In my forthcoming book, Teaching History Then and Now: A Story of Stability and Change, I describe teaching history and social studies in the 1960s and in 2014 in two urban high schools, one in Cleveland (Glenville High School) and one in Washington, D.C. (Cardozo High School) In the 2014 section of the book, I observed and interviewed three teachers at Cardozo who, in varying degrees of success, engaged their students in the historical approach to teaching the subject, that is, teaching students to read, think, and write like historians (see here and here). In another academically failing D.C. high school not far from Cardozo, I watched even another teacher who taught in that same tradition. Here is Kyle Greer’s 60-minute class that I observed in December 2013.
At 8:50, 10 of the 25 enrolled students were present. By 9:40, all but two of the students were at their desks. Because many students travel cross-town to reach the high school, late-comers are the norm. The course is District of Columbia history On the whiteboard are listed the agenda for the hour-long lesson, the standard that the lessons will be addressing, and the “warm-up” exercise–all required by the district administration as criteria for an “effective” lesson. Kyle Greer (a pseudonym) is a five year veteran at this high school and serves as head of the three member department (there are just over 450 low-income, minority students in the high school).
For the lesson, Greer has the students reading and annotating a journal article from Washington History entitled “D.C.’s Dual School System, 1862-1954.” He passes around a bucket of marker pens for students to use as they closely read and take notes. He tells the students: “we will model underlining main ideas,” and taking notes. He begins reading a paragraph in the middle of the article and asks after pausing: “Can we figure out the time period?” A few respond with words and phrases that suggest World War I and what happened at the prestigious Dunbar High School in the “colored” division of the de jure segregated school system.
Then students take turns reading paragraphs with Greer interjecting questions about what each sentence means, what should be underlined (and why), and notes that students could write in margins of the handout. One student asks Greer what does it mean that the “colored”schools had double- and triple-sessions? He tosses back the question to the rest of the students and one comes up with the answer of overcrowded “colored” schools. In some of Greer’s responses to student answers, he occasionally pushes back and asks student to support what they say with evidence from the journal article.
Toward the end of the lesson, he asks students to contrast the first-hand accounts they have read about “colored” students and teachers in the DC schools during World War I, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and World War II with this secondary source–the journal article–written by a historian in 2005. Three students offer what they recall of the primary sources they read, particularly in 1939 when the school board banned black singer Marian Anderson from singing at all-white Central High School (which would have brought together an interracial audience); the concert was rescheduled for the Lincoln Memorial and students recalled what Anderson herself had said.
In scanning the class, I note that nearly all of the students, even latecomers, are reading the article–about one-quarter volunteer to read paragraphs–and using markers to underline and make notes in the margin of the handout. During the period, a wall-mounted speaker interrupts the lesson four times with announcements from the main office.
As the hour draws to a close, Greer asks the students: “what is the take-away from this article on nearly a century of segregated schools in DC?” A handful of students respond, two reading from notes they had jotted down on their handout. Greer listens and then asks the rest of the class for their thoughts on these “take-aways.” Three respond, the last interrupted by the bell ending the class.
Why did these four teachers in two academically failing high schools in the same district teach in the historical tradition? Without any evidence that the four received direct training in teaching students to read, think, and write like historians, attributing their common use of primary sources and other approaches to district professional development is a non-starter. And since they did not know one another except in passing, they had not collaborated removing that possible explanation. It could be a rare coincidence but is highly unlikely. One possible explanation, however, is that the district’s focus on standards and the linkage between teacher evaluation and sticking to standards influenced what these four DC teachers did.
The DC schools’ IMPACT evaluation scheme laden with rewards and penalties and visits by social studies “master educators” with follow-up conferences may have tilted history teachers toward the Social Studies Standards for their D.C. high schools. These standards include many references to historical evidence, use of primary and secondary sources, critical thinking skills, etc. (See “District of Columbia Social Studies, Pre-K through Grade 12,” pp. 29 for grades 3-5, p. 48 for grades 6-8, p. 88 for grades 9-12, at: http://osse.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/osse/publication/attachments/DCPS-horiz-soc_studies.pdf )
When I interviewed the teachers in the two different high schools, each one mentioned the fear they felt about the multiple observations by “master educators” (all four teachers, by the way, received favorable evaluations, one of them sufficient to earn a salary hike). Three of the four expressed anger at the unfairness of the evaluation process because their students generally scored poorly on the DC test and student scores for the entire school were counted as a factor in being judged “effective.”
This is all guesswork, of course. Without further data on more DC history teachers in other high schools, what I observed in the classrooms of these four teachers in two different high schools could simply be an anomaly. Until such data become available, however, these similar lessons across two low-performing high schools remains puzzling.