Thursday, May 03, 2007

Literacy and social studies

As part of my job hunt I’ve been frequenting the job board at the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools. Today I went on and saw a social studies opening for Paideia Academy in Apple Valley. I got really psyched because of my associations with a school of a similar name in Atlanta, where the social studies courses are inquiry-based and connected to present day issues. I visited the MN school’s website expecting something along those lines.

Then I saw it. Core Knowledge.

I’ve tried to have an open mind about Core Knowledge, and I understand the whole idea that students need to have “cultural literacy” if they’re going to achieve high levels of literal literacy. I even heard E. D. Hirsch speak once at a panel on literacy during my glory days as an intern in D.C. But try as I might, I just don’t feel comfortable with it. Maybe I would need to see it in action, but I don’t understand how Core Knowledge can possibly work. In my experience, students learn and retain concepts best when they’re really interacting with the content, rather than simply copying down pre-written notes.

The Core Knowledge website has a sample unit on Imperialism for eighth grade social studies. The content in that unit is very similar to the content we are covering in our current unit on Imperialism with the ninth and tenth graders. But there’s something very different about the two units. Take, for example, their lesson on “White Man’s Burden” versus ours. For one thing, they have the students reading the actual Kipling poem, which, due to our students' reading levels, we forewent in favor of showing them this image:

Then there’s the discussion. In the Core Knowledge unit, the “discussion” consists of guiding students to understand the full historical context of this poem. Which is appropriate and fine. But there is no opportunity for students to grapple with the text on their own, to come up with theories and really understand the context.

When I did it with my class a couple of days ago, I had students look at the image with a partner and jot down things they noticed. This led into a discussion centering on how Europeans justified Imperialism. The students came up with all kinds of wild things I would never have thought of. One student was (and still is) convinced that the meaning of the document was that the Europeans were trying to bring soap to native peoples to lighten their skin. Her theory gave me the opportunity to clarify things a bit, but conceptually she also wasn’t so far off.

The discussion tied into our essential question, “why are there ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in history?” The kids were able to think about the person who created this document and how he or she might answer that question.

At this point in my job search I don’t really feel like I can immediately discount any available social studies position. But I also have the feeling that I just wouldn’t be happy at a Core Knowledge school. If anyone has any positive things to say about CK that might change my mind, please post them!

1 comment:

H.W.C. said...

When I taught "White Man's Burden" this year, 10th grade, I brought in Edward Morel's essay, "The Black Man's Burden" for comparison- a very interesting work by a British journalist reporting from the Congo. The class discussion centered on whether Kipling was being serious or not- was he mocking the imperial exercise or encouraging it (which is the common understanding).
The soap thing reminds me of Evelyn Waugh commenting that the French Ambassador in Angola was the only man he ever knew who actually believed that the Africans' skin was black because they didn't wash.