The Awl’s harsh critique of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs). A must read for all interested in the future of education:
They’ve been described as “a relentless force that will not be denied,” revolutionary, “the single most important experiment in higher education.” Also MOOCs are…
The wonderful paradox of school safety. This graph pretty much explains it - the more vulnerable students are, the more they learn. A successful learning environment is one where students are free and vulnerable. As Pedro Noguera put it, we all know that in schools “safety is illusory”.
If you want to know why some would even consider arming teachers, it’s because we haven’t talked about this enough. Schools work because even though everyone in them is vulnerable to attack, all feel the safety that they won’t be. This is what makes school shootings so terrifying - the vulnerability has been exposed.
When schools work and learning flourishes, students are vulnerable. And this is where their freedom is derived. Students are free to disagree, free to question, and free to create without reservation.
Schools ought to be protected from those who would make them “safe” by giving teachers guns. One way to start would be to arm ourselves with the reality that a school’s vulnerability is a beautiful and necessary thing to have. We would then do well to speak about it with those who wouldn’t have otherwise thought about it in this way.
The past year gives one the suspicion that American society is dysfunctional. Our Congress is useless, our institutions inept. Faced with the terror of existence, young men like Adam Lanza react with violence. Faced with manageable problems such as a “fiscal cliff,” our democracy self-destructs. Anger is everywhere; understanding is nowhere.
Although a democratic society cannot function unless its citizens are able to rationally debate one another, rationality is missing from American politics. We assail our political enemies with intractable opinions and self-righteous anger. An ugly bitterness pervades everything. Meanwhile, our country is slowly but surely committing suicide.
It seems to me that this dysfunctional political dialogue, which stems from the iron certainty we grant our opinions, is the most pressing problem confronting 21st century America. In fact, it is a crisis. For without the ability to carry on a useful dialogue, we cannot solve our greatest challenges, or even our smallest ones.
This raises the question: How can we solve this crisis? Because the capacity to debate requires the capacity to think, I believe the answer lies in philosophy.
People live in the present. They plan for and worry about the future. History, however, is the study of the past. Given all the demands that press in from living in the present and anticipating what is yet to come, why bother with what has been? Given all the desirable and…
With rolling hills and panoramic views of the James River, Hollywood Cemetery remains a memorial to the prolific Richmonders and Virginians who made their mark on local, state, and national history. Hollywood Cemetery is centrally located in Richmond’s Oregon Hill district, and has surprisingly…
My students, my TAs, and I have started exploring our city’s history through its green spaces, a project we designed in an effort to tackle larger evolving questions of history and identity alongside practical questions of urban planning. You’ll soon have two posts by my undergraduate TAs on spaces they chose for student exploration.
Our university borders a 9.25 acre park, Monroe Park, for which one of our two campuses is named. This park has a long history of public use and of public debate over its potential for renovation. You can find the current proposal for the park here, along with some brief discussion of the space’s history. Debates over renovation and protest are summarized here. We’ve paired our discussion of the park’s potential renovation with readings about renovations on university property, and the increasingly controversial expansion of our university into surrounding neighborhoods.
The park does a great job of illustrating how one block, once we consider its history, can represent many things: urban post-settlement Virginia, (de)segregation, white flight and subsequent urban revitalization, a legacy of poverty, the expectations of suburbia transplanted to the city, and a the university’s role(s) in all of the above. For most students who live in the dorms that surround it, the park doesn’t seem like much more than a city block. In context, they can read several chapters in the evolution of our capital.
It’s been a successful launch of our unit on the history of Richmond. I have to say that exploring public spaces throughout the city has been very interesting. I would recommend it to any teacher with some freedom to release students into their school’s surroundings. We visited one location as a class, and we have sent the students to a second location as individuals. This coming week they’ll explore a third (of their choosing) in groups.
Below are the questions we’ve given students to guide them as they visit new sites.
- What is the neighborhood and its history?
- What is the current use of the space? What is its intended use?
- Is there new construction? Are there historic structures?
- What are the demographics of the people who live, work, or spend time there?
- What kind of ecosystem is present? Is green space a priority? How has culture impacted the environment?
- What is appealing about this environment? What is unappealing? What criteria would you adopt to judge this space’s successes and failures?
We’ll keep you posted as we explore more spaces!
About a week or so ago, the class of college freshman that I TA for at Virginia Commonwealth University was given an assignment that required them to visit a landmark near the city on their own time outside of class. More specifically, this landmark was Belle Isle. The students were given this task of visiting the island, which was not too far from campus, and making notable observations about the island itself and the activities that took place there. They not only witnessed numerous types of recreational pastimes, but they also came upon the remains of some old historical buildings which urged them the idea that there once was something more on Belle Isle than bike paths.
