Teacher Guest Blog: Ya Say You Want A Revolution?

Recently the National Assessment of Educational Progress released a report detailing the low level of proficiency among American students in their knowledge of United States History. Yikes! How is it that our students can know the intricate ins and outs of The Jersey Shore and not know basic American history? As I read the newspaper reports and watched the news clips, I reflected on my journey as a teacher of American history and of status of social studies in American schools today. Where did we go wrong? More importantly, what can we do to move forward?

While attending a recent dinner, a gentleman at my table was talking about the lack of historical knowledge our students have today. He looked at me and said, “Well, it is your fault. You are not teaching our kids what they need to know.”  Though I will admit my first instinct was to defend my ability as a teacher and my knowledge of our past, I chose to listen to his thoughts in more detail before offering my response. What he was really trying to say, I learned, was two-fold. First, our students are not given enough time in the school day/school curriculum to learn adequate history, and second, history is often misdiagnosed as a drill-and-kill subject that stands alone.

We are in the age of high stakes testing and accountability. One of the unfortunate byproducts is that schools often focus only on the “tested subjects.” In many states, now including North Carolina where I teach, social studies is not tested at any grade level. When schools and teachers feel the pressure to improve test scores, the tested subjects get the attention. History and other subjects are ignored in the test prep books and standardized assessment reviews. When your school’s percent proficiency in reading and math are the standards by which your school (and often your teaching) is measured, everything else is treated as if it doesn’t matter. However, these other subjects do matter a great deal.

Social Studies is a foundation builder. It provides the framework for building well-educated citizens who have the ability to think, analyze, and be informed citizens. It helps develop an appreciation for great literature, art and music of our past and provides a window into the souls of amazing people. I am always in awe of the connections my students have made about Lincoln’s leadership by comparing Lincoln’s first and second Inaugural addresses. The exercise helps them learn about the historical complexities of the Civil War. But it also improves students’ ability to read, think, and analyze as they connect the facts to the overarching theme of the period.

Often students (and adults alike) see history as facts that are to be memorized and repeated with no connections to other subjects or to our lives today. Our social studies classrooms are not places where the teacher dispenses disconnected facts and information, but rather they are places where students are given background information to explore and make connections. Socrates put it best when he said, “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”  In order to help our students be successful and to help our schools increase our proficiency in all subjects, we must embrace the ideas of teaching the “big picture” and helping students connect across curriculum.

We talk about our desire to reform and improve. However, if we really want a revolution, we have to become facilitators of learning across the board.  Social Studies provides one of many avenues to enhance student learning beyond the tested subjects.

Jennifer Facciolini

Jennifer Facciolini is the North Carolina Teacher of the Year. She teaches social studies at Midway High School in Newton Grove, NC.

Read Arne Duncan’s article in the May/June Social Education, The Social Studies are Essential to a Well-Rounded Education.

Read the Secretary’s remarks to the Arts Education Partnership National Forum, The Well Rounded Curriculum.

8 Comments

  1. I fear we are all beginning to think that testing is the only educational strategy that will prevail to motivate employees, and teach students. Children come into the world with hearts and minds open. They are eager to learn and take risks. Just look at a baby as he/she learns to walk and talk (Why, When, Where questions abound). Somewhere along the way, children learn whether to trust adults with their impulses to explore and question, providing the context for cognitive and social/emotional growth. Talents may or may not evolve, depending on how the environment responds to support such growth. Environments include many variables other than teachers and tests which may influence cognitive, social, and emotional development. Do we expect a teacher and/or tests to trump less than nurturing influences in a child’s life? We do a great job at finding weaknesses in our culture via tests. How does discovery of such weaknesses in multiple testing events logistically result in the development of lifelong independent 21st century learners/thinkers with talent who know their marketable skills? Are we missing a few steps that include integration of past learnings? Is there an assumption in our culture that the Education OZ dissects learning into manageble digestible pieces and those pieces when arranged in a “yet to be identified constellation” and delivered to the masses will produce children who take a test well and therefore know their talents that will produce economic benefit? Do we have a system that trains learners that the “powers” know best and embed the suggestion that all will be well if the learner takes the test and does well on the test? I am not sure our students could even identify their talents or skills if you asked them. But I am sure they could tell you how they did on their last test. What does that tell us?

  2. Having just retired from teaching 6/20/11 after 38 years, the real revoluttion needed is in educating the public who do not have children in our classrooms. I believe that if every person spent one week in our classrooms doing all we do, the revolution would be complete.

    Being teacher for a week would open everyone’s eyes, ears and hearts. People would see the social needs, the physical needs, the emotional needs and the academic needs.

    I love working with the students especially in special education. However, the needs are SO great that no one person could meet them all. As classes increase, the needs become greater. Students and their parents do not have all they need in our society and we as educators cannot begin to meet the needs. Children come hungry, angry and hurt. Sometimes so disturbed, that only teachers like myself who are well trained in emotional problems need to step in and help. But even we can only do so much.

