Where the Boys Aren’t

Did you ever happen to see the 1960 film Where the Boys Are?  I had to view it once as part of a college history class assignment.  It’s about four college girls who head to Florida on spring break, which happens to be, you know, where the boys are.  One finds true love, the rest don’t, but they all find the boys.

The movie – or to be more accurate, the movie title – came to mind as I sat in my school’s end-of-the-year awards assembly this week.  All students in grades 5 through 11 (the seniors are already gone) assemble in our auditorium to honor the top students in each grade level in each subject area, from mathematics to the arts.  Usually, our academic dean calls up to the stage all the students in grades 5-8 in a given subject area at the same time, and then he moves on to the 9-11 grades.  So small groups of students are arranged on the stage all at the same time.  After about the third or fourth grouping to be called to the stage, the movie title Where the Boys Are suddenly popped into my head.  The boys may have been on the beaches of Florida in that film, but I’ll tell you where the boys aren’t these days: on the stage, i.e. at the top of their classes.  In group after group, the number of girls far outweighed the number of boys.  In some cases, there were no boys at all.  It didn’t matter if it was middle school or upper school, it didn’t matter if it was science or history, the boys just weren’t there.

In case you missed it, there was a march for women’s rights in Washington, D.C. and around the country recently.  I promise I’m not going to get into the politics of the march because, let’s face it, many of us are sick of politics by now.  I will say, however, that I find it interesting that the young women in my school appear to be doing incredibly well for themselves right now despite the rhetoric that the deck is stacked against them because of their gender.  It’s not just the school awards they are winning either.  They are racking up the National Merit Awards, the AP scores, the academic scholarships, etc. I am proud and excited for them, as we all should be.  At the same time, I’m worried for the boys.  I’m wondering how we can engage them and motivate them because, at least from my seat in that auditorium, it didn’t appear like we were reaching them.  And that’s a problem.

Shall We Dance?

I haven’t always given exam study guides, but I’d say more often than not I have done so. In addition, sometimes I’ve given credit for kids “completing” a study guide.  Usually that credit took the form of extra points on their earned exam grade.  But in recent years I’ve grown frustrated both by the study guide and the bonus points, and I set out this year to do something different.

I didn’t feel like I could go cold turkey and not give some kind of bonus opportunity.  It seems like many teachers around my school give study guides, and I can understand why. When the exam makes up 20% of the semester grade, you want to give a bit of cushion and wiggle room for a student. Also, many teachers see their study guides as just that – guides that help students prepare for the exam.  Since so many in my school do give some kind of bonus opportunity, I felt like it was kind of expected, even though I’m not forced to do so and some teachers do not.

While in chemistry and mathematics, you can give study guides where students practice solving problems, in history, this is a little more difficult to do.  Most history study guides I’ve seen amount to a list of terms and possible short answer or essay questions.  Students who define the terms and answer the questions may get points on their exam.  I always had problems with this method, but I admit to having used it in the past.  First, it forces students to study in a specific way that may or may not be the best method for him or her. They spend all this time completing a study guide, and since that’s not the best way for them to learn the material, they learn very little for all the time spent. Second, defining terms doesn’t require students to think deeply about the material.  And finally, in this day and age, there’s too many ways to copy and share work that is not one’s own.  So no more history study guides for me.*

I was left in a bind.  I wanted to provide a bonus opportunity.  I wanted to tie it closely in to what we were studying.  I wanted it to be authentic.  I didn’t want it to be too time-consuming or onerous since I wanted them to spend time studying in the ways that worked for them.  I also started to think that something active might be good since around exam time students spend so much time just sitting and staring at paper and screens. What to do?  Make them dance.

This semester my students learned and performed “The Charleston” as their exam bonus opportunity.  It seemed to fit all my requirements and then some.  They had to learn at least 3 different steps of the dance and film themselves performing those steps for a certain length of time.  The results were at times hilarious, at times endearing, at times surprising.  The truth of the matter is that the amount of bonus points given for this were minimal when calculating the semester average rather than just the exam grade.  I’m sure some of the students figured this out, but it didn’t stop most of them from giving it a go. I’m so glad they did.  Whether or not they remember what the Payne-Aldrich Tariff did, I think they will remember learning and dancing “The Charleston.

*This was not a popular decision amongst the students.  Even though we review after each unit throughout the semester, they wanted that darn list of terms.  By not giving this out though, I witnessed students getting themselves organized, talking about how they were going to tackle studying for the history exam, and coming up with their own study methods.  Even if this didn’t always work out for the students, they were learning how to study and how not to study throughout the process in a way that they would not have if I’d handed them a study guide.  In assessing their exams, I took into account the fact that I did not give a study guide and that they were on their own.


