Kids are Amazing- When You Give Them a Chance

Recently I decided to teach my fourth graders about the Flint water disaster. I wanted to offer them information, let them come to their own conclusions and then decide together how to act. I learned that empowering children think critically and take action can be as simple as pausing the curriculum for a day, looking at the news and engaging in some real world problem solving.

My students were shocked and appalled by what they learned. They asked questions about lead, about how drinking water can get contaminated, about how many children were affected, about how could a government do that to people, and if the water looked so dirty why wasn’t it tested in the first place. After learning that GM managed to switch its water supply early on, and that state officials had access to clean water throughout the crisis, one student raised her hand and said,” I don’t understand. Government is supposed to help people and take care of them not make them sick. Their job is to protect people. Why would they do this?” Later, one of the girls said “when [yes, when] I run for president I would make sure that everyone gets clean water and people like Governor Snyder who just care about money are fired.”

After giving them time to explore their feelings and questions, I then asked what they thought we could do to help. They had so many ideas- from fundraising, to letter writing campaigns to teaching our school community about lead. In one 45 minute period, I saw critical thinking, creativity and problem solving- all those elusive 21st century skills that no amount of close reading will  produce.

Here is some of what they did.obama letter amelia

 

photo (35)

christine

I am so, so proud of them- of their questioning, their compassion and their determination to help. Not only were they thoughtful and empathetic in their responses to what they learned, but also, they went above and beyond anything I asked of them.

Over 30 fourth graders gave up their recess and lunch to continue working on these flyers, posters and letters. Many children took their letters and projects home to finish. One group of students independently collected 150 dollars at a school event. Whats more, multiple students in each class offered to send their allowance or birthday money to people in Flint. These are not kids with money to spare.

Hats off to them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What We Leave out: The Civil Rights Issue of Our Time

There are major issues with the way we teach African American history in NY state elementary and middle schools.

  1. We don’t really teach it.
  2. Slavery- It was and is really, really important. More than just a lamentable moment from our past, it should be central to any understanding of America past and present.
  3. The Civil rights movement- it happened! It’s still happening! But for some reason we don’t teach about it.

To start with, you cannot teach about any moment in early America without an in-depth, fair look at slavery. This country was built on slavery, from New York down to the deep south and the Caribbean. Colonialism grew up on the backs of enslaved Africans, and New York City became the powerful economic center it is because of wealth garnered from the slave trade and slave produced commodities in the south. African American history should be central to any narratives about colonialism, industrialization, westward expansion or New York’s history. While slavery is featured in the 4th and 7th grade scope and sequence for social studies, it is again just a few bullet points amidst the traditional narrative of powerful white men making decisions. ( About 8 teaching points all together out of over 200 in all of elementary school)

Lest anyone protest that slavery is too scary or horrific to really teach to 10 or 11 year olds, I will point out the the 4th and 5th grade curriculum is entirely centered on wars. Even if that were not the case, I firmly believe that to teach about any moment in American history without teaching about injustice, violence, exploitation and resistance is to promote a lie with far reaching social and political consequences. Conversely, teaching  about inequality, oppression and resistance is empowering at any age.

However, every year on Martin Luther King day, I remember that in our k-8 social studies curriculum, there is nothing- that’s right, nothing – about the civil rights movement.

Moreover, in all of the k-5 curriculum- so that is all of elementary school – these are the sole teaching points drawn from African American History after the Civil War.

  • Migration of freed slaves following the Civil War
  • Reasons African Americans moved into northern cities and The Great Migration
  • The artists, writers, and musicians associated with the Harlem Renaissance
  • NAACP (in a laundry list of non-governmental organizations in the 5th grade study of American government)

That’s it. There are dozens of teaching points about the colonial period, about the “age of exploration” (age of exploitation anyone?), about industrialization and about democracy and freedom, but of course only as they relate to the American Revolution and the founding (all white, male, mostly slave owning) fathers. There is nothing about what followed the Civil War and nothing about Civil Rights or racial identities and oppression today.