    Academics for special needs students are difficult at best. Most are two or more years behind by time they are identified. To be able to get these students up to their needed grade level in some cases is nearly impossible. The worst problem is the lack of mental health care. We try very hard to do what we as special educators can do but some emotional problems run the range of severe like bipolar one and two, split personalities, post trumatic stress and you name it. Getting to the academics with so many mental health problems in students is nearly impossible. The students are coming in more and more disturbed and with many disabilities not just a learning disability.

    But if you could visit and be teacher for one week, you all might get the picture. Teachers need the public and private support especially for mental health and family mental health programs for their students. Come and join the revolution. Visit your neighborhood school and be teacher for a week or at least volunteer and see the truth in action. Do not just bash educators, live it first.

    Thanks

    • Oh Marie, my heart really burns reading your description of today’s school climate. You really hit the nail on the head with your assessment on the lack of mental healthiness in our society. As an early graduate student in a Teacher Education Program, I see how ineffective it is in preparing me for my first classroom. There is so much pedagogy-belief still rooted in the industrialized age.

      Here we are in the digital age and the children’s minds have evolved. Evolved in a way that confounds research. Each child learns and retains information differently, especially a child who is suffering. Suffering from abuse, abandonment and neglect.

      You are correct, Marie. The Nation’s conscience needs to be elevated so it realizes just how much the children are suffering. Perhaps teaching and volunteering in schools needs to be mandated, so communities open their eyes to the affects of the suffering, occuring next door, and in their neighboring communities.

      Thank you for sharing your ideas and experience, Marie!

  3. Who wouldnt want 100% Proficiency? That is the goal of NCLB, and we are supposed to reach it by 2014. Most of the articles I have read reflect panic or desperation because our students will not be able to attain this lofty objective. But just what is 100% Proficiency? Proficiency is another word for passing, and 100% means all of our students earn a 66% in reading and math by 2014. For me the tragedy is not that we will fail to meet this goal, but that we accepted this goal in the first place. How do you think a nation should celebrate once every child has managed to scrape by with a 66% in 2 subjects? NCLB is a trillion dollar monument to mediocrity. And we have in fact achieved the goal: education in America is mediocre. It should come as no surprise because that is what we set out to achieve. The goal of every school district for the last decade or more has been to find a way to drag another 1% of their students over that unclearly defined ” proficiency” line. In order to meet the AYP, each school had to produce a steadily increasing percentage of students who managed to earn a passing score. How did they do it?
    1. Many states made the tests easier. All except Massachusetts tweaked the assessments to make it possible for more students to pass.
    2. They hired many more Special Ed teachers, Speech Pathologists,m ESL and ELL teachers. According to Randi Weingarten 50% of school budgets have been devoted to Special Education. they wrote IEP’s to reflect all the ways the assessments could be modified. My favorite is removing 2 of the 4 choices on the multiple choice questions.
    3. They opened a Charter School to “help” students who were struggling. Expensive, but this allowed a district to remove almost every child who was not proficient from their population. Their percentage of students who passed shot way up, and the charter school would be exempt for 5 years.
    4. They reconfigured their grades so the previous years’ results wouldnt count. K-6 and a 7-12 would be divided into K-4, 5-8 and 9-12. True, they would have to build one or two new schools for millions of dollars, but the reconfiguring would make them eligible for an exemption from the pesky 1%.
    5. Instead of encouraging the top 80% of students to continue to meet or exceed their score from the year before, as long as a student managed to maintain a 66% he was highly praised for his achievement. These students were often given a study hall, or a free period, or computer time while the non-proficient students were taught the basics. Our top students have spent a decade or more resting on this low bar we mandated for them.
    NCLB needs to be replaced.
    1. Measure individual student progress from year to year in math, science, reading, writing, geography and history.
    2.Offer All-American Assessments developed by reps from each state.
    3.Same from Maine to Alaska and Hawaii. Or from Massachusetts to Mississippi.
    4.Give the assessments in May, not the first week in October as they do in many states.
    5. If we measure progress, new English speakers will have a chance to earn the most points. A top student will have an incentive to keep working to improve.
    6. Keep the format consistent, and do not make the tests too long, give 2 tests per day and have teachers score the 2 essays, lab and

  4. Thank you dear teachers of the 1930s that my time spent with you made me a lifelong learner and not a test taker. Would that today’s students burn with the flame of learning, too!

  5. Good teachers are driven away enmasse by “the system,” even when they love their students and their subjects. The “system” treats honest, patriotic, intelligent people like outcasts so those who group-think can have power and control.

    Most of the current reform efforts are making matters much worse.

    State mandates, Praxis testing, standardized student testing and the thickening district rules are all serving to undermine forward-thinking, education initiatives.

    The federal notion that as long as school districts buy into their philosophy they will get money is just another burden.

  6. I found this article very interesting and that it strikes a nerve in our education system. I agree that it is imperative that our students learn and have a decent knowledge of social studies/history. How else are we as a country to move forward, for it is by looking into the past that we see into the future. I for one am not the biggest fan of standardized testing and focusing only on certain subjects; however, I do see why we have them, for if we have no standard to teach from, how will we be certain that our students are actually learning? How do we fix this issue – how do we return to the olden days when a quality education meant more than a high test score?

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