Don’t Forget to Tell Your Students to Mind the Gap

The other day I picked on anatomy teachers so it’s only fair that history teachers get a little grief as well, and who better to pick on than myself?  It’s so easy to do. 🙂  In my last post, I wrote about how “Mind the Gap” is my new mantra, reminding me that to get my students to think critically I need to leave some gaps between what I’ve taught and they already know and what I want them to learn or do.  I keep this little phrase in mind when I design my lesson plans and assessments, and I’m always looking for the gap.

Recently, we studied the Great Depression and the New Deal, and I designed a few short answers for students to complete with “mind the gap” firmly in mind.   We’d studied the economic, political, and social aspects of the Great Depression already.  Separately, we also looked at 1930s culture – music, movies, art, etc.  Neither I nor they had made any direct or explicit connections between the Great Depression and what was going on in the culture of America at that time.  I designed a short answer in which I asked them to find the connections and explain how the culture of the 1930s reflected the Great Depression. Since we hadn’t addressed this, I thought it would require them to think critically about how what they’d learned in one area connected with what they’d learned in another area, i.e. bridge the gap.

When I read through their responses, I went from frustrated to bewildered to exasperated to I don’t know what.  You see, many of my students wrote lovely responses on the culture of the 1930s.  They filled their responses with lots of specific factual information, something I require. They could tell me names of artists and their artwork.  They could tell me about that artwork.  Very nice responses were written about Edward Hopper’s moody and isolating Room in New York (1932).  (I love Edward Hopper, don’t you?)  What they didn’t tell me, however, was how that painting reflected the Great Depression.  They could tell me in detail about various films of the 1930s from Gone With the Wind to The Wizard of Oz to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. What they didn’t tell me, however, was how those films connected to the Great Depression.  What they didn’t do was answer the question at hand; they didn’t bridge the gap.

After reading response after response, and writing the same feedback comments on nearly all, I had one of those facepalm moments, albeit figuratively not literally.  I realized they didn’t see the gap, and thus, they didn’t know they were supposed to be minding it.  They learned about culture in the 1930s.  The question asked about culture in the 1930s, at least generally speaking, and thus they told me all they knew about it, which in many cases was quite a bit.  Case closed.  Can I have my A now, please?

What to do?  Show them the gap and then tell them to mind it.  Before returning their assessments, I put “Mind the Gap” in nice big letters on my SmartBoard, below which was the short answer question with which they had struggled.  I went through what the phrase meant in this context and why it was so important, to me and to them.  Then, we talked. We discussed what they had learned about the Great Depression.  Then, we discussed what they had learned about 1930s culture.  We discussed what the question was asking them to do with that information, and we identified the gap.  Then, we discussed how good responses would bridge the gap.  They rewrote their responses, and only then, did they get their original work back for comparison purposes.

In the end, the students realized exactly what they were tasked with doing and could indeed critically think their way through the problem at hand.  But heavens, am I going to have to remind them daily to do this, I wondered.  In short, yes.  Yes, I will have to remind them constantly to mind the gap.  Why?  There’s no easy answer, but here’s a few possibilities.  First, they aren’t used to it.  Most students are great memorizers, at least in the short-term, and they are used to simply memorizing information and spitting it back. They have been trained for good or ill to do this, and that’s their fallback position.  Second, they are high school students who spend 47 minutes in each of 7 classes a day, moving quickly from one subject matter and one teacher to another on a rotating schedule. Expectations in one class are not the same in another (nor should they be), and thus, they need to be reminded what it is I want from them.  Third, I need to remind myself when creating the lesson or assessment to create the gaps.  Is it any wonder they need to be reminded to fill them? And finally, yes, at some point they will internalize it, but it will happen for different students at different times.  Some of them already have done this, but I can’t just leave the ones who haven’t to fend for themselves.

So please, mind the gap, but don’t forget to tell your students to do so as well.



Mind the Gap

One of my favorite lines in The Princess Bride comes when, after hearing Vizzini use the word inconceivable multiple times, Inigo Montoya says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”  For you see, despite Vizzini’s words, the inconceivable continually happens and becomes conceivable.  This scene came to mind recently after I had a discussion with a colleague about critical thinking.  We were discussing how many times even the best teachers think they are getting at critical thinking in their lessons and assessments when they just…aren’t.  Montoya might as well say to us, “You keep using that phrase – critical thinking.  I do not think it means what you think it means.”

