A better way

The best practices of the teaching world are rarely ground-breaking.  Usually, I find that the simple things that get overlooked are the most revolutionary in my classroom.  The most recent example of this was when the history department was prepping for our state testing review unit.

In general, I’m always looking for the “best way to teach everything”.  I think we all are as educators.  I was convicted of my hubris when setting my plans for review when my curriculum director asked me why I was reviewing the same way I taught it in the first place.  She gently reminded me that if I had met the student’s needs completely the first time, there wouldn’t be any need to spend time reviewing it.  I really took time to reflect on that and it has pushed me to drastically think outside the box with the way I’m going to review.

The most important question for me when I began rethinking my history review was, “is there a way my students can touch (or at least see) the concepts that we’ve talked about in class before.”  To this end, I’m making it a point to use as many new visuals and ways of looking at things that I can.  What I’ve found as I begin to plan this unit out is the more creative I get with my visuals, the more opportunity I have to spiral the materials into other things in history.  By allowing for this kinds of discussions during review, I’m hoping to see my kids make more connections than they would have in the past.

An example of this is how I’m trying to visually represent each battle of the American Revolution.  I’m trying to not use any words so the students have to process through what battle it might be, and then give them a new perspective on what might have been going on during the war.  Regardless of whether they have all the battles memorized, I’m hoping the will walk away with a good general review of the Revolution and be able to make connections with the flow of wars and how the Continental Army used it’s meager advantages  to force a surrender of the greatest army and navy in the world at that time.

I haven’t completely planned out every lesson, but this basic reset (that you need to try and teach in a new way if it didn’t work the first time) has radically changed my thinking.  It’s almost like even slightly older teachers can still learn new tricks.

The Value of Data

As a history teacher, sometimes I get caught up in the big picture rather than the details.  I like the meta-concept more than I do the details.  This is especially true when I look at grades or trends in my classroom.  Sometimes I’ll look at an assessment and rather than drill down into the data I’ll opt to say things like “The students must not have understood this as well as last unit.”  This week I got the opportunity to have the first US History data day and it was very useful for me as we come down the home stretch of the school year.

We began the day looking at the overall data for our school on our cumulative assessment.  This was helpful to me because it helped us identify areas in the curriculum that the US History teachers do well and where I can improve and learn from my teammates.  It is true that we’ve done this on our own at times, but to see everything in black and white as well as having the time to talk through the curriculum together was oddly therapeutic.

After staying at the macro level, we began to dig into our sub-pops to see what their weaknesses are as we finish up our curriculum.  It was interesting to break down all the ways we could spiral information from the beginning of the year into the end of the year.  Since this is only my second year teaching this content, I’m still learning where there is overlap between the units.

We finished the day looking at specific areas to review before our state tests later this semester.  Last year we thought we had a good plan, but after looking at all of our data we were able to pinpoint specific areas of weakness as well as match up common weaknesses.  We also divided up the work between all the history teachers to ensure we were all pulling our weight and getting experience developing the materials we’ll need.

While it wasn’t anything earth shattering, it was great to get another set of eyes at our students and new insight coming to the party.  It was a great experience and it helps remind me that we have a good support network for our school and our department.

Day 5 – National Archives and Beyond

The fifth and final day of my stay at Mount Vernon was spent at the National Archives.  Since I was spending and extra day in Washington D.C., I packed up and checked out of Mount Vernon before the bus left for the Archives.  It was a pleasant, if not lightly trafficked, trip into Washington D.C.

We arrived at the Archives before normal business hours and went straight into the “special events” entrance.  It was the first time I’d had to put my backpack through a metal detector since the airport, but it wasn’t too bad.  We spent the rest of the morning going through what the students would do if we were to bring a group to the National Archives.  It was really well designed and implemented.  While we were there we also saw the Constitution and Bill of Rights before the public was allowed in, and then we went on a self-guided tour of the exhibits on display.  The crown jewel, at least for me, was the copy of the Magna Carta that was on display.  I had seen another copy before in London, but any time I get to see an original copy of such an important document I’ll get excited.

When our time was done at the National Archives, I parted ways with the rest of the group and struck out on my own in Washington D.C.  I quickly made my way to my hotel, found my bearings, and headed off for a whirlwind 24 hours in our nation’s capital.  Rather than go into huge detail, I’m going to summarize my thoughts on the sights I visited.

