A gentle reminder ...

The goal of this blog initially was for Mr. Mc to show his students and friends what he doing while in Pennsylvania and DC in 2011. Now it's being used as a place for him, travelling colleagues and former students to discuss edumacation and history related "stuff" as well as ... well, anything which pops into his head. Mr. Mc would never knowingly embarrass either the school he loves or the family he is devoted to. By joining in the discussion, he expects the same of you.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

An open letter on "American Exceptionalism"...

Kansas' state motto is Ad Aspera Per Aspera: To the stars through difficulties. Rep. Fisher, I don't think we can get to the stars without being honest in our discussion of our successes and our difficulties.
Dear Oklahoma Representative Fisher,

I am not a resident of your state (Although as a boy from Arkansas City, Kansas, I can say with surety that I could see Oklahoma 'from my house' to quote a political pundit. :)). I also am not an AP history teacher, but I would like to weigh in on your recent bill in your state's legislature.
As a middle school history teacher, I often use the phrase, "Say more" to get a student to dig deeper into an answer or thought. I'm not challenging or correcting the idea. I just need more information.
So I am asking you, what do you mean by American Exceptionalism?
I do agree that America is exceptional. I am so proud of so much of what we've become and what we will become. I love the preamble of the Constitution's idea of a "more perfect union." I see that as one of my callings as a teacher. How can I get my young charges to see into the future and see what's next for the American experiment? What notion do we need to wrestle with? What concept do we need to challenge? I think that is the calling of our elected officials, as well. That is why I am asking you to say more.
I think that we are exceptional. But we are not done.
I think that exceptional isn't a location or one static moment. I hate this cliché, but clichés are almost based on a truism. Exceptionalism isn't the destination but the journey itself. Our goal is to be more perfect and we can't get there without honest assessment.
Some of my favorite moments in my classroom have come when we have wrestled with what is difficult.
  • Supreme Court cases like Tinker v. Des Moines--what makes for an appropriate learning environment in the midst of turbulent social and political moments in history? (I noticed in the suggested list in the text of the bill that there were no Supreme Court decisions. I think that is problematic. I say, respectfully, that to miss the voice of one third of our governmental leadership is shortsighted.)
  • Global Warming--what is our responsibility to the world in which we live?
  • Manifest Destiny--how can we reconcile this American need to expand with the genuine wrongs we inflicted on nations of people? (De Tocqueville would suggest the policies of westward expansion crippled both Native Americans and enslaved people, and I would agree. I am pleased he made the list.)
  • Race--Lincoln suggested in his Second Inaugural (I am excited to see this speech made your list.) that 250 years of sin as a nation for the institution of slavery might need to be countered by 250 years of penance after slavery. I think he may have closer to right than I wish to admit. How do we, then, help the truly bottom-stuck, encourage those who Dr. King pointed out have rights but no hope, and foster racial cooperation and dialogue that goes beyond platitudes and hyperbole?
Rep. Fisher, these are questions my 14 year olds want answered. They don't want to shy away from them. They take Madison and Jefferson at their word. I am humbled by their fearlessness.

Again, I think that we are exceptional. But we are not done.

I think you and I differ on the result of what we see in the APUSH curriculum. In the hands of skilled AP teachers, student's wrestle with the ideas of the national narrative by looking at all our moments, best and worst. I can say in my ten years as an educator, I know dozens of AP teachers who do that work and do it brilliantly. I can say one of the finest teacher's I know teaches APUSH in Oklahoma. You should ask him his thoughts on the subject. I honestly don't know what his answers would be, but I tell my charges that a primary source is the motherload for any researcher. Secondary sources are helpful, but primary sources are GOLD!

In a missive already too long, may I ask a couple questions about the bill?

Is the goal to rewrite curriculum because of its content or its source? Part of the newspaper analysis of the bill suggests this is about 'nationalized' education. If it is, that is fine. However that reframes the question from American Exceptionalism to politics. If its about the politics of education, I would like to graciously bow out of the conversation. My interest is in how to be a better educator, not listening to bloviating from both sides with children caught in the cross-fire.

How many educators and students have you brought into this discussion? Not politician or PACs. Not administrators. I would even avoid parents in the initial discussions; just start with the people in the classroom. I noticed that by the end of the day HR 130 was withdrawn due to the responses you received over its vote in committee.  I say with all respect that my response to that is that this was a half-formed idea that many teachers would have challenged you to rethink well before it made its way to committee. If that is incorrect, please accept my apology. To my untrained eyes, however...

Again, Rep. Fisher, please accept this letter in the manner it is intended. Public Service is one of the things that I think makes America exceptional. We are all expected to be civic-minded. I hold the Capra-esque view that no one enters the public arena with blind ambition and ambivalence to their fellow man. And for your service to your state, I thank you.

Dave McIntire

Friday, February 13, 2015

Open Source...the sequel!

Bloggers note: Okay, I just posted this and then read a friend's post from last month. He is a brilliant educator and I aspire to be as passionate, skilled and caring as Chad. READ his post...we have some similar ideas; I took mine inward-he took his outward to talk about a broken system. Brilliant work, Chad.

This picture has no real purpose other than to show I have two books on Lincoln. That makes me an expert, right?

In my last post, I talked about making my teaching more open sourced. two thoughts--one something which surprised me and one another example.

Point one:
It's funny, several people emailed or messaged me on social media that they thought I was being too hard on myself. They were very encouraging; saying that the way I taught was a nice blend of sage on the stage and guide on the side. A couple are people whose opinion I really, really value. I think I didn't do a good job explaining my pondering. I wasn't bashing myself; I was just wonder if I could do better and making the classroom more of a student-directed laboratory. The answer is yes. I am proud of my work as an educator, but I am always looking for ways to be better for my young charges.

