Friday, January 29, 2016

The Role of U.S. History Content in the International School Classroom

In less than four months, an important chapter in my life will come to a close as I finish up my Master's degree once and for all.
The decision to start my Master's back in the Spring of 2013 was one that revitalized me, personally and professionally.  My Master's courses have been instrumental in my growth as a teacher, and indeed in the satisfaction I increasingly take in my job.

One task remains: my action research project.

I'm researching student perceptions of flipped classrooms.

There were a lot of topics I was interested in researching; many different directions I could have gone, but I decided that something to do with flipped classrooms would dovetail most closely with changes I was looking to make in my own teaching, anyway.

The fact is, with each passing year, I have been finding it increasingly difficult to gauge both the amount of detail I should go into on U.S. History with my students, and also how I should present it to them.

One thing I do know: the history itself is not the point of my Humanities class, and I need to do more to make this clear in my teaching.

When I started teaching 11th Grade Humanities in 2010, about half of the students in my class were single-passport North American, and most had some basic familiarity with U.S. History either from having taken a class in elementary or middle school in the States (perhaps while on missionary furlough), or just from family discussion.

I found it much easier to go into high levels of detail that year--I felt like most of the class was tracking with my lectures, though in hindsight, I worry that I made life difficult for my students who had no background familiarity with U.S. History.

CAJ has changed dramatically since then, and there are far less single-passport North American students than there were in 2010: now, only a couple of students have a background knowledge of U.S. History when they come to my class.
I used to be able to open up units by asking for students' perceptions of different historical events or historical figures in order to ferret out misconceptions, but now, aside from George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, the bulk of the class doesn't have misconceptions, let alone any prior conceptions of the people or the happenings of U.S. History--it's all a blank slate, for better or for worse.
Moreover, most of these students will not need to know the level of detail that I used to teach--a large number will attend university in Korea, Japan or elsewhere, and even those who will attend university in the U.S. may not necessarily choose to live there.

This has forced me to grapple with a crucial question: exactly what role should the content of U.S. History play in my class?

Since I settled on my overarching course theme of "People of Justice" last year, and have accordingly refined sub-themes for each of my units (love & mercy; human rights & just war; agency & victimhood; civil disobedience; worldview; stewardship & sustainability), I've come to recognize that the details of U.S. History are only important insofar as they support and illuminate these themes.

This is where flipped classroom strategies come in: I do not need to give students a play-by-play account of U.S. History, and in fact I strongly believe that to do so would actually be counter-productive to their education.

My course is still structured chronologically, Native migration theories to the modern day--I am a firm believer in the value of knowing context, and feel like that piece would be lost (or at least, much more difficult to teach) if I went to a purely thematic structure.  Yet, within each time period, I am increasingly narrowing down my selection of talking points to only what I believe to be essential to understanding & addressing the bigger question.

While flipped classroom strategies are not limited to just using lecture videos, this is where I have chosen to begin: I have been making somewhere between 10-20 short lecture videos for each unit, each video between 2 and 4 minutes in length.  This way students can watch them on their phones while on the train, or in chunks between other activities, if they so choose.  While I'll grant that there are kinks I still need to work out, these videos are designed to do exactly what I want them to: set up context for the essential questions we are discussing, and provide a basic level of detail that the students can draw from in beginning to engage the questions.  My class will not prepare students to take the AP U.S. History exam, nor is that remotely my purpose.

This means some level of sacrifice.  I chose this year to completely bypass any discussion about the Civil War itself.  In the unit we just finished, we focused on the time period leading up to the Civil War as we considered how to engage questions upon which historians disagree, and also found a launching point for discussions about civil disobedience through Thoreau's opposition to the Mexican-American War.  It was difficult to let go: I enjoy telling the story of the battles and politics, the human egos and the human tragedies that make the Civil War so fascinating, but it simply did not fit with my goals for the unit, and to try and make it fit would have wrecked the unit and thrown off the pacing or the next unit.  I enjoy those stories, but I needed to acknowledge that they are not what my students need.

So my task now is to determine how students respond to this style of history teaching: minimalist, theme-oriented, with the information truly playing a supporting role to the bigger themes and skills I want students to take away.

It means that most days, I am not going to spend more than a couple minutes at the front of the class, talking at the students.  I still do try to tell the occasional story, sing the occasional song, lead the occasional Socratic discussion or throw in the occasional thematic lecture, as I do derive energy and joy from getting to perform.
Lecturing daily on U.S. History, however, was becoming an increasingly joyless activity in which I became painfully aware that I was leaving most of my students lost in the woods, and boring most of them to tears even though I was trying to be as clear, animated and interesting as possible.  Something needed to change.

So this is where I am as I look ahead to my project.  Students at CAJ have, in the past, been vocal in their dislike for receiving content outside of the classroom, but I wonder:
-If the alternative is a tedious slog through history in the middle of the school-day...
-If the lecture videos are short enough chunks to hold the students' focus from start to finish...
-If the lecture videos are clear and well-made...
-If the lecture videos are easy to access and re-watch as needed...
-If class-time is instead dedicated to interesting activities, worthwhile follow-up and an increased amount of teacher support on class assessments...
-If the course themes are truly made the priority...

...maybe the students will come to appreciate this style of teaching.

I'm eager to see what observation, research, and student perspectives will tell me!

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