Monthly Archives: February 2011

The American Spelling Bee, Anne Arundel County edition

Middle schoolers often do not know what to do with their hands.  Put them on a stage and ask them to listen to a word, its definition, its origin and its use in a sentence and then spell it?  They don’t know what to do with their hands, where to look or often how to stand.  At the Anne Arundel County Spelling Bee they do know how to spell, though.

When they approach the microphone they often step awkwardly–it’s when you first notice that they don’t know what to do with their hands!  An older boy may saunter, another may practically skip, his number placard trailing behind him like a kite.  Some girls struggle to walk in unfamiliar pumps.  Other girls used to wearing jeans fumble for pockets where there are none in their skirts.

After the first round, they no longer wait to be summoned to their rendezvous (fourth round word) with the microphone and, typically, a large or foreign word.

As an adult, it is gratifying to know that I can spell most of the words–although maybe not in the spotlight, at the microphone, with everyone’s eyes on me!  I am impressed when the young, earnest students spell words of foreign origin with all sorts of false-friend-sounds.  By the time they get to the later rounds, I can spell fewer on my own and am continually impressed.

I am not a strictly neutral observer.  It is painful to see any of the students trip up–especially, in the first round.  When the speaker first uttered “begonia” four words into the first round, my brain went blank with panic and it was only as the speaker read the definition and used it in a sentence that my grey matter regrouped and I inwardly winced as the contestant stammered “b-a-“.  Maybe it is because I teach, or maybe because I think these kids are so cool learning all of these great words, but I am eager to seem them all succeed.

I was also attending as a spelling bee parent.  My kid is tall enough to pass for one of the eigth graders, but is only in sixth and soaked up all the experiences getting “powwow” in the first round and exiting in the third after being asked to spell the name of an African species of antelope.  (I, too, as an adult, would have exited on that word!  Still wanting to know how to spell it, I have looked for it on the internet and think the word was “rooibok,” but remain unsure–we all thought there were more consonant sounds in it.)  I might as well tell you that she is the coolest kid ever!  Nonplussed by her exit, she is excited about next year and is one of only a few students who exited before the break, which came after the conclusion of the fourth round, and stayed to watch the entire Bee.  You may be inclined to write this off as mere braggadocio (fifth round word) from a devoted parent, but if you think about her achievement for a moment you realize it is not.  They were all courageous!  She was a good sport, as well, remaining optimistic and excited, hungry to go again!

That's my girl!

In the opening of the fifth round following the break, the field had thinned, culled from its original 27 to 12.  Gradually, the words become more exotic.  What we learn about the breadth of the English language is how engorged it is with international words: kommisar, Masala, vortrekker, Baedeker, gesundheit, apparatchik, schottesch, uitlander, philhellenism, procurator–all eighth round words and all spelled correctly!   Not one of the words I just listed is of English origin–many of them are, in fact, relatively recent entrants to English dictionaries.  It appears safe to say that spelling bees are luciform (ninth round word) examples of our cultural evolution, reflected through our language’s evolution.  We also learn that most of us fail to take full advantage of this rich language and its global heritage–why do we end our vocabulary training?

As the Bee progresses, it reveals that your school, private or public or homeschooled, is less relevant than the students’ hardwork, perseverance and perhaps a little good fortune.  The students, without trying, are their own best cheerleaders, as parents sit wanting their own child and all the students to somehow win; many of the students cheer for their competitors and genuinely congratulate each success.  Accordingly, as Emily Durell of Crofton Middle School clinched first place by correctly spelling “execration”–something everyone appeared to avoid or hide very well–it was revealed (after some minor confusion and calculations) that over half of the contestants to enter the final rounds after the break placed in the top three.  Once it dwindled down to the end, it did so quickly!  Five students tied for second place and two for third place!

Coming from an avid fan of sporting events, the Bee was surprisingly exciting and dramatic!  After attending my first ever spelling bee, I think I may be hooked!  This works out well for me as a parent, since Xan looks forward to competing again in the upcoming years!

