Monument and Memory: How the Word Is Passed

I am currently in a training workshop with the Zinn Education Project, having received an advanced copy of Clint Smith’s forthcoming book, How The Word Is Passed. Part reflective memoir, part travelogue, part historical text survey, part poetic response, it takes us on a road trip to the places in the United States and abroad that memorialize slavery. I love the way Smith verbally paints the places he visits in vivid landscape and the people he meets in precise portraiture. We are along with him for the ride. He also shares personal history, familial connections, and internal ruminations. His notes reverberate; my own experiences traveling to  places like these and teaching this history bubble up from the depths of my subconscious. I have many other books about slavery in America, but this one is unique. 

The workshop has gathered a mighty group of educators, and we are being asked to consider how this book might inspire us and how it might inspire the students in our classrooms. 

Clint Smith is a poet and an educator and a lover of history. We are kindred spirits.  Not many people know that my masters degree is in museum education. I did not intend to become a classroom teacher; I wanted to work in the kinds of places Smith writes about. I wanted to shape the narratives that people encountered outside of the classroom, outside of their childhoods, during their freetime, and on their vacations. Almost 15 years ago, I interned at the New York Historical Society during the mounting of its exceptional exhibit, Slavery in New York (you can still access a version of the online exhibit here but the Flash elements are no longer supported).  The primary goal of that exhibit was to remind old and new generations of New Yorkers that, while New York City was not the South, from the beginning there was slavery.  That enslaved people were integrated into the earliest groups of settlers. That they built Wall Street. That they sought freedom among the encampments of both British and Patriots troops during The Revolution. That they were integral fibers in the tapestral history of this metropolis and that their bodies still lay beneath the streets.  

It’s strange, but I forgot about that experience until the workshop facilitator asked us to craft a response to Smith’s writing and I began this post. Giving tours to school children at NYHS was a precursor to giving Saturday Academy tours of Seneca Village with the Central Park Conservancy, which begat teaching 4th graders at Dalton about the Amistad, Olaudah Equiano, and The Gullah. We visited the African Burial Ground, which is also mentioned in Smith’s chapter on New York’s racial history. After I moved, I taught about slavery to 6th graders as I shared my family tree during our culture project and to 8th graders on a spring break trip to South Carolina and to 7th graders studying The Civil War. I teach it to my son. Everywhere I have taught, I have taught about slavery.  As a museum educator, as a classroom educator, as a parent, it has always been relevant. How The Word Is Passed, indeed. 

My husband’s family is proudly from Hampton, where the first Africans were brought to Virginia.

Even now, as an English teacher, it occurs to me that To Kill A Mockingbird is itself a sort of literary monument linking slavery to segregation to racial terror and injustice in America. It is iconic, persistent, and flawed like many of the places Clint Smith visits in his book.  Each person who encounters it must reckon with its continued existence and make sense of their own experience. They have to walk around the edges, go into the doorways, look around, touch the walls. I am my student’s tour guide on this journey, focusing on what I want them to notice and pointing out what they might miss, but ultimately not in control of what they might walk away with or how this visit will resonate and connect many years down the line.  

In a few weeks I will present with my good friends Anthony Cohen and Michael V. Williams at the Independent School Experiential Education Network (ISEEN) Winter Institute, the theme of which is Reflection, Reckoning, and Rebirth: Inspiring Change Amidst Global Crises. Our workshop will present the work of The Montgomery County Lynching Memorial Project and invite educators to reflect on narratives of historical conflict and reconciliation within their own communities, to conduct research on those topics, and to build curricular ideas for integration into the classroom. I plan to share how I am connecting MoCoLMP’s work to To Kill A Mockingbird, since a book so deeply connected to the history of lynching must be tethered to both the work the Equal Justice Initiative and our area’s own unearthed skeletons.  I hope to encourage other local schools that teach TKAM to do the same.  In September, they can participate in a soil collection during the planned Remembrance Weekend. One day soon, there will be markers they can visit. This history belongs to all of us, and the wounds won’t even begin heal until we all take part in remembering. 

