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Teaching History: A Leadership Lesson From the 4th of July

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NPR, The Declaration of Independence, & Twitter

The reason for schools' abandoning the requirement that students memorize parts of our historic documents has long been a question on our minds. Shouldn't all citizens know what truths are "self-evident" or what rights are "unalienable"?  Where was it articulated that all men are created equal? Shouldn't we know? Was the move away from memorizing facts and phrases caused by a belief that memorization was not valuable, that it lost the meaning it was designed to instill or did it succumb to the access created by technology? Was it an organized educational reform or erosive and individual decisions, one teacher, one school at a time? Especially in social studies/history classes, this is apparent.

When the Common Core hit New York, the State Education Department posted a video of David Coleman, one of the contributing authors of the Common Core State Standards, offering guidance on how to teach a close reading of MLK's letter from Birmingham Jail. It is a good introduction to how documents can be used to teach more than their content. Context is key to understanding as well. Thoughtful planning of good questions, opportunities for research, discussion, writing, critical thinking and collaboration are all established as foundational skills required for today's learners. There are important documents that offer foundations for learning and perhaps moving from memorization to close readings are another step from the last century's learning to this. But we suggest that neither are being done, at least not in any consistent, across classrooms, schools, districts, states, and the nation. 

NPR and the Declaration of Independence

Decades ago, National Public Radio (NPR) established a tradition of reading the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July. It was read by multiple people, each reading a section. This year the decision was made to send out the entire document, in print, as tweets. It took over 100 of them to send out the document in its entirely, using 140 character chunks. The response was immediate and surprising.  A flurry of tweets objected to the language and the implications. Some thought the reference to King George III was about President Trump. Others found it too liberal and left leaning, thinking NPR was calling for a revolution. Others called for the defunding of NPR for their encouragement of an uprising against our government.  The Kansas City Star headline captured the flurry, "NPR tweets the Declaration of Independence, and people freak out about a 'revolution'"  Where did our educational system go awry? 

How Did We Get Here?

We do believe that learning facts and even memorizing certain phrases has a place in education. And, yes, understanding the meaning and purpose are essential.  We also believe that in depth reading of foundational historical documents have an important place in today's curriculum.  Have we abandoned one practice and not adopted a better one in its place?  Perhaps.  No matter the reason, the reaction on July 4th can and should serve as a wake-up call that a better job needs to be done.

Some news stories highlighted that those protesting the tweets were Trump supporters. To us, that doesn't matter.  Schools have a powerful opportunity and responsibility. Remembering once again that we are educating the next generation of adults who will become America's electorate, or even become its governmental leaders, it is important that we graduate well-informed (better-informed) future adults.  Shouldn't those words to which many were objecting been remotely familiar to anyone who attended and graduated from K -12 public schools? We think some recognition might have been expected. At least, we hoped so but the evidence is there that it didn't happen.  

The Need for Curriculum Leadership

Often, we focus our writing on the personal attributes required for successful school leadership.  Today, we are thinking about the curricular leadership schools need. If you opened a conversation with your social studies and history department faculty would they agree that graduates ought to recognize content of the Declaration of Independence? Would they be as surprised as we are or would they have expected the fallout? They are at the core of the question regarding the teaching and preserving the democracy we hold dear. How do they see their roles in that process?

Thinking about the methods of teaching and expectations of learners across the district from kindergarten through the 12th grade is clearly a leadership responsibility. Investigating the beliefs held by the educators in charge of implementing curriculum will provide insight to how, and how well, something will be learned. 

In social studies and each of the core subjects, the curricular leadership conversation investigates what happens in 3rd grade as opposed to 6th and why; in 7th and 12th and why?  How are the expectations built upon each other? And most importantly, in terms of comprehension, what is it we want students to know and be able to do? Is there focus on assessments that demand fact recall or is comprehension, and a level of literacy held to the same level of concern?  Curriculum is the developmental ecosystem of learning opportunities, strategically placed by teachers working together under state and federal regulatory guidelines and local leadership. We do not want to produce another generation of citizens who don't recognize the Declaration of Independence. The document was, indeed, a call to revolution. The reaction got that part right. But, it is imperative to our sustainability as a nation that we know when and why revolution happened. Gifts come, sometimes, as surprises. Let's make this surprise a gift.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

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