Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Is This Mic On?

I'm sure you're already aware that a high school teacher up in Denver is under investigation/on leave for leading a classroom lecture/discussion in which he posited that President W's State of the Union speech could be compared with speeches by Hitler. One of the students recorded the lecture/discussion, a parent said this, a school administration said that and the episode has now been thrust into the on-going, in-depth, and oh-so-thorough national dialogue this country embraces when such stories reverberate throughout the public consciousness.

In other words, ridiculously uninformed people on radio/tv/blogs are incessantly blabbing about it. Well, you can call me anything you like, but don't call me late to a chance to chime in on something in which I am ridiculously uninformed. Especially one on a topic near and dear to my professional heart: saying stupid things to a class full of students.

As you probably know, I'm a middle school Humanities teacher, and I'll let you in on a little secret: it's our job to say stupid things to a class full of students on a fairly regular basis. Now, by "stupid" in this case I mean the utterance of sentiments that segments of the population (often large, majority segments) totally, absolutely, unmitigatingly, categorically disagree with. Disagree with passionately. Disagree with enough to get riled up and involved in provocative debates. We professional educators call these provocative debates "discussion" and they're, uh, kinda the whole basis of teaching Humanities.

Well, at least one way. They're is another way and perhaps you had "Social Studies" (i.e. old school Humanities) in this other way. In this other way, students are taught history, public institutions, current events and such like this:
  • The class has a "textbook"
  • The textbook has been chosen after a rigorous screening by the State Department of Education, the local School District, and the "Social Studies" department at the school in question.
  • The "Social Studies" teacher uses the "textbook" as a strong authoritative guide, with students reading from it on a daily basis, answering litle questions in the back of the chapter and having a "test" after three or so chapters of the book have been covered.
  • All facts, ideas, concepts and controversies are handled by the properly screened "textbook".
  • Especially "facts". Especially, especially the facts with names and numbers attached, like "The Louisiana Purchase was masterminded by President Thomas Jefferson in 1803".
  • The "textbook" typically handles deeper ideas/concepts/controversies by largely avoiding them or saying "On the one hand/on the other hand" over and over.
  • One reason the textbook largely avoids controversy is so it will be approved by the rigorous screening process.
  • Another reason the textbook avoids controversy is because of testing, especially standardized testing: controversies don't easily translate into multiple choice test questions.
  • "What year did President Thomas Jefferson mastermind the Lousiana Purchase?" makes a great multiple choice test question.
  • It is also a great "fact" that not only shows students have "learned" Social Studies/Humanities, but can become contributing members of society, especially if that contribution relies on a knowledge of what year the Louisiana Purchase took place.
  • Two main areas in which knowledge like this can really contribute to society is in drunken bar wagers and playing "Trivial Pursuit".
  • I'm thinking, but I can't really come up with another contributory application of this knowledge.
  • Well, except for standardized testing.
Many of us who are a bit older than school age now, say 44 years old, remember having Social Studies taught in the way described above year after year. Remember those classes? My personal favorite was my high school Government class, which was taught "zero" hour (i.e. before school). The rather depressed guy who taught it exemplified the method outlined above. Not only was the textbook the ONLY source of information in class, every single early morning hour ended with him finding his bookmark, carefully placing it in the Teacher's Edition of the textbook, closing the book and waiting for the bell to First Period. Or waiting for us to finish the questions at the end of Chapter Seven.

Now, class, let's get back to our "discussion" of the high school teacher in Denver. I've noticed that many of the people outraged about the teacher comparing Prez W and Hitler are not only Republican, but also somewhere around 44 years of age. Some a few years older than 44. And, as part of their encoded academic DNA, they are thinking back to their own old school "Social Studies" classes in which teachers didn't raise controversial subjects because the teacher was too busy looking for the bookmark to their rigorously screened "textbook".

These outraged commenters are to be commended for probably remembering that the Louisiana Purchase took place in 1803, but they seem to be forgetting one very important "concept" resulting from the old school "Social Studies" class:

Social Studies classes taught from a "textbook" were boring as shit.

In a way this legacy of boring is positive. Well, at least one way. One big reason I teach "Humanities" now is because of my Government class back in zero hour high school. After taking that class I figured there was no way in Hell I could teach a class as badly as Mr. Depressed Government Teacher Guy had, and somebody gave him a job teaching, schools must be desperate to hire teachers. And I'm all about responding to other job providers desperation. To wit: I teach Middle School.

"On the other hand" the teaching of "textbook" Social Studies was overwhelmingly boring, causing most people to stop being passionate about politics/history/current events somewhere around Third Grade (resulting in things like low voter turnout), while a few other little boys and girls maintained their love despite the crushing boredom and can now be found ranting at each other on Fox News Channel.

Or teaching Humanities. Today's "Social Studies" typically eschews (with extreme prejudice) the "textbook" and relies instead on primary sources, varied historian opinions, introduction of fresh current events to compare/contrast with historically similar circumstances and in-class speakers of all political stripes. Okay, now I'm starting to sound like some "professional educator", so I'll stop...but it's designed to not be as boring as it sounds.

The idea is to put historical events into a context beyond multiple choice questions so that citizens can make sense of what happened before and what's happening now. And maybe maintain that passion for the subject long enough to vote more often; maybe even get involved in the process.

As a ridiculously uninformed participant in the "dialogue" surrounding the Denver-area high school teacher/class, I can't definitively say what exactly happened in that classroom. I can only say that in general we Humanities teachers understand that throwing the "textbook" into the garbage comes with responsibilities, the highest of which is to keep things balanced whenever possible.

But teaching Humanities isn't like teaching Math, where the concepts aren't inherently up to interpretation. Just the opposite: EVERYTHING in Humanities is up to interpretation. One of the biggest skills we focus on is developing the skill of students to formulate and express their own interpretations.

To do that, sometimes we say stupid things. Or things that some/many/almost all would interpret as stupid. Saying provocative things stimulates classes. Think back to your own "Social Studies" classes. What was stimulating about them?

In conclusion (to use one of those teacher phrases), I'd just like to reiterate to all those outraged commenters on the Prez W/Hitler comparison: we teachers are saying stupid things all the time. We're not gonna stop. I'm hoping to get some really juicy stupid things out tomorrow.

Bring your tape recorder.

1 comment:

Evan said...

"Bring Your Tape Recorder."

Will do.