Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Time for Our Own Declaration of Indepdence From NJDOE

You wouldn’t think that the Super Bowl would be a source of inspiration for discussion of high school curriculum, but there it was, in the pre-game, a public service announcement/commercial for the Declaration of Independence! As celebrities, athletes, team owners, and politicians all took turns reciting text from this world altering document I was reminded of American Studies I curriculum at WW-P South, dictated to a great extent by the State’s Core Content Curriculum Standards. And as I remember it, teachers allocated 2 class days to cover what is generally regarded as one of the most influential global documents ever written. TWO DAYS…at most.

Personally, if I had the freedom to design my own U.S. history courses, two come immediately to mind. One I might call “The Political Thought of American Statesmen,” a course that would identify important figures from our history and use their life story and ideas as a springboard for teaching critical moments, movements, and controversies. The second might be called, “Great Document That Helped Define Our Nation.” The Declaration, Articles of Confederation, Constitution, Federalist Papers, Emancipation Proclamation,  Seneca Falls Convention’s Declaration of Sentiments,  Four Freedoms,  Reagan’s Speech/Eulogy of the Challenger Disaster, and so many others can similarly be used as a foundation for teaching aspects of our history.
The important point is that we have to rid ourselves of the notion that we have to teach “everything,” placing the content on an equal footing with skills, and that we need to teach chronologically. We are not teaching students to become history scholars. 

No less than 2-3 weeks could be spent on the Declaration. There are so many issues and debates, both historical and contemporary, that can be taught drawing on the Declaration. Then look at the Constitution; is there any question that an entire history course could be designed built around the objective of teaching the Constitution. If my son spent a year in history class and came out of it with in depth understanding of nothing more than the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and events from our history where “constitutionality” was at issue I would be ecstatic. 

The bottom line for me is that we need to discard the emphasis on quantity that defines our CCCS and give teachers the intellectual freedom to design their own unique history courses. Other than those required documents and “movements” that define us as a Nation, why worry about what is taught? Much of what is taught today is quickly forgotten, and that can be directly traced to the CCCS. The content is the vehicle to teach important salient skills, skills that have practical application to one’s future. I'm imagining a real read social studies teacher with a degree in history, or economics, or some other specialty. Giving them the freedom to design their own courses would be like giving a kid the keys to a candy store. Right off the top of my head I can remember in depth units I taught(admittedly I was given a lot of freedom) on the History of Public Health, The Impact of Nature on History, The Struggle Over Jerusalem, Deviant Behavior in American History, The Religious Wars of France, for example. And then I think of our CCCS and State DOE, and am them reminded of several lines from the Declaration:

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness. ….But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despot ism , it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies.” Switch out a few words and you'll know what I mean. It is time for our Declaration of Independence from the State DOE. Period.

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