Selling my soul, or not

Over the last couple years I have found my way into endless discussions regarding the nature of assessment, the idea of common or equitable assessment, and impact standardized testing is taking on education as a whole. As my school attempts to recover from years of misdirection, we have had to explore these issues on a regular basis and really try and balance the idea that much of what we do with our students on a day-to-day basis cannot be measured on a 60 questions multiple choice exam. The notion that it can seems laughable. 180 days of discussions, projects, lectures, readings, etc. cannot be boiled down that far. Can it? Not only that, but are those intangibles and learning opportunities actually more valuable to the students as they progress through their education?

What is more important? That the student memorizes the dates and specific facts of a historical topic, or that he or she learns skills that might allow them to understand similar situations there (here) in the real world. Do we sacrifice lessons with that push critical thinking, public speaking, debate preparation, and technological literacy in favor of facts. The answer is obvious, right? But, we still have that darn state testing. And it looks like it isn’t going away any time soon.

This conversation has been going on for years. It is really old news, I know that. But for me, there is another side to it. What about AP classes? I love my AP kids, but in the end, I teach to the test. In AP World History, we are on a forced march across the ages and through a laundry list of skills (many of which important “big picture” skills that will help in life). I specifically address the types of essays they will be writing and how to do well on each one – sometimes at the expense of a more holistic approach to writing. I guess the main difference between AP tests and state testing is that the AP test directly helps the student. I guess that is enough. For now at least.

I do know that if I had taken AP history classes, I might not be here. The spark that ignited my love of history (and then teaching) was based in projects and discussions. I don’t remember the tests, though I’m sure I had them, but I do remember thinking and obsessing over skits, video productions, art projects, short stories, and debates. These ideas defined continue to My goal has always been to bring smaller chunks those types of lessons to AP, but is it enough?

2 thoughts on “Selling my soul, or not”

  1. This is something that I have grappled with as I have been teaching history for over a decade, now. What is interesting is that I have almost never been a teacher that gives a test. Thinking back to my first few years in Kansas, I started out giving a test here or there, but it fell away as I started crafting more meaningful projects and writing endeavors that evidenced deep learning. My teaching gig in Kansas was an incredibly wonderful first teaching experience. The flexibility and patience they exhibited allowed me to gain some confidence in teaching history outside the traditional realm.

    The conflicting nature of the argument is: do you do what you know matters at the risk that it would have a short term negative impact on the student. I know that teaching just facts will not be enough. I know that teaching no facts will not be enough, either. In addition, how much of the base level, foundational knowledge do students need to be able to interact with the issues of the historical record in a meaningful way. These are still issues that I struggle to strike a balance. It seems that each teaching assignment and course needs a finely tuned balance of these factors.

    Maybe instead of little projects along the way, you develop an on-going long term project that you work on when there is time. In this scenario, the students would have a shot at deep understanding, sustained research and analytical thoughts. Please do a follow up post on this as the year closes as I am curious to continue to hear about your developing thoughts and actions with this particular issue.

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  2. The correct answer is: Both. Why does learning how to think automatically exclude facts? I am tired of reading essays with no real facts or data in them, written by great thinkers who cannot be bothered to prove their ideas. I am equally tired of mentioning the three branches of government to a class of students that learned it just last year and getting nothing but blank expressions.

    Facts not only support ideas, but they serve as a cultural currency. From the line-up of the History Channel my students know that Hitler had one testicle and was involved in the occult, but that he was responsible for something called the Holocaust is an unknown fact. Shouldn’t students know that WWII follows WWI? I’m not talking about the details of the Battle of Shiloh, but the Civil War. How can we have discussions without common knowledge?

    That said, how to think is equally as important. I give students flashcards I make (four columns in a Word document that you can cut into two strips and fold in half) and quiz them. I love the textbook “What Every Sixth Grader Should Know”, which I give to my seventh and eighth graders, because it is a narrative but has plenty of facts in all sections that weave together. It does the job of “facts”, along with two column notes for documentaries (sub plans). Then we spend the rest of our month discussing the concepts, exploring, doing projects and the like.

    Do not blame testing because someone is trying to gets all students to listen a bit. If you really engage them with your projects and the like, they too will be of AP quality and the testing will take care of itself.

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