Monthly Archives: September 2015

Genealogy Personalizes History

I love history. I have even made my living as a history teacher, but until I finished high school I thought I hated the whole subject. That was because my history teachers made it incredibly boring. It wasn’t entirely their fault. They taught it the same boring way they were taught, which is also the way it is usually presented in textbooks, and the way standardized tests tend to incentivize it to be taught. I’m sure most of us can remember an interminable series of names and dates, kings and battles we were supposed to memorize.

It was only later, when I started reading books about history by choice, that I realized that I actually find it fascinating. History is not about lists of events. It is about human beings and their lives. It contains the word “story” because it consists of stories, and who doesn’t love a good story?

That is why, when I teach history, I always try to approach it through something the student already finds interesting, whether that be weapons or fashion or music or politics or anything else. History contains all of it.

I am also fascinated by genealogy, for the exact same reason, that it consists of human stories. I have been a genealogy hobbyist for many years. I find that while when I mention history, many people start to tune out, when I mention genealogy, most people perk up, especially if I can tell them something about their personal genealogy. We are all interested in learning about ourselves. I think that would be a great way to introduce history in schools.

Most elementary school students have a family history project at some point. I still have mine in a file somewhere, and I still remember interviewing my grandparents and drawing a picture of an heirloom punchbowl to put on the construction paper cover of my report. It amazes me that those projects rarely lead to any further exploration of history. It’s a great way in. History is something we are all living through, as our parents and grandparents and great grandparents did before us. It is not a separate thing that happens only to famous people.

Researching my own genealogy has taught me a lot about history, particularly about mistaken assumptions we tend to make about previous eras. I have a lot to say on this topic, which is why I am starting a new genealogy category on the blog. I hope some readers will find it interesting. I will certainly have fun writing the posts.


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If You Care About Education Reform, You Must Read The Prize

No matter where you stand in the current education chaos, Dale Russakoff’s The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? is worth reading. It is outstanding writing based on outstanding reporting, and it is the best explanation I have seen of the complexities of public education in the United States.

My favorite quotation in the book is from Reverend William Howard, a veteran of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, who says, “I know that no abiding change in human communities is imposed.” (page 179 in the hardcover version) Reverend Howard touches on the biggest problem I see in the current education reform movement, which is the arrogance of so many reformers, and their lack of respect for the people, the communities, they are trying to transform. I think in many cases this arrogance and disrespect is inadvertent, even unconscious, but that doesn’t make it any less real.

There are a lot of smart, capable people already in these neighborhoods and these schools, and nobody cares about their children more than they do. Coming into a community touting yourself as someone who knows what’s best for kids you’ve never met is inherently insulting. There is nothing wrong with offering to help, but you need to ask how you can help, not dictate some prefabricated solution. Not only is it rude, but it also won’t work. Would you trust a bunch of strangers who walked up to you one day and said they knew what was best for your kids? Might you resist handing your children over to them, even if some of their ideas sounded good?

Education is built on trust. This is something every good teacher knows, and this is why the disruption model doesn’t work as well in education as it does in other arenas. Teachers are not vendors, and learning is not a commodity. Disrupting the entrenched bureaucracies of the public education system may be a good idea, but disrupting the lives of children, especially those who have suffered too much disruption already, is not. This is the fundamental paradox of education reform, and Dale Russakoff illustrates it beautifully.

If you want to know more of the book’s details, you can read an excellent, detailed review by Alex Kotlowitz here.

It is a wonderful book. Buy it. Read it. Share it.

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Guiding Principles on Teaching, Learning, and Reform

I almost always agree with things Larry Cuban says about education. This post of his seems especially worth sharing, so I am reblogging it in full.

Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice

From time to time readers will ask me what I believe should be done about teaching, learning, and school reform. They usually preface their request with words such as: “Hey, Larry, you have been a constant critic of existing reforms. You have written about schools not being businesses and have pointed out the flaws in policymaker assumptions and thinking about reform. And you have been skeptical about the worth of new computer devices, software, and online instruction in promoting better teaching and faster learning. So instead of always being a critic just tell us what you think ought to be done.”