The final results:

  1. Emily Durell, Crofton Middle School, Anne Arundel County entrant for The Scripps National Spelling Bee–we’ll be rooting for her on ESPN!
  2. Courtney Dixon, Annapolis Area Christian School; Carolyn Teresa “Carrie” Shade, School of the Incarnation; Jessica Schultz, St. Jane Frances School; Elizabeth “Hope” Lomvardias, St. Martin’s Lutheran School
  3. Christopher Allan Umanzor, Old Mill Middle South; Katharine Reed, Severn School

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A Tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen

Tuskegee Airman on a "Buy War Bonds" WWII poster, autographed by Dr. Cyril O. Byron and Bill Peterson.

Thursday night (2/17/11), I attended a Tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen sponsored by the Community College of Baltimore County’s Aviation Club, Black Student Union and History Club.  It was a thrill!  Guests Dr. Cyril O. Byron, an original Tuskegee Airman (part of the ground crew) and Bill Peterson (a heritage Tuskegee Airman–his father was an original and he was the paperboy from 1945-46, later joining three years after integration) shared some of the experiences of serving in the military during the era of segregation.

During World War II, many black military units were minimized.  There were exceptions, such as the 761st Tank Battalion that served 183 consecutive days following General Patton.  The Navy had the Golden 13.  Black nurses served, but could not treat white combatants.  The Marines did not commission a black officer until November 10, 1945.  And, the colonel in command of the Tuskegee Airmen was a graduate of West Point, Col. Theo Davis, Jr., where he spent his four years in isolation, no one speaking to him.

Those who attended the tribute heard about popular contemporary fears that Army Air Corps-trained pilots from the Tuskegee program might seek work as commercial pilots after the war.  Everywhere the squadron went they were unwelcome.  At one point during the evening, a brief clip was shown that featured three Tuskegee original pilots.  Capt. Luther H. Smith, inspired at a young age by Charles Lindberg’s daring trans-Atlantic flight, was shot down on a mission, but told friends and colleagues that he was treated better as a POW than he was in America or in the military.  Lt. Col. Lee Buddy Archer, the Ace of the Red Tails, explained how as a boy in Saratoga Springs a pilot who was selling airplane rides for $5 refused his father and added to his determination to fly.  Col. Charles McGee, an original Tuskegee pilot flew in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, logging the most combat hours (as far as they knew) of any combat pilot.

Dr. Cyril O. Byron, now ninety years old, was a sophomore at Morgan State College when Uncle Sam invited him to join the Army, in 1942.  After time spent in New York, he was transferred down to Tuskegee, AL and assigned to the 99th Fighter Squadron.  He described Tuskegee as being as unfriendly to the colored units, as they were known, as one might guess.  They could not go into town.  If they wanted to watch a movie, they needed to make arrangements in advance at the base, go down to the cinema in one truck, wait while one man bought all the tickets and then file in through the side door and up to the balcony.  And, all this while wearing the uniform of the United States Army!  Dr. Byron said he actively chose to think positively adhering to his father’s words, “Don’t resent what you can’t prevent.”

The squadron would eventually be sent overseas, but would bounce around from unit to unit–all of the first few being British units–until they were assigned to an American base in Salerno, Italy.  Italian children would ask for candy then circle around the airmen.  At the time, they thought it was just a ploy to get more candy out of them, but then someone spoke to the children and learned that they had been told that black men had tails.  Italians  familiar with American culture would ask the airmen why they fought for freedoms that they did not have in America.  It was hard to answer such queries.

As an escort squadron, recognized by the red paint on the tails of their P-51 Mustangs–thus their nickname, “Red Tails“–they became one of the most requested units by bomber squadrons who had no idea that the pilots were black.  They were in such high demand, in fact, that one of the leaders named his aircraft, “By Request”.  A couple of years ago, Dr. Byron said a white man approached him to thank him for the success rate of the Red Tails, because his father had always insisted that had it not been for them he would not have survived the war.  Nonetheless, back on American soil, even German POWs had more access on American bases than the successful Tuskegee Airmen because of the color of their skin.  It would take 62 years for the United States to finally award medals of recognition to the airmen.

