Monday, March 30, 2009

Legacy of Silence: Reconciling Past and Present With Better Questions

The book read for the April History Book Discussion Study Group was part of the Historians at Work series, What Did the Internment of Japanese Americans Mean? edited by Alice Yang Murray. The collection of essays regarding the internment of Japanese Americans provided a heavy analysis that revealed an evolving and painful history. As the book exposes as much about historiography as it does the history, I recommend the book to teachers whose curriculums include this topic. Though historiography can be as difficult to study as it is to say, I believe, in moderation, it is important to the high school classroom. Though there is seldom time to get through a year’s curriculum, let alone, teach several interpretations of one event, there is still value in teaching students the impact that source availability and public opinion has on history.

To supplement April’s book, we each read a chapter from Last Witnesses: Reflections of the Wartime Internment of Japanese Americans edited by Erica Harth. I read “Legacy of Silence” by Mitsuye Yamada. In her reflection, Yamada reveals her present conflict and responsibility as a survivor of Japanese internment camps. With the hopes of protecting her children from racism, Yamada, as her parents before her, did not voluntarily share the experiences and emotions from her internment with her children. Through interactions with other victims, she soon realized that that burying the silence was a disservice, especially to her, but also to her children: “Our parents’ legacy of silence – “for the sake of the children” – had been a curse rather than a blessing.”

In efforts to rectify this wrong, Yamada offers great words of wisdom, to which teachers should pay close attention. Yamada suggests that, “We need to ask questions beyond “What was it like?” The assumption behind such questions is that as long as we are treated decently, we have nothing to complain about.” Asking superficial questions, such as “what was it like?” is important to begin a discussion, and often the easiest point of entry. However, these questions can lead students to compare suffering, which can lead them to conclude that the suffering wasn’t that bad. Yamada protests the danger in this by emphasizing that, “a wrong is still a wrong.” The way we present history can positively or negatively impact our students’ understanding of these wrongs.

The importance of her realization resonated within me. As teachers, we need to be conscious of how our questions could send unintentional messages to our students, impacting the way they view history, especially a sensitive history concerning victims. We need to deconstruct the meaning of the question and consider the purpose of this question. In considering what type of information it will provide and how we can and should process the information it provides, we can enrich our students’ historical understanding and restore the significance and value of people’s experiences.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Real Life Connections

As History teachers, we struggle to find ways to make what we are teaching (whether it is 20 years ago, 200 years ago, or 2000 years ago) relevant for our students. It can be very exciting when an opportunity presents itself.

This past week, My fifth graders and I performed our rendition of the Boston Tea Party debate. (see my previous post detailing last year's performances. They come from an excellent curriculm from the Old SouthMeetinghouse of Boston) This kids love the drama and the dress-up. You can imagine my excitement when parousing this week I discovered a very interesting real life protest in Boston- over bottle water no less. The kids loved it, loved seeing other people dressed up like them (some of them thought I was the one in red). We had a very interesting discussion about our society's obsession with bottled water.

I'm not sure how long it will be up there, but it is humorous.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

It's the Economy, Stupid!

Although I usually can't stand educational jargon, we have truly had a 'teachable moment' in these past few months. With all of the focus on standardized curriculum and testing, we rarely have the opportunity to stop and ask our students what they want or need to know. There are times, however, when it is our duty to stop and do just that. I know that many adults have started to panic over the current economy, and I have to start to wonder, what are my students thinking? I know statistically that many of their parents have been recently laid off or have been talking about 'cutting back'. What does that mean to our students? Are they worried they might lose their homes? How can we, as their teachers, help alleviate some of these fears?

This is a terrible situation for adults and for kids, but for kids, it is complicated by a lack of experience and understanding. While we can't fix the economy for them, they can benefit by some understanding of what is going on, what the government, private companies and individuals are doing to fix it, as well as the understanding that this has happened before. A great resource that we can use is a weekly publication called the 'Good Sheet'. This fall, it started to appear at Starbucks locations and many back issues are available online. There is a great one called 'Its the Economy, Stupid!' from October that looks at 20th-21st century economic history. Its great for students, lots of graphics, not too complicated, and uses examples they can relate to- like charting the price of milk over 100 years.

Hopefully, our students are just curious about the economy and we can satisfy student's desire to understand the situation. But if they are scared, an open dialogue in a safe environment can make the difference between being fearful and being informed and aware.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

R.I.P. History and Social Science MCAS

By now I'm sure that you've all heard the news; we social studies teachers are off the hook this year for MCAS. I have to admit, I have mixed feelings.

Since the redesign of the History and Social Science Curriculum Frameworks in 2003, there has been a marked level of stress and concern. The year 2003 saw a great shift in the frameworks. There was a huge switch to curriculum focused on U.S. History. It was a post-9/11 world and the frameworks reflected it. Districts spent thousands of dollars on new curriculums and teachers worked countless hours to develop new lessons to match with these changes. Fifth grade social studies was given 35 standards that covered pre-Columbian civilizations the causes of the Civil War. This is probably a freshmen year of college course in American history, but for ten year olds. The Department of Education let me know that my MCAS would be based on the material of fourth and fifth grade, and only up to standard 32 or so. No problem.......

It was my goal to meet this challenge head on. I tried not to think of how daunting it would be, I just tried every year to improve my teaching and see if it was really possible for me to cover all of these standards before MCAS. My greatest fear was that my students would encounter material on the test that I hadn't been able to cover. All the time, I wanted to make their learning of the material meaningful. (Being an active member of the TAH grant has certainly helped me with this!) I am proud to say that the majority of my students will tell you that social studies is FUN! And they do an amazing job at learning a great deal of material.

I felt like I was hitting my stride, and now they've cancelled the testing. According to the state, it is too expensive. Something has to go, and it's social studies. I have to wonder- we've only done trials of this test, and we've never received scaled scores, just raw scores. Time was running out before it was "to count" and be a graduation requirement. What does the state know that they aren't telling us? Were the students of Massachusetts bombing this test? Were the questions too picky? Why does it feel like social studies is the forgotten subject?