Monday, August 25, 2014

Teaching US History and the Common Core: Content or Skills?

I had considered writing a blog focusing on U.S. History and the Common Core State Standards. But that was before Indiana decided to drop the Common Core. While the CCSS is still a big deal in Illinois where I live and teach, I have been reminded that standards and trends come and go, but teaching history well never goes out of style. So I am focusing this blog on teaching U.S. history with HIGH standards that should meet ANY standards.

Too often, the adoption of standards becomes politicized. Being "for" or "against" the CCSS is too charged for me at the moment. I have looked over the Common Core standards with a fine tooth comb, trying to see what the fuss is for history teachers. And I have concluded the following:

1. The Good News: There is NOTHING in the Common Core State Standards that good history teachers shouldn’t already be doing (critical thinking, reading primary and secondary sources, writing, discussing, etc.). If you are already doing those things, congratulations.  I hope this blog will give you some new  ideas. If you are not already doing those things, or are under pressure from your school district to be more explicit about addressing CCSS, then I hope this blog will be a useful place for you to start.  

2.  The Bad News: Because the CCSS says little about specific content (a few references to James Madison and The Federalist, presidential addresses and Supreme Court case decisions), I am concerned that Common Core could displace content in the study of history.  There is a note on p. 60 of the downloaded version of the CCSS which states, “Reading standards are meant to complement the specific content demands of the disciplines, not replace them” (my emphasis).  But I fear that this message has gotten lost as more and more districts rush to implement Common Core curriculum in their schools without also paying attention to what is important about studying history. I have been told by many history teachers across the Chicago area that they are being asked to do more shared reading, “close readings,” text analysis and other CCSS-influenced activities.  If they were to do this in the context of a good history lesson rich in content I would have no concern.  But are we throwing out the baby with the bathwater?  And as states begin to implement standardized testing on CCSS, well, I shudder just thinking about what it will do to good history teaching.

Skills vs. Content: Does it have to be an either/or?
A critical question for history teachers to consider is what should be the proper balance between skills and content.  My answer is that they are inseparable.  One cannot be taught well without the other.  Teaching content without skills usually looks like the kind of history teaching rightfully mocked and disparaged in which teachers lecture endlessly and students memorize names, dates and battles with little thought given to their historic significance or interpretation.  To the extent that the Common Core focuses on skills that help students think more critically, using the Common Core standards can be a good thing.

But--and this is a big “but”--no student ever got excited about a lesson that focused just on skills.  No student ever said, “wow, finding evidence from the text to support my conclusion is really thrilling stuff.”  Students get excited about things like revolution, justice, war, civil rights, rebels and how all those things impact everyday ordinary Americans.  Doing a close reading of the Declaration of Independence in which the focus is only on the text can be as dull as a lesson which emphasizes only rudimentary facts about Jefferson and what the Declaration says without reading it.

So this blog will proceed chronologically through the standard U.S. history curriculum--from Columbus to 9/11 and offer high quality content-driven materials that ask students to use critical thinking skills as elaborated in the CCSS to learn about U.S. history.

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