Why ask why?

Why ask why? Just accept “it is what it is” and go on with your life. But is that true?  Should people, especially innovative people accept “that’s just the way it always been?

If that was true, then many of our greatest movements would have never happened.

The Rennaissance would have never happened

Cleaning up the cities and bringing healthy food and medicine would not have been

Autocracy would have run amok

Questioning is a great idea, and we as practitioners of leadership need to ask more questions and encourage the why in people. Simon Sinek wants people to start with why. We need to start with why more!

It is really important to slow down and to think about the underlying arguments for any reason a person presents to you which tries to persuade you. Asking why can help you, the individual start to piece together the reasons or rationale behind a person’s beliefs or actions.

I recently found a number of articles and papers which describe how people tend to believe what they already believe, even when the EVIDENCE is opposed. How can people do this? Aren’t we rational? We really aren’t. The authors of two books, Thinking, fast and slowly, and Blink, describe to their readers the idea that “gut reactions” or “gut level knowledge” is considered more valuable. Second the authors point out that people tend to support knowledge that backs up our own experiences or beliefs.

Another author, Evans, in the book The human side of school change, tells readers a really important concept.  If you have entered into a bad situation, and continue to exist in that situation, after a while, you won the situation, and will defend it as “the reality.”

This thinking is concerning- why and how do we move to change people’s minds when they won’t ask why? Change our tactics to a different way of trying to get people to question their realities. It is the only exercise that will help us make change for the better.


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Reenactor popularity

Renaissance fairs, Civil War, Revolutionary war, 18th century products and Masters of Craft: artisans in 21st. Living history and a great many return to craft works!

My wife is the owner of secret garden designs. She loves crafting and sewing. She loves to work on period pieces. We both love finding out about what life was like in the past. We watched the entire Timeteam series from the BBC. We both watched the Farming Series from BBC. I enjoy the works that Genesee Country Museum, the Buffalo Niagara Historic Village, and the Old Bethpage Village on Long Island. My wife grew up next to Museum Village in Orange County NY. Her brother served as a Civil War Re-enactor. one of my favorite social studies teachers in Junior High was a Civil war Re-enactor.  A colleague of mine and a fellow Alpha Phi Omega member participate in Civil War Re-enactment. There is a wide number of suppliers for re-enactment, including Townsend, Old Suttler’s John, and Pearsons.

So why do people re-enact? For some, its the process of studying archaeology and history by doing it through the process of Experimental archaeology, a recognized field of study which allows scholars to glean an understanding into how tools were used, how structures were built, and how the daily lives of people came to be. Many times, the people involved in experimental archaeology provide valuable insight into how theory became applied practice. Other members of the community enjoy the fellowship of the community. They find the events and the comrades they make to be supportive, welcoming, and unique environment to pursue a passion.

There are website, books, and a wide variety of youtube videos devoted to the time periods and materials for reenactment. If you want to learn how to cook from the Civil War era there are recipes and cooking demos.  Cook books abound. Different crafters make reproduction tools and equipment that would be used in the time period. We all know food is a great attraction for people. From eating hardtack and salt pork, to cakes and fry breads and roasts common to the era, a veritable feast can be consumed on a reenactment event weekend. One of my dear friends, Amelia is involved with the SCA. Her mundane existence as a technology director at a school support system and her weekend persona are amazing in their existence. She is a thrown weapons master, and arts and crafts guru, and yet runs the website! It allows her enjoyment, fellowship, and acquisition in knowledge of crafting skills which are dying.  I would recommend each person look at the following books for understanding about re-enactors and craft skills:

Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy

Reliving the Civil War

A Compendium of Common Knowledge, 1558-1603: Elizabethan Commonplaces for Writers, Actors & Re-enactors

The Constructed Past: Experimental Archaeology, Education and the Public (One World Archaeology)

Bushcraft 101: A Field Guide to the Art of Wilderness Survival

Popular media also discusses reenactors as well. Almost all of the series are BBC or CBC based television programming. Major news magazines like Salon and The Atlantic have run stories on reenactors, or living histories. Parks and Recreation had an historical reenactor as part of their series. NCIS used a re-enactor death to create a story line. Bones has used historical re enactors to advance the crime fighting adventures of Dr. Brennan and Agent Booth.

One of my friends from Western New York collaborates in a War of 1812 re enactment with Canadian units. this activity inspired him to study history at college. He also became part of a Re enactment club that started a Venturing Scout program on living history.

