Teaching History at Las Montanas–Mr. Macauley

After lunch is a tough time to teach. Yet a 56-minute lesson does not seem to faze James Macauley. The 28 tenth graders, sitting in parallel rows on either side of the room face one another with Macauley in the middle.

He is energetic, dramatic in gestures, and, to me sitting in the rear of the classroom, charismatic. Seemingly, students share my opinion because their attention hardly flags as they listen, respond to Macauley’s questions, and work on assigned tasks. And this at 1:30 in the afternoon.

The World History class is midway through a unit on Nazi Germany that involves a simulation on authoritarian and democratic governments. After collecting and assigning homework, Macauley moves to the day’s lesson on Hitler taking over the chancellorship of Germany in 1933. He asks students to take out their notebooks; two students raise their hands that they forgot theirs–he asks them to leave class and stand outside the door for five minutes. They do so without any apparent rancor–returning after five minutes and then borrow paper from classmates.

Macauley opens his laptop and puts up slides from yesterday’s Keynote presentation on propaganda. He reviews main points by asking students rapid-fire choral questions to which students yell out answers. He then begins a lecture on Hitler and his use of propaganda against Communists and Jews. Students copy by hand the bullets listed on each slide projected on the whiteboard—two students have their laptops open and type in the points. Macauley peppers his mini-lecture with questions (e.g., Why is the title, Nazi party, ironic? Why are some speakers so influential? Who has heard of Mein Kampf?–five students raised their hands). Many questions are tossed out, open to anyone in class to respond–there is a mix of arms raised to catch the teacher’s eye and students saying aloud their answers. If there are few hands up or no response to a question, Macauley offers present-day examples (e. g., If I were to ask you to believe only what I say in class and not what other teachers say, is that propaganda?) that spur more students to raise hands. All of this occurs while the teacher is walking around the room, reading bullet points from the slide, watching what students are copying down, and occasionally leaning over to whisper in the ears of particular students.

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Here I need to give some context to this World History lesson taught at Las Montanas. In earlier posts ( August 13, 2010, August 31, 2010, November 25, 2010), I gave the background to the school, its 1:1 laptop computing program, and described science and math lessons.

In 2009 the history and social studies department had seven teachers. I observed five of these teachers 11 times and interviewed each one. In his mid-30s, Mr. Macauley is in his fifth year of teaching at Las Montanas. He was at the high school as an aide for three previous years while getting his teaching credential. He is popular with students for his after-school activities with the track team and musical events. I noted many students waiting to see him at lunchtime and after school. His teaching favors mostly teacher-centered activities for the whole group (including the simulation), and some small group interactions supplemented by individual work by students. All of his students have laptops but he does not ask them to bring the computers to class everyday. His use of laptops for instructional activities is sparing–Keynote presentations, students taking notes, looking up items in class, etc.–much less than most of his colleagues in the department.

Back to the lesson.

A few students have trouble understanding the title of Chancellor that Adolph Hitler wins in the 1933 election. Macauley responds by connecting it to the title of Prime Minister which they had in an earlier unit. He then moves to the last slide about the economic policies of fascism–connecting it to a previous lesson in which the students simulated governmental control of economic activities. The teacher notes confusion on some students’ faces and tries to find out from a few what they do not understand about authoritarian and democratic ownership of companies. He then offers hypothetical examples of Blockbuster and Wendy’s being government owned companies and asks what differences in customer service, choices, and pricing might occur.

With a few minutes remaining, Macauley finishes up the last slide and repeats what the next day’s assignment is. He asks students to bring their laptops to class tomorrow. The bell rings and students exit with a few staying to ask him questions. In most of the other Las Montanas classes I have observed, students and teacher stop three to five minutes before the bell rings. But not in Mr. Macauley’s class.

In an earlier post on “How History is Taught” (July 21, 2010) I distinguished between a heritage and history pedagogy. Where would Mr. Macauley fit?

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1 Comment

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One response to “Teaching History at Las Montanas–Mr. Macauley

  1. Jerry Heverly

    “Tenth graders, sitting in parallel rows on either side of the room….Macauley opens his laptop puts up slides from yesterday’s Keynote presentation…He reviews main points by asking students rapid-fire choral questions to which students yell answers.”

    Everything here illustrates the things I’ve tried to avoid in my own teaching. Reading slides to students; having them guess my answers; avoidance of new technology {they have their own laptops but he doesn’t always want them to brought to class!} note taking.

    I am so grateful that you posted this observation. Over the past two days my mind has repeatedly returned to these words. They gave me so much to think about. I still don’t exactly know how to respond. If Mr. Macauley is the successful, charismatic figure that you say he is, what does that say about me?

    It’s no wonder that most of my colleagues disdain my constructivist teaching methods: kids in groups; no lecturing; technology in the forefront of everything I do (I teach high school English); no right answers.

    I am definitely not a charismatic teacher. My students are generally bemused or perplexed by my teaching methods. I never talk in any specificity to administrators or colleagues about what I do for fear they will insist that I do what Mr. Macauley does. And who can blame them when you report that Mr. Macauley’s methods work.

    Why is it, when I tried Mr. Macauley’s methods, my students slept, threw paper wads, underperformed on virtually every assignment, and generally left me feeling like a failure? And yet, I’ve seen enough teaching to know that your description of Las Montanas is accurate.

    You really have me reeling.
    Jerry Heverly, San Leandro HS, San Leandro, California

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