Assignments related to holocaust denial have been justified by the need to teach critical thinking skills to satisfy new Common Core standards. It seems to me school districts should think critically about the consequences of giving such assignments before they are given instead of waiting until there is an outcry from parents.
After my husband directed my attention today to a Wall Street Journal opinion piece by Reuven H. Taff entitled “Turning Holocaust Denial into Homework,” I decided to see what else I could find out about this online. I wanted to find a more accessible site that did not require a paid subscription. I found it in another form on the Yahoo site:” California School District Under Fire for Holocaust-Denial Assignment” by Beth Greenfield.
The assignment in question was justified as an attempt to satisfy the Common Core standards on critical thinking by helping students to understand and communicate persuasive arguments. This particular assignment to eighth graders in a Rialto middle school required students to complete an essay on whether or not the Holocaust was an actual historical event or just a political scheme. Among the websites listed as legitimate resources for the assignment was one which denied the holocaust happened.
It seems to me that the people responsible for giving this assignment should have demonstrated more critical thinking skills themselves. The Wall Street Journal suggested a number of other topics that legitimately had two sides about which students could write. Among these were climate change, capital punishment, health care, immigration reform, tax policy, energy sources, and many more. You could probably think of many yourself. So why suggest to students with little background in world history that the holocaust might not have been real?
Rialto district officials, including interim Superintendent Mohammed Islam who issued a press release on the subject, said they were aware of the controversy caused by the assignment. Islam stated, ‘The intent of the writing prompt was to exercise the use of critical thinking skills. There was no offensive intent in the crafting of this assignment. We regret that the prompt was misinterpreted.’
It should be noted that Common Core standards were used as an excuse for giving this assignment. I would like to think teachers and curriculum writers would think critically about possible consequences of assignments, and which topics are most likely to be most important to the daily lives of American citizens as they become part of the voting public. Or maybe school officials would rather students didn’t think critically about such issues, since they might come to different conclusions than their teachers.
Barb’s People Builders recommends many materials that help teach critical thinking skills to elementary and middle school students. Television ads, news opinion pieces, and political speeches also offer older students material to analyze critically. Teachers should equip students with critical thinking skills so they can methodically examine what they hear and read to differentiate facts from spin and propaganda. They should also help students acquire the research skills to find the truth mixed with all the falsehoods they hear and see every day.
I can relate to not wanting to get up early. Now that I’m 70 and work until the wee small hours on my computer, I’m lucky to get six hours of sleep. Because much of my work takes concentration to detail, I usually wait until about 9 PM to start some projects. That gets me in bed sometime between 1 and 3 AM. I try to be up by 9, but it’s an effort, and an early medical appointment or test that means getting up by 6 AM knocks me out for the rest of the day. Even if I try to go to bed early, I lie awake because my brain won’t slow down.
However, when I was in high school I had no problem getting up early, and I also had to be on time for college classes that started at 8. On the other hand, our high school classes started about 8 or 8:30, if my memory serves me well. It certainly wasn’t before 8. Maybe that’s why I and my classmates didn’t have a problem.
It is a sad state of affairs when bus schedules become more important than student alertness. I used to walk to high school, which was probably about a mile away. I never measured, but it took about 45-60 minutes to walk, depending on whether we walked slowly so we could talk longer.
I think maybe some students have bus rides that long. I guess in many places it’s no longer safe to walk back and forth to school. That’s a shame. That walk home from school was a great way to socialize on the way home, get some exercise, and unwind. That exercise is good for fighting depression, another ailment that afflicts way too many teens today. We could have taken the bus, but if we had time, we walked home by choice. We only took the bus in the morning when time was short.
Why are we using police power to terrorize children who don’t realize they are violating school rules when they bring objects to school rational people don’t consider weapons ? A folding comb? A camping eating utensil? Their fingers? Where has common sense gone when we use police to arrest children for these offenses instead of using them on the streets where real criminals are using real guns to kill innocent people. Mass murders aren’t committed with folding combs or fingers or even the unmoving guns in the hands of miniature toy soldiers in play sets.
This is the kind of thing that will make actual criminals out of innocent students. Take the case of Zachary Christie mentioned in this article. He is six years old and a Cub Scout, learning to be a good citizen. He innocently brought a camping utensil to school that’s an all-in-one knife, fork and spoon to be used for eating. For this offense he was sentenced to serve 45 days in reform school. I’d wager that will be a much worse influence on him than a Boy Scout camping trip. He’ll probably learn how to commit real crimes, disrespect authority, etc.
We’ve known for a long time that legislators on the state and federal level have been short on common sense, but it appears this lack of common sense also exists in public school administrators. I’ll bet a lot of them played cops and robbers (or violent video games) when they were young. In fact, if we want to prevent gun violence, maybe those violent video games are a great thing to make unavailable for children. If the first amendment keeps those legal, maybe the second amendment can at least keep fingers and harmless guns on play figures that can’t even move legal.