Following the war, Dr. Byron would finish his degree and then proceed to NYU for his Masters and further to Temple for his Ed.D.  Peterson would join up three years after the armed forces were integrated and through the military complete his education.

The presentation concluded with a final thank you from a CCBC aviation student, Doug, who had been a part of the Tuskegee Youth and Aviation Program at College Park, MD–CCBC awarded a $500 donation to the same program in gratitude for Mr. Peterson and Dr. Byron’s presentations and time Thursday evening.  Doug expressed his thanks briefly, not only for the direct involvement he had in their program, but also for the legacy that they had handed down to him from the days of segregation.

The evening’s events concluded with the movie, The Tuskegee Airmen.  It was a special evening and the parties involved at CCBC did a terrific job in bringing it all together!

Bill Peterson (standing, left, in red) and Dr. Cyril O. Byron (seated, right) sign autographs with Doug assisting (standing, right, in red).


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Student-written “Choose Your Own Adventure” stories for learning history

“Choose Your Own Adventure” Additions | Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day….

A look at Larry Ferlazzo’s edublogs will reveal a real respect for student-written “Choose Your Own Adventure” stories as learning tools.


A key concept that’s important for students to learn is the importance of engaging with the text — not just being a passive reader.

There are obviously many effective instructional strategies to help them practice that lesson.  One pretty explicit way is for them to have access to reading “choose your own adventure” stories where they are periodically given choices of what they want characters to do, and then participate in the construction of the story itself…

In addition, writing these kinds of stories has the potential of being a fun and educational group writing activity for English Language Learners and other students.

~ Larry Ferlazzo

“The Best Places to read and write ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ Stories”

By following the link at the top of the page and the one credited in the above quote, you can see a large number of online tools to engage students both in reading and writing these active stories.  Some of those found by Mr. Ferlazzo, are set on a historic stage–the link at the top of the page, for example, includes a Jamestown version.

Historians often discuss what might have been had X not happened, if Y had not done that, if Z had this, etc.  What-if books on various outlooks have been published (although I find many of them snarky and irritating in their scapegoating).  But, I like the potential application of a student-written “Choose Your Own Adventure” Story to address either major decisions that were made that we question today, or to consider the day-to-day decisions of someone from a distant culture.

For example, I have decided to add an in-class activity when I get to my Crusades class in Western Civ. 101.  In this version, I will provide the introduction to the story and the first decision.  I plan on using blue books, pasting in the introduction, and having small groups write in the subsequent story and choices.

Obviously, regarding the Crusades, I could create a story about Pope Urban II’s decision to call fighting men to volunteer at the Council of Clermont, but that’s not the direction I am going to take.

Urban II's call for Crusade at the Council of Clermont

Instead, I am going to start the story with a young noble man whose father has just passed away and who had donated some of his best lands to a neighboring monastery.  The first choice will be whether the young man should take the lands back by force or appeal to his lord for aid and advice.  Should he choose to attack, he is captured by his lord to whom the monastery appealed and after being tried will serve his penance by going on the Crusade to Jerusalem.  If he seeks mediation from his lord, part of the negotiation will be to leave the lands in the monastery’s care while he goes on the Crusade.

From there, the students will use their primary sources to inform their creation of the rest of the story.  The directions will guide them to create conflicts on the journey, in battle and in Jerusalem that will require decision-making and two possible consequences in each instance.

I am debating an alternative method.  In this instance it would be a PowerPoint version and as the two options were provided the class would debate for one or the other.  In this way, students would consider some options by a similar means but be forced to reason their way through it.  I would have some additional controls for choosing realistic possibilities and pinpoint citations to explain those possibilities.

In a perfect world, I would love to see students consider and critique the major decisions in history, such as: Ramses II’s decision to sign the peace treaty of Hattusili; Hannibal’s decision not to attack Rome; Constantine’s decision to convert to Christianity; Gregory the Great’s decision to send missionaries to England; Charlmagne’s decision to meet the Muslims; Harold’s decision to rush to Hastings and meet William the Conqueror; and Innocent III’s decision to except the Dominicans and the Franciscans and declare crusade on the Albigensians; etc.

