When your plan is no longer the plan

What are the dragons we need to address every day in our classes?

Sometimes the irritating thing about learning is that learning is tough and somewhat uncomfortable.

I am continuing my learning journey by teaching an Intermediate History course to second-year students at the Faculty of Education, University of Ottawa. It is a new experience for me. Although I have done lots of PD with adults, it is different when you are teaching a class at a faculty of education. It is a new challenge.

Life needs to be all about challenges. That is how we learn and grow. Just because I am now retired doesn’t mean I can’t grow! Not for a minute do I believe that!

On Friday I was looking forward to my third class with my second-year students. I had spent hours (many hours) of developing a lesson on Historical Significance, one of the six concepts of Historical Thinking. I am really excited about these concepts, it gives a framework for the study of history that didn’t exist when I taught the subject.

Historical Thinking concepts

After some presentations and a group work session, I was ready to launch into my slides, full of activities and material that I hoped would convey why this concept was important to the study and teaching of history.

This is where the plan moved in a direction I hadn’t expected.

One of the students in the class had a legitimate concern about something that had gone on in the previous class. It related to a much wider concern about how we are approaching the teaching of indigenous issues, the inherent racism that exists in Canada when it comes to First Nations peoples and how these issues are being addressed.

The student approached me during the break and asked if he could address the class. He did and what transpired was an incredibly powerful and at times challenging conversation that involved the entire class. It was pretty amazing and students brought up stuff that had been percolating for over a year. I have to say, I felt privileged and certainly humbled to be in on the conversation.

I hope they found it useful. You never really know. It is not like anyone is going to come up and say – ‘thanks for that really difficult conversation’. No one plans for these conversations. If one tries to, the conversation will be disingenuous and forced.

I am not a historian nor an academic.  The one thing I think I can contribute to a class like this is 31 years of teaching. Sometimes when something is bubbling just under the surface, a teacher has to know it is time to throw the lesson out the window and just let the learning happen.

That is what I tried to do on Friday. Everything I have learned about teaching and working with students led me to the conclusion that there was a more important lesson out there that had to be experienced by all of us. I know I learned lots, not just about the topic of the discussion, but, more importantly, I learned so much about the students I am working with.

I encouraged the class to write about their experiences in the class on Friday. I don’t know if any of them will – they are really busy people! But no matter, I had to and I hope my writing clarifies things for me at least.

Maybe next week I will get to my lesson on historical significance, but I think we have already gone much further down a different road.

In ancient times unknown areas on maps were labelled ‘Here be Dragons’
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Teaching History – We Need to Become FOLES – Thanks to HipHughes!

Tomorrow, I start teaching history again.

Certainly my first love in a long career in education, my time teaching history usually gets obscured by the things I did later in my career. That in some ways, is the great thing about a career as a teacher, there can be so much variety, change and certainly challenge.

It seems impossible to realize that when I started teaching history our best resources were Jackdaws and history scrapbooks – now relics of the distant teaching past.

a cover from the old Jackdaws series – anyone remember these?
Prentice-Hall 1978 – one of the Canadiana Scrapbooks I used in my grade 10 history class – the only primary resources available at the time!

After I taught history both at the intermediate and senior level I moved on to all sorts of other positions like alternative education, guidance, resource then administration. I did get to move back into the classroom for seven months when I went back to teach grade 6 language arts.

That was pretty amazing. Everything had changed while I had been off doing other things in schools. Assessment had changed dramatically, the resources available to a teacher had grown astronomically – when I taught history the internet didn’t even exist!

There is nothing better than the classroom. There is a real thrill in learning and growing with your students. Tomorrow I return full circle to the classroom to start work with year two Faculty of Education students at the University of Ottawa.

I am teaching ten weeks of intermediate history to 30 year-two students. I am ready and I have done lots of preparation to produce my first three-hour session. To me, there is one thing that is really important now. I want as much as possible to give them something that will be truly useful, that will give them a few tools they can use to engage their students and make the learning count.

This can be daunting in history. The old story goes that history is boring and irrelevant and of little use to anyone. Good history teachers really do need to sell their subjects and they need to make it engaging, they have to make history count. For most of their students, after the grade 10 Canadian History class, they will never take another course about their country’s story.

Not too much pressure right?

One of the great Historical Thinking Project posters from https://historicalthinking.ca/ – an amazing treasure trove of resources for Canadian History teachers

Immersing oneself now in the world of teaching Canadian History is a pretty wonderful process. I am certainly not an expert in the teaching of history and I will be very clear to my students that this is the case. What I can do pretty quickly is absorb lots of resources and start figuring out what tools are going to be useful to someone starting out.

I can also use Twitter pretty well. With the help of Rachel Collishaw, I have found lots of great Canadian history teachers!

I am not going to try to do this here, this will be a 30-hour journey lasting three months. I haven’t met my co-learners yet and they will have a significant role to play in this process of discovery.

One big thing though, good history teaching, like any other subject now is all about helping people to think and learn for themselves. It certainly isn’t the recitation of facts –  it is more an exercise in discerning what is significant, what evidence is important, what events have consequence and where the ethical dimension lies.

This is mapped out clearly as the Historical Thinking Concepts and these concepts will frame all our discoveries and discussions over the next few months.