Smith writes that we can learn this history from so many people and places, but “at some point, it is no longer a question of whether we can learn this history but whether we have the collective will to reckon with it.” 

Perhaps I hope most to give my students the will to remember and to reckon, and maybe, to find a way to heal. 

Here are a few resources for thinking about and teaching monuments and memory. Comment and share if you have others. 

Digging Deeper into Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl Dreaming is a middle grade classic and truly a work of art.  A memoir about how the South shaped her life and how she came to dream of being a writer, Jacqueline Woodson beautifully portrays her childhood in a powerful verse novel.  She touches on many relatable themes such as family, friendship, home, change, and education. There are tons of literary devices to notice and enjoy.  While it is specifically a story about her family, the magic of Brown Girl Dreaming is how Woodson captures the fullness of the Black Family Experience – the joy, the resilience, the love – all of it. Her family was nothing like my family and she is of a different generation, yet I found myself connecting to her experiences anyways. 

This book is one I recommend for every home and school library.  However, this year I teach 7th grade English, and honestly, I was surprised to see it on our booklist.  It is typically read in 4th – 6th grade and I wondered if it wasn’t a little young. 7th graders ride a fine line between middle grade and YA, with the tilt depending on the time of year.  However, I also know that once they cross over into YA-land, it is really hard to get them back.  This 7th grade year is the last year they will be interested in many middle school books. We have one last opportunity to squeeze certain books in and the key is to avoid shallow studies.  I wondered how we would deepen the experience for those who had already read it or for students who read above its level. 

Enter The Research Project. 

The other thing that Jacqueline Woodson does masterfully is weave in references to Black History, Art, and Activism.  She is a child of the 60s and 70s and watches both the civil rights movement and Black Power movement unfold around her.  These references are sprinkled in throughout the book. Some are just the drop of a name.  Others are a whole ode, like the poem “Say It Loud”, about the Black Panthers and Angela Davis. 

What our English team brilliantly realized was that these references were flying over the heads of even our best readers. While Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the March on Washington are generally familiar to all students at our school by this age, other heroes and events are lesser known. Most did not yet have an opportunity to hear stories of The Great Migration or to read James Baldwin. They probably didn’t grow up listening to Sam Cooke. Even modern celebrities like John Lewis and Angela Davis are far more nuanced than they know.  To fully grasp the messages in Brown Girl Dreaming, students needed these names and events to resonate. By the end of this unit they would. 

(Full disclosure – this curriculum idea came from the previous English team at The Maret School in Washington DC. I was just fortunate enough to teach it.  Also I think it would be a great family or summer project.)

First, we compiled a list of references that could become research topic.  We assigned one iconic figure, group, or event to each student.   

Then we partnered with our librarians to create a research portal with suggested sources:

Students used Noodletools to cite sources and make notecards:

Then each student designed a google slide that incorporated important information about their topic:

Then they used Flipgrid to make a screencast where they verbally narrated the story of their icon. As the references appeared in the book, students would watch their classmates’ screencast to learn more about that figure, group, or event:  

Students teaching students (and me!) – it was awesome. 

This Black History Month has been pretty relaxing because we completed this project last quarter and have no need to stuff anything in just because it is February. This truly feels like a best practice because:

1) We are  incorporating Black History into our curriculum in authentic ways.

2) It is very easy to bring any one of these topics up again because we all have the same background knowledge now.

3) We have made it clear that Black history is full of empowered joy and agency, not just trauma. 

My co-teacher said Brown Girl Dreaming was her favorite unit.  I think I will remember it as mine too.

On Art and Empathy: Teaching China

I am very excited to share a project that I have been working on for the last year: Teaching China with the Smithsonian. This website represents a rich collaboration between curators, teachers, museum educators, and web designers. It was an incredible honor to be named a teacher-in-residence by the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art and to have so much access to the Freer Sackler galleries. It was also one of the best professional experiences of my career. On the site you will find a range of (awesome) teaching materials, including object specific lesson plans written by me and my colleagues, like this one about a summer chaofu.

