I’m back at my desk for the first time in more than a week, back from a rush of Lesson Study Demonstration Lessons. This year, we decided to run two cycles of Lesson Study: one in the fall, following the summer institute, and another in the spring, after the trip and programs at Fort Vancouver and the ESD. Based on how this round of lessons went, I’m confident that that was the way to go – teacher groups seemed to benefit from having spent more time steeped in content, developing trust with each other, and finally at the right point in the year to teach Civil War history.
It’s also allowed everyone – the project participants as well as Rich Christen, Peter Thacker, and me – to get a little clearer on how all this works together. Teaching and learning is messy. We’ve been encouraging teachers to think about historical content, historical thinking skills, primary sources, teaching strategies and teacher and student questions. What we’re advocating is viewing history instruction as a complex system. Most teachers start by thinking about what content they’re hoping students will learn. Next, they might identify primary sources that help students gain insight into the big ideas of that content. Students need some kind of scaffolding to support their interrogation of those sources in a way which leads to those content insights, and that’s where choosing strategies come in. Teachers will also consider the historical literacy skills their helping their students to develop – especially here in Washington, which places priority on that development – and they’ll need to think about what strategies to use to make sure their lesson best supports that skill development. Some lesson planning might start with the skill rather than the content, but in the end it all needs to fit together as a system.
When any part is viewed on its own, the complete package suffers. When we encourage teachers to teach with primary sources, it’s because they invite students to interpret the past through analyzing the raw data; because they allow students to see the interactions of individuals whose perspectives and actions are worthy of consideration; it’s because they can create an engaging entree to learning – it’s not to teach the sources themselves. This has been misunderstood in many instances – I think it’s why the National Archives is moving from “Teaching with Documents” to “Docs Teach.” This week, I saw examples of this confusion (“We should be teaching with primary documents because you all tell us it’s important”) and clarity (“I’ve long know that teaching with documents was the key, but now I have the key to teaching with documents.”)
Equally likely to end up in the driver’s seat – and at least as problematic – is the classroom implementation strategy. As with docs, teachers delight in discovering strategies that they think their students will enjoy. The strategy, though, works best in service to the goals of the lesson and when a good fit for overcoming the obstacles students are likely to encounter to get there. This way of approaching the lesson encourages teachers to identify the strategy that is most likely to support student achievement (while still being highly motivating and energizing.)
The student question forces teachers to identify what they want students to know about the historical content; discussion of that question helps teachers evaluate what kinds of questions work best for their students. The teacher question focuses on what they want to learn about teaching and learning and encourages an inquisitive approach to their craft. These guide the debrief, and are best when they are closely aligned with everything else. To get the juices flowing, we shared a set of possible Teacher and Student Questions at the planning session April 14.
As I wrote above, teacher groups took great steps forward in incorporating all of this this time around, as a result of greater familiarity with each other, the content, the process, and also likely benefiting from our greater sense of what this all means. All five lessons were taught in middle schools and benefited from our time on our History on Location trip to the East Coast: two groups formed lessons around John Brown, two groups around the recent Confederate History Month Proclamation, and a fifth around the Christiana Resistance (I’ll be at the sixth and final session at the end of this week.) Groups that chose the same general topics of Brown and Confederate History Month utilized different documents and strategies to bring students to the content. Student observations and written work showed significant movement to new understanding of complex topics utilizing approaches that were new to many of the teachers.
Beyond the clearly improved lessons, teachers enthusiasm was generally high. A few teacher comments I captured:
I hadn’t realized the power of primary sources in shaking up the students’ world. They’ve led to more research, more discussion.
This has been the best year ever… I have data that shows kids growth – that shows they’re actually learning and that I’m actually teaching.
I know that primary documents were the key to history – but now I have the key to using them. They’re not as scary as they were before.
I can’t think of any teaching experiences where I’ve learned so much.
The opportunity to work with other middle school teachers is invaluable. It’s great to ferry from my island to be with this group.
Once the students get into the documents it’s fun to talk to them.
There isn’t a bad lesson because you can take pieces and make it better. It’s freeing to see that there is nothing you can’t redeem. This pushes you beyond so that you have to try it.
The collaborative process makes me more daring. I would’ve never tried [this approach with students.] It worked beyond my wildest imagination – they [the students] valued it.
I was real comfortable with my little history projects, but now I know I can expect much more from kids.
I’m amazed by the enthusiasm. I had students who don’t normally talk contributing.
I loved engaging in actual reflections instead of “what am I going to do tomorrow” reflections.
I tell kids to be intentional. I need to do the same thing in my teaching. I don’t do that enough.
Metacognition is when you learn. If we never have time, we’re just chasing our tails.
What do you make of all this?