Friday, May 24, 2019

How to design a Social Studies course in 10 not-necessarily-easy steps

Many teachers never actually plan the course they teach but rather borrow an intact course from another teacher, complete with unit divisions, assignments and projects, lesson plans, and assessments. While this is a nice gift from one teacher to another, and is certainly better than just making it up as one goes along, eventually every teacher has to make their courses their own or risk a loss of credibility and fulfillment. I would suggest that for each course a teacher plans to teach more than once, at some point they should work through some kind of design process, preferably before their first go at the course. If that ship has sailed, it can still be of great value to spend time on design for a familiar course, to take back the curriculum as it were, and own the pedagogy that makes or breaks a great course. The design process below is just one way to plan out a course, but it was worked well for me many times and I am happy to pass it on.

This is a draft -- there are parts I am not yet satisfied with!  Feel free to offer feedback.

PLAN THE FOUNDATION


Have a skim though the curriculum rationale and goals at <https://curriculum.gov.bc.ca/curriculum/social-studies/core/goals-and-rationale>. Think about how you could do something to address each of the five goals in your course. Write these ideas down, as well as a simplified statement about why this course will be important for your students. This would be a good time to activate or become familiar with a few other foundations for the work of course planning. These should include the Core Competencies <https://curriculum.gov.bc.ca/competencies> and could also include philosophic documents, beliefs, theory, differentiation, and ways of knowing such as the First Peoples Principles of Learning <http://www.fnesc.ca/learningfirstpeoples/>. This is also the opportunity to bring other theory you value into the fore, the chance to do backwards design by starting with the basic beliefs about what you want your students to be able to know, do, and understand. Whether or not your vision for the course is fine-tuned or not (sometimes backwards design doesn’t bring the desired results), come back to this later in the planning process to see how this “grounding” turned out.

PARSE AND PLAN CURRICULUM
Print a one-sided copy of the curriculum guide pdf/doc for your course at <https://curriculum.gov.bc.ca/curriculum/social-studies>. Read it over, becoming familiar with how the “Big Six” are parsed as Competencies for the course and about the range of topics mentioned or implied in the Content section. Start thinking about how you will group parts of the content and how you will involve the Competencies. For each Big Idea, brainstorm 1 or 2 corresponding class activities, an assignment or project that would tie content and competencies together. You can find a home for these ideas later -- just a rough sketch at this point. Use separate paper of the backs of the printed docs.

INFORM THE VISION
Talk to other teachers you respect about how they have taught this course, and what kinds of things fill their lessons. Ask about their major projects, favourite go-to resources, and what their tests, if any, look like, or how they provide feedback and generate marks. Make some notes if you like what you hear. Using your hard copy of the curriculum guide and pen/highlighter to take notes, think about what you know about this course, the competencies, and especially the content. Think about how much of what you know might find its way into the course, including ideas about projects, activities, and resources. Think about the gaps in your knowledge, and whether you have the time or energy to learn about these things before the course starts. Do an internet search for course outlines specific to your course; observe and compare, but don’t get lost in the rabbit hole. Save and/or print 1-3 outlines that strike you as a good way to teach the course.

CHUNK THE UNITS
Think about whether you want to chunk content into units, or use some kind of thematic structure around the Competencies, Big Ideas, or some other schema (like focus questions or content themes like governance, ideology, or rights). If you use content as your structure, decide on a flow of topics and how these fit into units. Chunking topics sequentially on a timeline is a traditional way to this, but is not the only way. Sometime a regional approach works better, e.g. deal with the course timeline in one region before turning to another. As you decide where the content goes, it is quite likely that there will be many topics and skills you don’t have time for, so at this point you should have an idea what you’ll include and what you’ll drop. You should emerge from this step with a list of units and rough idea of the skills, themes, competencies, or content that belong to each one. For most courses you’ll want at least three units, perhaps four or five or more. The sweet spot is one that allows you to enact your vision for the course, makes sense to your students, balances your planning and marking load, and shows fidelity to the curriculum. This means that your unit planning allows multiple ways of addressing moving through the curriculum -- each one can be about the content, competencies, themes, skills, and even the kinds of assignments you’d like your students to do.

BUILD A COURSE MAP
On a whiteboard or a big piece of paper (i.e. 11”x17” or larger), map out your division of units in the order you want to teach them. Leave some spaces for adding notes. It usually works best if your first unit is relatively easy (in terms of concepts or content), has high engagement, and is a good place to develop competence -- the first unit is the bootcamp where your students will acquire the skills necessary to proceed to the rest of the course, and set habits that you want to see in your classroom. Some teachers choose a current event or a topic that is germane to whole course and spend a week or so on it as their “bootcamp.” Now, take a good look at your unit map and spend some time “wandering” -- think about which ones will take more time, perhaps because it is connected to a major project and/or a presentation cycle. From your DIVIDE work, jot down the key skills, themes, big ideas, or competencies that will be emphasized in each one. List the main content topics that will be covered -- a good idea is to use a trusted textbook to help select topics, even if you don‘t intend on using the text. If you do plan on using a textbook regularly, this step is important. Include as many details as you wish at this point, including listing particular resources you want to use because you think they will work well -- video titles, special lesson activities, primary sources, etc. List some of the assignments that match the unit; try to include writing, map reading/making, and interpretation of evidence as often as you can. If you can, list some of the more challenging vocab words that will come up in each unit, as well as any “threshold concepts*” that you can identify -- ideas or constructs that will be necessary for students to see the big picture or the topic under study or competency being developed.

INTRODUCE PACING
Look at your school calendar and determine how many days of instruction you have for this course and how that translates into blocks of time. Subtract a few for assemblies, locker clean-up, etc. Next, divide your days evenly between the units -- this is a placeholder number. Review the priorities and kinds of work you have placed on each unit. Start taking blocks of time away from units that don’t need as much time, and adding them to the ones that do. This will leave you with the rough number of days or blocks of time belonging to each unit. That may be enough for some teachers -- a general sense of how much time they can spend on each unit. If your style is to go down the rabbit holes, to indulge student questions and dive into topics more deep when the opportunity arises, you may want to pick a unit you can live without -- the one you will drop or truncate if you run out of time. On the other hand, if your style is a bit more controlled and measured, you may want to take the extra step of matching your rough allocation of time to your actual calendar. This allows you to match the units to natural breaks, to plan for assessments or project deadlines on specific days, and so on. Only the most festidious and determined of teachers maintains a precise adherence to a course-long day-by-day schedule, but for some it is a reassurance to know what they can or should do on a certain day, even if they regularly deviate from the self-laid path.