A common sense approach would be that students who probably didn’t realize the items administrators find offensive were considered weapons be informed and warned . Parents should then be called to the office and have it explained to them, and then have the parents come get the item with instructions never to let it come to school again. Things that are normally not thought of as weapons that are forbidden on campus should be listed on the school website that parents use for school policy information. The list should also be on a note sent home at the beginning of the year. Students should also be informed in their classrooms the first day of school and again about once a month.
Meanwhile, while the police are being called to drag these young and probably unintentional offenders from their classrooms, they are not available to track down the real criminals on the streets who are killing each other with real guns. Where have our priorities gone? Where has our common sense gone? No wonder children aren’t learning critical thinking skills in some schools. Teachers can’t teach what they don’t have.
Maybe the idea is to label these children as terrorists now so they will never be allowed to own a gun when they grow up. Then they won’t be able to protect their family someday from a real terrorist or common criminal breaking into their home.
There’s a lot of science to be discovered around a river in winter, even if it’s half dry. Check the tree branches and trunks for mosses and lichens and even buds. Explore large rocks near the river for life, and if part of the riverbed is dry, check for interesting rocks and notes their differences and learn how they were formed. A science teacher with a camera can produce a lot of her own visual aids on one river walk.
Whether you are a home educator or a classroom teacher, if you have a river nearby, you have a wonderful educational resource. I live near the Salinas River and often hike the Salinas River Trail in Larry Moore Park in Paso Robles. It normally has water only a few months of the year, and only if there’s a normal amount of rain. Most of the year the Salinas River is subterranean. You don’t see the water. The river normally appears during winter, and I usually start searching for water around January. This year, though, we had our heavy rains start earlier than usual. So I went out in search of the river today, December 28, 2012. I found it.
I followed the river bed for some distance, since I always get excited about what I see. Today it struck me how much science there is to investigate in the river and the riverbed.
As I walked along the edge of the river, I saw these small clumps of willows everywhere. Those closest to the west channel, which always stays full of water the longest, seemed to live on top of brush piles. Let’s take a closer look at one of these. Do you think a child might wonder how all this material happened to be under this willow? Might one try identifying different types of trees from what’s in these piles? What might one learn about a river by observing this small tree?
Although the overall impression as one walks along the river in late December is colorless brown and tan branches and dead leaves, some plants show they are very much alive, or host things that are. On the ground beneath are new weed seedlings. There are red buds on some of the twigs. Moss and lichens also add color. Children turned loose with a hand-held microscope would have fun discovering this variety of mosses and lichens of different colors and identifying the new weed seedlings.
Children would also be fascinated at all they can see growing on a rock.
Not all growing on this rock is moss or lichen. We also see green seedlings. They need soil. How did soil get on this rock? How about the weed seeds? Is soil created on the rock itself? Or does it all blow into crevices? And why does the rock itself look the way it does? How was it created? There is geology as well as life science to be learned. All these questions can be answered through research and observation. As a teacher, you can inspire the curiosity that will make students want to solve the mysteries.
If you aren’t in a position to take your students on a field trip, you can at least make the trip to the river yourself with a camera. Take the pictures that will arouse interest in what you want students to learn. And don’t forget the videos. Watch the river’s current. Study the rocks in the riverbed to try to understand how they became what they are. You can even collect a few rocks to bring into the classroom. Here are some specimens I found.
Will you help your students to learn this year? Or will you simply label them as failures if they don’t? What kind of teacher will you be?
My mother, Marjorie Hart, was an excellent teacher. She got her B.A. and her credential to teach English in California when I was in high school. She started her first teaching job in Artesia with only an emergency credential, when I was in college. Her first year was very hard on her physically and emotionally, since she still had one school age child at home and she was still having to take classes at night. She almost didn’t make it.
She kept at it, though, and finally got tenure. She finally became head of the English department and trained her share of student teachers. She also taught English as a Second Language at the high school and, for a semester, at the adult school as well. She loved teaching the adults, until the district forced an unimaginative curriculum which her students hated on all adult ESL classes. So she did not continue the adult class when the semester ended. At various times in her teaching career she was the advisor for the school yearbook and the the school newspaper.
Beside me I have my Mom’s scrapbook. It’s devoted to pictures students gave her or sent her after they left her class. There are wedding pictures, Valentines, birthday, thank you, and Christmas cards. Here is a sampling of messages on the backs of the pictures and in the cards. The student year book for 1969 is full of similar messages.
Mrs. Hart, from one of your most grateful students (I actually know a little about grammar.)