Our social studies curriculum needs whole units devoted to African American history after the civil war. Black people did not disappear with the emancipation proclamation and neither did oppression. We should be starting with reconstruction and Jim Crow, travel through the roots of civil rights  at the turn of the century, into a full exploration of the Harlem Renaissance and finally into the post-war period. Then, when we get to Martin Luther King and the full fledged civil rights movement, we should do more than a sanitized read aloud one day out of the year. (Read this)

Instead, we should do meaningful service projects in our communities. We should learn about movements toward institutional desegregation, including Brown vs. the Board of Ed and the white flight and resegregation it precipitated. We should compare leaders of the civil rights movement and their philosophies (we should be teaching kids about Malcolm X too), and learn about them in context and in depth. We should learn about women in the civil rights movement beyond Rosa Parks. We should explore the legacy of civil rights today and make sure students come away with a sense that the civil rights movement is unfinished and unceasing.  We should deliberately and explicitly foster conversations about civil rights issues of the day, making connections between past and present, not reinforce the apocryphal narratives of consensus that still dominate the way we teach history in schools. We could even make connections to current education policy, “the civil rights issue of our time” – ironically one of the phrases reformers use to push standardization, charters and punitive accountability measures which disproportionately harm black students.

I strongly believe that African American history should be central to any social studies curriculum no matter where you live, but even more so in New York where our school going population is almost 30 % black, and African American communities have played an outsized role in shaping New York City’s history and culture. Instead, tragically, we pretend that slavery didn’t matter, that our schools are not still segregated and that Civil Rights is a thing from long ago. By not teaching about Civil Rights, we confirm the insidious perception that the emancipation proclamation and the march on Washington ended racial oppression in this country. It did not.

This gaping hole in our social studies curriculum is an injustice to all of our students. There are many other projects and topics I wish we could teach more of. But this issue demands attention in a time of renewed activism and renewed racism from presidential candidates to the Supreme Court, from the criminal justice system to the federal education department. Civil rights has the potential to inspire and empower, to affirm and to provoke questions about the status quo with the end goal of fuller participation in our democracy. That should be the goal of our social studies curriculum- not transmitting a meaningless litany of facts, nor confirming dominant narratives that perpetuate ignorance and racism. No one will grow up and be convinced that black lives really matter if they never learn about black lives, no matter their race.

We need to teach African American history thoughtfully and purposefully. That’s not a token reference here and there.  African American history should not be something we engage with once a year for a day or a month. It is inextricably part of every moment of American history, and should be substantially present in our curricula all year long, from early in elementary school all the way through high school.  There should be whole units devoted to the African American experience. Just one would be a good start.

It is time to rethink social studies in this state so that it reflects the complexity of our history, the imperfections of the present, and the possibilities for our future.

Project based learning; Making science and social studies count

Amid the whirlwind that is education reform, many educators lose sight of the parts of the day that make school meaningful and fun- art, music, P.E. , social studies, and science. These are the projects, games and studies that are getting pushed more and more to the margins of the school day because of high-stakes testing in ELA and Math. Even at my school, with an administration that is pushing project based learning, the third grade skims the science and social studies content, because the bulk of the day is dedicated toward teaching toward the tests.  At the same time, since there aren’t standardized tests in these these subjects yet, there is a tiny bit more freedom for both teachers and students. In that vein, for this post I thought I would take a break from criticism and share something positive- something that can happen when teachers are allowed to ditch the script and get creative.

We teach science and social studies because we want kids to learn about themselves, their natural, cultural and physical environment and understand basic features and processes that are a part or their lives. Perhaps more important, we want them to develop habits of inquiry, problem solving, discovery, and collaboration. It’s not whether they remember who built which landmark in NYC, but whether they know how to pose questions to clarify and challenge, how to plan and work with peers, to listen, respond, critique, investigate and how to solve problems by testing out multiple possibilities. Yes we do want them to acquire knowledge- but remembering that they will only hold on to what they can relate to and what they will continue to use: if we want them to remember the 6 plant parts, we need to instill a love of plants and gardening in them through tangible experiences so that the knowledge remains relevant. If we want them to remember structures of government- we have to give them a sense that they are powerful and have a responsibility to vote in elections, that their lives are influenced by unseen forces. If we want them to remember details about New Amsterdam; we have to instill a love of history and a love of their city- so that they come back to it again and again as they grow.