FORMULATE KEY QUESTIONS
Each unit will benefit from a question, statement, quote, idea, or image that ties it together. In particular, a question is a basic and powerful way to do this. While a quote or image can be a creative way to frame a unit, let’s start with a question. What kind do you want? Regardless of the kind of question, it should provide a marker for your unit intentions, where the inquiry will take them, or the basic understanding with which they should emerge from the unit. A general question reiterates the unit topic in the form of a question, e.g. How did Canada change during the 1930s? A focus question provides a little more context and hints at further questions, e.g. how did Canada and Canadians react to conditions of the Great Depression? The driving questions that follow might be more specific, e.g. how the the governments of Bennett and King respond to the economic conditions in the 1930s? An essential question is meant to tie the unit’s topics to larger inquiries or topics of study, e.g. How do Canadians respond to economic crisis? This kind of question might anchor a unit with many lessons about the Great Depression, but it can also open up parallel topics such as modern economic cycles, comparisons with other crises, or a broader look at economic theory. A guiding question can be any of these. For each unit, formulate a guiding question that roughly approximates what you hope your students will come to know, a question that makes other lesson-specific questions possible. If it relates to the Big Ideas of the course, great, but this is not necessary and sometime can be constraining. The Big Ideas should roll in and out of your units and lessons, and serve just as well as course review tools as they do the substance of guiding questions of unit divisions.

INFILL THE MAP
Your unit map should be festooned with ideas and plans at this point. At this point, take a clear picture of your whiteboard or scan/copy your paper map. This will serve as a template for further uses. If you have room you can continue with the next step on the map; if you do not have space, use separate paper or a clean whiteboard. This step will provide you with rough lesson plans that you can flesh out later. For each unit, scheme out how you will use the number of days/blocks you have allocated to it. For example, let’s say you have a unit on the different ways Canadians see themselves to which you have allocated twelve 77-minute blocks. Make a box on one side with 12 divisions or bullets, with your guiding question at the top, and on the other side list all of the ideas you have for lesson elements that fit the unit -- see Figure 1 below. Include anything that is likely to soak up some time, such as visits to the library, a video title, an anticipated discussion, test review, or a test. Unless you have a reason not to, include some kind of direct instruction each day (slideshow, chalk-and-talk, lecturette with a student note-taking guide, demonstration, etc.) as well as a learning activity that requires students to be in their heads, even if it is only a short period of time. The remainder of the activities can be quiet or loud, individual or group, sitting or standing, and so on -- these will of course match your teaching style, tolerance for animated learning environments, capacity for classroom management, beliefs about learning (e.g. the research you trust about how learning is effected), and most importantly the needs of your students as you understand them. I would suggest at least one activity that gets students moving, not necessarily for any pedagogical reason but because 77 minutes is a bloody long time to sit in a chair, especially if students have to repeat four times a day. Once you have enough matter on the brainstorm side of your lesson box, draw lines to indicate the block to which they belong. 77 minutes is probably too long to do just one thing, but is also too short to try a dozen things. Your goldilocks zone will depend on the kinds of activities you have planned, or whether you clump things that belong together. I’ve found that three is my magic number of for a 77 minute block. This might be a 1) slideshow with some chalk-and-talk (starting with a good question or an interesting image or source), 2) a video clip or current events story with a student guide that extends into individual work with some questions based on sources, and 3) a review activity involving groups and knowledge organizer on chart paper. Of maybe it’s a play-debrief-replay -- time to explore a provocative question using some unsorted primary sources (the product perhaps being a hypothesis or proposition), a mini-lecture and discussion in the middle to provide some context for the question and sources (with some time for students to share their propositions), then a return to the activity with a renewed focus and probably a different product, e.g. a revised hypothesis with annotated sources on a chart paper. So, my advice would be to have at least three things for you and the students to do in each block. If you decide to use some kind or project-based or inquiry-based program, this still involves specific tasks that need to be attached to specific lessons, not just a big block of time for students to work on the project.

REFINE PLANNING
Your actual lesson planning may differ wildly from the sketch-version you have built so far, but after a scan of your work, it will immediately become apparent whether you have enough ideas to populate your lessons (the pattern is satisfying) or whether you need to cycle back through your planning process to find more stuff (the pattern is weak, too regular, or seems boring). Look for trends, e.g. a prevalence of mini-lessons or lecturettes, lots of boardwork, reoccurrence of student activities centred around the interpretation of sources, simulations, bookwork, or time spent on projects. Do these patterns really reflect the way you want to spend your time in the class, or the way you want your students to spend their time? Do they make sense with what you know about how students learn (either from your understanding of research, what you have picked up from others along the way, or observed directly in your own classroom)? If you answer no to any of these, then back up a bit and think of other ways to approach the teaching and learning within your lessons. If you responded with yes, then ask if you are good at these things, and will they provide meaningful use of your students’ abilities? In other words, are you prepared to spend the time necessary to make these patterns successful? If not, either tweak your lesson ideas, or make a commitment to get better at the teaching strategies that are required to get the most of your most common lesson elements.

POPULATE THE LESSONS
Now you’re ready to flesh out the details on as many lesson plans as you want to have ready before you begin teaching. For some teachers, this means two or three, for others, they want all of their lessons planned. I would suggest planning the first week, and see how it goes. There are many lesson plan templates out there, some with spaces to indicate connections to Core Competencies, other areas of the curriculum, First Peoples’ Principles of Learning, Differentiation, and so on. Most of them encourage the planner to indicate what both the teacher and the students are expected to do at various points in the class. There are references to the learning intentions, and also assessment. Other lesson plans are short and sweet, just enough information that it is useful for the teacher. It generally holds that the more detailed and comprehensive the course or unit plan, the less detailed the lesson plan needs to be.

* “The notion of the threshold concept arose out of research by Jan Meyer and Ray Land, who define it as a core idea that’s conceptually challenging for students, who struggle to grasp it—but once grasped, it radically transforms the students’ perception of the subject. Although this material is difficult to learn, understanding threshold concepts is essential to the mastery of any field of study.” source: <https://taylorinstitute.ucalgary.ca/resources/threshold-concepts>

Thursday, February 07, 2019

An example of workflow in SS10


Recently, a teacher asked for some suggestions for setting up a BC Social Studies 10 course. I thought I'd preserve the content of our exchange in this blog post... with a few minor edits and of course the caveat that there as many ways to frame a course as there are teachers.

Resources to get started:
Pacific Slope Consortium resource pages: http://www.pacificslope.ca/resources.html
Pacific Slope dropbox share folder: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/ie6ojxa3x4jhfvl/AAByxrdeWiVw1kSvqBpWtUJ5a?dl=0
Thielmann's Web River SS10 page: https://www.thielmann.ca/social-studies-10.html

On this SS10 page, the files from a a few years ago -- still a good fit for the new SS10 although they are quite dependent on the textbook (Counterpoints 2nd Edition). The approach is more linear than thematic, and is oriented more to a critical understanding of content than it is to the curricular competencies of the revised curriculum. Still, these could be the basis of a foray into the new curriculum.

I use Pages and Keynote rather than Word and Powerpoint, so posting my original files would not be of much use to most teachers. For my website, I convert everything to pdf and will be updating the later units as I find the time.