Mrs. Hart / One of the finest teachers I’ve ever known. I hope that the rest of your life is as beautiful as you’ve made mine. I love you always. / Ed-in-chief, Class of 76
Mrs. Hart, / Words can’t express my gratitude to you. I want to thank you for all the help you’ve given me. Your (sic) my favorite teacher and I’ll always remember you. With love, T.D., -76-
My mom did not teach all college prep classes. She taught a lot of the students who would probably never go to college. Many had trouble speaking English. Many had problems at home and confided in my mom. She would tell me about how hard it was for some to finish homework when they had to care for siblings at home and fix the meals while their parents worked. I know my mom cared about her students. If they weren’t learning, she kept trying to find new ways to help them.
Contrast that with this high school teacher in Pennsylvania who was just fired for blogging that her students were “rat-like”, “frightfully dim”, “lazy whiners”, and suggested that their future employment was with the local trash company. She considered it all their fault if they didn’t learn.
I have had some English students who did not want to learn anything and did not want to be in school. Many of them had bad attitudes and were in trouble with the law. But I tried to show them the respect due to every human being. Although I was able to help and reach some of them, I failed with some others. I was young and inexperienced and came to the conclusion that teaching in public school was not the right job for me. I only knew how to reach the college prep students. I simply wasn’t prepared enough to give the unmotivated students the inspiration they needed to succeed.
Steven David Horwich, who introduced the Pennsylvania teacher I mentioned above, in his blog, spends the remainder of his blog describing the job of a teacher. If you are planning to go into a classroom to teach this fall for the first or the twenty-first time, you might want to read this for inspiration. These are just a few of the words Horwich shares:
It is the teacher’s job to provide the environment wherein a student can experience and grasp information, develop ideas and ambitions, experiment, try, fail, try again and finally succeed. We will need our young people’s ideas and ambitions if we are to progress in any direction as a culture and a people. A teacher who berates a student for failure, who makes an issue of it, is a teacher helping to build human beings who will refuse to try, refuse to reach, will not experiment, try again or ever succeed. The price for trying and failing will be seen as simply too draconian and painful, the lesson students actually learn from teachers who cannot control their critical instincts.
It is a teacher’s job to find any and every way to open up the world and its possibilities to a child. And when that child smiles and reaches for a particular idea, it becomes the teacher’s job to fan that flame of interest into a bonfire with additional experiences and ideas along the same line. This is how a teacher helps to build the next great artists, athletes, business and political leaders.
My mom was that kind of teacher. What kind of teacher will you be this year?
Is there anything more important to teach your students than how to break limiting thought patterns and believe they can actually achieve more in their lives than they thought possible? Here’s one suggestion on how to do that.
Do your students visualize bright futures for themselves? Or do they have low expectations? Perhaps you’ve made goals for yourself this year. But have you made measurable goals for your students beyond the objectives for individual lesson plans? How about this for a starter? Challenge students to write what they want to be doing with their lives when they are 22 and /or make a visual page for it.
It’s easy to make a page to visually represent a goal in life, short or long-term, using pictures from newspapers or old magazines. If those aren’t available, students could draw their own pictures. Invite them to do this as homework on the first day of school or as a first-week project after coming back from the winter break.
Part of the reason our students don’t get where they’d like to be in life and have trouble breaking out of old family patterns is because they can’t visualize anything better. Even if they may secretly dream of going beyond where their parents have been in life, they may have no idea of how school might relate to getting there, or what baby steps to take or short-term goals to set in order to climb the ladder to where they’d like to be.
One of the most important things you need to do as an educator is to inspire your students to aim high and help them begin to see what is possible for them in life. If they are proactive in setting short-term goals to achieve long-term goals, they have a target to aim at and the arrows to shoot at that target.
If taking some time to do this exercise with your students will help even one to break out of old thought patterns and a tendency to just drift toward the future, you will have given your students more than any math, social studies or science lesson could. Those who aim at nothing will achieve it.
What will you do to inspire your students to build a better future?
When we look at students as the unique individuals they are instead of mentally putting them in a cubbyhole based on test scores or a cum file, we will be better able to make our teaching relevant to them
I didn’t do this, even though I was about to teach sophomore ESEA classes — students not working up to grade level because they were unmotivated. I had only been teaching for one semester, and I had taken over the classes of my master teacher at midyear when he was advanced to a new position. They were all senior classes, and even the ESEA students had worked hard enough to be senior and wanted to graduate. I also had some college prep classes, some of whom I’m still in touch with. The next year I was moved to a different school where all my students would be sophomores. The biggest difference was that these students didn’t care if they graduated, and most hated English and every other school subject before they stepped into my classroom. I was very green and the special class I’d taken on teaching ESEA students spent a lot of time building sympathy for these students and little time on managing and motivating the classes.
I will never forget my seventh period class. It was mostly female, since many boys were out for sports. ESEA students, for those unfamiliar with these government programs, were for the students who weren’t succeeding in regular classrooms — not because they couldn’t do the work, but because they didn’t care about learning. These students fell behind, and most were in broken or dysfunctional families.
