Welcome to my Journal: One Teacher's Experience

A Teacher's Journal: Day 3
July 10, 2002

"The Historical Inquiry-Based Civics Classroom "

The 2002-2003 school year will see me returning to the block schedule after a two-year detour at Sterling Middle School. From 1997 to 2000, I taught US Government and Computer Applications on the four-by-four block schedule at North Hagerstown High School in Washington County, MD. In preparation for the transition there, the faculty underwent intense training in cooperative learning techniques. Even before that transition, the North High staff had been through the effort to shape the 9th grade into interdisciplinary teams (called ITO for Interdisciplinary Team Organization). The ninth grade Social Studies, English, Science and Math teachers  operated with a common planning period and most of their students were taught as a block among the four teachers. Teachers created cross-curriculum units, which I converted into web pages. These units can be found on-line at http://www.cyberlearning-world.com/nhhs/html/ito.html

For the new school year, I have been assigned Eighth Grade US Civics and Economics, which is very close in content to the US Government course I taught previously. But at Sterling, I was teaching 7th Grade US History. As part of the training to teach that course, I participated in a curricular model known as History Alive. This approach includes a variety of high-interest methods designed to get the student's attention and keep it  there. The History Alive curriculum has integrated within it a very compelling set of materials that include a textbook, printed blackline masters that make up the basis for an Interactive Student Notebook, and slides or overheads that make up interactive slide lectures. Students will also engage in experiential learning activities, writing activities based on their learning, and act-it-out prompts. This curriculum stresses the need to reach all students through the use of activities that stimulate multiple types of intelligence.

As I prepare my US Government lessons for use in the civics classroom under the block schedule, I am thinking about the fact that there is no such thing as "Government Alive" or "Civics Alive." For many kids, those two terms, civics and alive, comprise an oxymoron. It will be my task to integrate the methods used in the History Alive model with the US civics curriculum. The task is not so great that it cannot be achieved since politics is simply history in the making. Moreover, this revitalized civics curriculum must still conform to the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs) and include cross-discipline references whenever appropriate. 

One way the History Alive model reaches across disciplines is by having the student write for meaning in the context of the lesson. That is to say, students engage in writing as though they belonged to a specific period in history. During an "act-it-out" activity about trench warfare during World War I, students might write a letter from the trenches "home." The desks are arranged like trenches and students sit on the floor as though they were in France in 1917 while the teacher blinks the lights and plays a tape of explosions. In another setting, students might write a presidential speech or letter between historical figures after having researched a given era. This same approach can be used in the civics classroom. Students can write non-governmental organizations for information, write an elected official, or write their own campaign speech. In this fashion, students will see the importance of language as a medium for the communication of political ideas.

Opportunities for interdisciplinary integration abound in the block-scheduled classroom. An extension of the writing application is to conduct some aspect of writing through word processing and student publishing (see Day 1 of this journal for details on how this can be achieved). Students will be able to enhance their writing through the application of graphics programs and scanners to illustrate their written component. 

Students will also gain critical thinking and evaluation skills as they use and judge government-related resources of the Internet. Students will be led to engage in problem-solving as they look at civics though the lens of the American historical experience. The teacher, in guide-on-the-side fashion, will help students arrive at their own conclusions without giving them the answer outright. In areas of controversy, students will have to call on the historical method of inquiry, which is based on the scientific method.

Just as students will learn how to hypothesize, gather data, and evaluate their findings, so they will be encouraged to ask and answer questions in a discovery process similar to the Socratic method. The teacher will continually pose questions, both orally and in writing, to which the students must respond. The questions take the shape of lesson-sized chunks of the SOLs (Virginia Standards of Learning), and students will express themselves as they respond in a variety of formats. Students whose strengths lie in the verbal sphere can write their responses, while the visually oriented learner can express the answer in the form of a sketch or drawing. As part of the classroom dialogue that comprises scholarly inquiry, students will be called upon to increase the frequency their own presentations to the class. They will be held to a high standard when presenting information, and they will have been given those standards in writing as they embark on the presentation process. Students will be encouraged to use the overhead projector, computer, TV, or LCD projector to get their information across to their peers. 

Students will be asked to help in the development of criteria that will be used to evaluate their performance on various group-oriented tasks. They will be given the opportunity to asses their own behavior and to gauge how well they are contributing to any given group effort. Their feedback can be documented by the use of rubrics and forms, which they complete and submit to the teacher. Once students have provided input on how the activity should be assessed, students will receive in writing the behavioral and academic expectations they must meet during the course of the project.  By contributing to that assessment process, students will gain a heightened sense of ownership in what they produce. They will also be able to step back from their own creation process and engage in the metacognition that is being called for by today's business community. Self-assessment will also reduce the workload of the instructor, who still has the final say over any outcome of evaluate.

The key to the historically inquiry-based civics class will be connecting with the students in the form of relationship-building. Students yearn for a connection with their teachers and will perform to a high level when they have a personal interest in that teacher. By establishing an atmosphere of inquiry early in the school year, students know what to expect when they enter the room. Teambuilding and class building activities that are not related to civics content will lead to cooperative learning structures that incorporate the curriculum down the road. My civics students will know what SOL standards need to be mastered. The historical inquiry-based civics classroom will be the place and the process to achieve mastery of those goals.
College-level teacher training courses are increasingly stressing the ability of students to engage in higher level thinking skills. Teacher education itself will also incorporate these very skills so that teachers can model for their students the activities and achievements that they are incorporating into their lesson plans.

Thanks for reading...

Email: George Cassutto

Cyberlearning World: http://www.cyberlearning-world.com

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