For students and adults, the living history world is a no opportunity to wonder about what was. Our museums and historical societies do wonderful events and activities and fairs that bring history alive. While not always 100% accurate, it does get the ball rolling. Just like Genealogists and history written for the masses are not always accepted, historians and social studies teachers should look for common allies in our fight to be relevant and expose more students to the wonders of the past and the unique and gripping stories. Engagement =interest= relevance.

Favorite Books

In education we often are asked how to get children to read. Books start at picture book levels, and then move up to chapter books, and finally end at novels. Today, marking the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter caused me to think about which books I liked to read as I grew up. Reading became a constant companion of mine, and allowed me to explore the world beyond my own life. Books are my addiction.  Erasmus is my hero:

“When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.”

Mom and dad indulged my reading habit with abandon. Scholastic book fairs and book-its would run into the large bills that now in reflection were really too much. B Dalton, Barnes and Nobles and even used book stores should have sold us stock. We would have been rich! Our house had books a plenty, and a healthy number of magazines and newspapers. We had popular science, discovery magazine, and a whole host including National Geographic. Words were everywhere in our house.  I don’t remember which picture books I liked, but one of my first favorite characters was Dumbo from the Disney Franchise. There was just something about that elephant that made me so happy.

As a young boy, I loved to read, so i devoured books. Encyclopedia Brown was one series that was so exceptional. The crime fighting, the use of logic, reasoning, and the knowledge the E.B. displayed in the books. His skilled side kicks- who should have had their own starring role! The son of a local police chief, this kid solved crimes through the use of an encyclopedic brain and memory. They used forensic techniques, deductive logic, and a clear reliance on the town’s resources. Such a fun and amazing adventure for a young boy to read. This series lead me to love reading, and a desire to solve puzzles.

Who doesn’t love a little fiction with a vampire bunny? Bunnicula and the series about the vampire bunny sparked a love in me of the supernatural and the dynamics of family and pets. My family had a rabbit, a dog, and a cat, all at the same time. You have to love the mystery of it all, trying to figure out who drained the celery of its essential elements? The simple, quiet bunny? These adventures with anthropomorphic animals were certainly more interesting than some of the reading materials the school provided. Such mystery surrounded the innocent bunny, and the mischievous other characters within the series.

Every once in a while (ok, a lot) I read books that surprised or confused my teachers at school. When I was in fourth or fifth grade, the teacher in our English block asked what our favorite book was. I replied the First Astrowitches. The teacher did a double take. Could you repeat that? I loved a book about two witch children who made their way into outer space on the space shuttle. Her series on the witches were all about a young person growing into their own- solving big problems and little problems. Such an enjoyable series.

Mouse and Motorcycle and the series came out of reading in school. Ralph Mouse, the star of the books helped and looked over his family and his home. The books had fun, adventure, and they explored the idea of helping people. Cleary’s works, including Ramona became one of those series you just had to follow. Between the two series, i became a devoted fan to her writings, and I continue to believe that her works set many of my generation down a good path.

I would be remiss if I did not mention Judy Blume and her Tales of a fourth grade nothing, Superfudge and Freckle juice. Her books looked at moving, a new baby in the family, and all of those events which fourth graders go through, especially if they are the oldest in the family. These classic series allows the reader to empathize, take a different perspective, and in other works deal with really important issues.

One of the most important series I read were the Star Trek novels. This is where life got expensive. They were add ons to the TOS and TNG TV programs. My best friend in elementary school, Rick Schaus, introduced me to the love of Trek. they were adventurous, formulaic, and just awesome! Reading these books let me escape and enjoy reading.

Jody Lynn Nye’s Mythology books were great reads- the scholarly nature of studying magic, the adventures, and the drama were all such amazing parts of the series about Mythology and its happenings.  I really enjoyed when the protagonist was launched into a situation where they had to solve problems or use their wits and knowledge to fight the bad guys.

C Dale Brittan’s A Bad spell in Yurt is another series of novels that were outstanding. Graduating from Wizard college, a young man moves to a small kingdom to solve crisis and become a hero. Nicely written and fantastic in ins characterization as well as story arch, I loved the Yurt novels for their adventure, use of magic, and more importantly, the scholarly nature of the protagonist.

Finally, my heart still weeps at the loss of Tom Clancy. The cold- war Hunt for Red October and all of the rest of the works he wrote were just amazing. They combined drama, politics, and when i harbored a fascination with the navy, a glimpse into the life. Such a dynamic and amazing series of books. So much drama with geopolitical and personal conflict. With its omnipresent narrator, you wanted to know why people weren’t supporting the bigger picture and needs.