People might be wondering about my interest in working with an Asian art museum. One, my masters degree is actually in museum education, and museum based teaching is originally what I thought I would do. Life being life, I ended up in the classroom and this was a glorious opportunity to check out the road I didn’t travel. Two, I have had a number of opportunities to teach and learn about China throughout my career.

When I taught 4th grade at The Dalton School, we studied the immigration of Chinese workers in the 1800s, as well as the xenophobia, discrimination, and detention they faced when they arrived. We learned about the Chinese Exclusion Act and the experiences many had on Angel Island. There is a lovely museum in New York City, the Museum of Chinese in America, that I recommend. These were not topics I studied growing up, even in California, and my perspective on the Asian-American experience was greatly widened.

When I taught 4th grade at Sidwell Friends School, we did a year long study of Ancient China. We learned about the dynasties, oracle bones, bronzes, and terracotta warriors. We compared Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism and made a lot of beautiful art that I wish I still had pictures of. Modern language and culture were also taught. Sidwell Friends actually has a tragic story behind its China studies program. Because of the program, I have been to China twice and visited many different parts including Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, Guangzhou, and Yunnan. An incredible array of landscapes, food, and displays of artistic expression were intertwined with complex histories, politics, and beliefs. What little I understood from teaching was brought alive and made more complex by traveling there.

A highlight was three weeks at Qinghai Lake in Central China where I supervised students partnering with Machik, an organization devoted to social innovation in Tibet. They helped run a summer camp for Tibetan youth from around the country. There were joyful moments with circle dancing and yak butter tea, as well as stories of oppression and discrimination that resonated deeply.

Since those trips, the relationship between China and the US has only grown more complicated, and in the midst of all of that, I joined Whittle School and Studios, which opened campuses this year in both countries. The goal is for students and faculty to freely flow, interact, and exchange ideas, which has already begun to happen. Circumstances keep bringing me closer to China so I keep processing, learning, and trying to understand. As I seek to build that understanding, I am grateful for the opportunities I have had to see things for myself.

People also wonder why billionaire white men like Arthur Sackler (who collected and donated many of the objects we wrote about) and Mansfield Freeman (whose foundation funded the website and teacher education project) focused their attention on Asian artifacts and cultures, specifically those from China. According to Mapping Cultural Philanthropy, “Sackler…sought to promote an understanding of Asian civilizations through analysis of their artistic expression.” Freeman, who lived, taught, and began an insurance company in China, also wanted to nurture a better understanding between the United States and Asian countries. He instructed the foundation to fund projects that would “strengthen the bonds of friendship between this country and those of the Far East…and to stimulate an exchange of ideas in economic and cultural fields which will help create mutual understanding and thus lessen the danger of such frictions and disagreements as lead to war.”  In their own ways, they hoped their vast and valuable assets could be used to make the foreign more familiar. They hoped it would help build empathy. Current events tell us that the mutual understanding and peace they sought to foster still needs that support. This, I believe, makes our work even more relevant.

Art, like books, nurtures empathy. It sparks curiosity, which draws you in for a closer look. You become proximate. Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative talks a lot about promixity as a pathway, perhaps first to intellectual understanding, and then, if the heart is open enough, to radical empathy.

It is only by empathy being aroused that we change. ~ Alice Walker

Museums can play a powerful role in facilitating this journey from object to empathy by sparking our curiosity and bringing us into proximity with new objects, places, people, and stories. Both museums and travel have transformed me. I hope our lessons allow teachers and students to go on a journey together and through that journey better understand themselves, each other, and the world.

Happy Holidays

Happy Juneteenth! If today is the first time you wished someone that – don’t worry.  You are not alone. Today is Juneteenth, but more importantly it is Juneteenth 2020.  No longer confined to Texas or woke Black communities, it is now a national thing. Very different from Juneteenth 2019.  The number of virtual and in person events seems to have risen exponentially since last year. Companies small and large gave their employees the day off.  There is a proposal in the Senate to make it a federal holiday.  Certainly, this too is the influence of the last few weeks.

