Deviating from the Standard(s)

The timing of the Civil War is suspect. While we might trace the conflict to April 12, 1861 and the shots fired at Fort Sumter, one could argue that it began in Kansas four years earlier. Still others would argue that the civil conflict was raging in 1850, 1820, or in 1787 as delegates wrestled over the South’s “peculiar institution” and its place in the Constitution.

For my 11th grade US History courses, it was this week.

This is in of itself peculiar because the state of Florida’s plan for US history is to have taught US to 1877 in eighth grade and 1877 to present in 11th grade. This, for obvious reasons, is lunacy.

I took this job last year for two reasons: it allowed me to work on my dissertation while being close to my kids. The major sacrifice being that it separated me from my academic community and ate into a significant chunk of my time otherwise reserved for dissertation research and writing. But it did inform me of some of the obstacles secondary educators face in prepping young people for the world beyond high school.

A quick diagnostic revealed that students retained almost zero knowledge about American history from eighth through eleventh grade. 80% of them couldn’t name the ocean surrounding Florida. Most couldn’t identify George Washington. (I dare not speak of James K. Polk.) The problem, of course, is that the state and district asked me to pick up in 1877 after a short recap of the preceding millennia or so. There was really one thing left to do.

Throw it all out.

While I didn’t quite ask students to give their textbooks the full J. Evans Pritchard, PhD treatment, I largely ignored how the state asked me to teach the course and instead treated it as teaching two halves of the US survey.

My reasoning on this was pretty sound, or at least I thought so. I simply don’t believe you can understand shootings in Pittsburgh or why African Americans face far higher incarceration rates without understanding the Know Nothing Party or the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade. You can’t talk about why young men from Pulaski, Tennessee were fighting in Vietnam without asking why whites and African Americans were in Tennessee to begin with. I figured that if students had a better understanding of the Early Republic their questions about and conceptualizations of the twentieth century would be better.

They were.

I was in a bit different position than most high school educators. I have no plan on teaching high school long term. Should the district disagree with my pedagogy I could always return to the University of Minnesota and finish my doctorate in the land of Prince and a whole lot of calories. Glorious, glorious calories. But I digress.

I argue that secondary educators need not follow the state guidelines to a T, especially those with advanced historical training. Use them as they are–guidelines. But don’t be afraid to deviate from the path. We hit every single standard asked of us, but not because I looked at them. I trusted my training as a historian and let that guide me. I knew we’d get there. (A post for my thoughts on standardized test prep will come later. Spoiler: don’t prep for someone else’s test.)

Next week we move to Reconstruction and shortly afterwards the Native American defense of their homelands on the Plains. But we’ll do it on our timeline. And at the end of the day (or semester) our students will be better off for it.

Talk soon.

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