These books were creative, held passion and drama. I read a study that many adults just stop reading after school. I also found kids find reading to be a chore. Its true…the damn accountability system has beaten the reading for love of reading out of many children. When you are forced to take an Accelerated Reader test to prove you read a book then what the hell. To much accountability for what is in essence a leisure activity.  Tom Clancy never intended THRO to be testable! So why did we as an educational system make THRO, and other books subject to multiple choice? Lets recapture the magic.


JD Vance and his book

So I am, at heart, a rural educator. But I have served in rural schools, urban schools, government agencies tasked with working in schools, and Higher Education. I am almost 40, having spent almost 7 years in rural schools, and 2 years in an urban school (directly) and almost 7 years tangentially. I have been in higher ed for almost 4 years. Rapidly approaching 40 is causing me to reflect an awful lot on my experiences and, as the sociologists like to say privileged.  I want to lay that out upfront: I am privileged. My family was nuclear, we had many hard working aunts and uncles who surrounded us. I knew both sets of grand parents. We had friends of the family who were close and were surrogate aunts and uncles. My parents worked very hard for stability and, as is shown by the travel we undertook as vacations and Dad’s training, experiences in the wider world. Ye there were rough times too: Dad getting structurally unemployed (layed-off) by ConRail as it imploded. Losing Adam, my baby brother died due to birth defects. The family moving away from our nuclear support to Gloversville. The money that never seemed to be enough, but always was so that we had food, shelter, cloths, and experiences to museums.

Reading JD Vance’s book, I alternated between understanding and amazement. I recoiled at some of his thoughts, and supported others. I really think his book needs to be read in tandem with Kathy Cramer’s book on the rise of discontent among the rural communities. Its a great book for one perspective on rural, rural poor, and rural white poor in difficult family situations. His efforts strive to give voice to a group that has been voiceless. It is a vivid retelling of his experiences from when he was young to his graduation from Law School. Vance uses the term Hillbilly to describe his family and their actions. Through this lens, the tale is told of life that moves from one crisis to another and then through redemption at the feet of his grandparents, his older sister, and the US Marine Corps.

I want to stop here and give thanks and praise to the US military for their efforts at raising “thrown away” children in the U.S. Quite often a story about how service in one branch or another has turned someone’s life around by instilling a sense of order and discipline which was lacking.

JD’s family experienced a number of issues, ranging from drug and alcohol problems, the de-industrialization of the Midwest, instability in nuclear family, and the disinvestment of public education during K-12. His characterization of living in a Rust Belt City is more accurate than the rural connotation the title and many publicists have given the general public. I argue that reading this book, JD has given voice to a disenfranchised group of people in the inner city and small peripheral cities.  As I was reading the text, I thought about Lois Weis’s work Working Class without Work and Willis’ Learning to Labor. Both examine the plight of large, urban city working class. Vance’s work adds to the narrative for smaller and mid sized cities. I would like to add that Worked Over By Dukos helps tell the tale of the Mohawk River Valley.

While JD’s grandmother plays an exceptional role in the book until he loses her to death, he hints very gentle about the lessons that he learned from her. It is true that this work is his homage to her, and to the loving care which she provided. I wished he would have explored his sister’s influence in more detail. She seemed to have done yeoman’s work in protecting him from the extremes which his family overcame. While he is the central storyteller in the book, I believe that the text should be examined by feminist scholars for the way in which women influence life in different economic strata in the U.S. The glass ceiling is a terrible wrong committed by power in society, but I think a recognition of the rock solid foundation that women provide to many needs greater recognition. If not, how many more families would fall ever further into the morass.

JD Vance’s book raises a series of policy questions which need to be addressed: How do we get the Harvard, Yales and Stanfords to do a better job reaching non-elite applicants? Can the United States Education System examine its self beyond year to year testing and see how well schools provide movement into different career goals which children express? Would a systematic health care policy which universally protected mental health, dental health, vision and physical health reduce the number of school and family related issues? Should the US government’s next major infrastructure investment be in creating safe lead free and mold free housing in cities, suburbs, and rural areas? How can we better leverage the military’s guidance system to help disaffected youth?

While we have Troops to teachers, we may need to deploy more service members into areas most affected by malaise. Not as an occupying force, but as mentors in communities where they are not found, or in short supply. Our military has been tasked with fighting terrorists abroad. There is a much greater need at home: fight the drug gangs, and fight the social anomie which has emerged in urban and rural areas from job losses and societal breakdowns.