I always tried to show respect for my students, and had not heard the “Don’t smile before Christmas” advice many teachers later shared with me. I approached the class in a friendly manner and tried to get to know them a bit during the first week of classes. My lack of experience was probably evident, since I was still challenged by some when trying to enter the teacher’s lounge, and the year before a senior young man had asked me to be his walking partner during graduation practice. I might add that toughness was not in my nature. Many of the few male students in the class tried to take advantage of this, but when they started in on me, Lindy, a student in the front row, turned to the rest of the class and simply told them to shape up — they weren’t to heckle me. And they stopped challenging me.
I always liked Lindy. I could see she was a bright young lady and that she had leadership traits. She later told me that her parents were divorced and she lived with her mother and her father didn’t care. She said her mother often urged her to stay home from school to drink with her.
I was leaving campus late one afternoon and ran into Lindy. I asked why she was there so late and she said she’d been in detention. I must have seemed surprised when I asked her what she was there for, since she always behaved in my class. She replied that she’d ditched chorus because they were just practicing for the spring concert, and no one from her family would be there anyway. She had never ditched my class. My heart went out to her. I think by the time this happened the concert was over, or I would have let her know I’d be there to see her.
Toward the end of that year, many of the other ESEA teachers in core subjects told me that Lindy had been a huge problem in middle school — sort of a gang leader type. She also acted up in their classes. They were surprised I’d never had a problem with her. Maybe she sensed I cared and that I hadn’t already labeled her as a hopeless problem. Maybe it was good I hadn’t read the cum file as the others did, and had met Lindy without any preconceived notions on how she would behave.
It’s so easy to use test scores and cum files to label students and form our expectations of students according to those labels. My English teacher used them to put the wrong label on me. Many of Lindy’s teachers used the cum files to decide what students were like before having the opportunity to see them without the labels. To me students have always been individuals unlike any other individuals. I’m still in touch with two of them I found or was found by on Classmates.com — after 30 years. I wish I’d known how to keep in touch with Lindy, but so far she’s not registered.
I’ve always believed that the student-teacher relationship is an important part of the learning equation. Students remember the teachers who stood out, for better or worse, much better than they remember the content that was taught in any particular year.
I never learned much geography in ninth grade, but I do remember that my teacher had a habit of sitting on her desk while teaching. She would then get up to write on the board and fall into the wastebasket beside her desk. The entire class would be focused on when this would happen next, rather than on what she was trying to teach us.
I also remember the algebra teacher who spent her class time talking about England and telling us the first day of class that the person in the front corner desk would probably get an A because she was blond and the blond who sat in that seat last year got an A. I had to get an outside tutor for algebra and my parents managed to get me transferred to a different teacher for the next semester and I got an A.
Probably the teacher I remember most was my Latin teacher, Mrs. Cargill. I and many of my friends took her class for two years straight. Some poor souls were in her Latin classes because their counselors couldn’t figure out what other class would fit into their schedules. They were not college prep students as the rest of us were, and had no interest at all in Latin. Mrs. Cargill wanted to help motivate them, so she formed the Latin Club. It was a very active group with parties and special events almost every month and regular lunchtime meetings. Mrs. Cargill wanted to keep these students socially integrated with motivated students. It worked with at least one of those students. He came into Latin with a D average . He now has a PhD in theology, with an undergraduate major in Geology.
When the school went on half day sessions the next year, Mrs. Cargill and her husband took five of us to the beach every Friday afternoon in the back of their Model A pick-up. (Her husband taught auto shop in a school where I later joined the faculty for my student teaching). We loved being able to know our favorite teacher and her family better. Many of the Latin Club events had been in her home, so it was not just the five beach-goers that were able to know her outside of class. Because Mrs. Cargill reached out to her students, we were even more motivated to work hard in her classes. My senior year I was also able to take a world literature class from her. She was from Spain, and was able to add a lot of insight that was not in the textbook.
I understand that these kind of activities are often discouraged today. I think part of this is because of liability issues. Fortunately, when I taught at Poly High in Long Beach, California, it was not an issue yet. I was able to invite my classes to my home to practice a play we were recording. I also had a party at home for all of them one Good Friday night and quite a few came. Many of those students stayed in touch while they were in college, and even after they got married.
In ancient times, adults used to follow teachers they wanted to learn from, and were known as disciples. Probably the best known of these teachers is Jesus, whose disciples followed him everywhere, and lived and worked with him. Disciples were able to see if the teachers they followed practiced what they taught.
Today,though they don’t follow us around, the way we treat them tells them whether we practice what we teach about respect and the worth of the individual. If we show them that we not only care about them, but also show enthusiasm for the subject we teach, they will more easily “catch” what we teach.