Although I've done these in multiple orders and configurations, in a typical 18-19 week course with classes every day, here's how I usually break down my topics:
  1. Canada from the end of WWI to the end of the Great Depression (2-3 weeks)
  2. Canada and WWII (2-3 weeks)
  3. Canadian Politics and Government (2-3 weeks)
  4. Postwar Canada 1946-1984 (3 weeks)
  5. Modern Canada 1984-present (2-3 weeks)
  6. Environment Issues (3-4 weeks)
  7. Project time and presentation time (2 weeks)
It's a tight squeeze. I think it is better to drop some topics rather than push faster to get through them all.  Note: the topic of global development and population issues is absent from the list above -- along with many other teachers, I feel this should be an anchor unit for the new course Social Studies 11 Explorations. Taking a thematic approach, or moving around based on the competencies, would naturally look different, but I consider a certain amount of fidelity to some intentional content to be a basic structure that has to be present for a course to work. In other words, take any approach to setting up a course, but the content needs to be appropriate, deliberate (even if it is simply a protocol for following current events) and paired up with everything that takes place in the classroom.

I usually break my lessons into the following routine:
  1. Some kind of provocative source or image or question to start the class, even just something on screen for them to think about
  2. A handout with questions related to the lesson (these are the files I've posted on my website) -- generally these are overkill and I do not collect them or mark them although they are the basis for the unit test and they can use them as open notes on tests.
  3. A lecturette or chalk-and-talk through the main ideas of the lesson. Many of these are accompanied by a slideshow. These are anywhere from 10-50 minutes depending on the topic, use of media, amount of questions & discussion, tangents, etc.
  4. Some media, either during the lecturette or after, or to finish class: usually short clips from documentaries, e.g. a single scene from the Canada's History series (many of which are available on youtube) or something interesting found online. I avoid the funny/cartoony summary videos that might grab attention but usually lack depth and accuracy. I avoid showing anything longer than about 10 minutes... at any rate I don't show more than a few minutes before stopping and discussing.
  5. I try to build in at least one discussion question or group activity or such to shift the lesson from me to them. Using "manipulatives" is a good way to do this (copies of primary sources related to the topic that they can move around at their desks and make judgments, assess significance, cause & effect, etc.).
  6. I build in some time for students to complete questions -- I don't assign homework but I do suggest they use home time for review and working on long-tern projects.
There are some other things that happen along the way but that's my basic old-school method. Some of my lessons span two or even three classes -- the longer the lesson, the greater the chance I'll use multiple media clips and design a real group activity rather than just wing it with discussion questions.

The use of questions is very important for the Social Studies teacher.  There are so many sliding scales to consider: wait time, level of difficulty, expectations for responses (including how responses are gathered), questions for clarification and keeping a line of inquiry moving vs questions that are meant to slow things down for thought, discussion, or action. Questions can be open or closed, have pre-conceived answers or not, verbal, written, graphic etc.  Some questions can just be thrown out, while others will benefit from structured activities using organizers, stickies, pair/shares, group/shares, journalling, debate, and so on.  Developing techniques to ask good questions, to manage good discussions, and involve as many students as possible takes time and will depend on context (including the identity of the teacher and students).

 usually intend to start each class with a current events item (usually a video clip from an online news source), but sometimes I forget or I'm anxious to get into the main lesson. Current events are picked either at random (because they are interesting) or because they tie in in some way to the lesson. I also use maps allot, and give students blank maps of Canada and the World that they bring out regularly to jot things down, like another place to record notes and orient them to where stuff is actually happening in the world.

Depending on the group of students and your design goals, you may want to propose an essential question or two to guide the course, perhaps something based on the Big Ideas or maybe something that stretches a little further and connects with concepts from beyond the course (that's what distinguishes an essential question from other types of questions).

One that can be used with SS10 is "Why Canada?" -- in other words, how has our political, social, cultural, economic, and environmental identity been formed and changed over time and at home & abroad, what makes us Canadian, is there actually one vision of what it means to be Canadian, how to we move into new ways of understanding this (e.g. reconciliation), how are we different than other countries, etc. etc. -- why Canada?

Another one I've used for SS10 is "Why Bother Voting?" -- in other words why should we bother to learn about our past and present, and care about the future, what are the issues of our time, and what agency do we have in affecting change; how does our government work, how do the other institutions (trade orgs, levels of gov't, education, health care, indigenous & northern affairs, treaties, climate agreements, etc) affect our way of life and future in Canada, what do the parties want, how do know who to vote for, whose voices are left out of the process, how do we include them, in what way should we live such that our beliefs are made real in the world, etc., etc. -- why bother voting?

There are others, of course.  In any case a good essential question is unpacked over time, does not have a simple answer, and lends itself to cycles of inquiry. If you try this route, try to get the students to develop the sub-questions (the "driving questions") and consider the idea of a multi-modal response to the essential question as a summative project or alternate to a final exam. Take a look at this teacher's use of essential questions to guide her Psych 11 class: https://messyprofessional.wordpress.com/2014/05/02/thats-right-i-enjoyed-marking-them/. 

For summative assessments (unit tests), I normally allow open notes. I typically have a few matching and multiple choice questions to cover the basics (essential content) and then short answers to cover most main ideas, often accompanied by prompts like an image or quote. I often have some map questions, or a longer written response based on a set of prompts (sources) or a guiding question from the unit. Sometimes I just use 11x17 paper and have students "map" out their response to an essential question using any info they want from the unit. It's not perfect but usually tells me what I want to know. Obviously, I don't post the tests online but I can send some to you if you wish. I'm a busy guy, but sometimes I get back to folks in a timely manner!

For formative assessment, I sometimes have them put together reactions, interpretations, etc to primary sources either on their own or in groups, and then I provide whole-class feedback and project some exemplary responses (or even typical ones) -- with their permission -- using a document camera. I also move around and read their question responses and give them individual feedback -- mostly if they ask for it.

Lots of other stuff going on in a class, for sure, but I thought you might be interested in my workflow. I have a few longer assignments and projects I've done over the years, but the Echo Project was my favourite <https://www.thielmann.ca/echo-project.html>.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Writing exams: Paper vs Online


Up until a few years ago, our BC Social Studies 11 students wrote a provincial examination to wrap up their course.  This was a standardized test featuring 55 multiple choice questions and two essay questions.  The exam was the same for all students in the province and was sometimes used by the school, district, or province to provide data on how students were doing.  Teachers occasionally used the exam results to give them feedback on whether what they are teaching has had the desired outcome.  In many cases the exam was ignored.  Not precisely a high-stakes exam (although it was worth 40% of the students' overall mark), although for some teachers it drove their course planning and was often seen as a barrier to more creative ways to teacher the course.  In my opinion it was a reasonable assessment; it drew from all areas of the course curriculum -- 20th century Canadian History, Human Development and Environmental Issues, Canadian Politics and Government -- and included a balance of straight-forward and higher order questions.  The exam also assured that students across BC more-or-less got an introduction to common topics of citizenship and Canadian identity, the state of the developed vs developing world, why it was worth voting (and who the parties were), and about Canada's involvement in world affairs. It was perhaps too focused on content and less on broader thinking concepts and subject-specific skills (other than interpreting population pyramids).  The essay questions could be hard for students, but they really showed whether students could synthesize learning from a big chunk of the course, and also whether they could write at a level that could be expected from a Grade 11 student.

