Thursday, October 1, 2015

Greece vs Persia seems easy to us raised in the "Western Tradition."  Who doesn't love Greece?  The temples, the statues, the philosophers, the plays and poems...the birthplace of democracy, of Socratic reasoning and scientific inquiry...These are all beloved icons of our cultural heritage.  And then the wars with Persia:  brave, outnumbered Greeks fighting the hordes of Persian soldiers to preserve their independence.  What's to debate?

Of course a little bit of objective inquiry might balance the picture.  Greek society was heavily dependent on slavery, not only in militaristic Sparta but in glorious Athens as well. Women had almost no status in Greece, and peasants and other poor people were routinely exploited.  Greek society was also warlike with constant fighting among the city-states.  Not an easy place to raise your family if you're just a regular working guy.

On the other hand, the Achaemenid Persian Empire had much to recommend it.  The dominant religion of Persia, Zoroastrianism, discouraged slavery and invited everyone to seek salvation.  The empire allowed conquered regions to maintain their religions and other cultural traditions.  Persia built roads and irrigation canals to improve agriculture and commerce.  Perhaps most important, peace prevailed throughout the empire.  Maybe an easier place to raise your family if you're just a regular working guy.

Students sort of get the debatable points here.  They've all seen The 300, but some of them thought the tolerance and prosperity of the Persian Empire were attractive.  The prevalence of slavery certainly gives them pause as does the rigid patriarchy.  This sort of historical comparison and analysis is the main stuff of AP world history, and it's so much more interesting than just a bunch of factoids.

Next up:  the main event of the classical era, the Roman Empire vs Han Dynasty China.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The first big value based discussion in AP World History is about the Neolithic Revolution, the transition to agriculture and animal husbandry from a hunter gatherer lifestyle.  The result was a more reliable and abundant food supply, but less varied and thus less healthy. The cost was harder work and the emergence of class and gender hierarchy.  Agriculture led to settlements (cities eventually) in which some people could accumulate more wealth.  It also led to more children that women tended to stay home to raise, and the field work was harder than hunting and gathering so men's upper body strength was useful. Voila!  patriarchy and class divisions.

It's hard to imagine a world of hunter/foraging, and there certainly wouldn't be 7 billion people.  But humanity got along just fine thank you for a couple hundred thousand years that way.  Less work, more free time, healthier diet, more equality...leaves and rabbit salad anyone?

When confronted with this choice, most students choose agriculture, but some actually say they'd prefer the hunter/gatherer lifestyle.  They like the freedom and the ability to travel around. And some opt for the "compromise" pastoral lifestyle.  Good luck to all of them!

Next:  Life in Persia or in Greece...which was better?

Saturday, August 29, 2015

      Now I'm teaching AP World History at the fabled Los Angeles magnet school LACES (Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies).  It's my fourth year at LACES teaching this wonderful subject, and it cries out for blogging!  (one blog per century maybe?)  Anyway I'm going to resist the tendency to write long posts this time around.  Suffice it to say that I like LACES a lot.  I am struck by the fact that 30 years ago I worked in a group called the Integration Project to integrate the LA schools and now I teach at one of the outcomes of that struggle, a series of integrated magnet schools.  Karma? You decide.
     Historically speaking, I become more and more interested in the Bronze Age Collapse in which a series of interconnected and complex societies in the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East area all collapsed or declined within about a hundred years around 1200 BCE.  That would be the Hittite Empire, Minoan and Mycenaean cultures, and the kingdoms of the Levant and Mesopotamia (all destroyed) and Egypt (permanently weakened).  All of these cultures were connected by a dense web of trade, diplomacy and war (sound familiar, 21st century?).  The cause of this system-wide collapse is one of the great historical mysteries.  Was it the legendary "sea people" invading from the north?  or a devastating "earthquake storm"? or peasant rebellions? or some combination of these factors?  This remains a topic of lively debate.
     The similarity with the current world situation is striking.  A series of independent cultures all highly interdependent through trade and diplomacy, a world-system delicately balanced on a fulcrum of law and finance hanging precariously over a roiling sea of poverty and injustice.  Silicon Age Collapse anyone?

