Over the last few weeks I've been guiding teams of teachers on reflective classroom walkthroughs. During the course of one of our "hallway discussions" I asked a social studies teacher, "who's the historian in your classroom?" After a bit of give and take, we concluded that in the traditional classroom, the students get to watch (and listen) to the teacher be historian.
That's certainly what you would have seen early in my teaching career. I was the one doing most of the reading, reflecting and synthesizing of historic material. I thought my job was to distill it all and simplify for consumption by my students. It took me a few years to realize my job was to get the students to be the historians (and economists, anthropologists, etc).
Here's a sample lesson that I developed to demonstrate how historic material could be scaffolded so that all students could participate in doing the work of historians – What Did Europeans "See" When They Looked at the New World and the Native Americans? Seems appropriate with US Thanksgiving nearly here.
It examines European views of Native American and the New World in the Age of Exploration. While it is a rather one-sided account, the documents reveal a great deal about the cultural "lenses" that the Europeans "looked" though. It is designed around an essential question that will engage students in reflection about how Europeans allowed prejudice to color their perceptions. That, of course, invites thinking about how we may be looking at other peoples and cultures today.
The source material contains twenty-five documents in text and image formats – including journal entries, letters, maps, and illustrations. I modernized historic accounts at two reading levels – 5th and 8th grade. (Each contains the same twenty five documents). I selected images which could be “decoded” by students with a minimum of background knowledge so that all students could practice their content reading comprehension and critical thinking skills. A series of six exercises accompanies the lesson to guide students through the process of extracting information from the documents and constructing their own answers to the essential question.
While this lesson is historical, the same perspective applies to lessons across the curriculum – who's the scientist, engineer, artist, nutritionist, mathematician, literary critic, and musician – in your classroom? Teachers are no longer simply “education dispensers” gathering, distilling and delivering information to students. (There are too many other sources that do a great job of delivering information 24/7.) Instead teachers can thrive as “educational architects” who design classrooms where students do the work of constructing meaning.