Belle Isle is located just south of Richmond’s downtown expressway and the bordering neighborhood of Oregon Hill. It lies right on the James River, nestled between its northern and southern banks. Belle Isle hosts a variety of recreational activities for people to do while there. From biking or jogging on its scenic paths, to swimming, kayaking, rock climbing, mountain biking or even bird watching for Bald Eagles, Belle Isle attracts people with an assortment of interests; even if they just want to lay out and sunbath on the rocks. While the tiny island has much to offer the people who spend their days there, it is its historical past that truly makes it a transcending place.
Belle Isle was first discovered by Captain John Smith in 1607, and from then on its location has served a variety of purposes over time. From being a fishery in the 1700’s to later changing to the site a nail factory in the early 19th century, and later on becoming a village complete with a school and general store, Belle Isle became a popular spot that was sought by many due to its favorable location on the river; which at the time, was one of the busiest and most relied on waterways on the east coast for travel and trade.
However, from 1862 through 1865, during which the Civil War was already well under way, Belle Isle was used as a Prisoner of War camp for Union soldiers. An estimated 30,000 prisoners were once held on the island, of which 1,000 died during their captivity. From eyewitness accounts, reports show that the Union soldiers were treated dreadfully - like vermin to be more accurate - and many of them not only contracted diseases such as scurvy and frostbite, but also became mentally ill and delusional during their time in the prison. Many of the soldiers died due to neglect, starvation and being left out to freeze in the harsh and bitter winters. Once the war was over, however, the prison was closed and the aforementioned nail factory reopened in its place.
During the 20th century, the Virginia Electric Power Company built a hydroelectric dam on the island, which fully utilized the island’s large source of rapid flowing water. Later, in 1973, Belle Isle was formally made into a park.
Belle Isle is an important site that matters today because of the history behind it and what it represents to the people of the area. With a strong historical background that played a major role throughout not only Virginia’s history but America’s as well, Belle Isle reminds us of our past and how it ultimately affected and shaped our future and the future of Richmond City.
Today, this beautiful little island is home to a plethora of outdoor activities and recreation. It remains an important site for the people who utilize what it has to offer. It serves as an oasis from the hustle and bustle of the busy urban life that lives just a couple miles away from its lush landscape and rocky shores. For many people, it is a retreat from their hectic busy lives; somewhere they can go and relax and do things that are not generally offered by the city lifestyle.
There is no better way to teach the importance of such a significant place than to actually visit it for yourself. While anyone can stress the importance of its history and the impact it had on the surrounding area, I believe one must really take a trip down to the island itself in order to take in all the things that make the it its own unique place. Upon seeing the remnants of the old historical buildings, one can actually imagine what Belle Isle once was and what it has become. Once there, witnessing all of the activities taking place will truly give the person a sense as to how Belle Isle brings in so many people to its shores for leisure and recreation. The best way to teach anyone about Belle Isle is to give them a full day there and let them take in everything the island has to offer.
I am hoping by letting students experience and learn about a place like Belle Isle on their own and in person instead of being told about it in the the classroom will instill a sense of independence and general interest in what they are asked to do. I believe most students would enjoy observing a place for the first time on their own in person so they can truly get a feel as to what the place is all about. Teaching students about places like Belle Isle in a classroom will cause the topic to be dull and even boring which will cause the students to pay little attention and show little to no appreciation for the subject. In contrast, if the students were told to go to the location on their own and do their own observations in person, then they are much more likely to actually learn something in the process and become more aware and understanding of the places around them, and they might even enjoy it as well.
On Monday I’ll introduce the Declaration of Independence to my students. In our unit on the American Revolution, we’ve been studying how the French and Indian War caused a massive amount of debt for the British crown, which they attempted to fix through taxation. As we all know, many colonists (but certainly not all) were upset by these measures, and a radical minority calling themselves the Sons of Liberty stirred Boston up until it became a hotbed of Revolution through such measures as tarring and feathering (which was quite a bit more violent and grotesque than I thought), the Boston Tea Party, and naming the death of 5 colonists a “massacre”. My students, especially the boys, like discussing the Sons of Liberty.
From there we go on to discuss the meeting of the 1st Continental Congress, Lexington and Concord, and the Olive Branch Petition as a lead up to the Declaration. Typically, I introduce the document as an extension of complaints around taxation the colonists had, and read the entire text, including the list of grievances leveled at George 3. The students understand it, and are mostly able to talk about it later like they know something about it.
But the questions I am struggling with the most this year is what amount and what sort of emphasis should I place on the idea of inalienable rights? How much time do I devote to the idea that we have rights that are inherent and essential, and that they are derived from our “Creator”?
As any teacher knows, the amount of time and emphasis you put on a particular topic is everything - you are showing your students what matters to you, and by teaching some things not others you make a moral decision or “value judgment”.
And so there’s this moral dilemma of how much to teach about the religious aspects of the Declaration, and the moral dilemma of what toteach about the religious aspects of the Declaration.