A few years ago I bought one of those Bloom’s taxonomy flip charts, thinking that it would help me devise more higher-order thinking questions.  The flip chart came with question stems and key words for the different levels of Bloom’s taxonomy.  Use more of the question stems and key words from the upper levels and you’re bound to be requiring your students to think critically, right?  Well, maybe, but then again, maybe not.

Here’s one relatively obvious example.  Level V (the second-highest level, mind you) of the Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy is evaluating, and on my flip chart, one of the key words for this level is explain.  Using the word explain in an assessment could very well require students to think critically, but depending on what you’ve actually taught them, explain could also require nothing more from students than regurgitating memorized information.  For example, if, in his anatomy class, Teacher A explained how the heart works like a pump to his students, giving them the step by step process, then asking them to explain how the heart works on an assessment doesn’t require much thinking on the part of the students. They simply have to remember the steps you told them in the order you told them.  On the other hand, take Teacher B.  Teacher B did not explain how the heart works as a pump to her students, but instead provided those students with simulations and other resources that they were to examine on their own with some limited guidance from the teacher.  They were tasked with figuring out based on what they were observing in the simulations how the heart works as a pump and then asked to explain the process just like the students of Teacher A.  The students of Teacher B are engaged in critical thinking, while those in Teacher A’s class are not, and yet the task as written remained the same with the same Level V word from Bloom’s taxonomy:  Explain how the heart works like a pump.

I realize that this seems really obvious, but I do believe many teachers, including myself, fall into the trap of thinking they are getting at critical thinking when they are not.  This led me to think about how I could guard against this.  That’s when another line popped into my head.  In London, when riding the Underground, you hear repeatedly over and over as you enter and exit the train cars, “mind the gap.”  It’s meant to remind you that there is a space between platform and car that one can fall into if not careful.  While the gap on the Underground is not a place one wants to end up, in the case of teaching it’s exactly where we want to be.  We want to be in the gap.  We want to create a gap between what we have taught and where we want our students to go with that information.  It’s in the gap that the critical thinking takes place regardless of the words we use, whether they fall at Level III or Level V of Bloom’s.  Above, there are no gaps in Teacher A’s teaching and assessing, but in the case of Teacher B, the students are smack in the middle of the gap while being provided with the necessary tools to help them successfully bridge it.

So, as they say in London, mind the gap.  It’s become my new teaching mantra.  Each time I make any kind of activity or assessment, I am reminding myself to leave some gaps for students to wallow in and think in for a while.  And if they get lost or stuck, I’ll be there to throw a rope their way.


Down With Quizlet, Up With Brain Maps

Confession time.  When I first learned about Quizlet, I thought it was a good idea.  Online flashcards that can be created and shared incredibly easily, and the students can learn those terms in more ways than just flipping through the definitions.  What’s not to like? It turns out, a fair amount.  Unfortunately, students have become quite attached to their Quizlet, and I’m having a fairly hard time convincing them to abandon it altogether or at the very least broaden their horizons with other study methods.*

I don’t actually believe Quizlet must be abandoned in total.  Used well, I think it can serve a purpose. Students who use it as a first step on the road to real learning have my blessing to make as many Quizlets as they wish.  Go forth and conquer, I say.  After all, I had shoeboxes filled with flashcards when I was in high school.**  Too many of my students, however, are relying on Quizlet for the bulk of their studying, and it’s this that I find increasingly frustrating.

The problems with Quizlet are the same as with good old-fashioned notecards or reading and memorizing one’s notes verbatim. Students can convince themselves that they know the material, but they really just know those words in that particular order.  They don’t necessarily know or understand connections between the words or how concepts fit together.  When confronted with the same material in a different way, they can’t think their way through it because they’ve relied too much on the most basic of memorization. When the resulting test grade is lower than a student would have liked, I often hear, “But I knew every term when I studied my Quizlet!”  To which I would like to reply, “Who cares?”

I don’t do this, of course.  I spend time explaining how one can both know every term and yet not understand any of them.  We then talk about moving from memorization (a key step that I am not denying) to critical thinking and analysis.  It just seems like since Quizlet and similar applications have been created I am having these kinds of conversations with students more and more.  I am spending more and more time teaching them how to study effectively.  Yet, for all my explaining and for all the low test scores, many students remain unconvinced.