In January 2013, a group of Social Studies teachers in Prince George conducted an informal experiment to compare the results of students who wrote their provincial exams using either the paper format or an online format in a computer lab. Who would do better on the written section?

BACKGROUND
At the first school, the teachers insisted on paper copies of the exam.  At a second school, they decided to try having all of the students write online.  The written section on the exam -- an essay on a historical topic and a second essay on a topic related to human geography or the environment -- is marked by teachers.  Our schools have similar demographics, the exam is the same, and the teachers who taught the course have similar styles and roughly the same attention to content, division of curriculum, and review strategies.  We did notice that the school with the online writers did not seem to emphasize human geography to the same extent as the other school, and this showed up in the responses to the second essay.  There were two classes in each school writing the exam, so we had about 50 exams at each site (thus 100 essays) to provide data.  The students did not get to choose paper vs online, so this perhaps removed the element of preferred styles and comfort-based selection.  Students with special adaptations required (e.g. scribes) wrote the exam in a separate sitting and were not included in our experiment.  The exam session is 2 hours, although most students require and hour or a little more to complete it, so "exam" fatigue" is rarely a concern.  The essays are all scored with the same 6-point grading rubric (see image above), and the teachers marked the exams together with two teachers marking each paper and agreeing on a score.  The discussion of results and conclusions (this blog post) are the result of the conversation between one of the markers from each school -- myself and a colleague. We participated in the marking but did not actually teach any of the classes involved.

RESULTS
While we weren't completely impressed by their achievement, the Paper group won this contest with ease. There was a higher overall average score, with less 0s and 1s and almost no NRs. The student students provided more detail, used more complex sentences, and had fewer lapses with grammar and punctuation. Interestingly, they related more "stories" from class; that is, more anecdotes that sounded like direct quotes from the teacher (for better or worse) or lines of thinking that were the result of activities that likely involved writing or speaking in class (as opposed to something studied before the exam).  They also had more repetition -- cycling back through an idea to fill the space.

The online writers had a lower average, with considerably more NRs, 0s, and 1s, and no 6s. They had shorter sentences and paragraphs, and used more informal grammar and less punctuation. These students had a higher prevalence of poor diction (word choice or vocabulary) but the syntax was fine (arrangement of words and phrases). We concluded that they knew most of the same facts and possessed similar opinions as the paper group,  but simply referenced them without expansion, kind of a "I know this stuff -- just read my mind" approach.  

DISCUSSION
With all of their writing contained in a textbox, then online writers had no annotation of their text, no circling or evidence of revision (eraser marks) or any other evidence of the "struggle" to capture their thoughts. We admitted that we felt a bias about this -- writing that came from (and had) a "personality" seemed to be more authentic than the digital text. We also found the digital essays easier to mark -- without the "personality," e.g. the peculiarity handwriting (particularly neat vs messy) we spent less time second guessing whether we were assessing a visual quality that was not necessarily tied to their level of understanding. With digital writers, it was simply a matter of how does this piece of writing place on the rubric?

Our interpretation of these results was that students writing essays online fall into a pattern of digital communication that is informal, truncated, and full of insinuation rather than exposition. Their writing has a quality of expedience and we imagined they were written much faster than their paper counterparts. The students writing essays on paper exhibited more care and attention to their work, but also included more material meant to fill up the page.  Perhaps the online writers had no expectation of how "big" their essay should look on the screen, whereas the paper writers looked at three lined pages for each essay and had a feeling that they should at least get to page two before wrapping it up.

We agreed that students are very comfortable writing in digital spaces, but this does not necessarily serve them well for formal tasks such as essay writing.  This conclusion goes against what many experts would suggest -- even based on our own experience, it would seem that the digital format would serve one better: it is easy to go back, fix errors, cut & paste from one section to another for a better flow, change one's mind about various parts including paragraph and so on.  But this is our adult sensibility, we are teachers who have spent years writing, first on paper and later with the "magic" of computers and word processors.  For some of our students, using a word processor is like accessing a heritage skill.  They are more finely attuned to the gestured inputs of digital devices, and are slower to type and less likely to take advantage of editing tools than the generation of students who used computers but did not have smartphones.

We carried these observations forward to other schools in 2013 and resisted them after subsequent SS11 provincial exams; our conclusion were generally reinforced by what we heard from every school.  The school that used the online exam in our experiment in 2013 started giving students a choice about online vs paper, and they also put a renewed emphasis on writing skills in their Social Studies courses.  These particular provincial exams are no longer with us, but I thought this would be an interesting set of thoughts to consider as we anticipate a new round of standardized tests in BC -- the upcoming Grade 10 numeracy assessment and the Grade 10 and 12 literacy assessments.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Collaborating for Inclusion

This is a story about the integration of Outdoor Ed and Social Studies, but also a story about what inclusion looks like.

Ian Leitch is teacher in Prince George and a member of the Pacific Slope Consortium (as am I!). Over the last few years, we have been working on a project we've called TTSP -- you can read about that here.

Many of Ian's contributions to the Pacific Slope and dialogue with TTSP members revolve around his ongoing efforts to integrate outdoor and experiential learning and identity-building curriculum with Social Studies and Outdoor Ed classes. This has translated into unique courses, such as a version of Social Studies 11 Explorations that centers on the Canoe in Canadian history, geography, and culture, with student learning about traditional ecological knowledge and experimenting with "pioneer" skills.

These course trials have led to powerful learning at his school. His wilderness expeditions are legendary, and have taught students about their own limits and strengths, and their capacity for inclusion.

​In 2017, Ian invited Miranda, a remarkable student who lives with severe Cerebral Palsy and spends most of her day in a wheelchair, to join his Outdoor Ed class. With community resources, family and classmates' support, Miranda was able to participate, right up to setting out on a canoe expedition. On a second outing, Miranda had another first -- sitting by a fire and carving wood. This class experience allowed her to act on her love of nature.


Aidan, a young man living with challenging autism, was able to construct his own shelter and spend a – 20 degree winter night under the stars. He did so because the place was made safe for him by his teacher and classmates. One of the key learning outcomes for this course was how to co-design field excursions to involve every student. For Ian's class, inclusion is a team effort.

 

Photos (Ian Leitch) & names, and stories shared with student & parent permission

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Introducing the Capacities

Or, How to Think Like a River.

In British Columbia, we are about 6 years into 8+ year process to implement new curriculum in our K-12 schools.  The "redesigned curriculum" seeks to make some of the implicit goals of education -- communication, critical and creative thinking, personal and social responsibility -- explicit by identifying them and calling them core competencies.