(I teach in a public school, fyi)
I know some of you are still on vacation, but I’m back at work and beginning to set up our unit on our city (Richmond, Va) as a space that articulates history in its structure and habits. I am working with two former students, Fred and Shahrad, who have joined our course for student support and to contribute to our content. They will also post here on the subject of history and meaning in our city.
Right now, the materials we’re using to build our unit on Richmond’s past and present are divided into themes that question impact, either past or present. Our central concern echos that of this blog: what mattered, and what matters? Our full materials are posted here, and are subdivided as such:
- Memorialization (what we assert matters, and what we assert doesn’t matter)
- Suburban growth (what determined the geography of our city)
- The founding and growth of our university (how do educational centers reveal our priorities?)
- Public spaces in the city (does public life matter?)
This may shift as Fred and Shahrad decide what truly matters to them, and they’ll post those decisions with their reasoning here.
We would love any feedback you have, or any thoughts on how your own city spaces make arguments about history and meaning!
What matters? Vacation does! We will take a 1.5 week hiatus for this blog, returning to the American Revolution sometime later. Keep it real while I’m gone.
Columbus and Cultural Literacy
Below I’ve listed the terms needed to be culturally literate in American society when discussing Columbus and Exploration. At first glance, you might think it’s a short list – that’s because it is. There are two reasons this is so. First, cultural literacy defines the realm of terms that are essential to participating in a healthy democracy (being able to have a conversation, read a newspaper, watch the news and understand the discourse). There are words that would be needed for a full understanding of the unit that are not listed below because they are needed simply to study that unit in a History class, and not for cultural literacy. Secondly, there aren’t a lot of words on this list simply because there aren’t a lot of words to put on the list. After cutting some, putting them back on, and then cutting them again, this is what I’ve got:
Origin of the term ‘Indian’
Nina, Pinta, Santa Maria
The ‘New World’
I’d also like to note that this third part of the criteria for deciding what matters is directly related to my understanding of urban education. As an urban educator, I think it’s important that we help students become more culturally literate. Whereas in suburban schools that need is fulfilled by parents, the school can provide this function in urban settings. Not all teachers should worry about this aspect, I don’t think.
To read more about cultural literacy, try reading E.D. Hirsch’s book
Final Grade: 4/10
Final Columbus-Exploration Grade: 17/30, 56%. If you add up the grades I’ve given for Moral Questions (6/10), Relevance (7/10) and Culural Literacy (4/10) you end up with 17 out of a possible 30.
There are certainly some parts worth teaching, but I think more than a week to two weeks may take away from some other more meaningful topic. The only way to know is to press onward through History to see how others stack up. Studying this certainly matters, but maybe less so than other units.
Next: Colonial America and the American Revolution.
Thanks to all those who are following and reading along, and a special thank to those who have weighed in with their thoughts. Everything has been helpful, thank you!
msaznina: I really like your insight into teaching about Columbus - I’d be surprised if your students didn’t get a lot out of it. I am especially interested in your activity where you have a competition to replace the title of the “Great Exchange” with something else. It sounds like this gets them thinking about their active role in “creating” History - the naming and re-naming of events, processes, etc. shows them that this stuff is still alive and well, not dead. Really important stuff. Also, your comment about relation to today is helpful as well with the spread of diseases and recent pandemic scares. Certainly food for thought in thinking about this. Thank you also for including the resources you use - I hope that I’m not the only one that will benefit from this!
wwbioteach: Your comments about the consequences of Columbus are very helpful. I like that you’ve made a connection of global trade from Columbus to today, as this was really the first time when both East and West were linked, a connection which has ballooned into our moden day “global economy”. I think that’s essential for students to discuss. Secondly, you raise a good point about cross-curricular planning. I’ve found that this is much more difficult in practice than it is in theory, but worth thinking about. I think the structure of school makes planning across disciplines very hard, something I would like to help change, if possible. It’s funny you mention this here too because the Bio teacher at my school and I have discussed a unit with this material for next year. I hope we can make it work! PS I lol’ed when I read the joke by the Native American speaker…
Because both of you commented on the connection to the current global economy, I did a little more digging and came up with some good readings on the topic. (This is a really great one for my Honors students) I think the most important take-away that I found is that the economy of Europe bolted out of a slumber after this exchange began. In fact, the end of the “Dark Ages” and beginning of the Rennaissance coincides with this time in World History, as does the rise of the bourgeoisie, cities (or “burgs”), and a great population boom. As we approach and pass 7 billion people, the origins of the speed with which we grow is very valuable. Thank you!
I use a study of Columbus to promote a critical mindset. Students know the story of his “discovery,” so I have them compare their textbook’s account to excerpts from Columbus’ diary and Las Casas’ history (adapted from Zinn/Arnove). This blows their minds, and generates a good discussion on his motivations. Then I reveal a poster of the “Great Exchange” and we have a contest to replace the word “great.” Last year they picked Permanent Human-Agricultural Trade (PHAT). Redundant, but memorable!