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.