Within each course, the curriculum is framed by Big Ideas. Curricular Competencies, and Content.  Depending on who you talk to, or which Ministry of Education document you read, or video clip from an expert you watch, these frames (the whole new curriculum really) are quite fluid...
  • Big Ideas can be rolled in or out, curricular competencies can be swapped out for others, and the content is merely a suggestion.
  • There are no standard assessments to measure success.
  • There are multiple opportunities to embed indigenous perspectives, but no detailed prescriptions for what this should look like.
  • There are entry points for community and place-responsive education, and a greater emphasis on holistic interdisciplinary learning.
  • There are implications for pedagogy, but no actual dictates about what that looks like or what paradigms should guide the "new teacher."
  • Having common course outlines within schools will be elusive -- choice and flexibility is where it's at.
  • The implementation was underfunded and lacked clarity, and the whole process has had political undertones related to government funding and control of educational agendas (i.e. as opposed to teachers' agendas).
  • Parts of the process were too slow or experienced punishing delays (e.g. piloting Grade 10 curriculum for three years in a row).
  • Some teachers are organizing their course and assessment using the Big Ideas, others are using the curricular competencies for this purpose, while others are sticking with content to structure units and guide assessment.
  • Most teachers will, of course, pay attention all three and aim at some kind of synthesis.
For better or worse, this is the plan for the next long while in BC. I am still rather excited to be part of this change, or at least parts of it, but very much aware of its shortcomings, its unintended consequences, and the challenges faced by teachers in making sense of it. I often work with new teachers, both in the local UNBC teacher training program and early career teachers in my school district. These are the ones who are thought to have been "trained in the new curriculum" but in reality they are more uncertain than the "vets" about what it all means. They realize that the "fluid curriculum" gives them creative reach and freedom to experiment, but wow would they ever like some modelling and guidelines.


Speaking of fluidity, I have given some thought to how to assess students in the this brave new curricular world. It is a competency-based system, and yet assessing competencies on their own is great for formative work (try, evaluate, reflect, revise, re-try) but not so great for summative (final standing, marks, and advancement).  For example, I don't think we want to start having report cards that say Johnny got an A in establishing significance but a C- in perspective taking. The curricular competencies work well for individual tasks, for taking apart problems and developing skills.

In the study of stream dynamics, we have a couple of terms to describe how rivers move sediment -- competence and capacity. Steam competence refers to the size of particles that can be carried; the higher the competence, the bigger the particle size. This is mainly the job of young rivers in steep terrain, rolling and dragging big stones and carving away at the valley walls. Stream capacity refers to the total volume of sediment that can be carried.  Rivers with high capacity have already seen the big particles broken down, and carry a big load of sediment in suspension and solution, and lay it down beside the river or cary it out to sea.


I love these terms as a metaphor for what happens in classrooms. At first we take on big problems, one by one, and start to see how it gets easier when the problems start coming apart. We erode the barriers, and build a unique channel through a challenging landscape. Later, we have the capacity to make broad connections between problems, to communicate what we have done, and take responsibility for the impact of our knowledge and understanding. This process is cyclical, happening over and over again in a class, a course, a K-12 education. Thus. I am interested in using my classes to develop both student competence and capacity.  While any individual task may practice and assess competence, when it comes to overall marking categories and summative assessment, as well as readiness to advance to the next grade, my focus in on capacity. For the context of Social Studies,  I have settled on four: Foundations -- this is knowledge and understanding of core content, Skills -- both hard and soft, like the ability to read maps, determine bias in sources, or organize an argument, Thinking -- application of concepts (mainly the curricular competencies) and cognitive skills to problems of history and geography, and Connections -- inquiry, synthesis, and activation of learning. Here is the framework I use to position "The Capacities" within the new Social Studies curriculum (and here is the pdf link):

This is my latest stab at trying to reconcile the various parts of the hidden and revealed aspects of the curriculum, and to provide a topography for student assessment. As always, feedback welcome via @gthielmann, in a comment below, or by email gthielmann (AT) gmail (DOT) com.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Teachers as Advocates for Public Education

Like many school districts, the one in which I work has policies on employee rights & responsibilities that includes language on how teachers can speak out:


3.14 is an interesting one and the focus of my post. It has been used as a bugbear by both employees and the employer to suggest that teachers have a gag order on public commentary and should avoid bringing concerns about the education system to the media. This sentiment was not the intention behind the policy nor should it be the basis of interpretation. This was made clear during a policy revision process in 2016-17 that included Policy 1170.3. Both sides affirmed the idea that employees are welcome to use reasonable tools to raise awareness and make improvements to public education.  The employer did not dispute the almost ubiquitous association between responsible use of social media and public commentary. The Prince George Teachers (PGDTA) lobbied to bring changes to this policy, to affirm the idea that healthy, responsible, public comment by teachers was both of benefit to the education system and also respectful of tradition and diversity, not to mention Charter rights. Alas, the feedback and proposed changes from the PGDTA were rejected by the trustees on the advice of senior management.

The wording of this policy as it stands does, however, provide a starting point for a reasonable interpretation of the extent to which teachers can use public commentary to advocate for a quality education system.

The key word here is "irresponsible" -- e.g. a public comment making a critique personal (e.g. directed toward a district employee), or using false information, inflammatory language, breech of confidentiality, slander, careless generalizations, etc. "Responsible" comment should be welcome. There is no gag order (or Charter or Rights exception) on teachers using media to improve the education system, nor does a critique of a particular policy or initiative undermine the public education system -- it is intended to bring about effective change.

We have ample precedents of practising teachers in Prince George and BC responsibly offering public comment in order to identify educational issues and suggest solutions. I have done this myself many times since 2010 on radio, newspaper, TV, public board meetings, and on social media. I have spoken out on technology plans, school closures, program implementation, district budget cuts and budgeting process, superfluous spending, management of student data, student data security, school achievement contracts, asset disposal, collaboration models, labour negotiation, bad faith bargaining, Labour Relations Rulings (one of my faves), school ground greening, school repair, response to mental health services, and many aspects of leadership and district planning process.

As a rule of thumb, the more the public comment is directed towards general trends and local or provincial phenomena that we can all own as a education system, the better. "Public commentary" should be about "public issues" and not about private concerns and personal grudges. A good example is the current revision to the curriculum in BC -- hundreds of BC teachers have chimed in via twitter, facebook, and blogs about how this process has unfolded and about the mistakes made along the way. These folks are not just complaining or hanging on to the past, they consistently offer solutions or alternatives, and speak from a position of authority and/or experience.

There are special circumstances that call for actual whistleblowing, e.g. a response to corruption, gross negligence, child protection, workplace harassment, or serious safety violations.  Sadly, our district policies do not include protection for whistleblowers, and no doubt there have been issues in the past that were allowed to fester unchecked because no one wanted to confront the problems publicly.  I believe that situations calling for whistleblowing should be dealt with separately from Policy 1170.3 -- advocacy for public education is one thing, coming forward with an allegation of harassment or a dangerous workplace hazard is another.

Of course, many teachers are comfortable leaving advocacy on serious or sensitive issues to their union leadership -- that's ok. Full-time released union officers are not bound by Policy 1170.3 or its equivalent elsewhere, and often do spend some of their time preparing briefs for the media and engaging in public comment through social media and public presentations to local school boards. We can rely on the BCTF, too, for providing public education advocacy -- they have devoted considerable resources to this end and have made it a core value of the organization.