  • American History Smithsonian – I’m not 100 percent sure I’ve ever stepped foot in this museum before.  I had been told by a number of people that it was underwhelming.  The one thing I really wanted to see (a replica of Julia Child’s kitchen) was being repainted, but the rest of the museum is fascinating.  I think the name is misleading, it should be the “pop culture museum”.
  • Air and Space Smithsonian – I was very underwhelmed with this museum.  Sure it’s neat to see all the planes and space ships, but I’m pretty sure they haven’t updated a thing since I was there in the mid-90s.
  • Congress, the Supreme Court, and the White House – I did a “walk by” of these sights since I had no desire to spend any time waiting in line.  Congress was being refurbished, so it wasn’t as striking as it would have been.  The White House was madness.  The Supreme Court building was fun to see although uneventful.
  • Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument – I saw these amazing feats of architecture in both broad daylight as well as at night.  I highly recommend seeing these at night.  There is something oddly spooky about them after dark.  In hindsight, I wish I’d seen the entire mall at night, but a guy’s got to sleep.
  • Jefferson Stone – The original planned location of the Washington Monument.  Not much to see, but interesting to know the back story.
  • World War 2 Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, and Korean War Memorial – All three were very well laid out and conceptualized.  I was very impressed with the Korean War Memorial and I really wish I’d seen it at night.
  • Lincoln Memorial and Reflecting Pool – I had seen this before, but I’ll always want to see the Lincoln Memorial again.  There is something extra magnificent about the statue and two speeches on the interior of the Memorial.  As I turned around and gazed at the reflecting pool while standing on the spot Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” speech, I also had an odd flashback to the movie Forrest Gump.
  • MLK Memorial – I am completely sure I had not seen the MLK Memorial the last time I was in Washington D.C.  In terms of conceptualization, this was fantastic.  The execution was outstanding.  And the fact that he might be glaring at Thomas Jefferson for all time makes it that much more awesome.
  • FDR Memorial – Roosevelt’s presidency is one of the black holes of my historical knowledge.  I know I should know more, but I don’t.  That being said, this unorthodox memorial did a great job of telling FDR’s story as a president.
  • Jefferson Memorial – I can’t remember if I’d seen this before or not.  I’ll definitely remember this time not only because I got to see the memorial and gaze across at the White House, but also because the rose blossoms were blooming on that side of the tidal pool, so I’m considering myself luck.

It was a history-packed trip, and I’m so thankful my wife allowed me to have this opportunity.  I’ll remember this trip for a long time.  I’ll try and post some of the ways this trip has affected my teaching in the coming months.

Day 4 – Constitution and Bill of Rights

Today was my last full day at Mount Vernon and I was determined to get the most out of it.  I woke up early in the morning and made my way to the estate to watch the sunrise on the piazza.  I’ve seen the sunrise hundreds of times in my life, but there’s something special when you realize that the first president of our country no doubt saw that same view at some point of his life.  After admiring the view, I headed back to our living area for George Washington’s favorite breakfast…homemade hoecakes.

We started off our morning spending all the money we could in the gift shop of Mount Vernon before it opened to the public.  There’s nothing quite like running around an empty gift shop to work your pocketbook into a frenzy.

Today was more or less a wrap up day where we were introduced to all the online media available to us on the Mount Vernon website.  We were also turned loose to plan assignments and activities using all the resources at our disposal.  It was great to finally have some time to plan on how I’m going to use the overwhelming amount of data that I acquired over my few days.

We then had a couple of lectures and round tables with various people about how to handle some of our most challenging TEKS using primary sources.  I loved this part because I’m always looking for ways to up my game on these particular TEKS.  At dinner, we spent some time thinking about how we would take what we’ve learned back to our communities.  I might have even gotten talked into presenting at a conference next year!

Day 3 – Convention and Ratification

Today we spent the majority of today in the library, so it was a lot of lecture.  That being said, the lectures were amazing, so it didn’t really seem like a lot of sitting.  We first heard from a local Washington D.C. teacher for ideas on how to teach to students who do not speak English as their native language.  We got a lot of resources that will be super helpful in the classroom.

The biggest lectures of the weekend happened today, we heard from Dr. Carol Berkin about the Constitutional Convention and the Bill of Rights.  I would love to be able to tell you that I knew all this material before, but that wouldn’t be honest.  I learned so much from these two lectures that I feel pretty confident that I can say this was the best part of the entire trip.  Her insight was exceptional and I could sit and listen to her speak all day.

We then spent the afternoon reenacting the Virginia Ratifying Convention.  It was a fascinating activity and helped me internalize the arguments that were going on in that room.  In between Dr. Berkin’s lectures, we also reenacted the Constitutional Convention.  I had the honor of playing Gouverneur Morris in our reenactment, so I had fun on one leg.

