Personal Teaching Philosophy

“Once you have learned how to ask questions – relevant and appropriate and substantial questions – you have learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know.”[1]

This quote sums up beautifully my ultimate goal as a Social Studies teacher; to teach the students how to think critically and to learn research methods so they can find anything they want at anytime. These skills cannot only be seen as preparation for college, but for life. All students, no matter what their track in life, will need to maintain awareness of their political surroundings in order to make the most of their lives in the United States and avoid being taken advantage of or influenced by the thirty second sound bytes that are many American’s only source of political knowledge.  Students need to be taught a wariness of media and learn how to identify sources of information so they can be informed, politically intelligent citizens that are better able to judge the value of their leaders and their policies – something that is absolutely necessary to keep the integrity of a democratic society [2].   They need to know that what they don’t know can hurt them.  In this way, I can continue to be of service to them long after they graduate.In order to accomplish this goal, history should be only a slightly dominant subject area, with the other social sciences integrated and used to supplement whenever possible.  For example, Psychology of memory must be used when examining eyewitness accounts, or Economics to explain the onset of the Great Depression.  History can only explain what happened; whereas the Social Sciences are instrumental in understanding why it happened – the real reason for studying History in the first place.

      This does not mean that the curriculum should be rigid to prevent a child-centered approach.  Topical approaches to history would allow a better connection to present political and social issues, not only making it more meaningful and useful to students, but allowing the teacher to focus on important concepts of more recent history that directly influence present day.  Those relevant topics may change from year to year as the needs of the students change, so the curriculum should be in constant evolution.  In addition, students should be made aware that there are, indeed, serious problems in need of being solved and that they will be the ones to solve them.  Allowing students to have a say in which topics to explore would help the teacher gain insights to student concerns as they see them and would help the teacher better encourage and prepare the students to deal with the eminent problems of their lifetime.3]  To supplement, it is important to tie local history in with the national lessons whenever possible in order to bring abstract figures and events close to home; facilitating greater student interest and illustrating how national history affects them, either directly or indirectly.

      One facet of Social Studies that hinders critical thinking is the way in which past events are smoothed over in order to prevent discomfort in students and teachers.  Students, especially those in high school preparing to venture out on their own, must face the unpleasant and sometimes heart-wrenching aspects of our nation’s past. We are doing students a great disservice by sheltering them from all that is unpleasant only to have them become disillusioned when they learn reality through experience and become cynical adults without the intellectual tools or willingness to change things.  To aid in projecting this reality, we need to keep historical “heroes” as “flesh and blood individuals”[4] with emotions and faults so students know that they are just as capable of making a difference in the world.[5] 

      Controversy is another aspect of Social Studies that is glossed over and boiled down to a right or wrong answer, thus eliminating in one action the interest and usefulness of an entire Social Studies class to an eleventh grade student.  Controversy is necessary to encourage a “spirit of inquiry” and is essential in order to see events from different points of view and avoid Eurocentrism.[6]  Students need to be encouraged to reach their own conclusions – so they can do so when they leave the protective wing of the school system and function as independent adults.  To encourage problem solving, it is essential to use outside sources, such as documents and scholarly works, and to introduce the historiography of a subject on a small scale in order to tackle the concept of historical truth. Textbooks may be used to achieve a basic knowledge base, but their real value lies in teaching students to be critical of what they are told and for this, outside sources are essential to a successful lesson.  Students need to know that a new document can throw off an entire scaffold of beliefs and that because human beings are so complex, there is no way to know their exact mindset and motives at a particular time - that is the fun of "finding" history.[7]  This is why History is open to interpretation, this is why history changes, this is why history needs to be involved with the social sciences, and this is why history is not boring.  Historical truth is not too difficult a concept to tackle with secondary students if the teacher is willing to pursue high expectations of them, and it makes all the difference in understanding why History is so controversial as well as learning how to deal with that controversy as an adult.[8]

       In assessing what students have learned, it is essential to be fair to all ability levels and life goals of the student.  There is, obviously, a responsibility to the curriculum content and a certain level of knowledge must be part of the overall assessment of students.  However, by integrating group projects along with individual research papers, presentations which force the student to speak in a public setting such as the classroom, and essay exams, students who are at a disadvantage in one area will find it possible to even their score with one of their stronger qualities.  Taking improvement into consideration while grading will also help facilitate fairness among students with a strong academic background and those who have opted for a technical or practical life path.  Community involvement is also an important lesson, one that ties in with the historical and political lessons of Social Studies and one where the teacher can lead by example.  One can get students involved by being involved themselves.  Students learn importance of social and community relations, possibly while breaking generational or socioeconomic barriers and stereotypes in the process.  Community projects may also ease the common animosity between adolescents and adults or community and teachers.

      In an exploration of how social studies has been taught over the last century, and drawing on my own experiences as a high school student, I have realized that there are many things wrong, both in how social studies is taught and how it is learned.  Too many history and social studies classrooms are filled with uninterested students who gain nothing out of nine months of the drilling of names and dates.  Very little of what is learned is used and when realizing this, how could a student not feel like their time is being wasted?  Therefore, how could we as teachers expect them to put forth any effort to learn it at all?  If the students believe they will need it, they will learn it, and the teacher doesn’t have to make it entertaining to keep their attention – just dynamic and relevant.

      I am well aware that I cannot change the entire system, but I can make a difference in the lives of the students in my class and those I teach alongside.  I will have a great power to influence lives and that is both a wonderful opportunity and a grave responsibility.  Teaching, especially social studies, is one of the few ways where one person truly can make a difference.  It is a way to guard that idealism of adolescence that makes people want to go out and change the world.  Between my students and myself, we can make a huge difference as long as we make a continuous effort to solve the problems the past has given us in order to make the present better and gain influence on the future.  By harnessing the individuality of teachers, parents and the community can rest assured that each teacher is teaching to the best of his/her ability because a part of them is invested in every lesson.  When this happens, the student gains a great deal, whether or not it fits in a set definition of what Social Studies or History should be.  [12]

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner in James W. Loewn, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (New York: The New Press, 1995), 306.

[2] Ronald W. Evans, The Social Studies Wars: What Should We Teach the Children? (New York: Teachers College Press, 2004), 12, 54, 110-112, 165, 167.

[3] Many of these ideas are derived from a Progressive and reconstructionist approach to social studies and have influenced me greatly are found in Jack Zevin, Social Studies for the Twenty-First Century (New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000), 11-12; Loewen, 257-258,265,268,290,295,305,307-312; Loewen, 246; Evans, 23-27,37-43.

[4] Loewen, 9.

[5] Loewen, 27, 233-239,246-245.

[6] Loewen, 261.

[7] Zevin, 6.

[8] Loewen, 265-305.

[9] Evans, 92, 100-102, 135-136, 171-172; Loewen, 286.

[10] Loewen, 2.

[11] Evans, 120.

[12] Zevin, 5.

 

 

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