Harsh words emerge within the text, and they can grate on people who have never experienced the bias and the different norms that JD experienced. The question becomes how to stop the characterizations and the lack of tolerance and understanding which Vance brings up in his memoir. It is a question which is unanswered in the book, and in many ways unanswered by the academy.

JD Vance’s work Hillibilly Elegy allows a peek into the mind of the white working class. A memoir with powerful experiences and moments of pain which come across to the reader in an easily accessible text, it should be an assigned course reader in a sociology and policy class at the Graduate level.


Civic engagement and Knope

Social studies teachers are nerds. We love being nerds. We love watching tv programs that are nerdy. Yet we hold one of the greatest responsibilities in the education world- to teach our children civic engagement. Recent reports in the 2010s have indicated that many people feel disengaged from civic society. They feel left out. They feel like their voice is not heard. People feel government does not listen to the little guy and their issues. We have clearly had a miscommunication, or a huge failure to communicate.  Having taught senior year civics for almost five years, and overseen a large urban school district program in civics, as well as worked at the NYS education department in implementing state civics education I can assure you. In the C3 and NYS standards civics is there. It may be strangled as our students in senior year civics are asked to write a long policy analysis paper for Participation in Government. These senior year students, many of whom are 17 or 18, are not sure how this class relates to basics like voter registration, or paying taxes, or registering for selective service. Many others are confused about how to interact with the local courts system if they are ticketed for speeding. What is worse, we never teach the basics of how to obtain a marriage licence, or where to go if you have an issue with a building permit, or how to buy a house. We don’t discuss what to do if there is an animal loose- or how to obtain a dog licence for a pet. We never discuss what local resources are available for our residents and citizens to use.  As a school- we assume that the parents have done that. We have in an epic and complete way failed our students to the point that many only feel comfortable interacting online and in virtual reality.

Thankfully, some of our political leaders are creating a movement and an excitement in young voters. President Obama, and candidate Jill Stein and candidate Bernie Sanders have led mass engagements in politics and civics by young people. From their slogans to their platforms, to their social medial and communication savvy, these leaders are asking our students to engage and to make the world better. Its almost as if JFK’s call for the Peace Corps and Americorps has found another generation that wants to go good for the sake of doing good. Some of this civic mindedness is finding its way into Teach for American. While maybe not the best way to engage in teaching, which is a career, the TFAs are recruited from our best and brightest and serve in some of the most demanding schools. Not always successful, these TFAers have something that regular educators are missing: Social Capitol. See, I went to school at a State school. I am very proud of that education. I have not, nor have any of my classmates from high school made enough money or become powerful enough to really make a significant difference outside of our own little worlds. The two most powerful members of my High School class are an Assistant Superintendent and a high school principal. Classes behind me have people who are small business owners, and doctors and lawyers- but no one who you read about in the Times or the Wall Street Journal. Now compare that to TFAs. They have graduated from networked in schools. They know millionaires. They work with high finance and policy gurus. If they want to accomplish a task, they can. We can too, but they have elite folks at their disposal. We need to do things via grassroots, hard work, luck and a lotto win.

This brings me to Knope, or Leslie Knope, Amy Pohler’s character on Parks and Recreation. Leslie was an idealist, a public servant who wanted to do good work. Her seven season arc takes her from the role as Deputy Director of Pawnee, Indiana’s parks and recreation department to a high level job in national politics. The stories, while trite, or conflated, or  farcical, do explain a number of civic engagement concepts in a way that is not dry or boring.

What does Leslie try to do? She wants to build a park. Leslie wants to create a beautiful area for the citizens of her city. Over the space of the series, you see Leslie working with different characters in her office who help, oppose, or frustrate her. She deals with state intervention and government shut down. She deals with a public that does not always know what is good for it. At public hearings,  her ideas are opposed by people for reasons which have nothing to do with creating a better place. When Leslie decides to run for office, the campaign deals with money, manipulation, and public distrust. Once elected to City council, she must work with people who are out to harm her efforts. Leslie deals with a  log rolling incident where her “Fun in the Sun” legislation is held up to allow a councilman to get her office. When she tries to impose a sugar tax, the community hates her because they want their food- and the business world attacks and threatens to destroy her. A group demand her recall and are successful, even after she saves two cities. The groups call her a nag and a nanny.

It is interesting to see this humorous comedy have so many situations which allow social studies teachers to look at and teach civics in depth. It shows the difficulties faced by women in a world with many male tendencies. The show examines small town life from a less than flattering angle. It does provide many powerful female characters. It allows a grander discussion in its last season about corporate responsibility, the role of big data in our lives, and how we as citizens look to technology and trend makers for silly reasons.  This show can help teachers discuss civic, economic, political and other current issues in a funny but engaging way. Look into the show, and see what you think.