Not only have I read two books on Lincoln, I have shopped at places which sell books on Lincoln. This is The Strand in NYC..

Point two:
For Lincoln's Birthday, Ford's Theater has been live tweeting a Q and A session between anyone on social media and themselves. Different staff members take the mic (so to speak) and spend an hour or two answering the questions that come in. As my students were researching their Civil War topics, several had questions they wanted to ask. It was completely organic and completely optional and completely awesome. Some of the questions, you ask?

  1. Who would be better at basketball--President Lincoln or President Obama? (Ford's said Lincoln but several of my students respectfully disagreed.)

  2. Was the stovepipe hat to cover a bump or scar on his head? (Ford's talked about the hat being one of his signature items--maybe a political gimmick. They even shared an article on the hat and its significance.)

  3. What was Lincoln's favorite color? (The staff person suggested blue but admitted it was their favorite color so maybe that 'colored' their evidence.) BTW-this kinda silly question led to an informal discussion of how a researcher's bias might affect the outcome.

  4. What was Lincoln's biggest fear? (Historians suggest that AL had a life-long battle with depression so fear and anxiety were no stranger to Mr. Lincoln.) It sets us up for a future discussion about the teeming masses expectations of a Kevlar President and the reality that they are all too flawed.

  5. What was L's take on God? This came from an 8th grader! (The response that followed was nuansed--Lincoln seems to evolve from New Salem and his debating society to the White House. Another article was suggested.) 

My favorite question of the day was one I poo poo-ed when it was suggested:

  1. Did AL have a pet turkey named Tom? (The answer is that it wasn't a pet but a gift for Thanksgiving Dinner and that his son's pled for its life--creating the annual turkey pardoning at which Sasha and Malia Obama were unfairly spanked by some Republican's this year. BTW-There is a great article about the incident from the Washington Post here. Enjoy.)
So, while researching something else...we covered turkeys, adolescence, basketball, fashion and mental illness. Not bad for a morning and social media.

This is Flat Stanley at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The painting is Thomas Hart Benton's Aeschylus and Hercules. We were talking about wrestling with the Civil War and Lincoln and I thought of this painting. After the first two, you gotta be excited that this one has even a scintilla of a reason to be on the page, right?

Thursday, February 12, 2015

An open sourced education

Source: The White House

Happy Lincoln's Birthday ya'll. That's not the topic of the post, but part of my thoughts have come from events surrounding Honest Abe.

I have been thinking about this idea for some time. What if we ignored all the edumacational stuff and just told kids they were in charge of their education? What if we got out of the way? What if we asked them where they wanted to go and then helped them chart a path to get there.

As people who are further on the journey, teachers have some insights they need to hear, and we can and should offer them. However, when did education become about the adults? We're done with our formal education-and the system did right by most of us. I don't think the system has done right by its most recent acolytes. We carry some of that blame.

I keep coming back to the idea of open sourcing...
Let them search for themselves, ask each other, use the tools of today to answer the questions left by the past.

I've restructured my Civil War unit as a little thought experiment. Its not a new idea so I won't even begin to take credit for it. Instead of me as the sage from the stage, I guide from the side and let them assume the mantle of the expert. (Extra credit should be given for using three hackneyed educational clichés-don't you think?)
  • Step one--read the chapter--don't take notes, just read and try to understand.
  • Step two--read and annotate a section of the chapter--try to become really familiar with that portion of the Civil War.
  • Step three-research one topic (Battle of Antietam, Freedman's Bureau, Stonewall Jackson...) for three days and then report your findings to the whole class.
  • Step four--take notes during your classmates presentations (in our case--using a study guide)
  • Step five--the teacher ties any loose ends that may occur. The reality is I need to assess how well they understand the Civil War and the study guide helps put it all together.

What has been encouraging has been my student's willingness to roll up their sleeves and become an expert. I'm there giving them suggestions, but they are doing the work. Their questions of clarification are solid and even when stuck they haven't given up--they've just asked for help to rock the tires out of the rut.

There has been a sense of partnership that is missing on lecture days. I am hoping that it gives them confidence to look for their own answer to those things that matter most to them. I am not a fool, not everyone is a history nerd. and that is okay.

In looking at what has helped me with open sourcing, one thing that's been central has been the acceptance that, while I am a smart guy, I am not the Lone Ranger on that account, even (or especially, for that matter) in my classroom. I shouldn't be the only 'expert of things historical' in the room. That is just silly. I have the privilege of teaching curious young women and men and they blow me away with their insights and questions. A valuable tool in the open sourcing of my classroom has been technology and social media--information and experts are at your fingertips.
A case in point:

The bed in question

One of my kids asked this morning at about 9:30 am CST about Lincoln being shot in a theater but dying in a boarding house. That got us on a rabbit trail about what happened to the room where Lincoln died. I started to tell them a story about the boarder in that room, but couldn't remember his name. One Facebook post and three minutes later and we had it--the bed on which Lincoln died was in the room rented by William T. Clark. I told them that Clark would end up sleeping in that bed and they asked if he changed the linens. One more Facebook post and about ten minutes later and we had our answer--yes, he did. The teacher-scholar with this information also shared information about Lincoln's boots and their connection to Mr. Clark. By 11:20 a.m. CST, we had the full story of Mr. Lincoln, Mr. Clark, Lincoln's boots and the Peterson House. Kids came by during passing periods to ask if I had more information. When was the last time a kid wanted more information after leaving class?

Its the part of teaching that makes it all worthwhile. Messy and loud and with bursts and starts...but worthwhile.