While they remain unconvinced, I am convinced.  I am convinced that using brain maps*** is a more effective method for studying, at least in the case of history.  (For a digital version, you can use something like Coggle, but we usually just use good old paper and pen.)  All school year, at the end of each unit, we have mapped our brains.  We start with any concept from the unit, and then we let our brains wander.  If we are studying the western frontier, we may start with Wounded Knee even though that’s near the end of our unit of study.  “What happened there, and what else do you know that connects with that event?  Oh, that makes you think of other conflicts like Little Bighorn and Sand Creek.  Great.  Why are these conflicts happening in the late 19th century?  Westward movement by American settlers is increasing.  Oh, okay.  Well, why is that happening now as opposed to earlier? Easier access due to things like the transcontinental railroad and government support via the Homestead Act.”  And we just keep going and going and making connections and filling in blanks.  Pretty soon, we’ve mapped our brains.

This method does two things that flashcards don’t do.  First, it requires students to know the material rather than see it on a flash card and just recognize it.  There’s nothing on the paper when we start; they either have something in their brains or they don’t.  Second, it requires them to make connections between material.  It’s not enough to know what happened at Little Bighorn and Wounded Knee.  You must see the connection between these events and be able to answer questions about why those conflicts occurred.  If a student is facing a blank page after 10 minutes, he or she knows they need to go back and do some rereading because nothing has truly stuck. If a student can’t connect things together, he or she knows they need to think more deeply, asking why and how rather than just what or who.

Not all my students are convinced.  I still hear students say this method doesn’t work for them, Quizlet is king, blah, blah, blah.  Unlike my students who are wedded till death do them part with Quizlet, I am not wedded to the idea that brain maps are the only effective study method or the best method for every student.  Do I think it’s more effective than Quizlet?  Without a doubt.  Is it the only effective method?  No.  So I encourage them to try something else, anything else that will help them to really digest the material rather than simply regurgitate it.  But I also have said to them that doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of either insanity or stupidity.  It’s their pick and it’s their grade.

*In addition, I’ve noticed students actually using Quizlet as a kind of research tool.  They don’t know a term, and someone out in the great beyond has created a Quizlet with that term in it.  Instead of going to a reputable source, they take what they find on Quizlet as the absolute truth.  Aggravating and slightly frightening.

**The advantage of real flashcards is the ability to move them around and make connections by placing them next to each other and the like.  If you really want to rely on flashcards, I tell my students, use real ones that can be manipulated more.

*** I am running up against one issue with brain maps.  Since we began by doing them together, some students can get a bit worried if, when working independently on a brain map, their map doesn’t look like someone else’s map.  We’re working on it.

College Preparatory Is Not the Equivalent of College

Dear Reader,

It’s been awhile, I know.  I feel like after such a lengthy absence I should have something really earth-shattering and mind-blowing to say, but all I have is this: students in a college preparatory school are not in college.  Obvious, right?  Perhaps not so much.

I think a lot of us who teach in private schools that market themselves as college preparatory and send their students off to some really competitive universities sometimes forget this relatively simple and obvious fact.  I include myself in this category, and I’m slightly embarrassed to admit it.  It took hearing someone else that I know who also teaches in a private high school describing her views of what it meant to teach in a college preparatory private school to really bring this home for me.  I mean no disrespect to this person at all, but I do strongly disagree with her teaching philosophy and classroom practices.  I’ll explain.

She believes that because she teaches in a school labeled “college preparatory” that she should teach and treat her high school students as much like college students as possible. To that end, she structures her entire high school class like a college class with essentially 2 major tests a term, maybe one or two other assignments, and lots of lecture.  She does not really believe in formative assessment or cross-curriculum skill development. Reading comprehension?  No, college professors don’t teach that.  The basics of good writing?  No, they should already know how to write by college.  In her mind, she is preparing them for college by teaching them as if they are in college.  I suspect that many a college professor would prefer that the students who come to them have a different kind of preparation.

I, too, have been guilty of mistakenly equating college preparatory with college from time to time, although never to the extreme that I just described.  I have said to my students on more than one occasion something along the lines of, “Well, in college, your professors will never do X, so I don’t do X either.”  Now, I’m not saying it’s never right to say this.  It all depends on what X is, after all.  The more I reflect on this issue, however, the more I think the less this is said the better.  I think the better response is, “College professors will never do X, so I’m going to teach you how to do X on your own.”  That’s, you know, preparation.  Nothing earth-shattering, nothing mind-blowing…just preparation.