Microhistory and Guardians

In Grad school, I wrote a paper about the Iroquois Influence debate that pitted the biggest names of history against Don Grinde and Bruce Johanson. There was miles of ink spilled in the debate on the quality of the work on those who believed that the Iroquois influenced the creation of the American Constitution and those who took a more traditional approach. I have recently become concerned with what I see as the movement of the many to disagree and discount the experiences of the few in the “authentic” record. We have seen  a great number of quotes about Alternative Facts appearing. I want to take a moment and think through alternative facts and the living reality of the few.

In many ways, history is written by the majority. It is written by consensus among the historical field based upon the sources which were left during the time period. It takes a major amount of peer review before theories pass muster and enter into accepted historical understanding and “cannon.”  And yet, as the movie “The minority report” reminds us, there are always those that disagree. In the minority report, a person is accused of a pre-crime, and is hunted down in order to prevent the crime from occurring. There is no get out of jail free. If you are accused, you are accused. Then, when one of the officers charged with enforcing the law is accused of a pre-crime, he finds out that there is not unanimous agreement in the prediction of the pre-crime. Rather, a “Minority Report” may indicate that the crime might not be committed. In history, we have these “minority reports.” There are historians who often buck the trend, find a different interpretation, and publish alternative views on events. Many times, these historians do not gain fame, or prestige, or that rarest of jobs, tenure track positions. It often takes decades for these views or facts to become considered in the main stream of the historical cannon.

Women’s history, ethic minorities, LGBTQ, and social history in general has taken years to become accepted as mainstream history. If not for the works of Mary Beth Norton, or Gary Nash, or John Hope Franklin, would this rich, engaging, and important part of the American Narrative gained its place in the cannon of history.  I would encourage all historians, students of history, and social studies teachers to think about how we encourage our students to examine their histories, but more importantly, the micro histories which add depth and breadth to the historical narrative.

What is Microhistory? Essentially, it is history at the smallest levels. It is not Bernard Bailyn, or Jared Diamond. It is local, it is singular, it is personal.  Alfred Young does an amazing job in his work The Shoemaker and the Tea party in exploring the microhistory  of the Boston Tea Party.  Maybe reading about Clara Barton would be a good start. I for one love the new book Hidden Figures about the role of women in NASA. This well written work examines a forgot and important STEM area that gives young people some role models.

Since today is Mother’s day, I would be remiss if I did not mention my mom, Patricia Jakubowski- who serves as a great story of her own. Born in South Buffalo to poor German and Irish families who had served as fire fighters and mechanics, my mother gave up her dream of oceanography to become a nurse. Graduating from E J Meyer school of nursing in Buffalo, Mom served as a nurse at Buffalo General. She then went to serve as a nurse at Nathan Littauer Hospital in Gloversville. Mom also served as a a nurse for Our Lady of Victory home for children in Lackawanna NY and as a state nursing home/ safety inspector and psych hospital nurse. Mom has always helped those at need- friends of the family, family members, or children who’s own parents could not or would not help them. Mom has taken the nursing oath-

Before God and those assembled here, I solemnly pledge;

To adhere to the code of ethics of the nursing profession;

To co-operate faithfully with the other members of the nursing team and to carryout [sic] faithfully and to the best of my ability the instructions of the physician or the nurse who may be assigned to supervise my work;

I will not do anything evil or malicious and I will not knowingly give any harmful drug or assist in malpractice.

I will not reveal any confidential information that may come to my knowledge in the course of my work.

And I pledge myself to do all in my power to raise the standards and prestige of the practical nursing

May my life be devoted to service and to the high ideals of the nursing profession

to heart…… Mom- I love you!

Mini-golf, sandwiches and rural

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I had the privileged of serving as a social studies teacher in two rural environments in New York State. The first, a village school located near Pennsylvania’s border with New York hired me right out of undergrad. This was due in part to the connections I had between the Scout camp were I worked and the principal of said school, who was golfing buddies with the camp director’s buddy- the camp commissioner (program ombudsmen). So I really have to thank my connection through a person I knew for helping me with my first job. I also have to thank the national sub shop chain in the gas station for helping me through my first job as well. See, for a single guy, running out for lunch during the day at school was hard. Where I taught it was 8 miles to the nearest fast food place, and 7 miles to the supermarket in the nearby city. It was almost 30 miles to a major supermarket chain in the much larger village of Springville. Needless to say, it is often much easier to roll out of bed and depend on the school cafeteria for food than to make it yourself. Dinner was a little easier- I could order pizza, or go into the small city or over the hill to a quaint village with some restaurants open. Quite often, it was grabbing a sub on the way home and eating it in front of the TV. In 1998-1999 internet was dial-up, long distance and expensive!

