Thursday, May 4, 2017


I enjoy being the Social Studies department chair.  It gives me a feeling of stewardship over the Social Studies curriculum that I simply didn't have before, and it helps to break down the mentality that I think can be so tempting for high school teachers, that our classrooms are our own personal kingdoms.  Looking at the big picture has pushed me to look at how our classes all connect, and where it is we are going.

Sometimes, this means being extra-flexible and adaptable.

We have been updating our standards this year.  Not a dramatic change, really--just updating to the most recent edition of the standards we already had.  However, this process has sparked discussions of tremendous value, and prompted some serious introspection on the part of the Social Studies PLC (Professional Learning Community).

We observed that each year, our Seniors tend to perform at a lower level than we would like to see on their political analysis for their Senior Comprehensives process, particularly in comparison to their cultural analysis.  We noted that while economic analysis had been another area of weakness, it has substantially improved with the addition of a popular AP Economics elective for Juniors and Seniors two years ago.

The reason for this gap has much to do with our international school setting.  Although we adhere to an American-style education in many respects, it simply doesn't make sense to teach an American Government course--a standard requirement for students in the US--when only a handful of students in each class have a U.S. passport.  In short, it can be a challenge to teach civics and the responsibilities of citizenship to a diverse group of students who may not feel much connection to the countries listed on their passports.

We agreed that a comparative politics course would be ideal, but limitations on scheduling make that impossible for the time being.

This is where my deep feelings of stewardship as the department chair kicked in: at the time of this discussion in late March, I was in the process of finalizing my April unit for my 11th Grade Humanities class.

I made the decision to scrap several of the activities and assessments that I had originally planned (revolving around the concept of the American Dream, and immigration to the United States), and instead created a week-long exercise in which the students would need to examine a current issue of their choice from a local, national and global perspective.  This would involve looking into the workings of governments and organizations at each level, and assessing the advantages and limitations of pursuing solutions at each level.

Because this was a last-minute addition on my part, it was an awkward fit in my unit on the American Dream, and I didn't have the time to prepare to do any real instruction or modeling of what this kind of analysis would look like.  However, I felt like the process itself would be valuable, even with minimal instruction up-front, and it was.

The students struggled.  I reminded them time and again that this was a formative, and not a summative assessment, something designed to build their understanding rather than issue a final judgment.  To this end, I weighted the assignment to be worth only one point in the grade-book, and adjusted the grading scale so that a '3' (Meeting the Standard) would be 100%.  The only reason I was putting it in the grade-book at all, I told them, was to hold them accountable for doing it.

Even so, the students struggled, agonized and wrestled.  This was something new for them, and for many, that newness was an uncomfortable feeling.  A number of students asked good questions as they worked:
Is this a national or a global organization?
What if the U.N. doesn't address my issue specifically?
What does it mean if there aren't any local groups or organizations trying to solve my issue?
Can I compare two different countries' responses to the same issue?
Isn't my issue just the symptom of a bigger issue?
How do I find out how a nation's government works?

I definitely didn't have the answers to all of these questions, but I enjoyed the chance to sit down and talk with students, and help them think through answers, or at the very least, where they could find answers.  Last Friday, when the write-up was due, I emailed the students telling them to submit the assignment regardless of whether it was complete or not, that they had done the mental legwork I wanted them to do.    I'm in the middle of reading and responding to the students' write-ups, and while they are far from perfect, I take comfort in the fact that the students are starting to think in terms of political implications, and that they are beginning to recognize the differences between action on a local scale, national scale and global scale.  I'm glad that I did this activity, and that when the students need to engage in this kind of political analysis in their Senior year, they'll have something to stand on.

Next year, I will rearrange my curriculum to make room for an entire unit on citizenship and action.  This is a need I'm committed to addressing; a gap I'm committed to closing.  Maybe someday, we will be able to require a full-year comparative politics course (hey, I can dream, can't I?), but for now, I'll look for ways to adapt, building on what the students have learned before, and building toward what the students need to do before they graduate.

Coupled with the massive change in my routine with a baby daughter in the house, I feel like I'm learning flexibility and adaptability left and right these days!

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