This framework is relatively new as is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action. How do we make reconciliation part of our history? I know this will be a long journey and the great challenge for these students will be to find meaningful ways to make it central to all the teaching they do. Like the internet, this is something that didn’t exist when I started. How will this impact what we do over the next few months?

Finally, something I do know about – what will work for kids. Even though this is a class on the teaching of history, it really needs to become a class on teaching kids. We never really teach subjects in schools, although it probably feels like that when you are in the second year of a teacher education program.

Probably the best resources I have right now, the ones I am most comfortable with are those that talk about teaching kids. I plan to show two videos from HipHughes on the first day (who knows how much you get through on the first day??) – these ones make lots of sense!

This is the second one I plan to show. I think these days, we are not so much teachers (never a professor!) as we are FOLEs – Facilitators of Learning Experiences. This is what we all need to be. Whether we are holding a group meeting with our grade 7 homeroom students to talk about rumours, or we are in a grade 12 class looking at systemic racism in Canadian History – we are all FOLEs! Tomorrow, I want to be the best FOLE possible.

Thanks HipHughes.

 

Teaching about Canadian History – Where do you start?

Sometimes when you start on a totally new project it is a challenge to know where to start.

Last week, I wrote that I was about to start on a series of new challenges, the really new stuff has to do with teaching at the Faculty of Education, University of Ottawa. I wrote last week that my blogging would probably pick up – it usually does when there is new learning going on.

For me, I need to write so I can reflect on what I am learning. I am going to try to be disciplined about this. I am in the perfect situation where I can publically reflect on a very open process – the training of new teachers for a very demanding profession.

I have done lots of training in the past and I have written about it here. I think working on professional development with the teachers in the schools where I was a principal was one of the most rewarding parts of my job. We really tried to develop a model where the teacher as professional was in charge of their own learning.

This was at times a challenge as most school boards hold to the idea that the learning objectives come from the top and while there is some room for individual variation, the scope for individualization is limited.

How will the learning work in this new situation?

For the first time, I am working in a truly academic atmosphere. There are two courses in the history program– I am going to be teaching the intermediate section. How I do this has been left up to me. While this is a bit frightening, it also represents a wonderful challenge. What will I teach these new professionals in the time I have with them? How will I structure the learning? How can I make sure these teacher-candidates have a legitimate voice in the learning process?

How can I be of use to them as they prepare for such a challenging journey?

First, I think I need to catch up a bit. When I first taught history, the internet didn’t exist. All our teaching tools were in the form of books and the curriculum guides were pretty thin if they existed at all. You really had to rely on your own ingenuity and hope that you had a teaching partner who was willing to share their materials.

More recently I went back into the classroom to teach grade 6 language arts, but my time in the classroom was short – I was pulled out by the March Break to become an elementary principal. The learning was intense during this period and it was certainly the best PD I have ever had.

Now I really don’t think this means I can’t teach an intermediate history course. My academic credentials are fine and I will bring 31 years of experience in the education system to my class. I just need to figure out what I can contribute in a meaningful way to help these new teachers with the awesome responsibility that awaits. I know a few things about that responsibility. This is my grounding, this is where I can make a contribution.

The teaching of history in Canada has gone through some dramatic changes in the past few years. A great deal has been written about what is the essence of teaching our story and there are some major streams of thought that will become the basis for what we will be doing in a few weeks.

First, the teaching of history now must focus on historical thinking and the major components of what it means to think like a historian. In Canada, the book that lays all this out is The Big Six. Such an incredible piece of work – it lays out the big six teaching concepts then follows up with a great collection of activities teachers can use in their classes to help students come to grips with each of these concepts.

I don’t think this is the post where I break down these concepts – they are really important and they define how we think about history. They turn history away from the dry recitation of facts into something different, something special, something that can actually change the way you think about things.

But this is only one of the currents that run through this course. The other big one is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission along with the findings and calls to action of the Commission.

Reconciliation requires constructive action on addressing the
ongoing legacies of colonialism that have had destructive impacts
on Aboriginal peoples’ education, cultures and languages, health,
child welfare, the administration of justice, and economic opportu-
nities and prosperity.
TRC – What We Have Learned

In Ontario, the history curriculum has been rewritten to draw in the story of the residential schools and the larger story of the indigenous peoples of Canada. You really can’t teach Canadian history without making the TRC a major part of what you teach. It is not just a unit in a larger course, it is a narrative that holds a central place in our story. It was not this way before the TRC and this means in our recent past we were not telling the whole story. Now we are obliged to do this and this must be a central theme in anything I do with the teacher candidates.

There is one final stream and it doesn’t really have all that much to do with history teaching. It has a great deal to do with good teaching in any subject. First, before anything, the teacher needs to know who they are teaching. It has never been good enough to be the expert in the classroom. Now more than ever before we need to see and attempt to understand the student.

This video from HipHughes really sums this all up. It is one of two of his videos that I am planning on showing on the first day.

This is certainly only scratching the surface, but my writing here is informing the process I am going through to come up with a meaningful syllabus. I am hoping these reflections will be useful to me and maybe even my students. You have to start with first principles when you take on a big new project and I am I am making a start here.