In my classroom, against the odds, we are engaged in a purposeful, interdisciplinary science and social studies project. Although I’ve always been a project lover, this year was my first introduction to project based learning. In project based learning, long term projects stem from real-world problems, needs, or questions. Many progressive schools engage in amazing interdisciplinary thematic units and projects: Brooklyn bridge studies, Hudson river, the Lenape. These units include trips, art, writing, collaborative work, model making. Project based learning does all that but with a real life purpose, whether it is creating signage for a museum exhibit, re-purposing an empty lot or figuring out the best way to get from here to there.

My co-teacher and I were so excited about this idea and we quickly found our issue. We decided that we should try to figure out the best way to protect New York city from storms and flooding, so we mapped out a loose progression for our project, found a friend from Red-Hook to help us launch and got started. In order to address this problem, our class decided we needed to learn about NYC geography and neighborhoods, flooding, storms, buildings, landforms,and coastal ecosystems. Here’s what it looks like at the moment- during writing, the kids are researching topics of their choice to write information books about low-elevation neighborhoods in the city. in science, we are learning about landforms, weathering and coastal erosion. In social studies, we are visiting neighborhoods around the city and will begin constructing a map of NYC that highlights elevation and the neighborhoods we’re studying. We’re not covering material, we’re not checking bullet points off a list. We don’t know exactly where the project will head, which solution we will settle on or how we will present our findings. We’re not transmitting information.  What we are doing is collaborating, asking questions, making plans, solving problems- in short we’re offering our students an experience that will stick with them whether they remember the facts they learn along the way or not. We’re empowering children by letting their interests and ideas guide the project, and by allowing them to tackle a problem in the real world- a problem they can all understand and relate to. And we’re having a blast.

The kids meanwhile, are all about it. They bring in books from home about neighborhoods and hurricanes. They casually use the word elevation or erosion as they make connections to our project throughout the day. And all the kids are into it- from the four students reading at a third grade level to the ones who are just beginning to read at a kindergarten level.  The quiet kids who never raise their hands, some of whom have pretty sever learning disabilities, are suddenly jumping out of their seats wanting to share their observations and original thoughts. My over-energetic boys are sitting still and examining maps of NYC and hurricane footage. And then of course- the real reason I love social studies- our students are learning a lot about working together. Each afternoon we devote to our project, they practice taking turns, listening to each other, making a plan before diving in, making sure that everyone has a role to play, respecting each others ideas and abilities. My co-teacher and I are learning along the way as well, thinking about how to better plan our next project, how to make sure all the loose ends come together.  I’m amazed by the growth we’ve seen already, and can’t keep from dreaming up projects for the rest of the year.

How did this happen? Well, first, we hid all our science and social studies textbooks in the back of our closet. The thought of using textbooks in either of those subjects appalls me. We also used the scope and sequence as a starting point rather than a bible. We quietly compressed much of  the first social studies unit- rules, rights and responsibilities, ( a developmentally inappropriate unit on government) and thus were able to launch our project in early October.

This kind of learning should be happening daily. I know this makes me sound a little doomsday-ish- but I truly believe that in the age of climate change, drone warfare, stem cells, smart phones, and decreasing bio-diversity among other countless scientific phenomenon that impact our lives, kids should be engaging with science materials and concepts daily. Not to mention that kids love it- nothing is more developmentally appropriate in early childhood than digging in the dirt, building a shelter, planting veggies or learning about animals- science gets kids outside, boosts happiness and cements their connection to the natural world, all while fostering habits of inquiry and wonder. Likewise, in an age of societal instability and diversity, social studies, with an emphasis on collaborative problem solving, community building inside and outside of school, critical thinking and social justice should be woven into each school day and each discipline. This is the kind of learning that helps us fully become ourselves, that helps us find meaning and even helps us survive whatever life throws at us. This is the kind of learning that does more than prepare children for the future- it fully engages them in the present.

On that note, some Dewey before I go:  “We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future.”