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How to achieve this in a survey course during a brief semester and have it be a meaningful learning exercise instead of a mere game?  How can one hope to understand Constantine’s decision without doing [at the very least, secondary source] research?  Veteran historians disagree as it is and they have the benefit of being professional historians with advanced degrees!  I am sure it can be done, but I confess, on those larger questions, I do not, yet, see how best to achieve it in as a student activity.  The PowerPoint version may be a viable way to tweak the lecture format and still challenge the students to think their way through, but I am not sure how meaningful the non-historical alternatives are without a larger base knowledge than a 101 class permits.

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Lessons for History Teachers: How To Tell a Story Through Photos

How To Tell a Story Through Photos.

The how-to link above sparked a reflection on my part about how I can make better use of imagery in class–a challenge that has remained illusive since I started teaching.

While I use a large number of visuals in my classes, there are two things I do not necessarily do as well as I could: 1) use the images to help specifically break something down into an enlightening learning point; 2) create a narrative arc with available imagery to aid in student learning.

It is not my contention that every use of imagery in a history class should automatically accomplish those things, but I think there is real value in making use of such methods at least occasionally.  These are my reasons:

  1. It mixes things up a bit and gives the students something fresh, now and again.
  2. I sat as a TA in a history class, in which the instructor guaranteed that the PowerPoints would be available every morning before class and still watched students copy the slides by hand while the instructor covered important and interesting material to which they were not fully attentive.
  3. Engage the familiar and the unfamiliar in foreign cultures (foreign because of distance, be it chronological, geographical or both).  This can be as simple as a strange object that serves a familiar purpose or as complex as a story with symbolism that meant one thing historically and means something completely different now (i.e. the ostrich).
  4. Dale’s Cone of Experience.  Make imagery contribute to useful and usable retention!

There are other reasons but I find these most compelling.  When we get too ridgedly into a routine we can lose touch with our students, who simply glaze over or find other distractions.  But, if we occasionally take advantage of a narrative set of paintings to tell a story we can create a remarkably personal or residual experience that sticks out for the students down the road.

A guide for how people remember and how they can apply that memory.

If a concept is discussed in class, augmented by imagery and concluded with reflective class and online discussions (the latter which have the benefit of being written).  A student is far more likely to retain it and be able to use that information later–essential for successful scaffolding!

One of the ways in which images could be used better toward this end is in this post supplied above.  While it is written for photo-journalistic purposes and media, it has some useful points that history teachers can steal for their classrooms.  Some thoughts leapt to mind immediately for classroom application, covering different periods:

  • James Meredith.  I first heard James Meredith’s story when I read about it in the Smithsonian Magazine’s “Indelible Images” column, in the 2005 February issue.  He had been a serviceman, graduated from the University of Mississippi, despite gubernatorial opposition, and now he was walking through Mississippi for Civil Rights.  The featured images taken by rookie AP photographer Jack Thornell took a series of photos of Meredith walking, jerking violently from gun fire and falling to the ground.  The opportunities for a photographic narrative that I just described are fantastic for learning.  1) Service photo; 2) university photo; 3,4,5) walking and being shot in Mississippi.  The students connect to his professional military service, his hard and successful completion at a university with plenty of hostility, and finally we connect the students to his brave crusade and his wounded humanity.   A sixth photo from his hospital and Civil Rights leaders is also possible.  He would survive.  He would finish the “Meredith March” through Mississippi.  A student will not forget that moment in time even though he was not alive when it originally happened.

One sweltering morning in June 1966, James Meredith set out from Memphis with an African walking stick in one hand, a Bible in the other and a singular mission in mind. The 32-year-old Air Force veteran and Columbia University law student planned to march 220 miles to the Mississippi state capital of Jackson, to prove that a black man could walk free in the South. The Voting Rights Act had been passed only the year before, and his goal was to inspire African-Americans to register and go to the polls. “I was at war against fear,” he recalls. “I was fighting for full citizenship for me and my kind.”