When I moved to my next job, out in the Leatherstocking region in New York, my final year there I was again single. A local national sub sandwich franchise became my dinner of choice place again. It was a steak sub or a chicken sub. I always saw my one student there, who was working to save up for college. It was quick, it was easy, and it required no thought. To eat at the sub shop for dinner allowed my to focus on myself and my job. It also allowed me to worry about getting to class on time for graduate school. See, in New York state, a teacher who graduates from school needs to also earn a masters degree in a five year time period from graduation. This is an extraordinarily quick time frame.  Not only is a new teacher learning how to teach, they may be settling into a marriage, or other life changing situation. While it does add to the exclusivity of a teaching career in the state, the young teachers have so many responsibilities during this time that they may not be able to focus on the required part of their jobs: teaching.

I also found a unique situation when single: You really can’t go out on a date in your local area. For me, that meant a huge area, because large cities in the area (Binghamton and Oneonta) were part of the area’s cultural catchment basin. I ran into co-workers 40 miles away from the village where we worked. There was little or no privacy. It is very awkward running into students while playing mini-golf. My experience in rural setting as a teacher is that there was no place to escape. There was no place to go to relax.  Teaching is one of the only professions which still places a moral requirement on its practitioners that they be the ideal. At least in urbanized/metro areas, there are places people can retreat to or a five minute drive gives space to the practitioners.

So one of the best improvements society provide teachers, especially in rural areas, is space and privacy.

Worst lesson ever…

Twenty years…. That’s how long I have worked in education starting September 2018. After graduating a Teaching Social Studies 7-12 BA program at SUNY Fredonia’s school of education, I got my first job- at a rural school district of 240 kids K-12 that no longer exists near the Pennsylvania boarder with New York. Growing up in suburban Hamburg, near Buffalo, I was used to a graduating class that size. Now, I would be working with social studies students in 7th, 9th, 11th and 12th grade. Yikes. We were also in a block schedule as well- so this was really new to me. Blocking was never covered in college, so I had to learn on the fly. I was also teaching 4 different preparations, which in many suburban and urban districts would be against the contract! But in rural schools- you do what you have to in order to survive.

So the worst lesson I ever taught was in the days before the Teacher Evaluation Rubrics. Lessons were evaluated by what ever instrument the school administrator and the union determined would be a good fit. In my school it was very narrative, so it was a time/action running record of what happened in the class. So lets begin the reflection into a really bad lesson.

We had learned Madeline Hunter’s model of lesson planning in undergrad: Pre-opening, opening, Body, review, conclusion, assessment. This is a very structured form of a lesson plan, and for a new teacher, its especially good for keeping you on track. Except for one little problem. By February, I was overwhelmed with teaching four preps and six classes each day. It was too much. I wasn’t really lesson planning so much as identifying resources and listing them in the lesson plan sheet the district gave to us. Tired does not begin to describe the exhaustion I was feeling. Additionally, i had no mentor, as mine was out on medical leave, and many other teachers weren’t as forthcoming as they could have been- or I didn’t know they were offering help and I thought I was doing fine- after all, I was a member of the Education Honors society Kappa Delta Pi, and had graduated with Honors in Liberal Education and Summa Cum Laude honors on my degree. Arrogance and pride before the fall, I guess….

So- that Mid-winter day I showed two videos in my 72 minute block class to ninth graders in the Global Studies I class. These students were Regents track students who would need to take an end of Course exam next year while 10th graders. They would face 48 Multiple choice questions and three essays about the enduring themes of Global History. In our small district, every student was a Regents track student. Your section though was determined by when you attended Career and Technical Education at the local Board of Cooperative Education Services. Usually the AM section were the top kids in the school, and the PM section were kids who were not drawn to academic pursuits.  I cannot even remember what those two videos were on. I had given directions verbally to my students to “take notes as you watch the video.” That was it. I popped the video in and let it play. Occasionally, I’d stop the video, or make a comment about what the program was talking about but that was it.