Saturday, July 14, 2012

First project: Getting to Know You

     I started off in September with a project called “Getting To Know You” that I got from my friend of many years Linda Guthrie.  The goal of the project is to get to know the other students in the class.  This knowledge is then presented in description, graphic, and oral forms.  
     I began the project with large and small group discussions of what it means to get to know someone.  Students reflect on what they want others to know about them and what they want to know about others as they get to know them.  Thinking about their own qualities and how they want to be seen by others is a red meat topic for adolescents which makes this a winning project.  Writing on this topic is one part of the project.
     From these discussions students develop a set of questions they would ask other students in an effort to get to know them.  They use these questions to interview a certain number of other students in the class, taking notes on the answers.  These interviews are the basis for multi-paragraph essays on individual students.  Some of these were done on the laptops.
     Again through discussion the students develop a set of simple preferences that each student can express, such as “favorite movie” or “favorite food.”  Each student then asks every other student to answer these questions, and the results are entered into a grid.  This information can be graphed, and I asked the three math teachers my students had if they would handle this part of the project.  This had mixed results, but in the best case it resulted in a nice set of graphs of different types.  Students then wrote brief explanations of the data in each graph.
     Another written part of the project asked students to discuss how they thought the class would be during the year ahead.  This also involved some discussion before writing.  
     The final part of the project was to make a podcast or movie of some part of the project--interviews, graphs, etc.  This could have been supplemented by a class blog or small group dramatizations, but it was already getting a little long.
     I really liked this project as a way to start the year.  Students develop a sense of unity as a class.   They got to know students they didn’t know before.  They spent a lot of time talking to each other (which they’re going to do anyway).  There was a nice variety of writing assignments and many possibilities for extension into other media.  The link with the math teachers worked well with one teacher, not so well with the others.  More preparation would be needed on this part next time.
     I look forward to improving this project and using it next year.  It could be adapted for any grade level.

     Next:  Narrative Project on learning about right and wrong.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The view from the ice floe

          Whew!  Another year of seventh grade boys is over!  I have worked my butt off these past two years at Young Oak Kim Academy.  This year was just as hard as the one before, but I was more successful.  I implemented a completely project based curriculum, and I did less yelling.  My classes were still noisy, (and unfortunately I had a neighbor who was very sensitive to noise and called the principal frequently to complain), but they also did a lot of very interesting work, much of it on the computer.  
          For some reason I didn’t have the energy to blog this year, but I was even more engaged in my teaching.  Thanks in part to my friend Linda Guthrie I had a set of five very engaging, high interest projects that corresponded to the writing domains in the district curriculum.  I was actually one of the few teachers to use a project based curriculum at YOKA, notwithstanding the school’s and district’s stated intention to encourage PBL.  I also used the computers extensively, more than most of the other teachers.  My seventh grade boys learned to write and research on the computer, and they produced documents with headings, illustrations, title pages, bibliographies, tables of contents, etc.  Bravi ragazzi!
          My reward for all of this hard work and successful teaching be displaced from YOKA, cut loose to find another school to start over at.  It could have been worse since I did get a RIF notice, but at least that was rescinded.  I’m not happy about having to start over at another school with different classes & students, different colleagues, etc.  I like to stay in one place long enough to be part of the culture.  Teaching is hard enough without having the stress of a new situation.  I can’t help feeling like I’m on a shrinking piece of ice being pushed out towards the deep water.  
          Now this isn’t anyone’s fault (except maybe Ronald Reagan’s).  The school had one too many English teachers, and I have low seniority since I only returned to the district six years ago.  So now I’m looking for a job...calling principals every day...asking for an interview...wondering how they react to my unusual resume (and my obvious advanced age)...hoping I don’t get something too far away or too awful.  
          That’s life on the ice floe.  
          In the meantime, I’m going to write a series of entries for this blog about the past school year, the projects I assigned, the problems I had, the victories I enjoyed.  Stay tuned.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

I'm back....and YOKA goes to MOCA

Whew! It's been a while since I posted.  I'll try to bring you up to speed, but first some comments about my field trip last week:

Today the art teacher Mr. Greene and I took about seventy students to the Museum of Contemporary Art on Grand Avenue.  Before that we also visited the Central Library on Fifth Street, and then we walked up the Library Stairs to Bunker Hill and MOCA.  After visiting the museum we had lunch in the Water Court.  All in all it was a wonderful day.  The students were well behaved and enjoyed the new experiences, new places, new environments.

This was our second field trip as part of the Pacific Standard Time project in education.  In December we went to Disney Hall to hear the LA Phil rehearsing for their evening concert.  I love to take students on outings like this.  You can almost literally see them stretching their wings as they encounter a new part of the big world around them.  There is NO substitute for this kind of exposure, and it’s a real loss to our children that field trips have become so rare.

A couple of aspects of this trip made a big impression on me.  First of all, their reaction to the art in MOCA was perfectly appropriate to first seeing Rothko or Pollock or Segal or a bent piece of wire or a blue plastic tube.  “This is art?”  “I could do this!” “My little brother could make this!”  “This doesn’t even look like a person!” etc.  But they looked, they discussed, they studied these things.  Who knows what thoughts lodged deep in their minds, only to emerge later as they mature and remember that strange painting they saw on a field trip in 7th grade?

Then at lunch I watched as they sat around the tables at the Water Court among the office workers and executives from the towers of Bunker Hill, eating lunch, chatting, laughing, having a good time.  Mariano was so excited to have had TWO frappacinos, and Luis discovered Angel’s Flight and showed his friends.  At moments like these I can imagine them as grown ups, and that definitely gives a good spin to the backbreaking labor of teaching them in seventh grade.

So although a field trip is a long day on my feet, with a lot of preparation and no duty free moments, it’s well worth the effort.  I hope there will be many more.

Monday, August 22, 2011

In training, training, training

Since I had the summer off without income I went to as many paid trainings as I could.  All in all I participated in three multi-day trainings:

1.  Teaching reading to students who were many years behind grade level.  I went to this with three colleagues from YOKA.  One day covered a very elaborate system of teaching phonics (fawniks? phaunicks? fonix?).  The other days reviewed many techniques and activities for remediating students reading abilities.  I think these techniques will be useful, although they hardly ever mentioned writing which I think should be part of improving reading skills.

2.  Project Based Learning.  Seven of us from YOKA attended this five-day training held at my son’s alma mater, Miguel Contreras Learning Complex.  We were given some basic guidance in designing projects and lots of time to work together to plan projects.  This was like heaven for teachers--paid time to collaborate on lesson planning.  A couple of other teachers and I took the time to plan a project for advisory called “High School Here I Come.”  The goal of the project is to prepare our eighth grade advisory students for high school through various kinds of research and group work.  Later I worked on a project for the first writing domain--a narrative anthology done by small groups.  And I got to know some of my colleagues!  Five days well spent.

3.  Scholastic’s “Read 180” reading program.  This is the District’s big bold and beautiful remedial reading program (the latest in a looooooong line of such programs).  It required a three day training downtown in the big house, with an appetizer day devoted to “Reducing disruptive behavior.”  (More on that later.)  Read 180 is a comprehensive, thorough, multifaceted program.  It provides a wealth of materials--novels, workbooks, posters, cds, dvds--and a detailed prescription of how to structure class time and student work.  (And I do mean DETAILED!)  The trainers were experienced classroom teachers with extensive experience teaching reading using this program.  The program was better than I expected, although again writing was sadly neglected.  I’m not even sure I’ll be teaching reading, but it was interesting to see what the district is using to try to meet the needs of students who have fallen behind in reading. 

I also learned something very important about stopping disruptive behavior.  There are plenty of studies showing that behavior acknowledged by the teacher will be repeated more often.  In one study, for example, some teachers responded immediately to students who interrupted the lesson while others continued the lesson.  In the classes where the teacher responded immediately to the disruptive behavior, that same behavior became more frequent.   In the classes where the teacher ignored the behavior, it diminished. 

The lesson is:  DON’T ACKNOWLEDGE THE DISRUPTIVE BEHAVIOR.  Instead, when a student disrupts the lesson, the teacher should somehow acknowledge the correct behavior that most students are exhibiting and only indirectly indicate to the disruptor that he should stop.  Later, privately, the teacher can speak directly to the disruptor. 

This makes sense to me, although it’s going to be hard to ignore disruptions.  The natural impulse is to tell the student to sit down or be quiet or put down the pencil or whatever.  The correct action, however, is to say something positive to the students who are listening or reading or otherwise doing what you asked them to do, thus implying to the misbehaving student that he should cut it out.  The basic premise is thus:  Don’t let anything short of an earthquake interrupt your instruction!

That’s good advice, and it fits with the intensive planning I’m doing in preparation for the start of school.  More on that in coming posts.

Also coming up:  A wonderful teacher story, inspiring to all of us in the profession.