Teaching and Learning History - 031516

Lesson Ideas

Teacher as Scholar

by Phil Nicolosi
West Morris, NJ

With the new focus on data collection, measuring student progress, and surveying students, it seems as though our roles as teachers have greatly diminished. Our careers are being redefined as if we were polling an electorate to see what issues will win votes or trying to justify our jobs on a daily basis to make sure our positions in front of a classroom will still be there tomorrow.  With the pressure placed on educators where every lesson has been deemed a matter of life or death by having to tie it to some standard or standardized test or incorporating something to make sure a box is checked, it is no wonder why new teachers are failing to see the forest through the trees and why so many new educators leave the profession within a few short years.  Teachers need to think of themselves as professionals – in every sense of the word.  Teachers require certifications, four year (or advanced) degrees, and hours of continuing professional development.  If we put aside all the political bluster about teachers being scapegoats, glorified babysitters, or the reason for every economic and political shortcoming in America today and start thinking of ourselves as scholars, only then can education be a focus in the classroom again.

Teacher as scholar  - How often do teachers actually think of themselves as “scholars?” I initially interpreted the word as publishing, doing original research, writing, doing the work of historians. What about lesson plans? Who has time to write?   However, teachers are scholars.  We do write, research, and publish.    If we take what we are truly called to do, and shift how we think about our roles, we act as researchers by providing background information and perspectives, selecting documents, and trying to anticipate the answers to questions that haven’t yet been asked.

We function as writers when we write our own versions / narratives of history specifically tailored for ability and grade levels.  We rework, rewrite, and think of a million different ways to explain the same thing so that we’re not held captive to one standard explanation that only a few of our best and brightest students can grasp. 

We are certainly publishers.   One could argue that we publish five or six times a day for 180 days.  Every lesson plan we write and implement gets “published” in the sense that the toughest critics out there (our students) are going to let us know what they think about our performance and what we’ve presented.  Most importantly, we are, and will remain Teachers -  we teach students how to think, read and write.  Despite what artificial data points and standardized test numbers reveal, we know we are teachers when we can see students becoming better writers or thinkers, or we spark an interest in something that they never thought about before.

Changing the way we think about our roles in the classroom will change how we conduct the class.  If we have teacher and student, in the words of Dr. Frederick Drake, “co-investigate the past,” our classrooms become active learning places.  If we learn about the past together, it means that we’re learning too… we don’t have to know everything.  We can discover the answer together.  Teaching students how to think means leading by example. Using NCHE’s Habits of Mind as valuable teaching tools can drive the lesson. Let the Habits of Mind drive the lesson.  Once a student learns a skill and makes it a Habit, the learning becomes permanent.   We never forget how to ride a bike… they won’t forget how to analyze documents, question a source, or read critically.
The teacher provides the intellectual direction for the classroom and focuses on the necessary skills and content, but the students can draw their own conclusions creating, for themselves, what Dr. Drake calls “durable knowledge.”  In science class, we ask students to be scientists, in math class we ask students to be mathematicians….why in history do we ask students to be stenographers?  The teacher scholar sets that example and shows students how to be historians.  History is not the recalling of your multiplication tables.  When students make the discovery, when they make the connection, when they write the narrative, the knowledge is retained.

THE ENDURING ‘OBJECTIVE’ OF THE PLAN IS THE ATTAINABLE GOAL.   When we think and act as scholars in our classrooms, students follow our lead and education can, once again, be more than a collection of data points, test scores and survey results. 
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