Train wreck would be way too polite to describe how bad it was. So lets go through what I did wrong:

  1. I did not plan- what was my goal for the day? How did this lesson advance the student’s knowledge about the content and skills for an historian? How was this aligned with the expectations for students to be successful on the end of the course exam?
  2. I did not do well to know my class- First- they did not have the skills to “take notes” on a video- I had never cognitively coached them on the process. I never introduced how I wanted to take notes. I never gave them leading questions to make sure they were cued into the important stuff. Worst of all, I forgot learning 101- attention span. Most students have a 15 minute attention span. i had them watch 70 minutes of a pretty boring social studies history video.
  3. There was no accountability for learning- I did not see how they learned, what they learned, or what was so significant about their learning. There is a ton of research which indicates students need structure to help ensure that they are learning- and this was really passive.

So, If I had to do it again I would have:

  1. Clearly articulated my goals- which C3 and NYS standards does the lesson align to. Which part of the CCLS aligned Framework does this lesson tie to?
  2. Knowledge activation: What do you already know, and what do you want to know about the subject
  3. Different stations for learning:
    1. The first station: a small video about the subject
    2. The second station: a number of documents about the topic with guiding questions
    3. The third station: Music/Art/culture related to the topic
    4. A web based virtual tour of a museum or a virtual field trip to the site with observation questions.
  4. Last 10 minutes of class- devote time to having the students record their work in collaboration in teams by mixing up the station groups- Jig Saw method.
  5. Ask the students to develop a website, or podcast or other form of product.

So that was the worst lesson ever. I want to make sure no one ever does it again.

Best lesson I ever did

It’s been almost 20 years since I started teaching, in 1998. That is 2/3rds of a career for some people in education. Every once in a while when my mind drifts, or I can’t sleep at night, memories both good and bad come back to haunt me. Then I get my brain revving to try and figure out what I could have done differently or better. Today, while walking in amazingly beautiful upstate New York, I was pondering the best lesson I ever taught.

In this age of accountability and teacher evaluation, the idea of a “best lesson” is not discussed- rather its “Did this lesson meet the standards of ____________ teacher evaluation rubric?” Danielson, the NYSUT model, others that all discuss the impact of a lesson through measurement and evaluation. I am going to dwell on Danielson because that is what I taught through when at Sidney, and trained to evaluate while at Rochester as a Social Studies Director. The first Domain of Danielson’s rubric is Planning and preparation.  The domain is divided into two sub parts: Content & pedagogy and the second part of designing coherent strategy. The second domain is the classroom environment and it too, is divided into two parts: Creating an environment of respect and rapport, as well as the second part of managing student behavior. The third domain is instruction. Here, three sub parts are identified: Questioning/ discussion techniques, engaging students in learning, and using assessment to monitor progress. The fourth domain is professional growth and development. Let’s think about that for a minute.

Here is what you need to know:

  1. Do you know your stuff?
  2. Can you teach it well?
  3. Do students and you know how to get from September to June in an organized way?
  4. Is the classroom safe orderly, and helpful?
  5. Are the students working on-task and with each other?
  6. Can you and your students discuss and verbally interact with materials and each other?
  7. Do the students look bored?
  8. How do you and the student know they have learned something?

These really 8 basic questions sum up the framework. So let’s use the best lesson I ever taught as a case study: Foods in the Colombian exchange.

Background: In order to have earned professional certification in NYS back in the day (early 2000s) a teacher needed to film the class and themselves teaching. We then paid a boat load of money to some company to evaluate our tape and tell the state that we were good enough to teach. (Since that time, teachers now are never permanently certified. They must engage in Continuing Teacher and Leader Education (CTLE) based professional development and pay fees every time the certification comes up for renewal). I planned a lesson that I thought was amazing! My Global History and Geography class (sophomores) were in the Renaissance and Reformation unit that would ready them for the Global History and Geography exam. The GHG exam is an end of course exam which covers all of human history. The class actually covers two years (9+10 grade). students in the course sit for a 3 hour exam where they need to answer 50 multiple choice questions, write a thematic essay based off of a question from the 10 themes of social studies, answer 10-13 short answer document questions, and then write an essay based on documents and outside information. Usually in a large gym in New York in June (hot and humid- no A/C). The Renaissance and Reformation unit included some discussion on the Age of Exploration.  The Colombian Exchange is the massive diffusion of animals, plants, microbes, and technology between the Eastern and Western Hemisphere. Alfred Crosby wrote a great book about it. I also took my idea and made it into a Center for Teaching American History project at Binghamton University document essay/ plan.  (

So I planned the following lesson:

  1. gathering and introduction: What was the Colombian Exchange?- 5 minute mini lesson on the Exchange
  2. Description of the activity: Students are placed into teams of 4-5 each. They are then given a worksheet which contains three columns. The students are to identify different foods, the taste of the foods, and how those foods may be used in the culture of the home area and the new area.
    1. Rice- Corn- Wheat
    2. Mango-Oranges-strawberries
    3. Cinnamon- Chili powder-Horseradish
  3. Research using your textbook and documents provided some of the technologies and diseases exchanged.
    1. What was the impact on each hemisphere from technology exchanges?
    2. Using the chart from Guns, Germs and Steel, describe how the Europeans used technology to their advantage in Imperialism
    3. Discuss how native Americans used and adopted technology.

I think it went great- the students tried a wide variety of fruits and grains and spices! Some remembered this experience and wrote about it on the Regents exam. My colleagues were not impressed, and thought I spent way too much money on the stuff for class. (it was like 75 dollars- 3 sections and 25 kids in each section). But was it a great lesson? Did I meet the domains from Mrs. Charlotte’s rubric?

Domain 1:

Content & Pedagogy: So I knew my stuff- After all, I was a Fredonia State Outstanding history major! I read Guns, Germs and Steel, and Crosby’s book on the Colombian Exchange!  Pedagogy: I wanted to create a station based learning activity which required students to investigate foods and documents that were part of the exchange. they then had to do some research and fill out a document which captured their findings. OK, not bad. Could have gone deeper- made them present and question each other, or write a letter or essay about the topic. Now a days I could ask the students to use Web 2.0 and do some really technologically advanced things, like podcasts.

Coherent instruction: Yeah, well- there in lies the issue. Not too coherence. Students are great- they will tell you if you missed something. “I don’t understand” only begins to describe my afternoon classes. My morning classes were great- totally knew what to do, and totally the A performers in the school. The video evidence shows them throwing food at each other. Yikes. Apparently my written directions and my verbal directions were, kindly, succinct, and global in nature. No concrete examples, no miles stones of what to expect next, no time checks. i did walk around the room, but that didn’t really help- until they saw how each other completed the activity. Thank goodness for peer-driven learning.

Domain 2:

Creating an environment of respect and rapport. In teenagers? Are you f***ing kidding me? Oh- I’m the adult- sorry. I showed the students respect, they however were not quite into helping me out. For many- teenager rebellion had struck, and the idea of listening to a 20 something year old overweight kid who was scholarly and from outside the area wasn’t high on their radar. I tried- we had rules, oh well.

Managing student behavior: Mostly good, except for the thrown fruit. By the way, if you ever learn how to see with eyes in the back of your head, please let me know. The camera caught many examples of positive and not so positive behavior.

Domain 3:

Questioning/ discussion techniques: I thought they were okay questions: describe, evaluate, rank, discuss. Not bad, could have gone deeper: what parallels can you draw with other exchanges, such as technology? How did  European Imperialism effect Africa? To what extent did China adapt to European Imperialism?

Engaging students in learning: many were engaged- they liked the foods. Researching not so much. Many of the groups were still confused about the overall lesson objective. Now, C3 Social Studies calls it the “Enduring question.” I wished I would have made that part more explicit (write it on the board and the hand out- goes to pedagogy and planning coherent instruction).

Using assessment to monitor progress: I monitored and observed. I collected the document research sheet. I put the exact drawing used in the activity from Diamond’s Guns Germs and Steel on the unit test. But I forgot the damn entrance and exit ticket.  Entrance tickets: What do the students already know about the day. Exit ticket: What did they learn and what do they still want to learn about. The KWL Chart is one of the greatest inventions in Education- and we really don’t in my experience use it enough. It really gives students the ability to self assess where they are, map out experiences for the unit, and evaluate what was learned and what gaps they still have.

I taught this lesson in 2002 or 2003. I cant quite remember. After almost 15 additional years of reflection I really would have given myself a “Developing” rating. When I was my 2002-3 self, I thought I was “Proficient.” Along the scale of  the rubric, the worst is “ineffective.” This is reserved for disasters in the classroom. The next step “developing” means there is a spark, a good thought- not quite there yet. The next up on the scale is “effective” or good job- you did it well. Some areas need improvement but no central critical parts. The top, or “Proficient” is reserved for superstars who blow people’s minds away. The proficient teachers are amazing. Without a doubt, I am so glad I did well enough with First Period to earn a passing score and permanent certification. My best wasn’t good enough then, so now, as I teach college, I really think through my lessons, consult with others, and ask for help. Back then I was too scared that people would have seen me as incompetent. In reality, the most competent know what they don’t know and ask for help from more experienced or knowledgeable sources. So this is a bit of an apology to my 10th graders, for a “C” level lesson back then. Hopefully the teaching deities can forgive me too.