Read more:

In the modern era where photography has captured so many moments, and caught them in rapid fire motion, it should not be difficult to collect images for a photo narrative–one that may even be enhanced by audio, such as speeches or radio reports.  But, going further back in time it may not be as obvious how one should proceed.  I suggest a few possibilities for story telling without photography.

  • Saints’ Lives (also known as Vitae from the Latin word for “lives”), an essential part of Christian literature, are often recorded in visual form for illiterate Christians to learn, if for no other reason–and other reasons do exist for the genre–about the examples they set.  These are not required to be historically accurate to be of value–especially when captured in pictorial form!  A good medieval art book would be a huge help, as would museums, particularly if you can visit a local museum’s library and consult with their experts.
  • The same goes for Biblical stories.  One approach would be to  analyze the artist’s contemporary culture through the presentation of such stories.
  • I already use the Bayeux Tapestry to tell the story of the Norman Invasion of 1066 in addition to various written accounts.  Part of the task is to highlight the different interpretations of the invasion and what elements are actually included in the tapestry itself.
  • Of course, there is also the use of photography/pictures from reenactments/reconstructed images, maps, portraits and images of the landscape–archaeological source may assist in this–but, it is perhaps less compelling than some of the other examples I mentioned.

View the article and see if the means and methods may in some way be applicable to teaching history!


Filed under Experiences, Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Travel

Music as History Teacher – SAWAE’s Music

SAVAE’s Music – San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble.

I love music.  I like lots of genres–when I say eclectic I don’t mean rap and country; I mean classical baroque, bluegrass, new wave British invasion, blues, most subheadings under rock, R & B, etc.  As is the case with most of my hobbies and interests I love the old stuff, too.  Again, I am not just referring to Mozart, here, because I grew up with him, I mean well before his time, too.  My initial foray into pre-classical music came in the form of a Renaissance Christmas CD my parents purchased.  Not long after that, monks chanting in Gregorian Chant became all the rage!  Then I discovered the hauntingly beautiful music of the Middle East and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon opened the Far East (although, I am still not a big fan of Japanese opera).

Since then, my hobby has continued to expand somewhat haphazardly, aided occasionally by friends, NPR Tiny Desk Concerts and Pandora.  Recently, while looking for resources on a lecture for the Mayan ballgame I stumbled across the group above, SAVAE, short for San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble.  I have not, yet, been able to find much information on their methods or expertise, but much of their work has been directed towards historical reconstructions.  All of their early albums feature the music of Conquest-era New Spain and its fusion with Old World and New World instrumentation and language.  (I just got my first two CDs and think they are amazing on an aesthetic level.)  The idea I think offers some really unique possibilities for historians of the era, particularly in the classroom.

Students are already drawn to music.  I think a great way to use this in class would be to compare what SAVAE has reconstructed with today’s reggaeton a fusion of West-Indian music, such as reggae, and traditional Latin American rhythms and themes, such as salsa and bomba, with contemporary hip hop and electronica.  The result is a fusion, parts of which sound familiar to those acquainted to with any one of the root genres, but nonetheless strange.  This is frequently the case with SAVAE’s Conquest-era reconstructions.  If I had to describe the sounds, I would say they are something loosely like medieval European chant and the music we purchased in Taos, NM visiting the Pueblos.  But, that doesn’t really do it justice.  It would be a great introduction to the subsequent melding and blending of the two cultures in the wake of the Age of Discovery.

There are samples at the website link at the top of the post–check them out!  In addition, they as a group have continued to evolve (apparently, I am late to the game) and their repertoire has grown accordingly.

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A tech blog — helping students write better and think creatively

Today, is a quick post about some of the teacher-assist websites out there that I am going to try this semester.  At the end of the semester, I will write a follow-up and let you know how it went.

The purpose of this site is to facilitate grading based on a question of the paper’s originality.  This is intended to catch deliberate plagiarism and accidental or careless paraphrasing, while improving citation practices.  I plan on using this for my students’ first drafts on their final projects.  The site also has a built-in peer review program, but I’ve decided to use the site below and assign the peer-review project for the second draft.