The problem with holidays is that they tend to simplify complex historical situations into neatly packaged narratives. Take Thanksgiving, otherwise known as a Day of Mourning (lesson plan if you need one).  The history of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag is not simple.  They were real people with real interactions that had real consequences.  Neatly packaging Thanksgiving into a holiday has diminished those specific people and those specific interactions, but not those consequences, which remain very real for Indigenous communities across our country. Rosa Parks is another example of a simplified story (and holiday! February 4 in California and Missouri; December 1 in Ohio and Oregon; nothing in Alabama).  No, she didn’t just wake up one day, go to work, get tired, and decide to start a movement.  Her actions were planned and calculated and behind her was an army of people ready to get the boycott party started.  Of course, she deserves recognition – it’s just not the whole truth.

I love teaching American History so this year I was delighted to develop a 7th grade course devoted to the topic.  Our 7th grade theme is Others and the course title is “Conflict and Cooperation”.  I might change that next year to “Conflict, Cooperation, and Co-responsibility” – more on that next week.  We had three major units looking at US history from marginalized perspectives: Indigenous experiences in early America; the evolution of freedom from enslavement to the Civil War; and xenophobia during WW2 focusing on the Holocaust and Japanese American incarceration.  It was such a powerful class to teach, and I learned so much along the way.   When our national conversation on racism, policing, and began to heat up, one of my feelings was relief because I had prepared my students to understand it. We had been doing “the work” all year long.

A surprisingly successful unit was on the Civil War.  I thought it would be pretty dry, but it felt like a key topic to include.  We ended up skipping over chronologies, strategies, and generals (though I pointed out the wide array of local battlefields their families might visit).  We focused instead on the lead up to the war and why legal compromise didn’t work; on Lincoln and questioning his legacy as “The Great Emancipator”; and on whether or not it was a war “for freedom” and if so, freedom for whom of what kind (no question it was “about slavery”).  These were not topics I explored deeply as a kid or as an adult so much of the thrill was allowing my students’ ideas and perspectives to shape my own.

I am loving our collective renewed interest in this time period, but it is important we get the details right.  Here are some historical “facts” I have seen shared – mostly via social media memes:

  • Juneteenth is when enslaved people in Texas finally heard the Emancipation Proclamation had freed them.
  • The Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery.
  • Juneteenth is when the last enslaved people in America became free.

All of these contain kernels of truth…and kernels of not truth.

Growing up, Juneteenth was a lesser Black holiday than Kwanzaa, but well placed between Memorial Day and July 4, and therefore a good date for a get together.  In California, they only happened sometimes. In my kid mind Juneteenth seemed to prove that old timey Texans were really stubborn and that mail traveled really slow.

Later, I disliked suggestions that enslaved people in Texas simply had no idea what was going on for four whole years, until someone showed up to inform them. Talking drums, anyone? There was an entire war going on. A lot of people had been brought from other states by owners fleeing the encroaching armies. It was probably pretty clear what was up. Simple stories take away so much.

For a more accurate version of what Juneteenth might represent, I suggest this article from the always-on-time and good-at-explaining-the-complicated Equal Justice Initiative.  It was the beginning of a long road to secure inalienable rights owed to an entire population of people.  Andrew Johnson couldn’t officially end the Civil War until Texas stopped holding out on certain qualifications to rejoin the Union, including ratification of the 13th Amendment.  And then there was reconstruction and post-reconstruction.

My takeaway as a teacher is to incorporate more nuance into the narrative:

