Sunday, August 23, 2009

History Week, Day 1: Before I Taught Math, I Taught U.S. History!

That's right: I was not always a math teacher. In fact, I didn't even major in mathematics or a related field. I graduated from Rutgers University in 2003 with a degree in history and a minor in political science. I took my love and knowledge of the social sciences with me into Teach for America, and I was lucky enough to get a job teaching what I had studied.

My first teaching job, my first real job of any kind really, was teaching 8th grade U.S. History at a small school in Rio Grande City, TX.

I didn't really know what I was doing that first year. I knew the content, of course, and I could explain it in a way that my students understood. I was pretty awful at classroom management as well as making my lessons anything but teacher-centered.

Of course, I didn't usually know what I was supposed to be teaching until the day before or day of a lesson, and my “curriculum” consisted of pages of definitions of TAKS terms. If I was lucky it would already be on a transparency, saving me the time and challenge of having the text burned onto one using what I think was a ditto machine. I learned very quickly that many people considered pages of notes to copy and/or worksheets of released TAKS questions to be a “lesson”.

I should probably forgive myself for being not knowing any better, but I went along with what I was told, and gave my students whatever I was given. Over time, with the support of mentors like my friend Dave (an excellent young teacher who worked at the same school) I learned that it was okay to change things, throw stuff out, and do what was best for my students. In my first year, this only really happened in the spring semester, and only in small increments. I would modify a chapter test I was given that contained an unending stream of released test questions, or changing a list of definitions into a graphic organizer.

My classes did relatively well on the TAKS, well enough so that my department chair expressed her gratitude by telling me that heading into the test, she didn't think we were going to do well at all.

Over the summer, I went back and looked at everything I had been given, all of the notes and definitions my students had labored over. I thought about all of the boring activities and worksheets I had done in unsuccessful attempts to make things stick. I took nearly every page and rewrote it completely, with a single question in my mind: “How can I make this interesting and memorable for my students?” Not surprisingly, things went much better that second year, and my students did even better on the big test.

This is, of course, only part of the story, the part necessary to preface the U.S. History (to 1865) content I'm going to share this week. These ideas are my best work, and many of my best math lessons have roots in my two years teaching history.

Here's all of the History Week posts in one place: