Friday, November 23, 2012

Leading Horses to Water

This quarter I have the opportunity to teach the subject of 'American Government' to a group of senior students via a block class format, and the first three weeks have provided a handful of memorable occasions when I was able to introduce new concepts. While the subject of Federalism means little to nothing for most people, it represents one of the fundamental principles for how our form of government was devised. It also separates us from other governments in distinct ways by providing the direct election of our leaders, placing responsibilities in the hands of leaders which can sometimes come into direct conflict with the interests of the common people.

The ways in which federal and state government have evolved over the years is a subject in itself, and I emphasize to students that it's important to be aware of what public officials can and CANNOT do with the powers granted to them within the confines of the constitution. I am guarded in sharing my personal opinions with students as I want them to make their own conclusions about current events and matters regarding issues which concern both present and future happenings. There are times when I act as devil's advocate in order to get them thinking about all sides sides of an issue, not just the side to which they gravitate to naturally. I want them to understand why liberals think one way, conservatives another, and how people can then get stuck in the middle. I find that young people tag themselves as "liberal" or "conservative" as they see a connection with being open-minded and fair when in fact it should be more of a relation to the responsibility and scope of government in our daily lives.

As we completed a portion of the unit, I asked my students as to how many of them were aware of a topic called Eminent Domain. Out of twenty-nine students, there was not one hand which went up and I jumped upon this opportunity to proceed with a discussion about whether local government could seize personal property for the common good of society. This issue does not take on the glamour whereby sides are easily defined, such as Democrats vs Republicans and liberal vs conservative. A pair of videos, one by Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes and another by a local TV reporter in Pennsylvania, brought the concept into a better light and students saw how the issue impacted quiet communities whereby 'progress' was defined as the demolition of neighborhoods in order to improve upon the existing tax base. Halfway into the video I paused to ask my students whether they could envision something like this taking place in Beaver Dam in order to build a new school, expand the highway, or improve upon the downtown area. It was here that the connection was made and my class was immediately divided in half. "It worked!"

Regardless of which position a person takes in the issue of eminent domain, I was seeking a connection of the unit theme (Federalism) with a pertinent topic of interest. Once that linking takes place within the mind of an individual, the magic of learning kicks into high gear and you see, hear and feel the correlation they've made. As a teacher I relish those moments and it is then that I am thankful for being in this time and place of my life. It gives me satisfaction and hope that more of these opportunities still lay ahead.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Making Connections to History

One of my favorite exercises in this new career has been providing opportunities for my students to write about themselves, and whether they realize it or not, I can often set the stage for ways which allows them to connect historical events. Two weeks ago I used an Analogy Chart to compare the concept of colony with that of being a child seeking independence. As we wrapped up the period of the Revolutionary War this week, I interjected a prompt whereby each student was asked to free-write one page about a day in their life when they tried something for the very first time. How did they feel? Were they successful? Did their success or failure affect their determination to attempt it again? And what did they learn about themselves?

Once the prompt is fed to my students, I like to walk around the room while expanding on the concept as response time differs from person to person. I often need to offer up additional information such as: "Tell me about the first time you went swimming into deep water all by yourself. Were you scared or brave in your approach? Maybe you rode the roller coaster for the first time or went on another carnival ride which turned you upside down. Once you found out how much fun it was, were you ready to do it again? What about the first deer that you shot? Or the first fish you caught all by yourself? How about the first time you danced with a girl or a guy?....."  Sometimes I have to feed them ques for 5-7 minutes until every hand is scripting a response, then I take a step back and watch them make music (the kind which comes from transcription).

As has been the case in the past, once they get their minds headed in the right direction, a student’s work is masterful and intriguing. As to why I had them write about this, it involves the concept of how the United States came about after receiving its independence from England. For the first 10 years it was a very difficult time for everyone associated with this country. They had to make some adjustments as to how our government was structured and run. There was much quarreling among our founding fathers, but they worked together to get the kinks worked out. Determination and fortitude laid the foundation for great success in our country.

While adults keen on American history may see the historical significance of this period in time, young people often think that people inhabiting this country were all on the same page. As much as Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Adams, Hancock and all the others loved the concept of independence, their "first time" with democracy was anything but a picnic. They were scared, yet optimistic...calm, yet anxious...supportive, yet critical...confident, yet precarious in their approach to government and the role it would play in this new country.

After they've completed the task, it is here when I feed them a pitch which serves as a magnet to the concept of American democracy undergoing struggles in their first go-around after independence. For many in the class, the light bulb goes off and the connection is made. For others, the seed has been planted for another time when they see the signifigance of the events. In the meantime, their individual responses shed light on their unique personalities and ways in which they've been impacted by the world around them.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Reflection at Nine Weeks

On Friday afternoon I put the finishing touches on my first quarter of high school, logging grades and comments into the gradebooks of over one hundred and thirty-seven students. I not only have all of their names and faces burned into my memory bank, but I'm fully aware of all past-due assignments and the excuses which are most-often associated with them. Despite their faults, my classroom experiences with young people have been very rewarding and I wouldn't trade them for anything of value.

Near the top of my most memorable have been those encounters with a handful of autistic students. Working with these individuals requires more than just an alternative lesson-plan, and I found my extra laptop to be a great resource. While our minds know when to slow up and shift into safety mode, these students are working overtime in ways which few could ever fathom. In the long run this takes a toll on these students and there are days when I feel their stress. My Econ class completed its block schedule this week and one student offered up a presentation on the gaming industry which was exceptional in every sense of the word. This person came SO FAR since the first day of school and I was proud of what they accomplished in my classroom.

While my freshmen are all returning for another quarter of U.S. History, on Monday I begin a new venture on American Government with 29 seniors. On the eve of a national election and a fresh financial crisis looming on the horizon, the next nine weeks should offer up an assortment of new challenges....and I can't wait for it to start!