In the evening we were entertained by David and Ginger Hildebrand playing Colonial music.  I watched them expertly play a number of instruments that I had never seen played.  After dinner, a small group of us walked down to see George Washington’s tomb, the memorial to the slaves on Mt. Vernon, and down to the wharf on the Potomac River.  It was a great day, although very mentally strenuous.

Day 2 – Washington’s Influential Documents and Experiences

Waking up on Day 2, I was in a much better place mentally.  There is something therapeutic about getting a good night’s sleep and a hot shower that makes the world a little better.  The only thing that threatened to bring down the day was the constant threat of rain.  None the less, we walked over to the Library building to begin our day.

We started out with a lecture on the Magna Carta and its effects on the Constitution by  Robert Pallitto.  It was a great day because I think the Magna Carta is very difficult to teach because it’s difficult to shoehorn in.  We all know if plays a role in the principles of the Constitution, but how to do it effectively is a challenge.  He did a great job of making both the Magna Carta and the Constitution in bitesized pieces and then arranged them in a way they made sense.

From there we proceeded to my current favorite thing we’ve done, we headed off to the working whiskey distillery and gristmill on the Mt. Vernon property.  We got to talk with the master distiller as well as watch the gristmill in action.  It was a fantastic experience and according to the staff a really big surprise to do both.

When we returned to the library, we had a couple of application sessions about the Declaration of Independence as well as Project Based Learning in the classroom.  These presenters did a great job showing some practical application steps and how we could use things like the Texas Declaration of Independence to compare with the US Constitution.

After lunch, we toured the actual library on site.  We walked into their special collections rooms and got to see a number of vary rare books, including some owned by George Washington.  While the library is small compared to most public libraries, I was in awe of the amount of material at your disposal about Mt. Vernon and the Washington family.  We followed the tour with an application session about pictures of Washington and their transition throughout the years.

In the afternoon we had a lecture and application session about Washington’s thoughts and practice of government.  It was a fantastic look at how the (arguably) most important man on the planet at the time thought about government as well as his effect on the brand new government.  We transitioned to a tour of the grounds of Mt. Vernon with the lead horticulturist.  He brought huge amounts of insight about the gardens and layout of the mansion…and there may have been adult beverages shared by him as well.

We finished the evening at the Mt. Vernon Inn Restaurant talking with an actor portraying Tobias Leer, George Washington’s secretary and tutor of his children.  It was a fantastic day and I enjoyed every moment of it.

Day 1 – Washington and Civics

I arrived at Washington’s Reagan Airport in the late morning on Sunday.  While it was late morning Washington D.C., my morning began long before in the wee hours of the morning as DFW Airport.  I’ve never been happier to be out of a less than three hour flight.  I gathered my bags, checked the my information, and called my ride to Mt. Vernon.  The rubber met the road, as they say, at that moment.  My five days in residence at Mt. Vernon is beginning.

I found my ride at the curb and was joined by another participant for the week.  We were a part of a group of educators invited to Mt. Vernon to learn more about George Washington and stay on the grounds of his estate.  Along the ride we had some light chatting about the area with our volunteer driver and I enjoyed watching the Virginia colonial houses and the Potomac River fly by.

When we arrived, I found my way to my room and prepared myself for our opening session.  To be completely honest, I was whipped from travel but also extremely excited at the prospects for the week.  We had a brief session setting up the goals for the weekend and introducing people who would be helping out for the weekend.  After lunch, we listened to a lecture about George Washington about Washington as a citizen and how he viewed citizenship.  The lecturer, Lorri Glover, was eloquent and spoke directly to the heart of Washington’s beliefs about citizenship.  Following this lecture, we headed to the museum on Mt. Vernon’s property and had some time to look around and see all the wonderful artifacts on hand.

After the museum, we headed to the Mt. Vernon Inn Restaurant.  It was closed at this point, so we got to enjoy a quiet dinner where we played George Washington trivia.  While my team came in second that night, we all felt like winners as we headed to the estate on Mt. Vernon for a private, evening tour.  Our tour guide was extraordinary and we got to see all the rooms of the estate including the third floor as well as the basement.  It was a really great day, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

I understood from the moment we introduced ourselves that I was the junior educator here.  Most of the teachers were in their twentieth or more year of teaching, and I am not even close.  I think that’s why I’m most appreciative of this experience.  Most of the time the teachers I’m with already know much of what is being said, but I’m learning a ton.  I feel like I’m hanging on every word that’s said.  I can’t wait to use these new perspectives in the classroom next year when we’re covering the life and times of George Washington.