Ordinary teachers, however, should be comfortable with the idea that part of their responsibility as a professional is to be an advocate for public education. This means that they should not shy away from responsible public comment and, where appropriate, political action and social justice projects. Our job does not end in the classroom, although that is the most important part. Our job includes diverse roles within overlapping educational communities on many scales, from the classroom all the way through to international solidarity. In between are school, district, and provincial issues that absolutely require both private and public comment from teachers. Thankfully, each of us does not have to attend to all issues at all scales -- do what you are good at, do it when you are ready, and do it responsibly.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

New job

After 23 years of teaching Social Studies, English, Geography, and other fun stuff, sometimes with various pull-outs blocks for leadership or support and coordination, I'll be out of the classroom next year, for at least one year.

I will be splitting my time between Pro-D Coordination (managing the local teacher Pro-D fund and organizing Pro-D events and conferences) and Curriculum Support for senior Humanities teachers.  The first job I've had for 5 years, but the second one is new for me.  I'm thrilled to start this -- in some ways it looks like the work I've done off the side of my desk for years, but it will also involve some new roles.  Here is the concept map that I used to prepare for the interview:

I would like to focus some of this "Curriculum Coach" time on our early career and new assignment teachers as they grow into their roles, even those who may not have senior courses next year.  I will be available for mentoring, curriculum & resource suggestions, inquiry & assessment design, co-teaching or classroom visits, and whatever else may be of use. I'm also envisioning a new addition ro our mentoring series in our district where we connect early career secondary teachers with experienced teachers in an interactive seminar setting -- something like a carousel with hands-on activities. The one-to-one and small cohort models have worked quite well for the elementary teachers but we have not drawn out the secondary numbers we hoped for. The goal here is to impact the development of a vibrant classroom, purposeful teaching & learning, and authentic assessment.

Of course, the other side of this is that I won't be at D.P. Todd next year, perhaps never again as I imagine landing at a new school or situation when my current seconded assignment ends.  I have been at this school for 15 years -- two-thirds of my career -- and I leave with mixed emotions. As I survey the vast hoard of books, lesson material, artifacts, and remainders of student projects that have accumulated in my classroom over the years, I am reminded, mainly, of the things I love about teaching. About teaching high school Social Studies students in particular.  There have been frustrating parts, too, but I've disposed of that evidence and generally suppress those memories because, hey, when you're in in for the long haul it has to be about the passion and positive stuff, otherwise it is time to get out.  I have been really fortunate to have some special students in the last few years, students who may not have been at the top academically, but really stepped up to conduct meaningful research and find creative ways to express their learning.  That's the group I have enjoyed teaching the most.



Monday, December 04, 2017

Approaches to the Revised Curriculum

The path by which BC has arrived at a new curricular landscape for Social Studies is neither straight nor intuitive. Many teachers have expressed concern over the loss of Social Studies 11, considered a "flagship" course due to it's emphasis on the world wars, a changing Canada in the 20th Century, and meaningful exploration of politics, government, climate change, and global population and development issues. Other teachers have expressed concern over the elevated status for history and historical thinking within Social Studies and the resultant (perceived) demotion of geography in particular -- in my opinion it was not embedded strongly to begin with. Teachers are also not clear on whether the curricular competencies are skills or concepts meant to make the job of exploring content more purposeful, or whether they are ends in themselves, and thus a direct focus for assessment. Delays to implementation have caused frustration (how many times can we teach SS11 to students who have already sat the same material in SS10?), as have the confusion over whether electives should be designated as Grade 11 or 12 or both. The proliferation of choice and flexibility, once touchstones for the BCED Plan, are now seen as fragmentation and indecision. By accounts from curriculum team members (and pundits who make assumptions about these things on twitter and elsewhere), some feel they had too much freedom to make decisions while others feel they had too many constrictions imposed by the Ministry of Education. The very fact that the curriculum across the disciplines so strongly reflects the personalities and projects of individual members is itself a source of interest. Is it even possible for the curriculum to be free from the stamp of individuals? What would it have looked like if others were involved? Whose feedback made it to the top of the pile?

So what do we do about it? It is my belief that the chaos introduced by the planning and implementation process over the last few years, and the resultant curriculum documents, will amplify some of the strengths and weaknesses that currently exist in BC schools. We have teachers unprepared to teach their subjects, who have come to rely on worksheets and modules (usually not their own) or a series of disconnected projects. We also have teachers who have intense passion and knowledge for certain topics or methods, some of which were closely tied to pre-existing course structures and titles, some of which were never fitted to the courses to which they were assigned. For better or worse, the revised curriculum offers a window of time in which teachers may indeed write their own narrative into the curriculum, to shape the very contours of their teaching practice, and define big ideas, competencies, and content in a way that resonates with their core values as educators. This is, of course, both dangerous and exhilarating, and will result in as much bad practice as it does success. If this opportunity is combined with a commitment to take our respective disciplines and our own teaching craft seriously, to hold each other accountable, and to be willing to share our curricular decisions and classroom results with other teachers, then the experiment can be a positive one.

Take it for what it's worth. Along with so many other teachers, I intend to drag as many Social Studies teachers from the unprepared, uninspired side to the knowledgable and passionate side. Trust me, I know both sides personally, and have in fact built many snow-storms of worksheets that have blanketed students over the years.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Governor General Award

This week, the recipients of the 2017 Governor General's History Awards were announced, and I am humbled and thrilled to be counted among them. The award is given to teachers of history and is based on a portfolio submission including a project, supporting work, teaching context, references, and student exemplars. We all gather at Rideau Hall to receive our awards on November 22nd, and have some other activities set up that week in Ottawa for history educators and the guests we bring. I thought I would share the information I submitted to Canada's National History Society, the group that administers the awards.

Skookum Stories -- Project Overview:

“Skookum” comes from the Chinook Jargon - a trade language that developed in BC and the West Coast during the 1800s. It means “big” or “strong” and has crossed over to become a word in the English language. This Skookum Stories project is about telling a strong story that draws on student's roots and culture, and is based on primary and secondary source evidence.

Provide a description of the project you are submitting. Be sure to clearly describe the activities, processes, and outcomes:

Skookum Stories is an inquiry project for BC Social Studies 9. Students set out to find out more about their cultural heritage. This often starts by settling on what "family" could mean and to make an inventory of the people in their life they could talk to and what evidence they might have about the past. Next student decide what parts of their “story” as they know it interests them for further inquiry and then make the effort to talk to elders, preferably two or more generations back, but just one if that is not possible. Students gather evidence and conduct research about either their family’s roots or their culture, with special attention to stories that have a connection to history, place, and ideas. Students for whom 'family" is a real challenge are often led towards local history & community research, or broader sources that deal more with culture than family. Along the way, students design inquiry questions to help guide their work, and organize their evidence and response to their questions. As the project progresses, they build in spoken and visual elements and get feedback from friends, family, and teacher(s) before finalizing the story and presentation. Finally, they share their story collection with class, share the visual elements (usually artifacts or sources), and wrap up with a contribution to a Skookum feast. The inquiry cycle leading up to the presentations happens off and on for about two months, with some class time devoted specifically to research techniques and project work. The presentation cycle takes about two weeks (13 hours) for a class of 25, with another class devoted to sharing of food. Specific outcomes for this project include: 1) Working with "competencies" -- the historical thinking concepts that are now embedded in the BC Social Studies curriculum, 2) Making personal connections with history, specifically themes and events from the Social Studies 9 curriculum, and 3) developing Research, Inquiry, and Communication skills. Unofficially, two of the most important outcomes are to become confident as individuals who have important stories to tell, and to keep alive the evidence of the past that too often go the graves of the people who have gathered it or were witnesses to history. Each time I have used this project with students, I have taken notes on their findings and what they got out of it. While respecting student privacy, I have blogged about the process and highlights of student stories. Any examples I post with potentially identifying details have gone through a permission process with the students and their parents/guardians.

