The ongoing reflective home of the New York City Social Studies CFG.

Friday, September 30, 2011

A Change in My Practice: Reading For Understanding in My Class

I am beginning my fourth year teaching in New York City.

During the first two years of my career, I had the opportunity to work with highly skilled students at a school that I described as "suburban-urban." My students came from homes that not only valued education, but made sure that the students' learning carried well beyond the confines of the traditional school day. For these reasons and more, teaching reading skills was not a part of my practice, despite the fact that if you cannot read, you cannot "do" history.

Last year, I was presented the challenge of working with many students who had neither the skills nor the home life of the ones that I left in Queens. Soon after the year started, I realized I need to change what I was doing with my students. After meeting with my new ICT partner, we decided that reading skills would need to be an essential part of our class. Taking a suggestion from our principal, my partner had previously used reading symbols that had improved students' abilities to complete readings and answer accompanying questions. The basic concept had students "Marking Up" readings using symbols such as "*" (star) for information that is important, "?" for developing clarifying questions and "S" for areas of the reading that surprised them (there are three more advanced symbols that students will learn in the future) . My hope was that by interacting with text, students would be able to slow down their process and gain a better understanding of what they were reading. We focused on these symbols for the first month or two of the year, but after falling out of practice using them in class, we learned a cardinal rule of teaching: If you're not consistent with practice and clear with expectations, whatever you are doing will not work.

This year, I returned with a clear goal in mind:

Teach, and be consistent with the use of, the first three "Mark Up" symbols to ensure that my students master them by the end of the first semester in January.

While teaching these classes and skills can often be difficult (and dare I say boring) for both student and teacher, I am committed to this change (within a change) because I believe it can begin to address the greatest academic deficiency for my students. I look forward to gathering data and sharing my findings on this blog in the future.

A Change in Practice: How I Use Primary Documents

Last year, I began really changing how I used primary source documents in class. For most of my career, I used primary documents to give students factual information and eyewitness accounts to what was going on in various times and places. I had somewhat blindly accepted that it was better to use primary document to “bring history alive,” rather than relying on the deadened accounts found in textbooks. I also imagined I was “empowering” my students to become historical interpreters, rather than relying on politically correct interpretations put forth in the textbook. In reality though, I don’t believe my students experienced primary documents that differently from how they would have experienced the textbook. I wasn’t teaching them to interpret, but rather to find factual information in relatively unproblematic texts I had chosen with a clear takeaway in mind.

Last year, I began doing much more work putting primary documents in opposition to each other. This forced students to do the critical work of historians in order to construct history for their selves. I began selecting primary document sets that, if not outright contradicting each other, forced students to take multiple documents into account in order to draw complex conclusions about causation and historical significance. Very much connected, I shifted from having my students do analytical writing to doing persuasive writing using primary documents, thereby forcing them to use the documents as evidence to support their claims.

I initially made the change because I realized that in my previous years teaching US, I wasn’t really having my students doing much thinking about history outside of their project work. When I began constructing a new global curriculum last year, I wanted to ensure students were playing authentic roles not only on projects, but also regularly in class. While my major assessments had always asked students to include more than “just the facts,” the way students had been learning hadn’t done the same. I was asking myself, “How can this work be more engaging, challenging, and worthwhile?”

My initial change was just on some gut hunches; I’m not sure I could have articulated any of this at the time. The “data” that led me to the change was the mostly boring writing I was getting from students. Once upon a time I had looked forward to reading student essays, but I realized that since I was no longer asking students to think in service of the Regents gods, I was also not getting the best work from students that allowed them some level of individual expression.

I knew the change was successful when students started being excited by what they found in primary documents, and when I saw them actually using that information in their work on a regular basis.

My thinking on this got pushed exponentially farther than it ever would have otherwise when I started working on the NYC local assessment pilot for the new teacher evaluation system. The three other people on my team were all brilliant at doing this kind of work. Most importantly, they named some of the things I had been doing, but not doing so intentionally, so that I could recreate some of my successes. They also named the specific skills students needed, and gave me tools to teach these skills.

Now, I’m wondering about how to fully integrate this kind of learning into my government & economics course in a way that moves students beyond the dominant “token-liberal vs. token-conservative talking head” political discourse so prevalent right now in the country. How do I get students to move beyond the simplistic “I agree with this perspective over that perspective,” and towards one where they can critically articulate and analyze the rhetorical structures and tools being used to manipulate viewpoints, and the discourse itself.

First Meeting: A Change in Practice

While most meetings will focus on the work of a small group of teachers, the first meeting sought to have everyone participate in thinking about how they improve as teachers.  Using the Change in Practice protocol, each teacher shared a way in which they improved their teachers. Teachers who choose to will be sharing their writing on this site in the coming days.  The prompt was:

Describe a significant change you have made in your practice: 
  • What were you teaching/doing? 
  • What change did you make? 
  • Why did you think you should make a change? How did you know you should be doing something
    differently? Was there a question that led to the change? 
  • How did you decide what to do? Was there data or evidence of some sort that made you think you
    should make a change? 
  • How did you know whether the change was successful/was working? 
  • Who else played a role? 
  • Now, what are you wondering about? 

S2CFG's Mission

The mission of the Social Studies Critical Friends Group (S2CFG) is to provide accomplished social studies teachers, who have foundational experience in the classroom of at least three years, with a peer network to support their continued development beyond that which the small school can always provide.  Taking inspiration from both the National Writing Project and the National School Reform Faculty, S2CFG members will hold monthly in-person meetings in addition to participating in an online network to share and develop best practices, curricular units, and performance tasks.  The group will also provide a forum for teachers to discuss the issues they face in formal or informal leadership roles in their schools.  Members will be expected to produce at least one piece of reflective writing each month about some aspect of their professional practice, as well as present at least two NSRF protocols during the year looking at either their classroom or larger school issues.  Members can expect to gain a wealth of ideas and support from other strong and accomplished social studies teachers.  However, it is our goal that the S2CFG will not only give teachers an increased sense of community and purpose for their own professional lives, but that it will also serve as a springboard to develop teacher-leaders who will serve as professional and curricular developers for the larger education community.  S2CFG will share our work (units, performance tasks, tools and documentation of our project) across networks of schools, and members will have opportunities facilitate and present at various conferences and institutes.