  • The Emancipation Proclamation was issued after the Civil War started and after much internal and external debate for Lincoln.  He personally favored recolonization in Africa – the moderate liberal position at the time. 
  • The Emancipation Proclamation only freed some enslaved people living in some parts of the Confederacy – 10 states in all, none of which Lincoln had any control over. It did not make slavery illegal. Excluded were enslaved people living in slave-holding border states that stayed with the Union: Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri and, my current state, Maryland. It did not apply to Tennessee.  Additionally, there is a whole section listing Union-occupied Virginia Counties and Louisiana parishes that were exempt. It wasn’t that Black people in Texas didn’t know about the Emancipation Proclamation; it was that white people in Texas didn’t care.
  • Sidenote: When did those enslaved in the border states get free?  According to this article in The Washington Post, Maryland declared its enslaved people free on Nov. 1, 1864, way after the Emancipation Proclamation and only a few months before Congress approved the 13th Amendment and Lee surrendered at Appomatox. It was a mere seven months before those enslaved in Texas received the big news. There was a vote that “tipped in favor of abolition only after the absentee ballots of soldiers fighting for the North were counted. The final tally was 30,174 in favor of freeing the slaves to 29,799 against.” Oh, Maryland.  
  • In the records, General Granger (sent down 10 weeks after Lee surrenders) doesn’t read the Emancipation Proclamation, but a “General Order 3”
  • The National Archives only recently found the handwritten order (so much of historical discovery rests on someone being interested enough to go through a box).  Granger’s statement reads more like, “The war is over, we won, and all ya’ll are free.  For now, just keep working though.  Yes, for the people from which you were just freed.  Try to get paid.  Don’t come down to the base and don’t let me catch you sitting around”.  The Freedman’s Bureau was going to come help…eventually. 

Slavery was a messy affair lasting over two centuries.  Freedom has also been a messy affair lasting over one and a half centuries.   If we want to truly understand, honor, and use history in the fight for justice, we must first learn to understand and honor complexity.  Otherwise we fail before we even begin.

I am glad the Black community’s microphone is turned way up right now.  So many demands are being heard.  Even things we forgot to put on the list are getting taken care of (here’s looking at you, Aunt Jemima).  But this moment isn’t about just fixing ad campaigns.  We want real justice.  And real justice comes from understanding real injustice and understanding real injustice comes from understanding real history.

As far as Juneteenth is concerned, I am always down for a reason to rest or celebration BBQ.  I am also glad we have a new holiday that forces us to return to the research stacks and reckon with the ghosts of the past.  There is sure to be a showdown over Fourth of July (hint: it means nothing to the slave). Let’s use these next two weeks to get comfortable with primary sources, facts, and long stories.  Then we can have a real conversation.

Why I Chose Whittle

One of my ancestral stories goes like this:

In 1891, my great-great grandfather Jordan Young (no relation to YoungeE) decided to move from his home in Columbia, South Carolina, where he had previously been enslaved, to Fowler, California. He and his three brothers received a letter from their sister, Julia Bell, who told them they should come. Jordan took the train out west, found the dusty land to his liking, and started a farm. A few years later, he sent for his wife, Louisa, and seven children. Eventually he would own a 160 acre ranch and several lots in the growing city.

I am a descendant of pioneers.

(Jordan and Louisa Young)

In 2018, I made the decision to leave my cushy job at a prestigious and historical independent school to join a new, for-profit, global school network. Why? Well, why does anyone join a start-up – for an adventure, dahling!

I was good at my job, but I saw an opportunity to be great. Whittle School and Studios came to DC with marketing banners blazing. They promised to be a modern school that prioritized global, interdisciplinary, and experiential learning. Those words are literally at the top of my resume. Instead of fighting to validate those things in a school community, I would simply get to teach them. This move would baffle DC Urban Moms. No one could fathom it.

The 2019-2020 school year is turning out to be an insane year to have gone rogue. A pandemic; civil unrest to end racism; impending cicadas, locusts, and murder hornets…we just keep asking, “What’s next?” So how it is that this June I find myself not limping to the end of the finish line, but skipping? Why am I not squeezed, fried, exhausted? Why do I have even a twinge of excitement for the fall? Why does my summer PD and project list fill me with joy?

Because. This. Was. Awesome.

(I did not say perfect.)

There have been massive ups and downs. But wow. It has always been important for me to teach as my full self, and Whittle is a space where that is welcomed. I brainstormed and co-taught with incredible artists, mathematicians, historians, writers, and scientists. I have colleagues from around the world on our campus, as well as in New York and China. I went to nearly every Smithsonian and connected students with the city in new ways. I taught things that would have been impossible elsewhere. I centered marginalized voices and real American history. I chose books I love and a diverse group of children saw themselves reflected in their pages. I learned to differentiate my math class so kids who would otherwise be labeled as needing support simply got to take their time and others, who wanted to accelerate, were able to fly.