Describe your teaching philosophy and how this project supports that philosophy in your classroom:

I see classrooms as ecosystems, as constant rearrangements of ideas and efforts. Although I teach Social Studies -- generally seen as a combination of history and geography, I think what I'm really doing is identity work, creating space for students to challenge themselves and grow into something stronger than when they arrive. The ecosystem metaphor works on many levels, with inputs such as light, soil nutrients & moisture, species diversity, and time relating to things like instruction, learning resources & activities, inclusions, and pacing. Perhaps my role in the ecosystem is that of the forest denizen, an old tree that provides support for the whole structure. The Skookum Story project taps into all of these things, with students owning most parts of the inquiry, resources, and pace. Very few things we do as a class bring us together as a community than the project presentations. The diverse stories and journeys of discovery really stick with the students, and have changed me as a person and teacher. I have been fortunate for many opportunities to develop and share resources for heritage inquiry in BC, both on the web and at conferences and workshops. I am both honoured and baffled by the number of teachers who have accessed the Social studies resources I’ve posted online over the years. Dozens have tried and adapted the project, and collectively we’ve pushed traditional heritage projects into the realm of inquiry and application of critical thinking.

Explain what makes your project unique and the particular environment (classroom, school, and community) in which it was developed and implemented:

The idea of a heritage-related project is not new in the realm of Social Studies or History classrooms. I think what sets this apart is the sense of urgency to connect students with elders (and their stories, documents, and artifacts) before those connections are lost. I am astounded at how many students discover or rediscover important and interesting stories from their culture and background that no one in their immediate family knew about. This intergenerational cycle is important for cultures to survive and thrive. Another unique aspect to this project are the options for students that have difficult or complex family situations. I have been supported in my work by school staff, in particular my librarian and fellow Social Studies teachers, and by the Pacific Slope Educational Consortium, a collection of teachers who work on critical thinking resources. I also get a lot of support and feedback from students and parents. This project is almost always of value to families, and in some cases has opened up lines of dialogue and facilitated personal change for students and their inner circle of family and friends.

Explain how your students use the historical thinking concepts in this project using specific examples from your student work submissions:

The project requires use of inquiry questions around each of the concepts.

Significance -- we explore what makes a story interesting versus important, for example is an ancestor's involvement in an event (such as the Northwest Rebellion) significant on it's own or is it the event itself? Of course it depends. This year, I have had students share their connection to many significant events including the Loyalist Migration, Irish Potato Famine, North West Company, gold rushes and railway construction, Red River Rebellion, WWI, Spanish Flu, WWII, Japanese Internment, Residential Schools, and the Sixties Scoop.

Evidence-- students learn the difference between primary and secondary sources and use both to anchor their projects. This year students used journals, photos, military records, interviews, and other documents.

Continuity -- students find patterns in their research that can also be found in history, starting by asking what is different and what is the same. My students often compared homesteading lifestyle with modern conveniences.

Cause & Consequence -- many of my student this year examined the cause/effect cycle related to immigration.

Perspective -- students are challenged to find at least one issue within their research for which they can present differing points of view backed up by evidence. Examples this year include the Japanese internment.

Ethical Dimensions -- students are encouraged to look at values held by ancestors and make judgements as to why they existed and what impact they had. Racism is a common "value" that comes up, as is the idea of patriotism in times of war.

Please provide any additional notes or comments that would help us understand the nature and value of your project in Canadian history:

When I first started doing heritage inquiry in Social Studies, it was often difficult to get my Aboriginal students to take on their own cultural heritage and family stories as a focus for their project. Many of my students had close relatives who experienced various forms of colonization including time at residential schools such as nearby Lejac. Over the years, this has changed; in my mind this has happened for a few reasons. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission process has given many of the elders a safe space in which to share their powerful and often devastating stories. In turn they are now willing to talk to their nieces, nephews, and grandchildren about what they experienced and witnessed. "Being Native" is now less of a stigma -- teachers and Aboriginal Education staff have done great work in the last 10 years to include, develop, and honour Aboriginal perspectives and identity; this has been an emphasis of our revised BC curriculum. I have also gotten better at working with reluctant learners and finding supports for students that have difficult stories to tell or tricky family situations. This also goes for students who have been adopted, live in care, or are not in communication with family members.

Links: list any URLs that house any related material related (e.g., class website, Flickr, YouTube, etc.) and describe the role they play in your project:

Links and resources have been assembled at https://www.thielmann.ca/skookum-stories.html

Friday, October 27, 2017

School as a system of spaces

Recently, I had my Grade 11 Social Studies students examine the "human experience" at our school, D.P. Todd Secondary in Prince George. 

We thought about all the ways in which we create "affective ties with the material environment” (a reference to Topophilia by Yi Fu Tuan). These are the bonds that people form with the places they visit and inhabit, and can be characterized as positive or negative and everything in between, or neither for that matter. We began our thinking with some history of the school and ideas around why it was built the way it was back in 1976.

We schemed out the patterns, the categories of interaction that take place. In no particular order: safety features & processes, natural light vs artificial light, meetings places, high traffic areas, places to eat, food service, programs in operation, sound and music, state of technology, use of tables and seating, state of repair & equipment, accessibility (e.g. inclusive of disabilities), private vs public places, connection to nature, doorway & entrance experience, noise levels & places to make noise, evidence of celebration, temperature or climate control, communication systems, fun/happy vs sad/depressing, evidence of history/tradition, student-centered creations.

The students set out to take photos as evidence of these patterns. See below for some of the examples -- notably absent are the images that show students "doing their thing" at school -- we did not publish these due to privacy.  Our conclusion was that a school is not just one place, but many spaces that are collected together to meet different expectations.  We had near-consensus that our school building is tired, in need of repair and renovation, and fails to meet certain expectations.  Four of the top concerns were: lack of natural light (most classrooms do not have windows, same for the hallways and open spaces), lack of nature-connection specifically trees on the school grounds, no place to sit and eat lunch (many kids sit on the floor with their backs against their lockers), and a dingy unwelcoming front entrance. As one student put it, when you put our school under the microscope it doesn't look good. For the positive, the students mentioned that student generally feel welcomed and have a positive experience of being together despite the deficits in the school and on the grounds, perhaps due to the school's smaller size and population. Mind you, one student likened this to Stockholm Syndrome. There was also agreement that the library or "learning commons" functioned as a positive space and had good hits on our checklist.

