wiggins seminar.  Every year I would try, but I never came up with anything that I was happy with, nor were they very useful.  I’m not sure what happened, but I think I was able to look beyond the minutia of the course and focus on the big picture and what it is that historians actually do when they do history.  So here it is, my AP World History course in one sentence:

“To consistently use thinking routines to interpret the past and to make those interpretations understandable to others.”

This sentence became the focus of my planning this summer.  Thinking about the past should happen in a disciplined and consistent manner.  I chose the word interpret because that is what historians actually do.  Also, it lets the students know that this is not a game of “Guess-what’s-in-the-teacher’s-head”.  What I want from them are their interpretations of the past based on a reasoned and disciplined approach.  Finally, historical interpretations are useless, unless you can make them understandable to others and discuss their their accuracy and compare them to opposing viewpoints.  History has to be done within a community because history is the stories communities tell about themselves to explain to themselves and the world who they are.  Even when one is home alone reading a history book there is still an element of community – you and the author are having a discussion.  When I started to read Dr. Palmer’s book, I thought my sentence and the ideas in his book dovetailed nicely.  I felt it confirmed what I had been doing during the summer because my sentence puts the focus on the interpretive act of history NOT the teacher nor lists of names and dates but the act of DOING history.

So there it is, that was my summer.  In spite of all the turmoil in the education world and all the politics and uncertainty, I am really excited to get back into the classroom.  The policies coming down from the state did nothing to make me excited about the classroom, in fact, they will probably turn a lot of teachers off and make the classroom more stressful.  The “courage to teach” will obviously not come from state policies.  What makes me excited about the classroom is that I get another chance to show students why history is worthy of their time and effort and why history is everywhere.  True teaching comes from the heart and is – dare I say it – a spiritual act of the entire person.

I can’t wait for the bell to ring.

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Summer Reading And More

I came to my decision rather late this year, but I decided to read up on women’s history this summer.  I found a couple of really good books – especially for China.  The first book I’ll be going through is The Inner Quarters, a history of women (mostly upper class) during the Sung Dynasty.  I’ve also found a very good general book on Tang social history that addresses both women and cities, laws and punishments, etc.  Right now, I am taking a bit of a sidetrack and reading a book by an author I was fortunate enough to hear in Salt Lake City for the AP World reading, his name is Mir Tamim Ansary.  He spent many years as a textbook writer and has written a number of memoirs.  I am reading his book Destiny Disrupted which does a great job of giving an alternative reading/interpretation of world history.  Rather than focusing on Europe and the West, he focuses on what he calls the Middle World ranging from Fertile Crescent to what is now Northern India, Pakistan, etc.  A very readable and enjoyable book.  I am always amazed at how much I do not know.  I’ve been teaching for over 15 years and studying history for close to 25 and yet, the world(s!) and its histories seem to always be just beyond my grasp of understanding.  

My other goal for this summer is to plan out all my units and rewrite a good portion of them.  I am taking the less is more approach.  Covering fewer civilizations directly but spending more time with the civilizations and topics I do cover so the students get a deeper understanding of the concepts, principles, and skills they will need to really understand and do history.  We shall see, we shall see.

Enjoy the Fourth of July everyone!

Below is a picture of me and Mr. Ansary – why do I have my eyes closed!


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Back From Salt Lake City

Mormon Temple, Salt Lake City

Hello again! I apologize for not writing on the blog sooner, but I have been out of town for the past week and a half to grade the AP World History exams in Salt Lake City, Utah.  This was my second time grading the exams and it was a truly rewarding experience.   I was fortunate enough to be assigned to the comparative essay, which means I have read all three types of essays now for the College Board.

The grading went very smoothly, both at my table and for the entire exam.  I had a GREAT table leader who really knew his stuff inside and out and provided a LOT of really helpful feedback on our grading.  Although, we all felt a little scared when he would walk over (we nicknamed him “The Reaper”), his comments were ALWAYS helpful and made you feel more secure in the whole grading process.  If I get to go back next year, I hope he is my table leader again.

Interesting note here, students who organized their essays around ‘similarity’ and ‘difference’ paragraphs where much more likely to score higher on the essay than students that organized the paragraphs around civilizations or even themes.  The reason for this is probably because the simple but direct similarity/difference organizer increased the chances of the student hitting more of the ‘technical’ requirements of the essay listed in the rubric.

The professional development forums and lectures in the evenings were very helpful as well.  There are some major changes coming to the AP history programs.  Over the next five years US, European, and World will all be reorganized so that their curriculums will focus on key concepts and thinking and writing skills.  For the exams, there will be fewer multiple choice (around half as many as current exams) and more and longer writing exercises.  These are all welcome changes, because it will allow teachers to move away from teaching minutia and spend more time on fewer topics allowing for deeper and greater understanding.  There will also be more addressing of historiography, giving students more insight into how historians actually do history.

Although I was originally upset about not being in Ft. Collins, I found Salt Lake City to be a charming city and really enjoyed the town. The Mormon Temple was impressive and I found the pioneer ethos of the Mormons quite interesting. Over the upcoming week I will post more photos of Salt Lake and insights about the exam.  Be back soon.

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Summer Book Club

There were a couple of really good options for the summer book club.  I’ve decided to go with Vali Nasr’s book The Shia Revival.  Dr. Nasr is a professor at Tufts University and his book is a timely one.  He does an excellent job explaining how sectarianism in Islam is impacting world politics.  The book came out about seven years ago, so it can be gotten on the cheap and I know for a fact that it is available in Denver, CO because Amazon delivers everywhere!  I will post start dates and chapter readings later.  For now, get a copy of the book.

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Great Question!

Today, I was reminded once again about the power of students wondering out loud and creating their own questions.  A student asked why Charles I was executed and Louis XIV was not.  I have paraphrased some of the conversation below. The first student said, “Why did Charles I get executed but Louis XIV did not? A second student answered, “Charles was executed by the English Parliament because it was full of Protestants and Protestants don’t like absolute monarchs.” First student again, “Yeah, but why didn’t Louis get executed?  He had the Estates-General and that is a kind of parliament.  Why didn’t they try to execute Louis like the English one did to Charles? A third student chimed in, “I want to know who was in the Estates-General.  Were they Protestant too or something else?  That might help me understand why Louis was not executed.” This led to a very lively and fun discussion with a large number (unfortunately not all) of students in the class.  Students followed their own line of questioning and it brought it new understandings and new connections (some students began to refer to the Columbian Exchange and the role it played in making Protestants richer and therefore probably more powerful!). I wish I could say that something like this happened everyday.  I do know this, it makes me want to try and make it happen.  Granted, this is not the most exciting post, but this exchange impacted me and made me look at the material in a different light. Because of the questions my students were asking, I began to look at the topic differently as well.  Today, I was learning from my students.

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Online Book Group

A former student, Maya, proposed an online book group and we could use this blog to conduct it.  The group would start in July and go to the end of the summer.  I will be looking for a book that can be had in electronic form and preferably one that is available on google books so we don’t need to spend money.  If you have any suggestions let me know.  This could be a lot of fun.

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