The problems we tackle are exciting. What counts as an experience? What real world problems are developmentally appropriate? Is there such a thing as too interdisciplinary? How do we put the “authentic” back in authentic assessment? What reporting system effectively communicates student progress to parents while reinforcing our core values? It has been extraordinary to work on these dilemmas with a team of people dedicated not just to innovation, but smart innovation that learns from previous experiences and draws on best practices. While it is brutally hard work building a new school, we have a chance to get things right, and that is something in which we are all invested.

During my students’ final reflective presentations this week, they highlighted three pieces of work that showed their progress. They based their reflections on our Graduate Profile, which provides a framework for thinking about the goals of a Whittle education:

Our middle schoolers spoke with great vulnerability about mindsets, frustrations, setbacks, comebacks, and triumphs. They spoke about being whole children who loved growing in math AND art AND basketball AND Chinese. Not a single one said, “I know I did a good job because I got good grades.” Instead, they knew they did a good job because they were proud of their work. They were uninterested in comparing themselves to their classmates. They were focused on who they had been and who they were becoming. Before, a truly intrinsically motivated student seemed as rare as Sasquatch. Now, I believe it is possible to engage children in work that is meaningful and relevant and to see them respond with curiosity, tenacity, and joy. At Whittle, we are slowly uncovering the secret recipe, and it tastes good.

My year at Whittle School and Studios has changed me. A student speaker said at our closing ceremony that this roller coaster of a year has made Whittle the special place that it is and also helped to prepare all of us for the uncertainty of these times. I couldn’t agree more. My ability to adapt and be flexible has increased ten-fold. I am absolutely a better teacher. A better curriculum designer. A better advisor. A better advocate. A better colleague. A better leader.

Faith is the hope for things unseen. 130 years ago, my ancestors set out for a land they’d only heard of. Their journey took courage, guts, and imagination. I’m sure there were days when they wondered if they had made a big mistake. If life would have been better back home. Perhaps on those days, they thought about those of us coming along, just down the road a bit. Perhaps, because of us, they decided to keep building. They had come so far and were just getting started.

As we close this remarkable 2019-2020 school year, I never want to forget how it feels to have taken a risk – a BIG risk – and arrived at the destination knowing the road ahead was totally worth it.


Relating Objects to Pedagogy: Challenges and Opportunities

This summer I am a Teacher in Residence at the Freer Sackler, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art.  I, along with two colleagues, am working on a project to think about how we might best promote the museum’s collection of Chinese Art objects to an audience of teachers, while providing materials that support the objects’ integration into curriculum and instruction.  It has been a wonderful opportunity. First, it is such a luxury to simply be in a museum surrounded by gorgeous, thousands of year old art everyday.  I casually walk by gilt buddhas and jade bi and bronze bells and silver platters served in the courts of Persian kings. Secondly, I began my teaching career as a museum educator and at a particular point decided I could do my best work in schools – how many chances do we get to walk the road not taken? Third, I love standing somewhere in the middle between museums and schools thinking about the needs of both institutions, their relationships, and how they can best serve each other.  The following essay examines trends that present opportunities for museums to engage schools beyond content standards, and in doing so, perhaps make themselves and their objects even more valuable.
Any survey will show that teachers have varying degrees of autonomy in designing curriculum, which can be determined at the classroom, school, district, or state level.  The majority of teachers have guidance on what they should teach from a supervising authority and some control over how they teach it.  Materials should show sensitivity to the many angles from which teachers may approach them.  They may be looking for an exciting way to start a social studies unit or to provide the context for an experience with a specific art medium or to heighten students’ critical thinking skills in preparation for a design project.  Whether a generalist or a specialist, teachers must maximize each minute of instruction.  There is never enough time to complete all that teachers want or are expected to.  Lessons that allow them to achieve multiple goals are very attractive.  In addition to considering current national and state standards there are a few other trends that could, and perhaps should, impact this work.