As a teacher doing this work with students, I have a short-term wishlist for D.P. Todd, realizing that a the promised full-scale renovation may never come:
  1. Our school has undifferentiated expanses of hallway and an entrance area that is too small and crowded -- at present these are the only public spaces where student can gather. We need some spaces for students to "retreat" and see themselves reflected in the school experiences -- take out some lockers and put in benches and display cases to form small alcoves. Finish the table replacement cycle by bringing in a few more of the red & blue oval tables and getting rid of the cafeteria style tables in the main hallway.
  2. Have a few areas, even wallspace, that the students control or can manipulate from week to week and year to year. Include digital spaces and outdoor spaces in which students have a sense of participation and choice. Our school should represent the "present" of it's student body, not just the past.  
  3. More trees -- almost all of the "historic" trees at our school were Pinus Contorta and fell victim to the pine beetle epidemic in the early 2000s.  We have a handful of scraggly trees left, including some "accidental" cottonwood saplings coming up between a sidewalk and a fence. Kids deserve communion with trees on a daily basis, and we have the room for single specimens, rows, and small groves of trees, not to mention flowers, plants, shrubbery, or sculpting of small hummocks. The established and repeated rationale for denying past efforts to replant trees -- that it is easier and cheaper to mow lawn that it is to maintain trees -- is unacceptable.
  4. Offer an incentive for teachers to declutter, get some feng shui, and make their classrooms more welcoming -- a new coat of paint or a bit of new furniture can go a long way. Swap desks for small tables where requested, and replace the terrible chairs that snag kids' hair and clothing on the rivets.







 







Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Sourcebook

Along with 8 other BC teachers, I've had the pleasure of working on a teaching & learning resource for BC Social Studies 9 -- "Thinking it Through." The other teachers were Rob Lewis, Joe Pereira, JP Martin, Vince Truant, and Jennifer Pighin from Prince George, Paula Waatainen from Nanaimo, Janet Ruest from Chemainus, and Shannon Leggett from Vancouver. We each wrote some of the topics or case studies in the Sourcebook, and I had the fun job of editing, writing the introduction, and other tasks along the way. It was an enjoyable learning curve on curriculum design and publishing a book, and a good experience working with the folks from Pearson Canada.

Here's a little primer on the book for those that might consider using it in their classroom.

This “Thinking it Through” Sourcebook will help students develop their critical thinking skills as they explore selected topics from the revised BC Social Studies 9 Curriculum.

This book is organized according to seven CONTENT STANDARDS, each with four case studies in critical thinking: Revolution and Change, Imperialism and Colonialism, Migration and Shifting Population, Nationalism and Nation-Building, Regional and Global Conflict, Injustices and Rights, Land and People.

The authors have selected primary and secondary sources, all kinds of questions, and suggested extension activities for 28 case studies. Each one is a sandbox for teachers and students to explore CURRICULAR COMPETENCIES and apply historical (and geographic) thinking concepts. Students will push their thinking about what they can learn from evidence, and realize how the account changes depending on the evidence they use.

Finally, by developing the ability to think through historical, social, or geographic evidence, students will learn how BIG IDEAS have shaped the past and the present.

Perhaps the most important purpose of the Sourcebook is to suggest to teachers and students a method of “doing” Social Studies. Whether the focus is on instruction, discussion, inquiry, story-telling, or project-based learning, Social Studies should be grounded in the work of exploring relevant sources from the past and present, the work of creating valid accounts about important ideas and events through the examination of evidence and application of historic and geographic thinking concepts.

The Sourcebook can be an “untextbook” – not meant to be the only resource used by the teacher and students (which is sometimes the criticism of past textbooks), but something that appears at regular intervals in the classroom in order to develop the capacity for critical thinking. It also makes an excellent bridge between the many texts and resources designed for the previous BC curriculum and the “asks” and content shifts of the revised curriculum.

The authors hope that teachers and students replicate this process beyond the examples used in the Sourcebook -- that they develop the habit of finding provocative sources that delve into the heart of historic, social, and geographic problems, and then applying critical thinking concepts to discover their worth in building understanding about the relevance of history and place in everyday life.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

To Trump or Not to Trump

"I may be 13, but I’m wide awake to the racism in America" reference: Opinion, Globe and Mail, August 23rd, 2017
A friend and colleague shared this article from a 13-yr-old student in Seattle... and it got me thinking about how discussions of privilege, race, current events, silence, and appropriate action will play out in my teaching practice this year.

With the return to school imminent, I am wondering how to approach the subject of Trump's America with my Social Studies students. With many others, I’ve watched on in both fascination and horror as the bizarro version of the American Dream has unfolded over the last eight months — the successful merger of reality television with their political system. While it’s been easy coming to my own conclusions about how Trump is contributing to racist, xenophobic, and anti-LGBTQ attitudes, it will be a bit harder to figure out how to bring fair and reasonable discussions about Trump into the classroom.

There is a tradition among Social Studies teachers of remaining politically neutral (if there is such a thing), and presenting many side of issues so that students can draw their own conclusions. This is especially important when it comes to current events and controversial topics. While not tantamount to silence, teachers often hold back on ethical judgments so as not to drag students towards their own beliefs. In practice this is hard to do -- should I be surprised that students, by the end of course, will share many of my own perspectives on the world? Hopefully they develop the skills to disagree with me as well.

Developing critical thinking in Social Studies is not a precise exercise in objectivity. As we examine evidence, consider the judgments of others, and develop our own opinions, we take up values and confirm beliefs, we align ourselves with causes, and we sometimes commit to a course of action as a result of our stances. This is what we want. But we also challenge the judgments of ourselves and others, question beliefs, redefine values, and change course from time to time -- hopefully as a result of carefully considering and reflection on evidence. There are "objective" aims and methods within these exercises, but always in some kind of dialectic with the subjective, with our experience and reaction. We also encounter turning points, where our (ideally) objective foray into the evidence makes some positions untenable, and others responsible. The scientific evidence of climate change comes to mind. Or confronting racism. There may be two sides to a story, or many sides, but it is not wrong to come to a critical assessment that implicates the untenable and promotes the responsible.

Trump's presidency has produced ample evidence on which we can and should make critical assessments. After Charlottesville, it has become clear to me that Trump has crossed a line into demagoguery, and that his growing negative legacy is now fair game for Social Studies teachers and their students.

How will I do this? I'm thinking of using articles on Trump, video clips, statements from public thinkers, Trump's tweets, reactions from American and non-American politicians, and sources from other demagogues, presidents, or maverick leaders in some kind of station activity. The proximate goal is for students to put Trump into some kind of historical perspective, but there are other intentions behind this activity. Maybe we can use this to introduce protocols for unpacking current events, for practicing critical thinking (the "competencies" in Social Studies), and for reinforcing that history is something we build based on evidence and interpretation, not something static that is received.

Or, I could simply write "Trump" on the board and see what students have to say.