Monday, March 4, 2013

An Open Letter to the Social Studies Teachers of America

Greetings, aforementioned teachers!

Most of you have never met me, but you might count me among your number.  You see, I have a teaching license and a social studies endorsement.  What I don't have is a job where I get to go into a classroom every day and make scribbles on a white board.  Which is a shame because I love scribbling on white boards, but hey, economy.  What can you do?

But I am a substitute teacher, so I get to make the scribbles sometimes.  It's a nice gig, because it gets me out and about and makes me feel like I am not completely wasting my life away.  It also gives me the opportunity to peer briefly into the activities of my would-be peers, covet their wheelie-chairs, and judge them mercilessly for what failings I can infer in their absences.

It should be clear by now what I want to talk about.

Now, I'm a neophyte, and I know I don't know what it's like to spend ten, twenty, thirty years out there in the trenches.  I don't know what it's like to try to speak to the same hundred and eighty bored teenagers every day about why we all owe so much to Thomas Jefferson.  It can't be easy to get so many fundamental narcissists to care about either the world before they were born or the world that exists outside their immediate sensory spheres.

But I think I'd rather try and do that than write off two to three class days to show a tangentially relevant Hollywood movie that devotes at least a third of its runtime to utterly irrelevant (or inaccurate) Hollywood fluff.

As a substitute, when I get the call to come fill in for a social studies teacher, I tense.  Sometimes, it means I get to teach social studies, and that's pretty awesome.  Sometimes, it means I get to be a glorified projectionist.  Watching a bunch of kids watch/not really watch the same forty minutes of the same movie all day is a great way to get paid, but it's not good for my self esteem.   I can't believe that it's good for any of yours, either.

You know we have a reputation, right?  You know the other teachers make fun of us for it, right?  I heard one do it in the office last Friday, I swear to God.

There are great social studies teachers.  I've had a few.  I went to school with a few.  One day, I want to be one.  But we have to cool it with the videos.  We can't expect a television or a projection screen to be assistant teachers.

I'm sure this argument sounds hoary.  I know it does, because I've heard it myself, all the time in grad school.  Right after the arguments about how media and technology will revolutionize classrooms and capture the imaginations of Generation Smartphone.  Those arguments are exactly as hoary, but they don't sound hoary because they're all about shiny things that go beep when you press the button twice to go from DVD to Video 2.

Now, obviously, I'm not calling for a primitive classroom.  That's silly.  A teacher should have all the tools available to do their job.  I've used videos and thought that they were great.  But using a wrench as a hammer isn't a sign that I'm clever and resourceful.  It's a sign that I'm too lazy or cheap to buy a hammer.

(Full disclosure: I don't own a hammer).

Let's get real basic here, social studies teachers - especially those of us who teach history, civics, or any particular subject that deals principally with things that happened in the past.  Movies, especially Hollywood movies, are at best a tertiary source.  A movie like "Forrest Gump" may take place in the 60s and 70s, but it is an artifact of the 90s.  If you show it to kids, they will view it as what it is: a nostalgia-based entertainment for baby boomers.  It's a fine movie, and it's really cool how they got Tom Hanks to shake hands with President Kennedy, but it doesn't actually teach you anything about Kennedy.  The scene has essentially no value unless you already know or have learned about him.

So fine, you think; I won't let Hollywood teach for me.  I don't let Hollywood teach for me.  Who would do that?  Movies are only a part of my plan, a relaxation period for when a unit or a semester is done, a chance to see what they've learned in another context!  When I teach, I only use the good stuff like Frontline and Ken Burns and Schoolhouse Rock!

And damn it, you're still doing it wrong.

I once subbed for a "current events" class at the end of a school year (the week before finals), wherein the scheduled lesson plan consisted of showing a Frontline special on Saudi Arabia.  On my own initiative, I held a very brief "what do we know?" discussion beforehand.  I learned the following things about this class (of approximately twelve students) before I started the video:
  • They did not know why Saudi Arabia was called "Saudi" Arabia.
  • They did not know that Islam was broadly divided into two major sects.
  • They did not know whether Saudi Arabia and Iran were allies or rivals.
  • They watched videos like this all the time.
 Now, Frontline is wonderful, informative, and highly educational.  But understanding a Frontline special requires context.  It requires a very basic understanding of the issues under discussion.  It assumes that the viewer knows something.  Worst of all, if the viewer wishes for clarification on a point, the video cannot stop itself and offer it.  Only a teacher can do that.  And it's a teacher's job to be sure that when a student sees a Frontline special for the first time, the subject is essentially familiar.

Here's the truth: you can tell the kids to pay attention and take a page and a half of notes from your very educational video about Saudi Arabia.  But if they don't write anything down about Wahhabism because they've never heard of it before, only heard it just now in passing, and don't know how to spell it, then what good are their notes?