First, there is increased conversation around culturally responsive teaching and relatedly, the need to educate for global competency.  Culturally Responsive Teaching is a pedagogy that recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural references in all aspects of learning.  Global competence is “the capacity to examine local, global and intercultural issues, to understand and appreciate the perspectives and world views of others, to engage in open, appropriate and effective interactions with people from different cultures, and to act for collective well-being and sustainable development” (OECD).  The cultural distance from which students approach objects varies greatly.  These frameworks might lead to questioning how the collection serves as window and a mirror. How might students recognize themselves in the collections?  How do the collections help them better see and understand the culture of others?  How do objects in the collection relate to the modern issues facing the world’s people and the solutions they will need to create? These frameworks might center the relationship the viewer is making to the object rather than the object itself.  In this case, the objects might be selected for their potential to foster connection or to widen the viewer’s perspective by challenging commonly held assumptions. 

Teachers are also prioritizing tasks that incorporate Social Emotional Learning practices.  In what ways can interacting with objects in the collection help build empathy, self-regulation, communication, and cooperation? When students are asked to listen to one another, to put themselves into the shoes of someone else, or to share a story, they are practicing essential life skills.  How might our objects help students build stronger relationships to one another? To a culture? To the past? How might learning about the struggles and accomplishments of people long ago increase resilience and creativity? How might it inspire inquiry, conflict resolution, or teamwork?   Viewing encounters with objects as opportunities to build these critical competencies means the experience will have lasting effects far beyond the lesson or visit. 

Another impactful trend is Backward Design. This process begins with assessments as opposed to curriculum.  First, the specific skills and knowledge that are being assessed determined and the level of rigor students are required to reach in those areas is defined. Then the most effective way to assess student performance is determined.  Lastly, instruction and learning activities are designed to align with the assessment.  In these cases, teachers will be looking for activities (and objects) that align with predetermined outcomes.  These are more likely to be related to widely applicable skills and understandings rather than specific facts or narrow contexts.  Focusing on the broader implications of an object’s material or cultural nature enhances the likelihood of a teacher making those connections.
A fourth important trend is the ongoing conversation about 21st Century Skills.  Teachers are very focused on delivering an education that is relevant to and prepares students for an unknown future.  A persistent question should be how might educators use objects from the past to meet 21st century objectives?  The objects selected and presented might then be evaluated for their potential to engage teachers and students in experiences that foster the necessary learning, literacy, and life skills.

Overall, there are many opportunities to connect experiences with objects in the collection to the concerns and requirements of today’s teachers.  Centering the experience of the viewer and their ability to connect and extend that experience into various contexts will make it more likely that both teachers and students readily accept an object’s importance.  From a teaching perspective, relevance is in the eye of the beholder.  Teachers and schools are attempting to respond to dynamic changes in the educational landscape.  Museums and their objects can and should choose to be extraordinary resources that support those efforts.

I Gotta Stick in My Craw…

so I just wrote this:

The Social Studies working group recommends a school-wide transition from the terms “Western” and “Non-Western” to the terms “United States” and “Global”.  In our own discipline, this would mean cessation of language referring to “Western” and “Non-Western” history/social studies and the incorporation of “Unites States” and “Global” history/social studies in course descriptions and other curriculum materials.  At the very least we recommend a critical cross-divisional discussion to examine the problematic nature of these terms and their place in our institution.  

The terms “Western” and “Non-Western” have come under our scrutiny because they are:
  • antiquated
  • euphemisms for “white” and “non-white”
  • unrepresentative of the dichotomies presented in actual curriculum; “US” and “global” are more accurate
  • an impediment to goals for diversity and inclusiveness as they create an undesirable Eurocentric concept of “the other”
  • geographically incorrect i.e. placement of Latin American works/topics within the dichotomy

The committee understands that these terms are widely used in academia. However, as a cultivator of tomorrow’s thinkers Sidwell Friends School has an obligation to ensure our program is semantically representative of what we hope our students will contribute in the future.  We hope in the field of social studies and history our students will be thinking beyond “Western” and “Non-Western”, and as such, should name our programs accordingly.  

We’ll see what happens.