Trained as a historian of education and knowledgeable about each surge of school reform to improve teaching and learning over the past century, I cannot offer specific programs for school boards, superintendents, principals, teachers, parents, and voters to consider. Why? Because context is all-important. I know of no reform…

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It’s Way Too Early to Choose a Candidate

I keep getting emails asking me to support various presidential candidates. It seems insane to me that campaigns are already in full force more than a year before the election. I refuse to choose a candidate this far in advance. The reason they are already campaigning is that they have to raise so much money. Billionaires and banks and big corporations keep outspending each other on lobbyists and candidates, and the amounts have gotten ridiculous. The level of corruption that creates is just disgusting.

I have given money to one candidate. I gave $25 to Lawrence Lessig to help get him to his $1,000,000 by Labor Day goal, so he will launch his campaign. It’s not because I plan to vote for him. As I said, I refuse to choose a candidate more than a year before the election. I gave it to him because I think he is right that until we contain this money problem we won’t be able to fix our other pressing problems. I want him to run to bring attention to the issue. I want as many Americans as possible to realize that we have to own our democracy. None of our big problems will get solved until the people who want them solved have more power than the people who don’t.

I might vote for him, in the end. It depends on what happens between now and then. A lot can happen in a year. I’m glad, though, that I am part of the reason he is officially announcing his campaign tomorrow. I hope he gets enough attention and enough support that whoever is elected is forced to do something about campaign finance reform.

That’s my rant for the day.

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Thoughts on a Philosophy of Teaching

I was asked about a year ago to write a statement of my teaching philosophy. I just came across it, and it still seems pretty accurate, so I thought I would post it here:

The most fundamental thing I do in my work with middle school and high school students is help people relearn how to learn. Human beings are born self-directed learners and creative problem-solvers, but once they are trained to be passive about learning it can be a challenge to help them be active again. Also, almost everyone needs help learning to think critically and to evaluate sources of information, so I tend to make that a significant point of focus.

I am aware and appreciative of a variety of educational approaches. There are times, albeit few of them, when straightforward direct instruction and rote memorization can be the best choice. There are people, albeit relatively few of them, for whom the Summerhill or Sudbury models of complete freedom are best. In my experience, for most people most of the time, something between these extremes is what works, but exactly what works can vary not only from student to student, but from day to day. I believe a good teacher has many tools available and is willing to adapt practice to the needs of the moment. A great teacher knows instinctively when and with whom to use which tools. A master teacher uses all those tools expertly. I have seen only a few master teachers in my life, and they are every bit as impressive as the master musicians and mathematicians and other geniuses of the world.

My education hero is Maria Montessori, not because I agree with everything she ever said (I don’t), but because she based her theories and strategies on her observations of how children actually learn, and she believed in continually developing her practice, building on what worked and throwing away what didn’t. Current neuroscience supports her ideas. It seems every time I read about a new study of how people learn I find myself thinking that Maria Montessori figured that out a hundred years ago.

Theorists of education, like theorists of any discipline concerning the behavior of human beings, tend to fall prey to the natural human desire to reduce everything to some neat, replicable pattern, some set of universal rules. While it is possible to discover predictable patterns and tendencies and to build effective structures based on them, it is a mistake to believe you will ever be able to find a rule of human behavior for which there is no exception, or that you will ever be able to build a structure for human use, physical or theoretical, that will never need to be changed. Human beings are too varied and odd and unpredictable for that. That is why I love working with them. The challenge never ends, and I am confident it never will.

I am a good teacher. Maybe, on my best days, I am even a great one. I am far from mastery, but I am so driven to help every student that I continually seek out new tools and techniques and work hard to develop my ability to use them. I believe it is crucial to get to know each student well. Even the most difficult to reach student has a way in that you can find if you keep trying, and even the most delightfully easy to teach student has a challenge he or she needs help to overcome.

It took me many years to figure out which of the many problems in the world I most want to help solve, but I finally realized that what upsets me the most is wasted human potential. If we all make the best possible use of our abilities, our world will definitely improve. That is why I focus my energies on education. I believe solving that problem is the way to solve all the others. It is my version of a Universal Theory of Everything.

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