No good, that's what.

For all that has changed in education since the 20th century, since the Industrial Revolution, since even Aristotle, there have always been teachers, because there are things a teacher can do that a visual aid can't.  It's a very simple thing: teachers can talk to their students, and they can also listen to them.  They can communicate, and true education arises from this communication.

I'm entering into the treacherous realm of "should" statements, and I don't want to suggest that there's only one way to teach a class.  There are plenty.  But they all involve teachers making themselves available as resources as often as possible.  Substituting a glowing rectangle for yourself just isn't productive.  They won't respect you for it and they won't get half of what you want them to take from it.  Even if the video itself is brilliant and well-produced, they will see it as an opportunity to pay less attention.

A few weeks ago, an eighth grader asked me why I liked history enough to be a social studies teacher.  I told her and the rest of the class that fundamentally, it was because I liked stories.  Everyone likes stories of one kind or another.  We tell them to each other all the time.  History itself is only a collection of stories, the collective memory of billions of people.  Stories themselves are inherently fascinating, no matter what they're about, as long as they're well told and have a point of some kind.  The fact that the stories of history are based on facts and true events can only be helpful.

So if you want to be a good social studies teacher, there's only one thing you need to do: tell your students some stories.  You need to be a kind of Social Studies Superhero, the teller of tales whose regard for them is plainly evident. And most of all, you must get them to care with you.  Not to care on their own, in spite of you: you've got to make this work together.  You've got to be present.

If you simply must show your students a video, then brief the hell out of it, and interrupt it at every opportunity.  Use videos that can stand on their own as sources, not pale imitations or potpourris.  Always be sure that the video has a place in the story you're trying to tell.  And when you're done with it, then it's time for your students to tell you a story.

Now, did I write all of that just because I'm tired of watching kids watching videos?  A little.  But mostly it's because I care a hell of a lot about social studies education, and I want it to improve.  I want kids to look forward to it.  I want it to be more than a waste of time. 

Mostly, I just want my own white board, so I can scribble on it all day.

1 comment:

  1. Much more than a rant I think. I hope, unlike Rodney Dangerfield, you get proper respect for it from your would-be peers.

    It is a very long time since I was a high school student. I attended a highly respected urban public high school. Many but not all the teachers were excellent. A few were better than any I came across in college. The best teachers I experienced were in the fields of English and mathematics. The language and science teachers were generally good. Social studies and history I recall as largely barren territory. Audiovisual aids were at the time little available and rarely used, but the social studies teachers showed little true ability or imagination.

    To be fair, I think the curriculum itself was largely to blame. The courses covered mainly kings and presidents, battles and wars, dates, dates, and more dates. There was no actual investigation of important formational events in history and how they were related. No thought was given to cultural history, the history of ideas. The stories you talk about were conspicuous mainly in their absence. As you point out it is important for social studies teachers to engage their students in conversation. The communication needs to be two-way. Teachers need to listen as well as talk and to remain open-minded. There are many ways to view and interpret historical events, as there are also for current events.

    I never took a history or social studies course in college - - - probably due to my distasteful experiences in high school. Oh, I took various field-specific niche historical courses, but not general history courses. These courses were offered and taught by the departments the niche discipline fell under, not by the Social Studies Department.

    My interest in history was not revivified (let's be honest, it had been killed, even if unintentionally, in high school) until as an adult learning on my own I found my way back to history through well-written books and well-produced audiovisual materials, the latter found principally in television programming by PBS, the History Channel, Discovery Channel and their like. Today social studies is among my favorite subjects. I think it would be a rare teenager - - - even in this day of widespread mental precociousness - - - who could do this though. I know I could not have done so as a teenager.

    Come to think of it though, the seeds of rebirth of my interest in history were planted as early as the summer between my junior and senior years in high school when for an hour or so each afternoon I read a chapter in a Modern History college text which belonged to my older brother. That book showed me for the first time that there was more to history than dating of battles and wars. It disclosed major political and economic forces at work shaping the course of history. There were plenty of wars and conflicts, to be sure, but the author of the book attempted to show the human undercurrents upon which those conflicts were based.

    Well what am I really trying to say here? I think that - - - whatever the subject - - - the influence and power a teacher exerts sprouts from within her/himself. The paraphernalia associated with the activity of teaching - - - whether audiovisual materials or textbooks - - - are simply tools, some of them good, some mediocre, some poor. Even the best can be used effectively or otherwise. It depends entirely on the teacher using the tool. I know I am restating here what you have already proposed but perhaps giving it a slightly different slant. Anyway, we definitely need more first-class social studies teachers and I know you will be an excellent one given the opportunity. Best of luck - - - for the students' sake as well as your own. (genqueue)