Monday, August 10, 2015

Happy New (School) Years

As a new school year seems to be breathing down my neck, I cannot help but reflect on the last 12 months.  To me the real New Years is actually August, as so many families embark on new beginnings.  I try to make it a time to re-group and re-imagine what my classroom and my teaching could be.  Since last August I feel as though much has changed for me and the country. 

Let me start by saying that I heard Bob Bain speak at the Advanced Placement World History Reading in Salt Lake City, and he was excellent.  He spoke about an idea about which I was unfamiliar.  History teachers come in two varieties – truffle hunters and parachutists.  The idea comes from Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie.  The truffle hunters are buried in the details while the parachutists are taking a big picture approach to see patterns and trends.  We need both in our disciplines – historians and teachers.  But I am beyond any doubt a parachutist.  In fact, as a student the truffle hunters drove me crazy.  I deeply believe that history needs to teach us about the world we live in and will live in, therefore we need an understanding of patterns, trends and themes.  It’s that approach that made much of this past year a challenge.

The 2014-2015 school year began with Ferguson dominating the news.  In a world history class in an elite private school in Silicon Valley how was I to discuss these issues.  Did discussion of these issues have a place in such an environment?  Could we effectively discuss Ferguson in such a way that we discussed race, authority and privilege in American history and today? Were high school freshmen and sophomores able to do that?  Would AP students stand for it with a test breathing down their necks?  In the fall I decided to avoid it all together.  I am not happy about that, nor did I feel like this teachable moment was the appropriate one for my context.  Little did I know how the next 12 months would unfold across this country.  Acquittals, beatings, murders, mass shootings inside churches and theaters, arguments over symbols and rights and challenges to how or if we can self-identify.

This summer we have seen the 2016 Presidential Race begin.  A crowd of Republicans, a few Democrats and a media circus is upon us.  Much of it has developed since school was out in early June.  The parachutist in me thinks the real story here is not the candidates at all but the way cable news, a 24-hour news cycle, for-profit news media and social media have re-shaped politics, public discourse and thought in the US and the world.  Is it possible to deeply cover issues anymore?  Is it even desirable?  Have we really become so polarized that it seems like everyone is either an Ayn Rand-inspired individualist with little regard for their fellow human or a Socialist with no regard for the realities of a global economy?  Is it possible for us to have public dialogue based upon rational thought and factual information and not emotional fear-pedaling?  

This past year also saw increased coverage of teen stress and depression, helicopter parenting, college admissions insanity, college debt and an economy that doesn’t seem to be doing any favors for our youth.  How do we prepare all our students for an uncertain future?  They will inevitably have multiple careers and will see their world change in ways we cannot imagine.  Flexible thinking, creativity, openness to diversity of all kinds, an ability to learn – all of this will be vital to their success and happiness.  How can schools best develop this?  Does an emphasis on grades and test scores really do it?  Does admission to an elite university really do it?  Does school as we have known it for the last couple centuries really do it?

Meanwhile, there’s a silver lining in all the events of this past year.  As a nation we are talking.  We are discussing historical symbols.  We are delving deeper into the history to uncover and discuss deeper truths – being better truffle hunters.  We are seeing more and more Americans acquiring the rights most Americans have always had.  We are re-evaluating ideas we have taken for granted and reconsidering the paths forward.  We have an opportunity to bring this country closer and closer to fulfilling the promises in our founding documents and founding fathers.  Do you have the courage to keep it up?

So I have some pledges for the school year ahead.  I am pledging to use those teachable moments that arise in world events.  I am pledging to teach my students how to dig into facts and research and question what authorities and the media might tell them.  I am pledging to be sure my classroom is a space where each student feels valid and safe being whoever they are and want to be.  I am pledging to make my classroom a place where we can all grapple with the challenges of the future so that my students may solve the problems that will face us. 

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