For the time-being, I am using the two separate sites to help keep the drafts separate in my mind and because I want to play with both before I commit to one or the other.  If you are a fan of paperless or paper-minimal, the site appears to work with you because one simply uploads the papers and the site does its thing.  It also has a grading feature, which I am a little loathe to use–maybe if I was teaching larger numbers and no TA I would consider it, but it seems like a cop-out and I don’t see how it saves you time grading on content.


At the University of Pittsburgh (archrival to my hometown school, WVU . . . but, we’ll let that pass), a website has been developed for peer-review facilitation.  SWoRD is short for “Scaffolded Writing and Reviewing in the Discipline” and was constructed by a multi-discipline team to set up a platform for peer-review projects.  The site conveniently supplies professional papers that have been written to ascertain the value of such a program.

My intent is to use this program for the final paper project after they have submitted a rough draft to me for content and originality (see above section), this will be the second draft before the final submission.  Following the site’s advice, the reviewing by the other students will be graded, as well.  Wisely, the instructor creates the rubric.

As someone who always tries to teach history as authentically as possible–not just content, but the field–I like the idea that the students are engaging the project on the same level and by the same methods as the pros do.  Also, I am a believer that being forced to read someone else’s writing improves one’s own reading and writing skills.

So, I stole this from History Tech (who it looks like snagged it from someone else), but I definitely plan on using this as extra credit or an in-class assignment!! creates a fake FaceBook wall, which offers some great possibilities to one’s teaching repertoire–particularly for us historians!  While there is a lot of stupid.. er.. I mean “fun” stuff on the website (which can be distracting), there is also already some fun history content stuff on their–so, don’t let your students steal any of it!  One good example is Martin Luther’s Wall.

I think there are a lot of good opportunities, here!

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Sports devotees = History fans, Super Bowl XLV

Super Bowl history

Sports fans are history devotees!  Nothing brings that home more than the media coverage during the two weeks between the Conference Championships and the Super Bowl.  Every year Hall of Famers and future Hall of Famers roll out to the Super Bowl and fill the media waves with reminisces and reflections.  The two teams playing are loaded with tradition and heritage and their particular histories are being picked apart and debated, recalled and rehashed.  One team had the coach, Vince Lombardi, for whom the trophy they are fighting over this Sunday was named; the other team has the most Lombardi Trophies of any team in the league!

ESPN hosts a debate about which team, the Dallas Cowboys (hosting the Super Bowl), the Pittsburgh Steelers or the Green Bay Packers, is actually America’s Team.  Articles and sports shows are dropping Titletown, USA and the City of Champions 100 times a day.  NFL Network is running past games and discusses heritage and legacy; the Top Ten series which ranks any number of football games, positions, teams, statistics, milestones, eras, etc., and spans the football ages, is rerunning topical top ten lists to reflect the upcoming battle!

I love both sports and history, so there is nothing better for me than to mix the two.  I am fortunate to be teaching a special topics history course, Sports in America, at CCBC (MD) this semester.  Check out the class’s blog, America’s Pastimes Unwound,, and keep an eye on it throughout the spring!

In the meanwhile enjoy all the tradition, legacy, heritage and history of the NFL as these two titans, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers, with all their lore, continue the Super Bowl tradition while the nation watches in Super Bowl XLV!

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Cultural Illiteracy and the History Vacuum

I recently read a couple of articles that I thought were poignant and related.  (Special thanks, here, to Gleb_Tsipursky for bringing them to my attention via Twitter.)   The articles come from CNN’s “Subject Matters” column, by Sally Holland, and Insider Higher Ed’s guest editorial, “Sorry”, by Stephen Brockmann.

Read the articles by clicking on the links below:

Subject Matters: Why students fall behind on history,” Sally Holland,

“Sorry,” Stephen Brockman,

These two articles are both talking about the struggle within our society to engage our young citizenry in history (and the humanities) and the vacuum of cultural illiteracy that has developed in recent years.  The two articles point to different causes, but they are addressing the same effect.

