The best teachers plan their lessons backwards. They say: “where do I want my students to end up?” Then they decide on how they would evaluate mastery, design an assessment that measures mastery, and then they go on to actually plan the unit (its assignments, readings, etc).
I did not do this for my current unit (which is ending this week). And boy do I feel it. Oh I knew what skills I was teaching and how to assess that. But the content? Not so much.
This is what happens when you don’t figure out these things in advance: The last week of this unit was spent with me trying to figure out how to make each lesson and assignment meaningful and having to explain to students, after the fact, why we were focussing on certain pieces of information. I’m sure that they TOTALLY understand Ancient Roman and Han Chinese history now (face palm).
And here is where I’ve discovered some big differences between teaching in a high school and in a college classroom (especially high school freshman).
[I want to be clear that I am not implying that teaching high school is harder or better than teaching college, merely that it is different. To think about holistic history curriculums that build from the high school to the college, it seems like we should start to think about the ways these classrooms are different and how that might affect how and what we teach.]
1) These kids have never seen most of this information before. EVER. Right down to the vocabulary. All of this is brand new — in a way that it simply is not in college. Sure, in college a lot of students encounter a lot of new history, but they usually enter with some broad outline or understanding of some history somewhere. The newness with my kids is broader and deeper. Basic historical ideas like change over time, basic historical topics like Hinduism, Greek poets, and trade routes are completely new to them. COMPLETELY. They don’t know what the word “consolidate” means. They are becoming people and experiencing the academic history for the very first time. I explain the difference between BCE and CE, and why BCE numbers go down while CE numbers go up as we move towards the present.
This can be awesome. And super fun.
But it can also be daunting — and sometimes terrifying. I am building the framework through which they will begin to study history. I describe the Buddha as this dude who wandered around trying to figure out life. Will that ruin how they relate to Indian and Chinese history from now on? (oof). More importantly, it means that I cannot assume any prior knowledge. ANY. AT ALL. Think of all the things we take for granted that people know: what slavery means, what political rights are, how governments work, how an economy works, that money is an invention based on a shared assumption of value, that the past was VERY different than the world today. Most of my students don’t know this when we start. I have no baseline. I build the baseline. That is very different than when I taught college students (freshmen through seniors).
2) I see them everyday. This means that when I make a mistake, I have ample opportunity to correct it (and quickly). Things don’t sit for a couple days and then, after 2-3 days off from a lecture, I have to come in and correct misinformation. I can do it the very next day. I also build a super close relationship with these kids. We spend A LOT of time together. A lot.
Downside. So, so many opportunities to make a mistake. And sometimes all you can see are the mistakes you are making, rather than see the successes you are having.
3) The grind is just . . . grinding. I see these kids day in and day out. Everyday there needs to be a new lesson plan. And with students at this age, I need to come up with a minimum of 2-3 things to do during every 45 minute period so that I can effectively work with their developing brains. I cannot fall back on lecture or class discussion. If I want to hold a discussion, I have to spend 3-4 months slowly teaching them how to be able to hold one in a meaningful and productive way. Lecturing: out of the question for more than 10-15 minutes at a time. Days when I slack, I see it in my students’ energy. So the daily prep is just heavier. IE: Nightly prep is heavier. Nightly email responses to their formative assessments and projects, prep for tomorrow’s activities — these things eat up the afternoon after a full work day in the classroom.
Summers are amazing. I have those again. But the school year is teaching and prep from early morning until after dinner. And I am in the classroom way more. Everyday. That I did not feel in quite the same way when I taught college.
So — how does this all relate to my craptacular unit on Rome and China? Welp. Because the daily grind is so grinding, I must have a plan going in if I am going to teach a successful unit. Because I see them everyday, I have no time to stop and breath. When the day is over, I go home, plan for tomorrow, then teach next day. If I don’t take some time, at the start, to begin at the end of a unit and to create a strong plan to pull me through to the finish, my unit is going to fall apart like this one did.
Beyond that — I (and all history teachers I think) need to set content AND skills goals in each unit. The ways in which we do that will vary tremendously between the college and high school classroom. So what should those goals be?
Right now, I’m thinking that skills are way more important for my freshman. Can you write a clear essay with a strong introduction, thesis statement, paragraphs with clear topic sentences, strong evidence, and a conclusion? Can you tell me why things are important, not just what they were or what happened? Can you analyze a primary source?
But I do need to balance content with that. I went too skills heavy this unit and the content fell out. And what’s the use of teaching history if we aren’t learning the story of change over time? Where’s the thrill and excitement? Where’s Empress Wu becoming emperor and using Buddhism to justify her reign? (“wait! I thought Buddhism was an Indian religion” says a student. I say “And that brings us to the Silk Road!!” Student: “WAIT! a lady was emperor???”)
For my seniors, I try to balance content and skills — doing each in equal measure. As they become better at the skills, we can add more and more content for them to analyze and wrestle with. My rubrics reflect that I am far more focussed on quantity and quality of evidence — in addition to the skills of strong analytical writing
When I taught college, depending on the level and purpose of the course, I either balanced skills and content equally or sometimes focussed more on content. College-teaching-types: What do you do?? Should there be a progression in your courses (say from the 100 level to the 300/400 level?). Do seminars focus more on content and less on skills? Or do they focus more on skills in that they often include research?
What is our ideal balance. Am I getting my high-school balance right? And how the hell am I supposed to teach World History from Ancient Mesopotamia to the Reformation without pulling my hair out as I ponder; “what information do they REALLY need to know??”
Now, I’m off to put the finishing touches on my next unit on Islam — on which I began at the end, figured out key skills and content, and now feel much better about. Monday cannot come soon enough. Get me out of this unit.