Teaching American History Amidst the 2016 Presidential Election

I no longer teach American government, and given the current presidential election cycle, I am incredibly grateful for that. When you teach government during a major election year, you end up talking about the election nearly every day for obvious reasons. When you teach American history, like I do now, while you can’t and shouldn’t just ignore an election, it doesn’t take front and center as it does in a government or current events course. If I had to talk about this election every single day from August to November, and look happy while I did so, I think it might send me screaming from the classroom. I’m joking but just barely.

Nevertheless, kids are kids. I know my students will ask questions and (attempt to) make provocative comments about this election throughout the fall, and I’ve been trying to figure out the best response that will allow me to both keep my sanity and prove fruitful for my students. It is not my place as a teacher to tell students what to think about the current election and the candidates but to teach students how to critically examine information, the sources of that information, evidence in support of an argument, etc. Given that none of my students are of voting age and will thus not actually be casting a vote for any candidate in this election, I think the best thing I can do for my students in this instance is to redirect their questions and comments away from this single election to something even more important, something that may help them when they do finally have the privilege to vote.

For example, it is inevitable that some student, probably more than one, will ask, “For whom are you voting?” I never answer this question because (a) I don’t want to unduly influence my students, (b) I don’t want students to automatically tune me out because I’m voting for the “enemy,” and (c) it’s none of their business. But instead of saying any of this, this year when a student asks this question, my response will be, “That’s not the important question. The more important question is What am I voting for and why?” I know my students will think I’m talking about “the issues” when I say this, but I’m hoping I can steer the conversation in a different direction than even the specific issues of 2016. What would it be like to get students thinking about questions like the following? • What is the role of government?

  • What did the Founders think about this? What about subsequent generations of Americans?
  • What is the role of a president? Has this always been the case? What’s changed over time? •
  • What is the relationship between the president and Congress, between the President and citizens, etc.?

I’d like to contend to my students that only after they’ve thought through these things and made some tentative conclusions should they begin to examine the specific issues and the individual candidates. Every candidate makes promise after promise; every candidate says he or she will fix everything from the economy to education to healthcare. If you do not believe, however, that something is in the purview of the president, then these promises do not matter a whole lot. In fact, these promises, even those that sound lovely, may mean voting for someone else, someone who aligns better with your understanding of what a president should and should not do. If I can get students to think about the role of government first, specific issues second, and candidates last, I’d feel like I’d accomplished something.

The nice thing with a conversation like this, as opposed to a shouting match about Clinton v. Trump, is the fact that it does dovetail perfectly with the history of the United States. Americans throughout history have been debating what government should and should not do. Getting students to examine this election, or any election, in light of these historical arguments serves dual purposes. They learn something about the history of their country, and they learn how to enter into this longstanding dialogue over the role of government in society. They can begin to see connections between the past and the present.

After being asked about my own personal voting, the second most often heard comment in my classroom during major elections is along the following lines: If you don’t vote, you are not being a good citizen. With this particular election, I imagine I will hear something along the lines of this: If you don’t vote for Trump, that’s as if you voted for Clinton. Or vice versa. I think the best way to deal with these types of comments is for a little lesson on civic virtue. My students will know about civic virtue from our lessons on the American Revolution and the Early Republic, but they may need reminding. Civic virtue may include exercising one’s right to vote, but voting alone does not automatically confer on one civic virtue. A few questions for my students: •

  • What is a citizen versus a subject? What is a republic, and how is it different from a democracy?
  • What is civic virtue? How has it changed since the days of the Founding Fathers?
  • Does voting alone make someone a good citizen?
  • Does not voting in a given election or elections automatically make someone less virtuous in terms of civic virtue?
  • What happens when one’s principles conflict with the realities of a given election? Is it okay for one person to vote on principles without compromising and one to compromise? Is one of these people smarter or morally superior to the other?
  • Should someone be asked to vote against her conscience to help a candidate or party win an election?

I know what will happen when we start delving into these questions. Some student will invariably invoke the “Yes, but” argument. Yes, but this is a really, really important election. This election matters. Everyone has to vote. (This student almost invariably means that everyone has to vote so long as they are going to vote for the right candidate.) Yes, elections are important, and yes, this one seems particularly important…now. Only history will tell us how important. Speaking of history, here are some questions for my students to consider:

  • Which particular presidential elections have served as turning points in American history and how so?
  • Which elections seemed like they would be incredibly important at the time but actually changed very little?
  • What might have been different if Jefferson, Lincoln, LBJ, etc. had not been elected?
  • What might have been different if Stevenson, Willkie, Goldwater, etc, had been elected?

So there it is. My imperfect plan on how to teach amidst the 2016 presidential election. How many days until the election again?