Cultural Iliteracy

Western Civilization has certain traditions and assumptions that inform our society; these influence our legal system, political system, moral and ethical codes and educational approaches.  It differs significantly from other traditions; it has flaws both historically and currently; it often neglects other societies and traditions or looks down upon them.  It is also the culture from which we emerged.  Learning about our civilization’s heritage is also a means for acknowledging its shortcomings and provides a stable platform from which to contrast alternate traditions.

Unfortunately, however, traditions that are not passed on from one generation to the next die. If an entire generation grows up largely unexposed to a particular tradition, then that tradition can in essence be said to be dead, because it is no longer capable of reproducing itself. It does not matter whether the tradition in question is imagined as the Western tradition, the Christian tradition, or the Marxist tradition (and of course both Christianity and Marxism are part of the Western tradition). Traditions are like languages: if they are not passed on, they die. Most traditions, of course, have good and bad elements in them (some might argue for Christianity, some for Marxism, relatively few for both), and what dies when a tradition dies is therefore often both good and bad, no matter what one’s perspective. But what also dies with a tradition is any possibility of self-critique from within the tradition (in the sense that Marxism, for instance, constituted a self-critique from within the Western tradition), since a tradition’s self-critique presupposes the existence of the tradition. Therefore the death of a tradition is not just the death of the oppression and tyranny that might be associated with the tradition, but also the death of progressive and liberating impulses within the tradition.

~ Stephen Brockmann

Teachers in high school and middle school notice the problems at a young age.  Students do not retain material, nor do they make necessary connections between time and space as they learn.  We have moved away from memorization drills, which seems to lead to a greater enjoyment, but, while it opens the door for greater opportunities in developing thought processes, there clearly are problems with retention and cognition.  On top of this, students seem to have a lower common-denominator of shared knowledge which requires more teaching than the curriculum may assume necessary.

At Caprock High School in Amarillo, Texas, teacher Jeff Frazer said he’s surprised by how many of his incoming students know that the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776 but don’t know that it was a list of grievances against Great Britain.

“I think they learn information by itself, in isolation,” Frazer said of his students. “But putting the big picture together is not happening.”

And during the comparative religions unit at Rutland Middle School in Rutland, Vermont, Ted Lindgren regularly asks students, “What is Easter about?”

He said they invariably bring up the Easter bunny but don’t know the significance of the holiday to Christianity. It shows a lack of cultural literacy, Lindgren said, that they have to compensate for during class.

~ Sally Holland

The field’s potential impact on how we think is itself born out of Western Civilization’s traditions.  This is relevant not only to cultural literacy but cultural fluency and is an important asset for one’s ability to participate in our cultural institutions–not least in our participatory-based political system.  As Brockmann says, we fail to adequately learn even its shortcomings or to understand precisely how this tradition and society contrasts with others.  Without the ability to learn about our own past and its own strangeness and differences we will fail trying to learn about other cultures and traditions.  This also leads to failure in progressive attempts to break from the supposed tyranny of Western Civilization and create a successful inclusive curriculum.  As Sam Wineburg has written in his explanations of historical thinking as a curriculum goal, lacking engagement with our own culture’s foreign attributes will necessarily stunt our ability to deal with the contemporary foreign cultures around us with which we are in ever-increasing contact.

What’s the cause of the current set of circumstances?

Holland’s article focuses on the perspective that is twofold: on the one hand, the amount of content is overwhelming for teachers and, aided by crummy textbooks, often reduced to trivia; on the other hand, history has been deemphasized in schools at an ever-younger level because it is not part of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) testing.  Even in cases where state-mandated tests exist, there is often a large gap between the testing and the period of learning.

World history teacher Troy Hammon of Arsenal Technical High School in Indianapolis, Indiana, said he is constantly weighing how much “trivia” he teaches, like names, dates and places, and when to try to help his students relive history.

