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Teaching Beyond the Test, to Make Room Again for Current Events

Susan Notes:


What Bad News: Most of the curriculum is concerned with content for the AP test, things like "memorizing timelines."

What Good News: The teacher uses the five weeks left over to make his own curriculum, "to engage the most pressing and troubling issues of our time." And Michael Winerip emphasizes the Good News here, while at the same time reminding us of the Bad.



By Michael Winerip


FARMINGTON, Conn. -- To Robert Barry, a senior at Farmington High School, it seems normal to have a war or two going on while you're growing up. "Afghanistan started when we were in third grade," he said. "We heard about it, but it's in the background -- we stopped noticing it."

Julia Morrow, also a senior in this upscale suburb of Hartford, said that she and her friends "grew up not following the war and got used to not following it."

For their classmate Samantha Selldorff, the indifference is a reminder of a lesson in Advanced Placement biology. "We studied how animals stop reacting to a stimulus after a certain length of time," she said. "That's what the war has become to us."

None of this was fine with Chris Doyle, who teaches A.P. United States history here. "These wars will be the defining experience of their generation," said Mr. Doyle, who is 51 and has a doctorate in history. "And they learn nothing about them in school."

When Mr. Doyle began his career 25 years ago, schools taught current events. But standardized testing and canned curriculums have squeezed most of that out of public education. The A.P. history course is a yearlong race to master several centuries' worth of facts that may or may not turn up on the exam in May.

"A lot of A.P. is memorizing timelines," explained Anna Hagadorn, who memorized enough last year to earn a top score of 5.

Even the College Board, which makes so much money selling SAT and A.P. tests that it can pay its president, Gaston Caperton, $872,061 a year, has acknowledged that its A.P. American history exam needs to be revamped. Mr. Caperton has promised by 2013 to deliver a new test that will do a better job of fostering analytic skills.

Mr. Doyle is way ahead of him. For the past several years, after his students have completed their A.P. exams in early May, he has taught a five-week course on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. "Public education must engage the most pressing and troubling issues of our time," he once wrote in an essay for an education journal.

There is no textbook yet for these wars, so Mr. Doyle does what teachers did in the olden days: creates his own curriculum. Students read excerpts from "Plan of Attack," by Bob Woodward; "The Forever War," by Dexter Filkins; "Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone," by Rajiv Chandrasekaran; and many more.

He brings in combat veterans to speak, including Jonathan Lebeau, a retired Navy medic who is a half-brother of a former student; Richard Williams, a retired major in the British Army and a former neighbor; and Peter Van Loon, a retired Navy captain who attends the same church as Mr. Doyle.

Mr. Van Loon told the students about the time an American convoy in Afghanistan killed a 12-year-old boy, who "was my own boy's age." He described his feelings when he and a village elder negotiated over how much money the American military would pay to compensate the family for their dead son.

The moment they put down their No. 2 pencils, most A.P. history students forget the three ways the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, the Hartford Convention and the South Carolina Exposition and Protest were similar.

Mr. Doyle's students aren't likely to forget Mr. Van Loon. Caitlan Miranda took the class last year. Asked if she remembered whether Mr. Van Loon supported or opposed the war, she said, "I wouldn’t exactly say it was either," adding, "I'd say he was conflicted" --which was exactly right.

Last week, the class read parts of Mr. Woodward's book, which addresses the Bush administration's claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Doyle asked if his students saw parallels to other wars.

Henry Donaldson mentioned the use of the sinking of the battleship Maine to justify the 1898 war with Spain. Abbie Murphy saw similarities to the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which paved the way for America's entry into the Vietnam War. Morgan Schreck cited President Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points speech, intended to vindicate the country's involvement in World War I.

But Alex Abrams said 9/11 was different from all those. "It was the only one involving an actual attack on our soil," he said.

Mr. Doyle had hoped they would see the difficulty of comparing wars, and when they did, he quickly moved on to former Vice President Dick Cheney and the claim that Iraq sought uranium in Niger.

Year to year, 50 percent to 85 percent of Mr. Doyle's students have passed the A.P. exam (earning at least a 3). This puzzles him because he is, after all, the same teacher teaching the same way. He doesn't know if it can be explained by differences in students from year to year, differences in the exam or something else. "I've dissected the test," he said. "I want them to do well. I'm a little bit at a loss." Whatever the reason, the fluctuations suggest that the current excitement about evaluating teachers based on their students' test scores may not be foolproof.

Although students feel smarter after a year with Mr. Doyle, his course doesn't seem to change their opinion of the wars. Sabrina Santos, who got a 4 on the test last year, went into Room 804 in support and left in support.

Seyi Adeyinka, who scored a 5 and plans to attend Yale, still opposes the war in Afghanistan. But when Mr. Doyle taught the students about the Taliban's treatment of women, for the first time she understood why people might support it.

Anna Hagadorn was on the fence and remains on the fence.

Anna says she learned a lot, and not just about war.

She learned the pleasure of having a teacher who doesn’t teach to the test.

She learned that most of history is not in a textbook.

She learned not to say "lifestyle" and "interesting": Mr. Doyle says they're bland words and doesn't allow them in class.

And she learned something in one year with Mr. Doyle that many people do not learn in a lifetime. "I learned not to speak on a subject when I'm not informed on it," she said.

E-mail: oneducation
@nytimes.com

— Michael Winerip
New York Times

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/23/nyregion/teaching-beyond-test-with-eye-on-current-events.html?scp=4&sq=Michael%20Winerip&st=cse


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