For example, Hammon had his students take on the roles of individuals who may have taken part in the Crusades of the Middle Ages. The students then answered questions based on their knowledge of that time. Hammon believes this helps his students better understand the Middle Ages.

History grows every year, no matter what,” said Jennifer Kravitz, who teaches world history, civics and economics at Rutland High School in Vermont. “So with this ever-expanding content, teachers are trying to balance teaching history content with helping students learn the essential skills they are going to need.”

~ Sally Holland

The resources provided to teachers at the secondary level emphasize “facts” but not thinking.  (I actually open classes by telling my students that we will not be studying facts, but interpretations of sources–hopefully reliable sources.)  Even so, the challenge of retention and engagement remains.

Brockmann opens his discussion much earlier than NCLB with the cultural wars in the 1980s.  He argues that these were not only counter-productive to either group’s goals, they also gutted the humanities of its respectability and dignity in the minds of the general public.  It created the image of the liberal arts as a bastard child in the academic arena, subordinate to more vocational majors such as business, which is a completely topsy-turvy understanding of education and its roots in Western Civilization.

A quarter of a century later, with the humanities in crisis across the country and students and parents demanding ever more pragmatic, ever more job-oriented kinds of education, the curricular debates of the 1980s over courses about Western civilization and the canon seem as if they had happened on another planet, with completely different preconceptions and assumptions than the ones that prevail today. We now live in a radically different world, one in which most students are not forced to take courses like Western civilization or, most of the time, in foreign languages or cultures, or even the supposedly more progressive courses that were designed to replace them. And whereas as late as the 1980s English was the most popular major at many colleges and universities, by far the most popular undergraduate major in the country now is business.

The battle between self-identified conservatives and progressives in the 1980s seems increasingly like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. While humanists were busy arguing amongst themselves, American college students and their families were turning in ever-increasing numbers away from the humanities and toward seemingly more pragmatic, more vocational concerns.

~ Stephen Brockmann

What is lost?   Perhaps it is irrelevant to you that America’s children are limited in their thinking about Easter to a basket full of candy and gifts delivered by the Easter bunny, but it is a tragedy regardless of whether those children are raised as Christians.  This reflects an unfortunate reordering of our values and mores–and I am not insisting on a Christian society, here.  The questions are broader than religion or life viewed through a religion’s perspective.  How do business courses prepare students for the cultural interactions of the modern world?  How do they replace philosophy courses that ask us how to think about how best we should live?  By what means do they teach the next generation to communicate, argue and understand rhetoric?  In fact, business schools must add such tangential courses to their programs because they recognize that their students are not getting a well-rounded education beyond the major.

How is it solved?

Indeed, how?  It requires a re-commitment to our society’s roots, even if we dispute the value of it’s ideals and practices.  It is not necessary to glorify it, but it is necessary to learn it.  We cannot possibly expect students to understand the conflicts that exist today or the necessity for self-education and participation in the community and civics without some grounding in what got us here–and I understand this to extend beyond our Founding Fathers, just as they looked beyond their British heritage in the founding of a new American civilization.  The value of testing-based education has been questioned long before NCLB and the idea that a multiple choice test can adequately evaluate a student’s ability to think historically is, naturally, absurd.

Brockmann believes that we have truly lost something, which is why he entitles his op-ed, “Sorry”.  Holland’s teachers appear to have few answers as well, though their myopic  concern about NCLB and state testing requirements smells like a scapegoat.  Naturally, students‘ lives have changed from the 1980s–not just their habits and activities, but also the way their brains develop as a result.  Will instructors be able adapt as necessary within the systems that exist–those systems born out of Western Civilization?  Probably.  When and what will be lost (and need to be recovered by later generations)?  Good question.  Students of the breadth and depth of Western Civilization will recall that the Romans looked back to the Greeks.  In succession, the Carolingians, 12th Century scholars, Renaissance Europeans and Enlightened thinkers all looked back to the Greeks and Romans following a decline in such interest and remembrance.  Enlightened thinkers looked back to the Renaissance, as well.  So, perhaps we are due for another flourishing in the long history of ideas from our extensive heritage.


Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning